Inspired by the sea

Tara Bradbury
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Northeastern Folk Art wins Atlantic Canadian award for excellence

What does making fine pottery have in common with cooking? Quite a bit, apparently. For Mike Gillan, at least, there was a natural progression between one career and the another.

Clay angels being fired at 900 C by  Northeastern Folk Art. — Submitted photo

“It is a natural form of expression for me,” Gillan, a chef for 35 years, explained. “I had no aptitude for drawing or painting, but I found my work flowed naturally into firing. Especially raku firing, which is just like working on a hot line in a kitchen. It’s a more lasting form of art.”

Gillan and his wife, Erin McArthur, own Northeastern Folk Art, and earlier this month were presented with the Atlantic Canada Craft Award for Excellence in Product Design, for their body of work, which includes little treasures like individually-crafted pins and ornaments in the form of starfish, mussel shells, sea urchins and puffins, to wheel-thrown vessels and hand-built vases.

Gillan and McArthur — both Newfoundlanders by choice, Gillan having come from Halifax and McArthur from Vancouver — have been working together for about 13 years, specializing in raku pottery.

A traditional Japanese style of pottery, the process begins with a ball of wet clay, which, once sculpted or formed and dried, is fired in an electric kiln set at

950 C.

Once cooled, the piece is glazed and heated again, then removed from the kiln and placed in a bucket full of sawdust, which smothers the flames. Later, it’s plunged into water, setting the patterns that have developed.

Gillan does all the firing — “He’s good around fire,” McArthur said — while McArthur does the wheelwork.

Her favourite things to make are the items that are one-of-a-kind, like nativity sets, kooky elves or hand-built pieces.

The couple collaborates when it comes to their designs.

“We both really like the ocean,” McArthur said, explaining their main source of inspiration. “Neither of us was born here, but we both grew up around the beach in the summers, and beachcombing.”

Gillan and McArthur are working on their summer stock, and plan to create a line of functional, food-safe porcelain.

“Even though raku is great, you can’t eat out of it. Creating functional pieces involves a whole different process with different chemicals.”

The craft industry in this province is thriving, Gillan said, and is second to none when it comes to quality. If there’s any area in which it needs to grow, he said, it’s in terms of the value placed on handmade work.

“Handmade is different that what you get from China, and the money stays here. People enjoy giving a piece as a gift, or using it every day. If I have a certain bowl that’s one of a kind and I eat from it every day, that’s special.”

The annual Atlantic Canada Craft Awards for Excellence were handed out by the Craft Alliance Atlantic Association in Halifax Feb. 1. College of the North Atlantic was also named a winner, in the Industry Leader/Supporter category.

Northeastern Folk Art products can be purchased at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, Newfoundland Weavery, The Rooms, and at select gift shops around the province.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Craft Alliance Atlantic Association, Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Halifax, Vancouver China North Atlantic

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Recent comments

  • Lisa Downey
    February 18, 2014 - 11:25

    Congrats to you both - you rock!!