What was it that pulled you back?
Well, when Dad died, Mom had family property, and she had a choice of selling it, or of somebody coming back and taking care of it. And that’s what I chose to do.
You built a studio out there, didn’t you?
I renovated the old three-car garage into a studio and built a gas kiln and that’s where I do a lot of my work.
The time you were away, did you take further education or degrees in fine arts?
No. When I left in ’80, I went down to Northern Arizona University to run track — I went on a track scholarship. And that’s where I started with the arts — I got into ceramics down there because it was part of the criteria for the Fine Arts degree. I took a ceramics class and liked it and then took another one. And then when I returned to Canada I ended up going to University of Regina where I was taught by and worked with Jack Sures and Victor Cicansky.
Were you interested in ceramics or glass or anything like that before?
As a child, I always loved to play with clay. I got a box of clay for Christmas one time. But I always loved to work with my hands, and for me, clay was one of the most fun materials because you can take something that is basically nothing and turn it into something.
Your work is heralded all over the place — you’ve really made a name for yourself. You’re always so unassuming, but your pieces are in major collections — people seek them out. What is it that moves you to do this? And has your work evolved a lot over the years?
Well, when I got into clay material, I also had a great love for fossils. And over the years, they’ve been incorporated into my work — even more so as time goes on.
And you don’t mean the actual fossils themselves, but their design and their shape?
Right — their design and their shape. Sometimes I’ll take moulds from fossils and use them in the work. And the nice thing about the fossils is that you find most fossils in sedimentary material such as clay. So basically, they kind of go together. Clay is a major storehouse for fossils, and for past history. And with the love for fossils and the love for clay, it just works well together.
You’ve been on a bunch of fossil digs, haven’t you? You were into paleontology?
Oh yeah. I’ve worked for a number of museums over the years, collecting for them. Part of the fun is finding something — and realizing when you do find these things, you’re the first set of human eyes to really see them. So it’s interesting that way.
My first interest with fossils came from the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature (now the Manitoba Museum), where I took my lunch money and bought my first trilobite for 35 cents from the museum gift shop on a Grade 3 trip. So the love for fossils goes all the way back to when I was in elementary school. And it’s stuck with me all this time and now it’s just kind of working into my pots and everything else.
Please tell me what a trilobite is!
A trilobite is an ancient sea creature that goes back about 550-million years, and became extinct, oh, probably about 350- or 300-million years ago. So they were little crustaceans that used to swim around on the bottom of the ocean floor. And there’s hundreds of different species of triolobites — all different sizes. Manitoba’s got the world record for the biggest trilobite, which is two feet long, which was found up in Churchill by the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature.
So obviously we used to be under water at some point in time.
Manitoba was under water for quite a bit through the history of the planet. However, there is some evidence in Manitoba that there was some land mass here and there at some point during the transition of the time periods.
You’ve done quite a bit of work for museums. How did those gigs come about? Are there very few paleontologists out there, or what?
I started working for the museums only because I was collecting on my own as an amateur. I’m not a professional paleontologist because I don’t have a degree or a background. And being a collector and collecting on my own, a lot of the stuff at the time I would take in to museums. And they saw the opportunity to make use of me and use my skills. And from there, it just kind of developed.
So I’d been working on various things for Manitoba, and we’ve been working on the Manitoba Escarpment since ’93, and have had people from the Canadian Museum of Natural History in Ottawa, as well as from Japan and from China, come and use our services — me and a colleague of mine who I work with — to show them around.
So you’re still actively involved in this, then?
Oh yeah. I collect fossils every summer. I collect them for myself right now — I don’t work for museums. The only time I work for museums is if they request, or they want to go somewhere they don’t know how to get into or how to find.
And the fascination lingers?
For sure. The fascination’s there. It always is. It always has been and probably always will be. It’s the excitement of discovery — it’s knowing that what you have there has never been seen before. I don’t know what it is. You could relate it to gold fever because — and when I say gold fever I don’t mean that’s how I feel, but a lot of people will get that when they learn about discoveries. They’ll go traipsing off to find something.
In this case, is it the thrill of the hunt? Or like with gold, is there much value at the end?
There can be value in different ways at the end. In Canada and in the provinces, there is no value for the fossils, because in Manitoba, the province owns the fossils. However, if you collect fossils in the province, you have to have a permit, which you apply for through Heritage and Culture to get. Not everybody can get a permit. But it’s their way of keeping track of what’s coming out of the ground. And when you collect these fossils, basically you’re the keeper of them, or the holder of them, for the Crown.
And in addition to all of this, you’re still passionate about pottery, correct?
Oh yeah. I’m still passionate about it. Clay work is a little funny, because it’s a material — it’s not like painting or anything, where you can start something, then walk away for two months and come back and continue it. You’re dealing with a material that only works when it’s wet. And once it gets to a certain stage, you have to finish it, or else it’ll dry out and you won’t be able to work on it anymore.
Are you still teaching pottery classes?
I’m still teaching classes — beginner and advanced — whenever the opportunity arises for either. I like teaching. It’s a break. Because of my job at the Art Gallery, I don’t get a lot of time for making, so the teaching kind of pulls me back into making and my favourite time in the week is usually Thursday night when I teach.
When you do find time to produce work, where do you sell it?
Usually when stuff comes out of the kiln, it doesn’t last long — it sells or gets sold. I always have people asking me when work is coming out. So I sell it privately, or if The Gift Shop at the Art Gallery has some, they can get it there.
So if you had to pick between paleontology and pottery, could you? Would you? Or are they just inextricably linked for you?
To me, they’re linked. I think I would always do both. Even if I had to do one, I’d always be going off to do the other.