Last week, we met up with local artist and ceramicist Lane Delmonico Gibson at Make Coffee, where she’s currently exhibiting some of her pottery work alongside good friend Chloé Carpenter. About 5 years ago, Lane and Chloé completed an apprenticeship together under the direction of French potter Agnès Chapelet in the village of La Borne, France. Their exhibit at Make follows this journey of study. Rather than feature all finished works, this exhibition displays handmade tools the girls made while apprenticing, as well as a series of pots, vessels and other pieces the girls made while developing their skills. The result is an exhibition that explores and celebrates the design process…the steps that make up this art form.
Having always been drawn to pottery, and the idea of studying abroad, we were excited to sit down with Lane and learn more about her time in France, and the experiences and lessons she returned to Winnipeg with. Lane is currently finishing her degree in Education and works at Make Coffee part-time. When she arrived for the interview, she quickly slipped behind the counter to make herself a drink (and later refilled mine), even though it was her night off. This simple act set the tone for the entire night. Lane was calm, open and honest, and so humble. We sat cupping hot drinks in our hands – mugs Lane and Chloé had made themselves in France – and chatted for close to two hours. Nothing was rushed.
It was as if our conversation transported us to France and we were enjoying the slower, more intentional lifestyle Europe is known for. And, we hope reading this interview gives you a similar feeling of calm and escape.
Artist Lane Delmonico Gibson in front of journal pages from her pottery apprenticeship in France.
EQ3 How did you get your start in pottery?
LANE DELMONICO GIBSON Sometimes I say that it happened randomly. In French randomly is par hasard, which means by hazard. Hazard (in English) alludes to something that may be dangerous, but in French it just means by chance. It was a pretty far guess when I went into pottery. I was 17 and my friend just suggested…yeah, really it was just a suggestion. I had always been into art as a kid and whenever people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always say an artist, but I didn’t really know in what way. I hadn’t really experimented with clay all that much as a kid. I do remember when I was in Grade 4, my teacher selected me to do Through the Eyes of a Child, a program that was offered through the WAG (Winnipeg Art Gallery). It was a weekend art class. I remember every time I would make something and bring it home, my dad would put it on the mantel piece and I just was really, really proud of this…well out of clay I made this coil pot, a very ugly thing with a cat on the lid. And, I was really proud of it.
So I remember that and then fast forward to Grade 12, I remember my really good friend Chloé came to me one day. She’s half French, and so she would go home to France every summer to see her grandparents in France. And, then she came back one summer and said “Lane you have to go to France with me. I discovered this tiny little village in France called La Borne, and I want to do a pottery apprenticeship there.” And, at that point, my mind was, I guess, more in line with the way my parents had sort of programmed me to think…that I needed to go to university right away after high school. So I was really nervous about telling my parents about this program. They’re both academics. But Chloé described this amazing sounding apprenticeship and I couldn’t pass that up. And, so I remember having breakfast one day at Falafel Place and being ready to tell my dad. I had it all planned out – How am I going to break it to him that I want to move to France? I was only 17. And…the conversation lasted about 0.2 seconds because I just said, “So I want to move to France.” and he said “Don’t you think you’ll never go back to school? If you take one year off you’ll never go back to school.” Because he knew this program that I had just described to him wasn’t affiliated with a university at all. It was just this woman who claims she is a potter and she’s going to teach us everything she knows. And then I said “No, I’ll go to school.” And then he said “Sure. Okay. Fine.” And he didn’t ask me any other questions, and at that point I was like “Yeah, this really is up to me.” I was really glad that he gave me that freedom.
EQ3 So was that the summer right after Grade 12, or when did you take the apprenticeship?
LDG Yeah, the summer after Grade 12 I was gearing up to leave. I moved there in September and I met my friend Chloé in France, and then the course started in September – end of September – and it was a 6 month program. Before the course started, we took a visit to the village and checked it all out, met our teacher Agnès. And then it was finished in April, for a total of 892 hours, to be exact, of apprenticeship.
EQ3 Wow! So what did a typical day look like then? When did it start? When did it end? What did you do?
LDG It was a very detailed, organized course…more so than I expected. We started every day at 9 o’clock. Chloé and I were living together in a tiny little stone house without any heating, it was just heated with a wood stove, like a wood fireplace. We were given a deux chevaux car. It’s actually like an antique car and this one was her grandfather’s, who had passed away. Her grandmother still had this car and she gave it to us to use for the year. It was a very noticeable car. She and I would get up in the morning and drive the few kilometers to our teacher’s studio and we’d stop at the bakery on the way and grab some hot bread, and usually half the loaf would be gone by the time we got to the workshop.
First we would light a fire to warm up the studio, and then we’d start kneading the clay. And that was a full body workout. I remember after the very first day, I looked at Chloé and said “I can’t physically do this. I don’t know what you were thinking when you suggested I come with you, because I’m not strong enough.” Just kneading the really hard, cold clay was such an upper body workout. But you get used to it. Over time, you don’t notice it anymore.
The morning was always more directed learning – learning the rudiments of turning on the wheel. So that was 3 hours of every morning. Our teacher would throw a pot. We started with a cereal bowl, and so she threw that and she would take the measurements – very specific measurements of the base of the bowl, and then the lip, and the width of the opening. And, she’d leave one pot for each of us. She would turn it on our own workstation because there were just two students…it was just the two of us. So she would do one for each of us. We would watch her turn a pot, and then we would do our own. We’d do about a dozen. We’d try to, as best we could, copy. And then the morning would finish with an analysis. So we would take a cross-section. Using an iron wire, we would slice the pots in half. We would take the wire and pull it underneath the pot half way and then bring it up and that would just slice the pot right in half, and we would analyze the cross-section of the clay. And, that way were able to see if our bottoms were too heavy, if they were too thick, if the walls were thinning out in one area, and we’d take measurements of the base, and the lip and the circumference, and note that in our journals. So just behind you there (Lane points to a cluster of papers hanging on a nearby wall in the coffee shop), those are some of the notes we wrote down – the weight, and then all the measurements. And, then we’d eat lunch together.
And, then the afternoon was entirely different. We were still in the workshop, but it was more open-ended creative work. So we might have done some drawings, we might have done work on a wheel…just more whimsical stuff. Things like if we were wanting to work on a project of our own, or if we had an idea – something we saw maybe at an exhibit in another city and we wanted to try that out – then that was our time to work on more self-directed pottery.
EQ3 And, so when did your day wrap up?
LDG It wrapped up at 5 o’clock.
EQ3 So did every day look just like that? Monday to Friday?
LDG Mmm hmm. Monday to Friday. And, we would finish the month with a firing. So every month it was all very exciting because firing is a very emotional process. When you’ve created all these pots – maybe at the end of every day, you might keep one of the pots that you’ve turned on the wheel, if you were so lucky…if our teacher deemed it, you know, worthy of keeping. So we would have maybe a dozen pots at the end of a month and the last three days of the second last week we would designate to making all of our glazes by hand. So following recipes…sometimes recipes that even our teacher had never tried. We were just experimenting with different chemicals and different elements, and so we would add our glaze and then fire for the last week. We would either do an electric firing, or a gas firing or a raku, or a wood firing. Wood firings were a really lengthy process, so those only happened usually twice a year for potters. So we were lucky enough to assist with two wood firings throughout our year.
Then the last day or every month we would unload the kiln. We would always do an electric firing, so there was always something exciting. So we would unload the kiln, and it was like Christmas morning, where you’re opening up a present. You’d open up the kiln and just pull out all your pots. You had no idea what a certain combination of glaze would produce. So if you ended up getting a pot that was really, really green, you would know it was because of all the chrome that you added to it. Or magnesium would give maybe a more purpley effect. Or cobalt is always associated with blue glaze.
And so that part of it was really interesting – the chemistry behind it – but if you asked me to describe it in detail…I have it all in French in my head. Our teacher was pretty strict about us learning the vocab, and the chemistry, and just taking notes during the whole process. And just sort of cataloguing the process of building the kiln, and keeping all of our recipes for every single glaze. So a lot of the work that we did was actually academic and written work, although she was someone who never finished high school. But she had created this course that was extremely legitimate, although she wasn’t able to offer a certificate at the end of it. But it didn’t matter because she was just doing her thing.
EQ3 What experience did you – or Chloé – go into this experience with?
LDG Very little. Chloé had played with clay a few times. She might have taken a short course throughout high school, and I had never turned on a wheel before my first day. I was nervous about that because I was under the impression that Agnès only took apprentices that knew what they were doing, but she takes people at any level. We were at beginner level and that was perfectly fine. She adapts her course based on where you’re at, and where you’re interests are.
EQ3 That’s amazing. So how did that unfold? How did you get into the course to begin with, if she only takes two students at a time?
LDG Well, like I said, Chloé went to France the summer before we left. Her maternal Grandparents took her to this pottery village because Chloé’s mom passed away when she was nine, and her mom was a potter. Her mom had left Chloé a lot of her tools and a lot of her own pottery and tons of her ceramics books, and Chloé thought, if I want to get to know my mom more, then I need to go through those steps too, physically. So she went into it with the intention of seeing what her mom went through and trying to get to know her mom more. And, so she came back to Winnipeg after that summer, told me about it, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I was in French immersion, so moving to France was a great opportunity for me to practice my oral skills in French. That’s something that they don’t emphasize enough, I find in French immersion, so being completely immersed in that was definitely a draw. And then, having always loved art throughout high school and elementary, I decided “Okay I’ll do this…what needs to happen.” So we both wrote a hand-written letter of intent and sent it in – snail mail – and then, got a response back from Agnès…and I suppose her response was good…and then, yeah “like Bob’s your uncle”…. (she laughs). I don’t remember, it just all came together and before I knew it I was flying to France.
EQ3 Just the way you described your home and your drive and the bakery shop…it sounds like something out of a movie. Was it really as idyllic as it sounds?
LDG I remember riding my English bicycle around the village and thinking “I’m in France!” I just looked over at my friend all wistful…like ”I can’t believe this is actually happening.” But for me, I’d be lying if I said it was all hearts and rainbows because it was definitely very difficult to leave and to be fully immersed in a village where no one spoke English. I’m really thankful for the strong foundation in French that I had, but even then, it took a long time for me to throw myself out there and really go off on my own. But the village people were really, really welcoming…and entertaining.
It’s hard to put into words – but it was such a routine, I guess. Like I described…getting up in the morning…one of us, actually, would have get up really early in the morning, like 2 o’clock, and put more wood on the fire. So we’d take turns doing that. We would put ourselves to bed – we pushed our beds together – and we had a few pairs of socks on, we wore socks on our hands, we wore toques, we were in sleeping bags, we had like ten sweaters on each. We had our families from Canada send us warmer clothes because we were so cold. It was colder there than it was in Winnipeg. Or, it felt colder because it was humid and just more chilled to the bone. And, the houses in France are less equipped. So that part of it was an eye opener.
EQ3 Do you have a favourite part in the process when you’re working on a piece – one that resonates with you more?
LDG You know, I think probably the stage of conception, when you’re thinking about what to do next or how to start a project. I love drawing inspiration from other artists…now. I think at first I felt a lot of pressure to be original. So sometimes I was stumped when I had to start a new project because I thought “Well, I don’t want to do this because I don’t want to look like I’m copying someone else.” But I got over that, and that’s the most exciting part now for me…researching and kind of exploring what else is out there. Because, you know let’s face it, there’s so much out there and so many creative people – even just in Winnipeg – and so, if you sit there worrying about being original, you won’t get anywhere because chances are whatever you end up creating is like something else, and been done before.
So what I found most exciting was going to different galleries, and part of the course actually incorporated trips up to Paris for different exhibits. So our teacher would drive us up there on weekends, on her own time, and show us either an open house for her own work or for another artist’s work. And it wasn’t always pottery, but yeah, just showing us what else was out there. So we went to the African Art Museum in Paris and then we went back the following week and studied that and tried to make really round vessels that were inspired by the round shape of the human body, or like a maternal figure. Or, we’d go to the oriental museum of ceramics in Paris and then come back and study maybe like a Japanese technique. So learning from other artists and then trying to emulate what they’ve done…and borrowing too. I remember seeing a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo…he makes these paintings out of fruits and vegetables, like portraits. So I wanted to do something with that, but I didn’t want to use paint. I remember in another museum seeing a mobile and thinking how cool it would be to make a mobile. So I ended up taking fruit and slicing the fruit, and then hanging it with fishing line and making a mobile face out of fruit; and, I ended up creating something unique, but in the process I did feel like I was stealing from other people. But, I think that’s okay.
EQ3 What other (art) mediums were you dabbling in…or do you dabble in?
LDG That year in France was primarily clay, different kinds of clay – we used Australian stoneware, terra cotta stoneware, and porcelain. But, actually the following year I went back to France and did a little bit more pottery, just for fun, visited the village again, and saw my teacher. And the year after that I ended up moving to France, again, but this time it was to study French. I was studying at the University of Bordeaux. But even though I went there to take Psycholinguistics and French Literature, I ended up being in (courses) like Photography and Print Making. And, so that was absolutely amazing.
I absolutely loved print making, and that’s something I would like to pursue more here. I find that, actually, it’s similar to pottery in the sense that the unveiling of the final product is emotional, just like unloading a kiln. When you’re piece comes out of the printing press, you’re never really certain. It’s so uncalculated, I guess. It’s that aspect that I’m really drawn to.
EQ3 And, currently you’re working towards becoming a teacher – is that right? Do you have plans to integrate art into that?
LDG Definitely. I think the game plan is to teach art and to always have art in my life. I don’t think I could live without it. But, whether that’s being an art teacher in schools, or teaching art privately, or just working as an artist, freelancing…who knows where I’ll end up.
Towards the end of our year in France, Chloé and I were both preparing our portfolios for Fine Arts. She ended up following through with that and I took the French route and pursued that. And now, she’s got a Fine Arts Degree, I’ve got a French Degree, and now we’re both meeting again in Education with the same goal of eventually teaching art.
EQ3 Any thoughts on Agnès (your teacher)? What was she like?
LDG She was extremely vulgar. I learned most of my French from her, which was a very interesting experiencing because I would learn from her, thinking this is how most people spoke, and then I’d go up to Paris and stay with other friends or family and friends of Chloé’s and throw out these country expressions…so it was an interesting learning experience.
But as vulgar, and as whimsical, and as happy-go-lucky as she was, she was still very focused and very organized, which I really admire. And, I was talking before about copying and stealing ideas from other artists to then create your own work, but in terms of teaching that’s another area where you can totally steal ideas. And in my teaching now, I often think about the way that she taught us because the whole course was a riot. We were laughing non-stop all day long, but yet we produced and we learned. I think it’s a really, really hard thing to accomplish. It’s just so admirable the way that she ran her course. Despite seeming like she was flying by the seat of her pants, she wasn’t unconcerned with the future. We had a schedule that was pretty regimented and we followed the schedule very closely. I think she is definitely the person I look up to most, in terms of teachers.
EQ3 Of the pieces you’ve designed, do you have a favourite? A specific piece? Or maybe a type of product that you enjoy making most?
LDG Yeah, well the piece at the very end (Lane points to a big, round vessel), that one, well it is the biggest and it took the longest, but that one is really interesting to me because the base was turned on a wheel and then the rest of it was hand built. And so, I really liked that process…building something…like a really thick, sturdy base and then building up by hand and being able to manipulate the clay in a way that you can’t on a wheel. So the way we started with that, it was our final project.
Unfortunately, Chloe’s had an air bubble in it and exploded in the kiln, which is just one of the things you have to live with. Yeah, “it’s the life of a pot,” as my teacher said. But, anyway, we started off with charcoal, just drawing different forms. And so that piece came from one of my sketches and so I guess I’m really attached to that piece.
But another one that was really fun was the eggs (she points to a group of eggs with a crackled design). We made those on a wheel, and they’re actually hollow on the inside. It’s quite an involved process, too, which is why I like them so much…just the steps to it are all very different. First you turn it on the wheel, and it gets fired in a naked raku. It gets fired at a really high temperature and the temperature rises really, really quickly. You shock the pots by removing them from the kiln immediately, rather then letting the kiln cool down. And so from there they get put into a big pail of wood shavings and that catches fire. And then from there, the pots are thrown into a pail of cold water and that shocks it further…and that creates the crackled effect. And from there, the glaze is still caked on to the outside of it, so you actually have to scrape it off, like a turtle shell, and then underneath is what you see there – the final product. So it’s quite an involved process for such a little vessel.
EQ3 You mentioned about the “life of a pot,” or ”la vie du pot” – can you elaborate on that? Where does that term come from? What’s its meaning?
LDG Yeah, well I’m glad we decided to put that term into the exhibit, even though it might not make a lot of sense to the random person who sees it. But it means a lot of to me.
I guess the “life of a pot” means you never really know what’s going to happen to it. There’s all these steps involved with pottery, and that’s kind of what we tried to show in the exhibit. When I was first discussing it with Jae (Make Coffee’s owner), he was really intrigued by the tools and the process of pottery. People are most familiar with the final product, and that’s often what’s showcased in pottery exhibits. And so, we really wanted to emphasize the life of a pot – where it starts. We made all of our tools by hand, initially, as the course started. That was one of our first projects, and then making our own stamps as a signature. So just going through the stages of it being a wet ball of clay, to thrown on a wheel, to….shaving off the base of a pot. And, then from there it was the drying process, and that’s an art in itself…the waiting, playing with different plastic covers…and then there’s the glazing and loading the kiln.
EQ3 Do you remember the feeling or what was going through your mind the first contact you had with clay (pottery)?
LDG I was shaky. I remember…I was in pain because my hands were rubbing against the steel wheel and it just tore up my skin. That didn’t go away for 6 months, no matter how much I would bandage it up. But we would just start again the next day and it would tear up again. And, the clay stains too. We were mostly working with stoneware, which is like a dark grey, and so that stains your entire forearm. So yeah, my first contact was definitely pain, and just feeling incompetent, but it’s a really cool sensation. I remember seeing people working on a potter’s wheel in movies and thinking “that’s so appealing…”
EQ3 That’s how we’ve always felt watching it.
LDG And, it is very much like that. I think it’s the contact with the clay that gives me the most pleasure, and being able to manipulate it directly with your own hands. But what I learned very quicky is that if you’re hesitant and if your nervous, or if your stressed, it’s reflectant in your work. Our teacher, if our pots were falling over or just constantly weren’t turning into anything, she’d say “stop…eat a little piece of sausage” or dark chocolate and maybe do some tai chi and calm down because if your breath was really shaky, then your pot was definitely going to be shaky too. So just focusing on stability of your hands is really, really important, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that I took away.
EQ3 How is it now that you’ve been doing it for a few years?
LDG Well it was 5 years ago, and like I said, I went back the following year and then I actually moved back to France 2 years after that, again. But ever since I’ve been back in Winnipeg…I’ve kind of put pottery on a bit of a hiatus. It wasn’t actually until I got the job here that I experienced this revival in my passion for pottery. I guess it was having conversations with people, other employees here, or customers coming in that are interested in design and art and really value the stories that I had to share. I remember when I first got the job, going home and telling my roommate that “I’m so stoked to be working here because I’m reliving all of my experiences in France…because people are encouraging it. They’re asking me questions.”
I guess one thing that I really didn’t expect was, first off, I was feeling really, really attached to my pottery, and being ecstatic that I could display it and share the story with everybody, but then feeling a shift in my mindset when all of a sudden I decided that I was going to sell it. I thought “I really want to hold onto this experience. I don’t want to lose the journey that I had in France. I want to hold onto these memories because that’s who I am.” But all of a sudden it kind of dawned on me that I went to France for the experience and for the skills, and I’ll never lose those skills. And the pottery…the fact that I was able to bring 300 kilos of pottery back with me was the icing on the cake, and this exhibit was furthermore the cherry on top. And so, I guess I’ve realized that selling your artwork, as hard as it is, is a really important step for all artists…to let go and to part with it. And parting with it, for me, is motivational, and now I feel an accountability to pursue pottery further and to get back into it.
Having it on display is one way of letting others in on the experience and sharing my experience with them, but it’s even more to let them take it home with them and use it. So it’s been really awesome to see people use the bowls to drink out of and have that contact with something that I spent so much time thinking about first and then making.
EQ3 To wrap up, is there anything you’d like to add? Anything you feel would be important for people to know?
LDG I would love to be able to tell anyone who’s interested in art, any kind of art, not just pottery, to just go for it. I guess I was hesitant at first and really doubted myself, even when I first got started, but you need to persevere and not be afraid of challenges…and, not be afraid to steal ideas from other people (she laughs)!
Thanks Lane for sharing your art with us and your stories!
Follow Lane on Instagram @potterybylane and on Tumblr at lanegibson.tumblr.com to see more of her work.