A potter since 1972, Mary Fox is known for her avant-garde vessels adorned in distinctive glazes. Her tactile surfaces invite the viewer to trace with their own hands the fluid lines once formed by Fox. Reflecting her natural surroundings, Fox’s sculptural pieces evoke the local sandstone and cascading tide pools found near her studio in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. Watching her hands work at the wheel is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the mutability of line and form.
The unique glazing effects she’s developed since the 1980’s give her pieces the look of unearthed antiquities, each of which seems to tell its own story. At a creative peak in her artistic career, Fox shows at galleries both nationally and internationally and is currently showing locally at the Gallery at Mattick’s Farm. Modern Home spoke to the industrious Fox about her life-changing elective at middle school, the development of her trademark glazes and how creative momentum itself is her current muse.
Tell us how you started potting at 13 years old. I happened to take a ceramics course at Central Middle School in Victoria because that was the only course available and I needed an elective in Grade 8. I wasn’t keen. I couldn’t draw and was intimidated by the thought of doing art. There was no art in my upbringing and I don’t think my family gave it much thought at the time.
I decided in Grade 10 that this was what I was going to do for a living though I still never considered myself an artist. I was happy with the thought of being a production potter making tableware. The realization that I was an artist didn’t happen until my late 20’s.
Do you remember selling your first piece? I started selling my pots to friends in Grade 9 and by Grade 10 I made a lot of pots for the school Christmas fair; this was my first real taste of selling my work and I liked it! By the time I was finishing Grade 11, I was teaching night classes at a local clay store to make money… to buy more clay of course.
How did you connect with The Gallery at Mattick’s Farm? In 1977, there was a pottery business where The Gallery at Mattick’s Farm is now. The potter that ran it was trying to sell it and I desperately wanted to buy it. I was still in Grade 12 and talked my Dad into going to the bank with me to see if I could get a loan.
Long story short, though the loan was approved, the potter decided he’d make more money selling his equipment and so it never happened. Although, I did buy a bunch of his chemicals that helped stock my first studio. Then, when the first Gallery at Mattick’s Farm opened, guess who was waiting in line to sell her pots?
Describe the transition from making functional stoneware to your unique sculptural pieces? I used to go to the local studios that carried handcrafted work and I would study the pots. They were always very patient with me and let me feel up the pots to my hearts content. When I look back on it, I can hardly believe that at 17-years-old I had the confidence to take my pots into the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria shop to see if they would buy some. I remember one particular occasion when I went in with my latest creations, they kindly placed them all out on a table and while they were picking a few, I looked up at a shelf and saw a few pieces from my last “delivery” still sitting there. After that, I let more time pass before going back with more pieces.
When I was 19-years-old, I decided I needed to sell more to make ends meet. I loaded up my ’66 Pontiac Laurentian with pots, drove to Vancouver and trolled the stores trying to sell my wares. Flush with money from my sales, I would go straight to the clay company and bring as much clay home as my car could carry.
Can you speak to the development of your own distinctive glazing effects and finishes? In 1981, I started to explore raku firing and making purely decorative vessels. Learning about glazes was challenging to me, but raku firing was easy to learn and that suited me. I failed math and chemistry in school and certainly never thought I would become known for my glazes. The raku firings taught me how much a glaze can differ from firing to firing which started me down the road of experimenting with my finishes.
In 1986, I had my first show, “Vault of dreams” at the Out of Hand Gallery. It was a joint show with my school friend, Miles Lowry, who was also working as an artist. Miles and I did both individual pieces and collaborations for this show. I would make the forms and Miles would decorate them. He inspired me to try more decorative approaches and now I see that show as the take-off point for my more decorative works. I have a lot to thank Miles for; I would have been too shy for a solo show, but a joint show with him felt doable.
After that show, I decided that I wanted to do more one-off work, but had no idea what that would look like. I wasn’t flooded with ideas like I am now and I needed to pay the rent so I started to divide my work schedule. One week in a month would be for experimenting and the other three would be for production work. Eventually, the decorative work took off and I could dedicate more and more time to it. Today, the demand for my decorative work is high, though I still do the functional work even if it’s increasingly hard to shoehorn it into my schedule. I don’t need to make dishes anymore, but I still love it and people enjoy using them, so I make the time.
What/who inspires your work today? When I was younger and still trying to find my style, I used to look at other potter’s work for inspiration. But I would say that stopped in the mid-1990’s. Now it’s the act of creating that inspires the work that flows out of me. I have kept a lot of my best pieces over the years and they are a constant source of inspiration. One piece leads into another and so it goes.
These days I am completely flooded with ideas and find it a bit much at times. The saying, “it’s all about me” comes to mind when asked about inspiration. Being an artist is a solo endeavour and other artist’s work is just that to me… others’ work. I am really only interested in what is pouring out of me. I know that sounds very egotistical, but that’s the way it is for me. I appreciate other artist’s work, but it doesn’t inspire me; the act of creating inspires me.
With new ideas constantly emerging, teaching workshops and keeping your gallery stocked, how do you hone your creative inspiration and stay focused? My creativity has definitely increased over the years. I am very disciplined and that is, in part, why I have been so successful. I have always treated my passion as a job. Even now, when I really can make anything I want, I still keep an eye on having a well-stocked gallery. If I’m running low on mugs, I switch over to the functional.
There is nothing that I make that I don’t enjoy creating. Doing the functional work is a good break — like jogging after the marathon intensity of the creative work. Working in a series creates the best work; you get into a flow with a form and they just keep getting better. My only problem is making myself stop and switch to another form. Of course, once I start into the next form, I don’t want to stop doing that one either! I really could work on one form for months, but I always have an eye to making a living and so I don’t indulge that urge.
Tell us about the autobiographical coffee table book you are currently working on with author Leah Fowler. I have always planned on writing a book, I just thought that it would be later in life. Leah Fowler is helping me head up the Legacy Project and it was her idea to work on the book now. Her thinking is that it would be beneficial to have the book to tell people the story behind Mary Fox Pottery and where it is heading when we start on the fundraising part of the Legacy Project.