Family legacy

Ceramic artists Isabella St. John and her niece, Erin Callahan St. John, show their shared love of nature in a joint show

Published on January 29, 2014

As a child, Erin Callahan St. John remembers visiting her aunt Isabella in her pottery studio.
She’d play with the pottery wheel and watch as her aunt did raku firings outside, putting clay pieces in the kiln, taking them out when they were red-hot, and putting them in buckets of sawdust to cool.

As an adult, Erin followed in her aunt’s artistic footsteps, graduating from the Textile Studies program at the College of the North Atlantic in St. John’s, and completing a fine arts degree in ceramics from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Isabella took her on as an official apprentice, and she has honed her skills.

Their shared love of clay and the natural environment will be displayed during their first-ever collaborative exhibit, “Legacy: New Work, Two Generations,” opening Saturday at the Craft Council Gallery in the Devon House Craft Centre, 59 Duckworth St.

Isabella is a longtime craftswoman who has operated her own studio and shop, Blue Moon Pottery, in the Outer Battery since 1985. Now that Erin has obtained a ceramics degree, she is sharing Isabella’s studio as an equal partner.

While there are individual pieces by both potters included in the exhibit, a series of platters were executed together, with each artist contributing their strengths.

“We collaborated from the beginning,” Erin explains. We talked about the shape we wanted, and we drew pictures. Isabella threw the plates, cut and altered them and made the handles on the side. Then she handed them over to me, and I would cover them in black slip and carve them.”

Erin has been using a sgraffito technique: she scratches through a layer of black, exposing the pottery beneath. Drawing comes naturally to her, she says, and it’s where her interest often lies most.

For the “Legacy” show pieces, Erin and Isabella have been using themes familiar to them, inspired by the views they take in every day through the picture window in their studio, which looks out onto the harbour. While all aspects of nature are dominant, birds are the main theme, from crows to owls and small sandpipers.

“Nature certainly is an important part of being in the Battery,” Isabella explains.

“Wherever you are in the studio, whatever you’re doing, you can see the water, the weather, the birds. The gulls are ever-present.

“The birds have just always been a little spark of the natural world that lifts us up. Birds carry you away; they represent freedom and movement. Seeing bird life lifts you out of the domain. It’s like, ‘I really need to get the studio floor washed — oh! There’s a sandpiper!”

For the most part, the birds Erin creates are depicted in flight.

“Birds have a freedom and a delicacy, almost,” she says.

The cliff, wildflowers and weathered fence posts of the Battery are also recreated in clay among the pieces in the exhibit.

Along with the visual art exhibit, Isabella and Erin have organized a secondary celebration of their work together.

A “Legacy” concert will happen at the LSPU Hall Feb. 6, featuring some of the artists favourite local musicians: Pamela Morgan, Sherry Ryan, Eric West, Hope Jamieson, Simon Savard-Walsh and Wyatt Hirschfied Shibley. Organizing a musical concert on top of months of studio work — something Isabella has done before with previous shows — was a labour of love, the women say, and a way to celebrate what they’ve accomplished while giving back to other artists. All proceeds from the show will be divided equally among the performing musicians.

“We will be repaid with everyone’s presence and support,” Erin says of what she and Isabella will get out of the event.

“It’s like a gift to ourselves,” Isabella adds. “We both love music. It’s a part of our lives in the studio, and we’re both big supporters of local music and often go out to see it live.”

“Legacy: New Work, Two Generations,” will open with a reception at the gallery Saturday from 2-4 p.m. It will run until March 8.

Tickets for the concert at $15 in advance and $20 at the door, and are available at the LSPU Hall box office, by calling 753-4531, or online by visiting

Twitter: @tara_bradbury