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Archive Article: Bread, Butter and Salt: The Pottery of Cathi Jefferson

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Last year, 20 potters who do salt and soda firing were invited by the city of Portsmouth, England, to look at pots from the Brampton and Chesterfield potteries, then to interpret one of these pots in their own studios. These were featured in the touring exhibition “Below the Salt.”

Cathi Jefferson, the only potter from Canada invited to participate, chose to interpret two traditional forms: a bread pan and an oval napper. The bread pan she ultimately submitted for the exhibition embodies all the elements of function, while inviting touch. It speaks almost aromatically of the food it was created for. It also reflects the pragmatic and highly social personality of its maker.

In her conservative Scottish Canadian family, being a craftsperson wasn’t considered a practical career option, so Jefferson’s first profession was as a registered nurse. It was only after the family expectations had been satisfied and a “respectable” job secured that she could begin to pursue her interest in clay. That was in 1974, but it wasn’t until the mid 1990s that she was finally able to leave nursing altogether and dedicate her time solely to clay.

Jefferson studied with Herman Venema, a potter in Matsqui, British Columbia, and took numerous workshops and classes. Participation in the International Workshop for Ceramic Art in Tokoname, Japan, in the early 1990s led to a softer, more refined way of working. Raku vases painted with white heron motifs gave way to functional pots in the Japanese tradition of thrown and altered stacking plates, teacups and wicker-handled teapots.

Jefferson’s current work is a combination of utility and of assembled architectural structures. One of her more intriguing functional forms is composed of six small spice jars that stack one upon the other to finish in a single tower under a square lid; the overall impression is that of a pottery pagoda. Her teacups are squared and each of the four sides decorated with brushwork. Teapots are also squared, and often supported by four tiny angular feet.

Jefferson has always been drawn to salt firing because “I loved that I could just focus on the form and let the kiln do the rest,” but her love of the brush is clearly strong as well. Motifs of wheat blowing in the wind, long-leafed grasses, magnolias and lunaria are common. The painted motifs are further enhanced by using geometric stamps or impressions with natural objects like seashells.

Her work has always been informed by an Asian aesthetic, while her creativity has always been inspired by nature, and working together with others equally interested in clay. In a 1996 residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, she focused on wood firing; during the four-month residency she was motivated to reexamine her aesthetic, her process, and even the very reasons for working in clay. Subsequent residencies at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Alberta, proved to be the inspirational environment she needed to push the parameters of her work.

Last June, she and six other potters went to Banff to fire the wood kiln together and it was, as Jefferson describes it, “a shot in the arm. We all went up there to make pots, talk about pots, fire them together and just basically be a big support to each other. I mean, we were dragging out library books and really having solid discussions. It was such an energizer—being with a group of potters like that.”

Jefferson came away from Banff with a number of new forms and, curiously enough, a slower pace of working. This is a potter who works at a notoriously breakneck pace in all that she does. Her studio and kiln are testimony to that.

In 1991, she built her first salt kiln at her home studio, which straddles a granite pinnacle atop an already steep driveway. Imagine black bears and the occasional cougar coming out of the cedar groves to complete the picture of wilderness. So, although the location satisfies Jefferson’s penchant for nature, the logistics of building the kiln were staggering. She and a handful of recruits had to carry six pallets of hardbricks uphill, then up the 40 steps to the studio. Since the kiln’s completion, Jefferson describes her life as a dream come true; she can make bread-and-butter sales from what she loves to do most—salt firing.

Parallel and complementary to her love of salt is her more recent interest in wood firing. The camaraderie of wood firing with others fuels her love of the ceramic arts in general. Being with other potters who are equally passionate about clay is in itself a source of inspiration.

A potter’s work reflects the soul of its maker. In Cathi Jefferson’s case, functional pots designed for gatherings around the kitchen table reflect her rootedness in family, friends and community. Whether her process involves wood or salt firing, the same solid but aesthetically pleasing forms emerge. These properties flow from the maker into the pot; as the potter’s personality grows and matures, so do the pots.

The author Ceramics artist Rachelle Chinnery resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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