To Create

By Sandra Ollsin, Victoria, BC

With a welcoming arm gesture, Graham Sheehan motions me down the path to his shop nestled amongst some evergreens. With its French doors flung open, the quaint showroom signals the anticipation of another possible sale. Inside, the buttery aesthetic of the warmly-lit cedar shelves highlights the finely-crafted stoneware on display. I scan the periphery, then pick-up a platter from the center island. It’s smooth and cold to the touch from having sat out in the crisp, November air too long. My finger traces the cerulean-blue wave pattern that adorns it—no doubt a resultant design of living so close to the Salish Sea. The entire piece is expertly glazed with textural hues procured from some combination of iron, cobalt, chromium, and copper oxides, and other raw materials. Graham says he’s been mixing his own glazes for 38 years now.  A plethora of earth tones are also made manifest—rich ochre, carnelian, amber, and cream. I think about how the alchemy of a place and its inhabitants are perhaps best captured by local artisans via material culture—like the thumbprints embedded at the top of the teacup handles.  

I eventually set my sights on a set of four weighty pasta bowls, which seems to please Graham. Twenty-four dollars a bowl is a good deal considering the time and effort that went into crafting them. He invites me into his pottery studio to complete the transaction. At my request he shows me the wood-fired kiln that fired the bowls. He designed and built it out of bricks he inherited from a friend who died. He’s built seven more by request, and has shared the plans with countless others. The subtle fragrance of cedar kindling, wood smoke, and clay dust lingers in the air as I peer into the kiln’s charred belly. 

Stoneware sales have dropped markedly, Graham tells me as we continue chatting.  He used to be a civil engineer, but works part-time now as a mathematics professor off-island.  Even his once fluid mainland sales dried-up because pottery takes up too much valuable, retail shelf space in relation to its profit margin. So despite the inherent functionality of his art and the years it has taken to develop it, there’s little available space for creative beauty in the neo-liberal world of commerce.

As he wraps up my purchase, I ask Graham why he keeps creating when there’s currently no bustling market for the stoneware. He says, “I’m still just as interested in doing this as when I first began. I’m still interested in making glazes, and I’m still interested in the process and methods of creating pottery.” He raises his eyebrows, shrugs his shoulders, and grins as he hands me the bag.

“How much do I owe you?” I ask, cradling the package under my arm.

“Eighty is fine,” he says, giving me a deal.  Somehow we both know they’re worth so much more.

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