Just the Facts
red earthenware commercial body made in Montréal from locally sourced materials
Primary forming method
soft slab handbuilding
Primary firing temperature
cone 01 in oxidation
Favorite surface treatment
A sponge! Perfect for cleaning, smoothing, etching, etc.
Tales of a Red Clay Rambler podcast by Ben Carter
I live in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a former French working-class neighborhood where my grandparents grew up in the city of Montréal. We moved here when I became pregnant with my first son. When we bought the condo on the top floor of a three-story building that dates back to the 1930s, we made an offer to buy the garage attached to the property. It was in ruins. We didn’t think much about it because we did not have a car, and I didn’t think it could be my studio as it was so run down. When I was looking for a place to work near home, I realized renovating the garage may be the best solution. Now that I have my studio set up there, I wouldn’t go back! Not only does working from home give me much more flexibility as a mother of two young children, but it also saves me money. I don’t have to worry about paying rent each month for a separate studio space.
I like to refer to the studio as my pink bunker (its original color). My studio is definitely my most intimate space. I like to work here alone and out of sight. Its privacy allows me to leave my fears and inhibitions behind. We live in a curated world, where everything must be perfect all the time. In my studio, nobody’s watching and it’s okay to make ugly things, to not get it right the first time. In order to get something good, you have to go through bad stuff sometimes. One advantage of not being in a shared studio is that I can be very sloppy when I’m working with clay, and I am fortunate to be able to leave my things around when I’m in the middle of something. The interior space is about 280 square feet and it can get chaotic pretty easily. After the disarray of a production cycle, I like things to be clean and tidy. My space may not be ideal for larger production, but it suits what I do very well. I can only complete a very limited number of pieces in a year, and I don’t get satisfaction from producing in huge quantities anyway. In order to stay in love with clay, I need to be able to explore. Even if all I am making are mugs, I need to feel that something is changing in my pieces. The truth is, I am never totally satisfied with my work. This is what keeps me going.
Here in Montréal, we can have summers at 98°F (37°C) in the shade and extreme cold below -22°F (-30°C) in winter. Thankfully, the walls of my studio are very thick and well insulated. It keeps my studio cool on hot days and warm in the winter. As the volume of air in the room is small, the temperature can rise a lot when I fire the kiln, so I try not to work in the studio during firings. When the kiln is on, I leave the garage door lock open with a 4-inch crack at the bottom and tuck a wire fence through the door to keep the alley cats from entering. My studio has no air conditioning, and I must admit that I had to work in a swimsuit on 2–3 occasions during the Christmas rush, but the heat build up is manageable, even when firing to cone 6.
I like to keep good air quality in the studio, so I work with an air purifier that filters fine particles. When applying lusters, I install a duct fan directly on my working surface and plug it into an air outlet connected to the outside. Of course, I have ventilation for my kiln as well. My other pieces of equipment include a potter’s wheel (which I use much less now), a slab roller, and an extruder. I have countless tools here, raw materials, stands for shows, trinkets, etc. My studio also serves as a makeshift photo studio when I need it. I install a backdrop directly on my slab roller, add spotlights, et voilà! The only things I don’t keep in my studio are my shipping materials. I pack and ship in the double room that serves as my family living room and office. Everything is well hidden behind white shelves but during the holiday season, it is a circus!
Paying Dues (and Bills)
I did a Diploma in Fine Craft in ceramics at Centre de Céramique Bonsecours in Montréal. It is a 3-year full-time technical training offered in my province by the Ministry of Education and specific to Quebec (Canada). I am fortunate enough to live in a country with a public-education system, a free health-care system, family support, accessible childcare, and other great parenting policies. I want to mention that because it definitively helped me in pursuing my work as an artist and a mom to young children. I devote most of my time to ceramics, but also do contracts outside my ceramic practice. I have taught in a community center in the past, and I sometimes work as a creative director with my partner, Vincent Toutou, who is a freelance designer and illustrator. We live simply and work a lot. It is not easy. With a young family, finding the balance has always been a big challenge.
I currently sell the majority of my work directly through my online store on my website and occasionally in gallery shows. Although they helped me build my clientele, makers markets were starting to wear me out a lot. The pandemic allowed me to finally shift my sales 100% online. I don’t always have an inventory on my website since I produce in very limited quantities. As I work by drop—organized releases of new work for sale—I always encourage people to subscribe to my newsletter. This way, they don’t miss a shop restock and have the opportunity to grab a piece. This method of working gives me a lot of freedom, but it is also very time consuming: I have to take pictures of each piece, edit the photos, and upload everything to the store. I also have to do marketing beforehand to promote the drop.
I use Instagram often to document my work, reach my customers, and interact with followers. I know I would give a headache to a social-media manager, but I don’t like to plan my posts ahead too much. I love to keep my account spontaneous. Social media, like making pots, can be very time consuming, but it is a must nowadays if you want to sell your work. I do keep two tripods in my studio to film the process or take pictures when I am working. It may sound funny to say, but I think a cellphone with good image quality is a great tool for a ceramic artist.
I love learning and challenging my preconceptions about my practice. Since the pandemic, I have attended online talks and watched numerous online workshops to see how others are working. I received a rather rigid technical education when first learning to work with clay, and seeing other ways of doing things allows me to broaden my horizons and approach a ceramic project with more flexibility and freedom. At the moment, before going to bed, I pick and choose between reading The New Politics of the Handmade (Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch) or listening to a workshop from the last edition of The Ceramics Congress.
I am interested in ambiguity and try to reclaim things that are considered less noble in Western culture. In this perspective, clay is a material of choice. This is also why I love to make functional work, use bright commercial colors that can be perceived as tacky, choose to work with earthenware, and favor heavy ornamentation over form. Patterns are central to my work. I source them from my French Canadian material culture, but they are truly universal. I transpose them on my ceramics with a water-etching technique. With only one pattern, I create endless variations . . . until I get tired of it. Anything can start a collection: a weaving, a TV commercial, an old religious artifact, etc. I once made a series of pieces based on the pattern found on a hard-candy mold from Viau cookie factory, one of the many factories that closed due to de-industrialization near my studio. Recently, I have been very inspired by exterior wrought-iron staircases and balconies that are very typical of the Montréal architectural landscape. I did a residency that allowed me to archive a lot of ornamental iron designs from my neighborhood and this is definitely a source of material I want to explore once my maternity leave is over.
The days at the studio can be challenging. I asked my partner to paint “Time is Gold” on the garage when we transformed it into a studio. In moments of discouragement, it is there to remind me how lucky and privileged I am to be able to work there every day. It was the maxim of an artist friend who died way too young from cancer. I was there when he was wrapping his paintings in bubble wrap, emptying his studio, preparing everything for his “grand departure” just as his career was taking off. It was a terrible scene to witness and I promised myself I would never forget it.