Whitemud Clay Studio, Eastend, Saskatchewan

Do you remember from your little-kid art classes the way a lump of clay feels in your hand? How it can be mashed and pulled and pressed and made to conform, and how it leaves a residue that dries in the whorls of your fingertips?

Most of us haven’t played with clay in years, but Shon squeezes clay on a daily basis. It is her work. It is her play. She keeps her clay in a chest freezer, set to the perfect temp for keeping the clay close to malleable. Pulling out a chunk, she warms it with her hands, mashing, pulling, pressing with her strong fingers until she’s molded it into the desired shape.

I met Shon Profit and her partner Stephen Girard when we were shopping for pottery at the Whitemud Clay Studio in Eastend, Saskatchewan. She is the artist, and he is the scientist and harvester that makes the clay work possible.

 

 

The moment I walked into the pottery shop I was drawn to this triptych: three equal-sized squares of blue and yellow-tan, textured to show windrows under the prairie sky. This is the same landscape that surrounded me all summer as we drove north from Texas to Oklahoma and Kansas and Nebraska and then again as we made our way up into Alberta and Saskatchewan. I was smitten with the colors and textures and even the uneven cut of the edges of this fired clay sample. I wanted to touch and to have. And that was even before I knew its story.

 

This mural-in-progress shows the same windrows I admired on the section of three tiles, but also the larger sky and some geese flying by. You have to tilt your head sideways to see the layout.

 

When I expressed interest in the three tiles, Shon described them as test pieces for a much larger project, which much to my delight, was spread out on a table in the next room. She was happy to share the masterpiece she and Stephen were making in their studio. Over their worktable lay 246 square tiles, much like the 3 that I found in the front entry, a piece-by-piece depiction of the Saskatchewan prairie landscape and sky. When all the tiles have been fired, the vibrant colors will pop out and each piece will be attached to the exterior wall of the Swift Current Museum.

Grid drawing to depict each of the tile segments and how they fit with the whole.

Shon holds up a stack of pages, each representing a single tile.

Shon shows us the back-up plans–a set of pages that illustrate the design for each individual tile. These pages are referred to just in case a tile, or all of the tiles, have to be replaced. Unfortunately, the back-up plan was called into action when the clay tiles failed to fire properly due to an unfortunate mix in the clay.

Each square is labeled according to the grid drawing. If a tile has to be replaced or reworked, Shon will refer to the grid–along with the back-up-plan pages–to make a new identical tile.

Sometimes Shon has to have a bit of distance from her work, so she climbs her ladder for a birds-eye view.

Before firing, each tile is flipped over (gently) so that Shon can remove slabs of the clay, making each piece just a little bit lighter than it would be otherwise. There are about 3000 pounds of clay in this project, so removing some here and there will make each tile easier to handle.

Stephen Girard, native of Eastend and the Frenchman River valley where he harvests–or “wins”–the clay from the hills. Here he holds special stones that he uses when firing clay to keep track of the temperatures.

None of this might be possible without the scientist behind the scenes. Stephen Girard, a potter in his own right (I bought a beautiful pitcher and six tumblers from him about 10 years ago.) harvests the clay himself, and then refines it by screening, blunging, and plugging, making the mud ready for shaping. The clay is pressed through a pug mill, which extrudes the air out of the clay and presses it into the tile-size thickness, ready for storing in the fridge. Stephen makes good use of his degree in chemistry, and when he’s not working on the technical and materials aspects of harvesting and refining, he produces the colors that will appear in the firing process.

Stephen’s kiln, made of local clay. The “floor” of the kiln can be rolled out so that clay pieces can be stacked, and then the whole floor is rolled back in before the firing starts.

I was amazed to learn that Stephen even made his own kiln! His friends in Moose Jaw provided Stephen with 1400 bricks, each painstakingly cleaned of the dirt from when they were used as paving stones, and then over a period of five months made into this fabulous, downdraft kiln for high temperature stoneware firing.

A close-up view of the kiln arch.

A peek at the rear of the kiln, where the hot air is vented outside.

Shon and Stephen gave a great tour, which they’re willing to do by appointment for their summer visitors at Whitemud Clay Studio in Eastend, SK.  An appointment is a good idea if you want to see behind the scenes, but the shop is open 8am to 8pm, seven days a week from June through September, with fewer hours during the winter months. If you feel the same as I do about their work, the colors and texture of kiln-fired clay will catch your eye and tug at your heart.

Whitemud Clay Studio is located conveniently on Pottery Street!

 

 

 

 

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