Salt of the Earth

There are some experiences so pivotal, they permanently alter your life course.
For Gordon Hutchens, that experience was a trip to Japan when he was 14, where he first observed potters at work in their studios.

 Fired earth: The artist finishes his pieces in a Japanese Tozan kiln built into a hillside. Photo by Jan Florian
Fired earth: The artist finishes his pieces in a Japanese Tozan kiln built into a hillside. Photo by Jan Florian

“I was impressed at the importance that aesthetics, art, and fine craftsmanship played in everyday life in this culture,” says Hutchens. The artist has been with Circle Craft since 1974, then a small artisan cooperative. Today, the Vancouver-based potter spends his days resurrecting long-lost ceramic techniques in his secluded studio on Denman Island.

“I strive for the balance between control and spontaneity, traditional and contemporary, technique and creativity,” Hutchens tells us. He is one of the few potters who still mixes his own clay bodies, blending different types to achieve his desired result. “Every clay has its own unique character.” Kaolin from England, for instance, is ideal for fine white porcelain, while Denman Island’s iron-rich clay gives earthenware a deep chocolate hue.

Each of Hutchens’ exquisitely detailed vessels tells a story: of ancient cultures and bygone traditions carried on by dexterous hands. His studies of Song and Ming Dynasty ceramics sparked a love of copper-red glazes; a line of uniquely textured works fired with salt ash has its roots in Europe’s medieval pottery; Art Nouveau ceramics inspired vibrant, vitreous-lustre earthenware.

“I feel closely tied to history, studying it, reading about it,” he says. His admiration for Japanese art gave rise to his “Hokusai Series,” inspired by the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” woodblock print and the Salish Sea view from his studio. The forms are painted with layered “slips,” clay mixtures diluted to a paint-like consistency. They are then fired in a Tozan anagama kiln he has built into a hillside, where mineral-rich ash forms a one-of-a-kind finish on each piece. The modern version of a 17th-century kiln from Japan’s Himeji region, known for producing wares for the Himeji Castle, the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture of that period, Hutchens’ kiln was custom-designed by master potter and kiln builder Yukio Yamamoto.

Another favourite method resurrects a 19th-century technique of crystalline glazed porcelain, in which a mix of minerals such as copper, cobalt, and titanium create brilliant colours and form iridescent crystal motifs in the glazed surface.

“Technique is useless if you don’t have an idea to express with it, and a brilliant idea is useless if you haven’t the technical skill to bring it to fruition,” says Hutchens. “My work is a combination of inspiration and perspiration, ideas and struggle toward their execution. I have found my passion, and 45 years later, I still feel that passion in my work.”