In Maris Gillette’s study, China’s Porcelain Capital: the Rise, Fall and Reinvention of Ceramics in Jingdezhen (2016), she tells the legend of the emperor who commissioned gigantic urns embellished with dragons. Multiple attempts to fire the vessels resulted in failure, threatening serious consequences for the Jingdezhen makers. In an act of desperation to save family and community livelihood and honor, the kilnmaster’s daughter leapt into the flames. When the kiln cooled and was opened, the urns were perfect, thereby ensuring Jingdezhen’s future as China’s porcelain capital for 1000 years.
Gillette reports that the fable is often recounted, with visitors’ eyes being directed to a symbol of a girl’s body on the doors of local wood-fired kilns and at the Ancient Kiln Folk Customs Museum. This myth holds potential for Canadian ceramic artist Lindsay Montgomery, who spent the summer of 2018 in Jingdezhen’s Pottery Workshop. Whereas Western potters have frequently gone to Jingdezhen to take advantage of the labor and facilities in the city, Montgomery’s intention was to explore the connection between the narratives of East and West in order to extend the storytelling in her own work. Her glazed chargers are often devoted to tales of ancient sacrifice and torture as allegories for today’s environmental and social problems.
Both of Montgomery’s grandmothers were painters. This ancestry challenged her parents: they knew their daughter’s future would be as an artist, yet they were reluctant to sanction her departure from the hinterlands of Ontario to attend a metropolitan art school. Lindsay’s mother accompanied her on an exploratory trip to Sheridan College—Canada’s premier artisanry training institution—and was impressed by the standards and professional possibilities. She was convinced that Lindsay had as much chance as anyone to thrive as a maker. Her tacit permission enabled her daughter’s devotion to the technical training that Sheridan offered in throwing, mold making, and glazing.
Concurrent with the onset of skill mastery was exposure to craft and ceramic history, particularly through a short course taught by Walter Ostrom. Ostrom familiarized students with Renaissance art history and led trips to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto. Lindsay says, “I go back to that collection again and again and look at those objects. I hear Walter’s voice when I go because he had an amazing way of showing the work that made it feel contemporary.” Ostrom used humor—Lindsay confesses to recycling his jokes in her own instruction—but it was his belief that pottery can be conceptual and political that was impressive. The possibility of using pottery to address contemporary issues as well as the chance to study European art history prompted Lindsay to undertake her BFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design with Ostrom and Sandra Alfoldy, Canada’s leading craft scholar. She then went on to the University of Minnesota for an MFA, studying with Mark Pharis.
The eventual outcome of skills acquisition and influential mentors was Montgomery’s Neo-Istoriato series. In 16th-century Urbino, Italy, istoriato was a decorative style that depicted mythical, historical, or biblical subjects on majolica pottery. These images were intended to encapsulate the pressing concerns of the time, such as religious orthodoxy about the fear of death and women’s association with the supernatural. Similarly, her imagery references stylistic elements from the Middle Ages highlighting current global issues. An example is the Lake of Faces Charger, which foregrounds the woodwose or wildman, who represented the unknown and uncivilized for medieval European society; today he stands for ecology and the threatened environment. The wildman archetype—a sylvan messenger—looks beleaguered as he faces the many eyes, teeth and claws of authority. These threatening beasts ignore the imploring faces of those who have suffered from a polluted ecosystem. Montgomery says, “We are the same society in so many ways. Many philosophers have written about this. We are just continuing to extend the same ideas of patriarchy and oppression of the other.”
Lake of Faces Charger was part of a solo exhibition, “Aberrant Tales,” that appeared at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto in 2016. She believes that the Neo-Istoriato series, highlighted in Aberrant Tales, was a breakthrough: “It’s been my most successful series to date. There was definitely a feeling when I made the first few pieces that something really clicked.” She felt that this was the work she was meant to do. Not only does it conform with the admonition of an art history professor who urged political engagement, but it also has resonance with collectors and exhibition attendees.
Montgomery invests her work with modern associations and welcomes viewers’ personal interpretations. The wildman archetype calls to mind Debra Granik’s film Leave No Trace, while Hellmouth, another in the Aberrant Tales exhibition conjures the essence of Bruce Miller’s television series adaptation of A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This charger shows women being burned in a pit beneath a caduceus—the symbol of Mercury, messenger of the gods and protector of commerce. The pit is overseen by a blindfolded, multi-armed, Kali-like figure from the Hindu religion who represents death, sexuality, and motherly love. The painting on Hellmouth Charger references historical treatment of women at the same time as being up-to-the-minute: women and girls are still being immolated and pilloried worldwide.
On one hand, Montgomery is aware that the content of her work might be seen as esoteric, “I really feel like academia is where I need to be because my practice is so enriched by having conversations focused on theory with a diverse set of people.” That environment, currently Concordia University in Montreal, where she teaches ceramics in the studio arts program, has enabled improvement and growth. On the other hand, she wants her objects to be accessible, “I’m constantly nurtured by the process of bringing somebody in who thinks they don’t know anything about art and connecting things from art history in a way that is about a TV show that they watched, or movie they saw, or something that happened to them on the street. And I see their faces light up.” The balance between head and heart ensures that Montgomery challenges herself to move out of her comfort zone—the studio and the library—to be in public, an area where she feels she possesses less mastery than she exhibits in her making.
Although ceramics is her primary focus, Montgomery includes performance art, puppetry, and video in her repertoire. Another summer 2018 residency at the Sointula Art Shed, in the Alert Bay area of British Columbia, allowed her to continue her interest in the potency of craft practice by further examination of the Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch ceremony and objects. Montgomery’s presence was a chance to build resources and explore common resistance as well as connect with a community where distinction between art and craft is non-existent. She has no fixed notion of the outcome. Whether it will be ceramics or another visual medium, this influence will percolate and permeate over the ensuing months.
In summarizing her practice Montgomery states, “I would not categorize my work as solely craft. It’s contemporary art. People are very interested in ceramics right now and a lot of contemporary artists are working in ceramics. The receptive audience for my work in the past has been craft and ceramics galleries, but now the commercial world of contemporary art galleries is much more receptive to showcasing ceramics, and this has been great for me.”
Montgomery’s Neo-Istoriato series was on view at Centre Materia in Quebec City in the fall of 2018, La Guild in Montreal (winter 2019), and she is co-curating a group show, “Kitsch Bitch Witch,” for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in March 2019.
the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications.