Exquisite Strokes: The Work of Catherine Vanier

After picking me up at the train station, Catherine Vanier asks the question every artists asks, half worried and half amused. “Of course not,” I reply, “I wouldn’t have come to meet you if I hadn’t liked what I saw of your pots online. I needed to like them, to be intrigued by them to come.” With that out of the way, we’re soon sitting at her kitchen table, sampling her neighbors’ jam on einkorn bread. Vanier is surprised that word of her work has become international. “How did Ceramics Monthly find out about me, anyway?”

Vanier lives deep in the French countryside, in a traditional Burgundy farmhouse tucked in a hamlet among wooded hills and cow pastures. There’s a workshop with French doors opening onto a lush garden and a small gallery with a fluted brick ceiling.

As a teenager in Paris in the late 1950s, encouraged by a teacher who’d spotted her drawing ability, she trained as a decorator and painter for the ceramics industry. Her classes consisted of a lot of drawing, art history, and copying the décor of Faience plates. One day, attracted by a kick wheel her teacher was using, she asked him to teach her how to throw, and she was instantly hooked. She went on to study ceramics for four years under Philippe Lambercy at the École des Arts Déconatifs School in Geneva, Switzerland.

1 Platter, 15 in. (38 cm) in diameter, stoneware, gas fired to 2012°F (1100°C), 2012. Photo: JP. Girbes. 2 Square bowl, 8 in. (20 cm) in length.

Until setting up her studio in Bissy-sur-Fley in 1994, Vanier mostly made and decorated earthenware pots. But working completely alone for the first time in a well-established career, she realized she needed a change. She was weary of lead-glazed earthenware; it looked unnatural, “as if the painted décor was floating between the body of the pot and the glaze.” She wanted the décor to penetrate the material, so she decided to change clay bodies, to switch from electric to gas, and to raise the temperature to 2012°F (1100°C). She would become a stoneware potter again. She reached a turning point when her friend, French potter Daniel de Montmollin, knowing that she was looking for a suitable new clay body, showed up on her doorstep with a limeless mix that she has used ever since.

It took some struggles to get all these new factors right but it’s been worth it. Her clay body is a mix of 70% white stoneware and 30% red German earthenware. She still throws teapots, pitchers, small bowls, and yunomis but she coils or slab builds her bigger work, including platters, large boxes, and vases. She explains, “coiling is so slow, it’s like entering a new sensory world.” After brushing a white slip on the leather-hard piece, she looks at the pot, caresses it, then decorates freehand using a dark and a lighter version of oxide washes. Her palette for oxide washes is cobalt, copper, manganese, and black iron, all of which she also mixes together to get a dense purplish black. She often brushes on larger strokes of blue and green before using a much smaller brush for the wiry dark lines. She composes her décor as she draws, “a little like some writers who, when starting a book, have no idea where they are going.” The thinner lines look etched into the clay. Sometimes she actually scratches the clay, adding yet another textural layer to the rich surface decoration.


Luster bowl, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, stoneware, gas fired to 2012°F (1100°C), lusters, wood fired to 1292°F (700°C), 2012. Photo: B. Laupêtre.

In a kind of meditative state Vanier plays with balance and tension, fullness and emptiness, voids. The older she gets, the better she is able to use empty space, to let the white breathe and resonate as she improvises subtle rhythms and patterns. “I feel happiest dreaming with a brush in hand.” Her compositions straddle edges and would unfold like a panorama if the pieces were flattened. Designs go across round platters in unexpected ways, at times carefully avoiding the center. Bottoms and insides of lids are lovingly decorated too.

Tall square box, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, stoneware, gas fired to 2012°F (1100°C), 2009. Photo: JP. Girbes. Vanier decorating a large bowl. Photo: G. Girard.

After the bisque firing, she brushes two glazes on top of one another, and fires to 2012°F (1100°C) in heavy reduction. The copper green blushes oxblood red at the edges. At times the glazes break out and react with the slip to resemble a thin shino.

Speaking of her inspiration, Vanier says “Nature never lies. I look at it all the time. Decorating is playing with its rhythms.” The enveloping patterns, the flowing, encircling, fluid lines, are mesmerizing. It’s impossible not to see twigs, leaves, forests, insects, birds, and ripples in it—a landscape uncoiling from one side of a pot to the other, and on to the pot next to it. On tall boxes that look like minarets, the patterns are intricate flourishes of Hispano-Moresque architecture, the archways and flower gardens of the Alhambra in Andalucia. Or they could be calligraphy of a secret language, but she insists it’s all abstraction.

The shimmering of discreet gold luster is another of Vanier’s trademarks. “When I find gold I’m as happy as can be!” She makes her own luster of copper sulfate, silver nitrate, ochre clay, and vinegar, and fires it to 1292°F (700°C) in a tiny wood kiln behind the house. “What I am looking for is subtle, not as flashy as contemporary lusters.”

She believes her work doesn’t fit into today’s ceramic trends, which are more design oriented and made from porcelain, and this makes it harder to sell. “I come from tradition: Medieval Islamic pots mostly, but also China’s Tang and Song Dynasties, all channeled through Hamada and Leach.” She feels linked to countries and cultures she’s never visited. When she was a student, there were very few ceramic books in French. She acquired some in German, English, and Japanese, and treasured them. Not understanding the text didn’t matter.

1 Catherine Vanier in her gallery, 2014. 2 Two square-footed platters, 8 in. (20 cm) in length.

She despairs that “young potters never go to the museums” to feed their art with a study of ceramic history. She recalls the shock of her own student trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. “Looking at Islamic ceramics, I felt at home, such a strong connection. . . . After the 14th century, the work is virtuoso, but it’s actually much more powerful prior to that. Those still are the pots that move me most.” Later she visited the British Museum and felt the same emotion when holding shards of old luster-ware pots.

Vanier moves between clay and paper effortlessly. Although she has never stopped drawing from life, mostly studies of plants from her garden, she only began making her paper works around 2011. They resemble flat versions of her pots. Far from being sketches for future pieces, they’re a parallel pursuit that looks familiar to those who know her ceramics. The two techniques aren’t dissimilar: the whiteness of the paper is like the slip, which she brushes and paints with inks like she would with oxides, using the same inspired, slender, committed strokes.

In the last three or four years, working on those paper works has become more and more engrossing, as if, far from the technical constraints of working in clay, she feels freer and lighter. In 2015 she has had three shows featuring both new clay and paper work. People who love sensitive pots will dread the thought that she might stop working in clay altogether one day, but her exquisite compositions will remain no matter the medium.

Bowls and bottles, 2014. All pieces stoneware, gas fired to 2012°F (1100°C), lusters, wood fired to 1292°F (700°C).

Catherine Vanier lives in Bissy-sur-Fley, Burgundy, France. To see more, visit www.catherinevanier.fr.

the author Lucie Brisson is a French nomadic potter. Someday she will build her own wood kiln. Check her out at www.luciebrisson.com.

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