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“My current work concentrates on the exploration of wood firing.  While making each piece, I try to imagine how a passing flame of melting ash might trace itself on the form.  Firing a wood kiln requires hours of labour and I delight in the camaraderie of the team as we prepare and stoke the fire.  After the kiln is fed its last piece of wood, several days pass before the pots within it are cool enough to be unloaded.  I wait with eager anticipation for the opening of the kiln after each firing.”

Jen Drysdale is a potter who lives in Carp, Ontario.

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JEN DRYSDALE: In The Moment

April, 2017 Featured Artist article in The Humm

Maybe it’s obvious, but potters love to get together to talk about pots. So I was excited to meet with Jen Drysdale at her home/studio in Carp. Both potters, we share a love of the most malleable of materials: clay. We love the forms, functions and glazes of ceramics. We love how something as subtle as a dimple in the side of a bowl can be so beautifully expressive of its maker’s thoughtful intention.

A good potter understands clay and is able to let it ‘speak’ in the studio. Jen Drysdale is one such potter. She has developed an innate sensitivity for clay through years of making pots and through watching masters at work. This foundation has helped her pottery to blossom with confidence.

You may recognize Jen from the Almonte Potters Guild (where she teaches evening classes), the Glebe Community Centre (where she’s the Ceramics technician), 260 Fingers (an annual ceramic exhibition in Ottawa) or from seeing her work displayed at General Fine Craft in Almonte. She’s one of those understated but essential members of our local craft community.

Jen’s first exposure to clay was at her highschool in Toronto, leading to a pottery course with Thorncliffe Park’s Peta Hall. This was a time of discovery that solidified her love of making pots.

Over the ensuing years she was uprooted many times, but didn’t seem to mind the frequent moves. She says,“I never saw moving as a negative thing… because friends can be made everywhere.”  Along the way she raised two children, became an accomplished scuba diver and continued to learn about pottery by making and selling her work.

Importantly, she also attended a lot of workshops by iconic Canadian potters. Among them were Harlan House, Robert Tetu, Bruce Cochrane, Carol Anne Michaelson, Wayne Cardinelli and Cathi Jefferson. In 1992 she settled in the Ottawa area and studied with Carolynne Pynn-Trudeau and Chandler Swain. She joined the Ottawa Guild of Potters and started showing locally.

In her studio practice, Jen begins by throwing well-defined shapes on the potter’s wheel. She may cut and alter, carve facets, squish the form from round to oval or create a pattern with tool marks. She may add spouts, handles or a long neck to give a specific function. Because she understands the strengths and limits of clay, she can sensitively manipulate it with a special combination of looseness and control; this is the great duality of pottery-making that takes years of trial and error to achieve.

Until 2013  Jen was producing oxidation-fired stoneware meant for everyday use. Beautifully sensitive forms, luscious handles and spouts, subtle glaze colours and textures were her signature.

It was about this time that she became curious about the unique process of wood-firing. Revered in Japan, Korea and China for thousands of years, it incorporates the extreme heat of a specifically-designed kiln that is carefully stoked with wood over several days. It requires hard work and determination, so one has to be made of sturdy stuff to pursue it. The random effects of wood ash deposits and the path of flames throughout the kiln play a pivotal role in the look of the fired work.

As it goes, happy accidents can sometimes lead to greater things. Jen signed up for a wood-fire workshop with the accomplished potters Tony Clennell and Bruce Dehnert. The workshop was to happen in Aylmer  (Quebec, she assumed). Turns out it was actually at Tony’s familial pottery Pinecroft Studios near Aylmer, Ontario… an 8-hour drive from Carp! Despite the distance, this was an opportunity she could not miss.

At Pinecroft she worked with a small group of energized potters to load the outdoor kiln with prepared pots, brick it closed and stoke it continuously in shifts over 36 hours. The hot fire and intense comradery was exhilarating.  Jen was thrilled with the whole experience, particularly when the kiln’s smoke stack spewed huge flames into the night sky. “Now, that was dramatic!” she recalls with a grin.

It was such a success that she was selected for a year-long mentorship program with Clennell, sponsored by the Hamilton Potters Guild. The group met seven times to fire, allow the kiln to cool, unload and critique the resulting work. Unlike Jen, most of the participants were graduates of the Sheridan School of Craft ceramics program, known as one of the best of its kind in Canada. Despite feeling intimidated by the ‘artspeak’ used during initial crits, Jen was able to find her own voice and her own wisdom. She feels that, “you are in your work, even if you are not always conscious of it.”

The unpredictable nature of the wood-fire process suits her pots well; flames, ash and soda randomly highlight the textures and curves in beautiful ways. Most of the colour of her pots is a direct result of the wood-fire process. This gives them a scorched, melty and dramatic look that really can’t be achieved by any other means.

Back at Jen’s home, I’m unabashedly looking through her shelves of pottery – the collected work of dozens of potters. Jen cites a poignant quote from Tony Clennell: “Having only your own work around you is like talking to yourself all the time.” This underscores how important it is as a potter to surround yourself with the work of others, that which inspires you. Every piece of pottery has its own character and feel in the hand; each appeals to the senses in a different way.

Jen is not one to sit still. She continues to evolve her techniques and glaze palette within the parameters of wood-firing, and wants to learn more. This spring she’ll be travelling to Peter’s Valley School of Craft in New Jersey to participate in a noborigama kiln workshop with potters Takuro & Hitomi Shibata. “Workshops are so energizing!” she says. “They make me realize this is why I’m here, in this moment.”

-Richard Skrobecki