Mary Fox is a self-taught exploratory potter who has been working with clay since she was thirteen years old and as a professional potter for over forty years. Her innovative and inspired creations have garnered national and international acclaim. Fox creates contemporary pieces based on classic lines that express the beauty and strength of pure form. With inspired original glazes and shapes that seem to spring up from the earth, each of Fox’s pieces tells its own story, evoking a sense of wonder and intensity that is both delicate and powerful. Fox lives and works in her studio located in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
This interview is about Mary’s latest book, My Life as a Potter, and about her Legacy Project.
Part memoir, part coming-of-age story and part handbook for ceramicists, this full-colour coffee table book celebrates the art of one of Canada’s finest potters, Mary Fox. My Life as a Potter, a gorgeous full-colour coffee table book, recounts Mary Fox’s long journey to the peak of her craft and expresses the passion she feels for her work and the joy she has found in living the life of a studio potter.
A potter since the early 1970s, Fox is recognized for creating exquisite forms and distinctive textured glazes. She has shown her works internationally and at galleries across Canada. In this book she shares her plans to leave behind a legacy of support and mentorship for young artists, in the form of an artist-in-residence program steered by the Mary Fox Legacy Project Society. Royalties from this book will benefit the project.
Readers with an interest in the technical aspect of Fox’s work will especially appreciate the richly illustrated chapters on technique and artistic process. This book is for anyone who has ever been curious about the life of a professional potter, anyone hoping to become a potter themselves and anyone who believes that art has the power to guide us through life’s myriad challenges and hardships.
About the Legacy Project
Shortly before she passed away, Mary Fox’s partner, Heather Vaughan, planted an idea by asking the question, “what would have made things easier for you?”
Vaughan was touching on the idea of how to help young potters who are starting out. Fox knew the answer was to provide a place for artists to create—a place to live with a studio and a display room for selling the work.
Fox has created the Legacy Project—an artist residency that will operate out of her home and studio after she passes away. She hopes that it will offer the opportunity to young, emerging ceramic artists to develop their skills and live the life of a studio potter with financial support. Selected artists in residence will have full access to the house and studio—complete with equipment such as the Blaauw kiln and a pugmill—and the opportunity to sell the work they produce through the gallery. By the end of their residencies, they should know whether they are destined for a career as a studio potter. Hopefully, time spent at Mary Fox Pottery will enable emerging artists to save some money toward starting their own studios.
The program will offer a two-year residency with the option to extend for a third year. The Mary Fox Legacy Project Society will be responsible for maintaining the building, grounds, equipment, taxes and insurance. In addition, the society will appoint a guardian to monitor the pottery and ensure that the resident artists are living up to their obligations. Resident artists will be responsible for their own supplies, utility costs and ensuring that the pottery is open to the public. They will be expected to maintain the gallery, creation room and living space in good condition.
Interview with Mary Fox
How did you decide to become a potter?
It was 1973. I was starting grade eight at Central Junior High in Victoria, BC, and ceramics was the only elective that had any space. It was literally love at first touch. I had never been good at drawing, but with clay that didn’t matter, as my hands could make what I couldn’t draw. For the first time in my life I felt there was something I might be good at, and I loved it.
In 1989, you and your partner both developed myalgic encephalomyelitis (me) and you were forced to take five years away from your work. What was it like for you to come back? How did living with a disability change the way you looked at your craft?
Although I had been working at my craft for sixteen years when I became ill and had to stop, at that point I was still growing into myself as an artist, unsure about my style and looking outside myself for inspiration. When I started to work again, it was as if there had been no break in my creative path. I hadn’t been thinking about my work for all those years—that would have been too depressing—and yet, it was as if no time had gone by. Creatively, I picked up where I had left off, and I still find this amazing. It was as if I had been walking along a forest path, sat down for a moment’s rest, then got up and continued on my way.
But the experiences of the last five years had changed me. My approach to my life and work was fundamentally different, though in a good way. From this point on I resolved to produce only work that I felt deeply connected to. That meant that my approach to functional work needed to shift. I had continued doing brushwork on my functional work until I stopped working in ’89. Now I decided to drop the brushwork and go back to what I had liked as a young potter—solid colours that accentuated the form of the piece. I would no longer compromise my work over concerns about how well it would sell. Being able to return to my craft was a huge gift, and I wasn’t going to squander one moment of it. Immediately my energy began to change and creating functional ware became a joy again.
You say in the dedication that your partner Heather Vaughan’s love and unwavering support helped you grow into the person you are today. What role did she play in the conceptualization of the Legacy Project, in particular?
During Heather’s final weeks, I lugged one of my sculptures into the care home for her to see. I’ll never forget that evening. I got her transferred from her bed to an easy chair, then went and found a bed table on wheels to put the sculpture on. She ran her hands over the leather hard piece, exclaiming about its sensuous feel and flowing lines. It was an intimate moment of beauty, a sweet break from the reality of life.
I wanted to get her mind away from all the suffering, so instead of changing the subject when she started talking about her care needs, I suggested we talk about creativity and living the life of an artist for the first part of our visit, and then if she needed, we could talk about whatever else was on her mind. As we chatted, one of the subjects that came up was the difficulty inherent in a young artist’s life, and she wondered aloud what would have made life easier for me as a young artist. The main challenge for me had always been finding a place to live where I could also have a studio and a display room for selling my work. We also talked about how limiting my present studio was, especially now that I was starting to sculpt again. Our house was on a half-lot, so there was no room to expand out. That’s when the idea came to me of lifting the house to get more space. If I did that, I would be able to add eighty-five square metres, which would provide plenty of room for a studio and gallery. Heather thought this was a fantastic idea. My greatest supporter was leaving me, but before she did, we shared a vision of what my home and studio could become.
When she asked me “What would have made things easier for you?” her question planted another seed, as well, because we had touched on the idea of how to help young potters starting out. As a result, I began to think of a new studio/gallery not just as a space for me, but as a residency for potters when my time on this earth is over. This was the beginning of the Legacy Project.
What advice would you give to potters who are starting out in their careers?
There are so many things I wish I had known as a baby potter. At the top of that list would be understanding the toll that repetitive work takes on the body. Over the years I have had problems with my back, wrists and arms, though overall my body has held up fairly well considering how many tons of clay my hands have pulled up.
This is a very physical job, and for the beginning potter I cannot stress enough the importance of good body mechanics. Having a good physiotherapist can make a huge difference. I don’t think I would be in nearly as good condition had I not done regular body work over the years and heeded the advice of my physio on how to improve my work habits.
Another piece of advice has to do with sales. Most potters don’t exactly light up when the topic of selling arises. Let’s face it, most of us are artists first, and selling our work is not a favourite pastime. Who wouldn’t prefer to spend time at the wheel rather than pricing, invoicing and shipping? But, after the creation of the work, this is the most important part of our job.
What have been some of the things that have kept you going during challenging times in your career?
There are certain threads throughout my life that haven’t changed much, the main one being my constant quest for beauty. Beauty, in all its forms, has shaped my life. It has influenced every nook and cranny of my work, personal relationships, gardens, home, food, everything. If you asked me the greatest lesson I have learned over the years, it would be that beauty is everywhere in our lives; we just need to see it. Even in our darkest times it is there holding out a branch to us.
Everyone’s life has challenges, and mine has been no exception. How we approach those challenges, how we see them, the choices we make to resolve them—this is what sets people apart. I chose the life of a potter at an early age, and though it was a struggle to learn my craft and earn a living, I always felt that no matter what hardships I faced, this was the right fit for me. I didn’t mind if I had to live frugally at first because my day to day happiness has always been most important to me. I was driven by my need to create beautiful vessels to enrich and inspire, and in doing so, beauty has permeated my life, spreading through it like a lovely vine, shaping and influencing not just my creations but everything about how I live.
In what ways does being a potter differ from working in other creative disciplines?
In most other creative fields, artists spend weeks or months working on a single piece until it is done. They experience the emotional ups and downs that come while creating that piece and then the flood of feelings that comes when they step back and behold the finished work. Potters spend weeks creating several pieces simultaneously, and then they are all finished together in one firing.
When a firing is completed, I take a dozen or more finished pieces out of the kiln at once. Each one packs an emotional wallop. I find it can be almost too much as I become overwhelmed by the beauty of one piece after another. It’s a good problem to have, but it can be intense. I am often so overcome unloading the kiln that I have to pause and go for a short walk or sit in the garden until I can bring myself back down to earth. I have never done hard drugs, but I wonder if the high one experiences is similar? The feelings of euphoria racing through my body can be extreme and take their own kind of toll. This is not something I ever imagined having to find ways to deal with. Who needs to find ways to manage their happiness?
Do you have a favourite form?
The chalice is one of my favourite forms to throw and I have created many interpretations over the years. All my chalices are designed to enhance and inspire everyday life with their beauty and to invite contemplation and reflection.
How does function enter into your work?
Though I could make my living solely from my decorative works, I can’t imagine a day when I would stop creating functional wares. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than eating and drinking from beautiful, handcrafted vessels. When creating my tableware dishes, I derive great pleasure from knowing that, through the subtle intimacy that grows from their everyday use, these pieces will become treasures in other people’s lives.
Sections of this book can be used as a handbook for potters—and you even give away your secrets about how you achieve the glazes you are so well-know for. How important have the technical aspects of pottery been in your career?
If you had told me years ago that I would be writing a technical section for a book, I would have dismissed it as a ridiculous notion! I have only the most basic understanding when it comes to glazes and kilns. It’s not that I haven’t studied enough. I have read and re read many books on glazes and firing over the years, but for whatever reason I don’t seem to retain much of it. I have come to accept my cognitive limitations and keep plugging on, trusting that eventually I will get there. I am a visual and intuitive learner, and I suspect there are many people like me who give up on learning the more technical aspects of pottery because they find it too difficult. I hope that if you are one of these types, I will inspire you to keep at it. Consider adopting my motto: “It’s okay to make mistakes while learning, and we are always learning.”
Interview by Harbour Publishing
Subscribe to our newsletter, Ceramics Now Weekly, if you’d like to receive upcoming articles and interviews in your inbox.