Published, EAC Communiqué, September 1991
he challenge of an exhibition of his clay works as a complement to the colourful quilts of Ralph Beney encouraged Geoff Stevens to follow new directions this past year. Vessels and plates have been enriched with landscape and story themes. A rising spirituality sometimes finds expression in non-functional forms. “I’m moving in a sculptural direction,” Geoff says. “The vessel will always be an enormously potent, fertile and voluptuous form for me. I’ll never leave it entirely, but I’ve discovered in myself an endless font of images, the creative blood flowing. It’s challenging, mysterious, even scary and I have a desire to realise it.”
In the early 1970’s, the introduction through a friend to clay and its potential spun Geoff ’s life around. He was in his final year of Psychology and Philosophy at York University, about to do his bachelor’s thesis on Phenomenology. Captivated by clay, which he found “engrossing, hypnotizing”, he failed to attempt any thesis, until a wise professor understood the impasse. Geoff changed the subject to The Psychotherapeutic Uses of Clay, wrote the paper in two weeks of outpouring synthesis and earned top marks.
With the support of his family, he began to take clay seriously. Georgian College in Barrie had just opened and for two years Geoff took courses there under British potter Robin Hopper. The early 1970s were Renaissance years for crafts in Canada and nourishing times for a young potter. Geoff built a high temperature kiln at his parents’ farm in Georgetown and accepted the offer of a five-year lease on a combination studio, showroom and home beside the Inn at Terracotta.
During these years, he explored the aesthetics of high temperature firing, with a strong emphasis on form. His early passion was for 12th century Sung porcelain, with its deep, transparent glazes of ox blood and celadon melded to the clay surface through intense heat. It was ethereal and cosmic, and the forms were strong and masculine.
When his lease was up in Terracotta, Geoff moved briefly to Guelph and married his wife Deanna. They searched for a small village where Geoff could again experience the familiarity, the sense of safety he had enjoyed as he grew up in Hog’s Hollow, near Toronto. They chose a post-and-beam home and studio on Church Street, Elora.
At this crucial time, Geoff ’s work was devastated by setbacks. His parents moved and his old kiln was unavailable to him. Used burners bought for an Elora kiln failed to produce adequate heat, and all his money was spent. He was forced to a resourceful solution. At the time, he was researching clay goblets of the Middle Ages to fill a commission from the Centre for Medieval Studies, Toronto. Their low firing techniques led him to Majolica, in which glaze is baked onto the clay like icing, and emphasis is put on colour, brushwork and spontaneous decoration. In resolving a need, Geoff explored the playfulness and freedom of Majolica, developing the style we see today.
Geoff Stevens was born in Singapore, adopted by his Australian mother and British father. With the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II, his mother was evacuated to England on the last boat, and his father served in the navy. The war rings down through the years in Geoff ’s family. His realization that he is of the first generation in many centuries not to be called to war is strikingly reflected in some of his sculptures. His parents emigrated to Canada, and since early days here have owned a cottage on Georgian Bay. “This is my place in the world, my paradise, my sweet-water ocean,” Geoff says. “I feel at ease, nothing is dangerous there.” Georgian Bay is a major new theme in Geoff ’s pottery, evoking pieces like “The Spirit Keeper”, a vessel fired with gold and topped with a wind-blown pine tree.
When myth and tradition are being smashed around us, it’s humour that saves us.
Geoff is a Past President of the Elora Arts Council and has served on the board of the Elora Festival. Through the Festival he came to music concerts in St. John’s Anglican Church. To this association he ascribes an upwelling of spiritual consciousness. In his series “The Beginning of the World”, he explores what he considers to be Elora’s gift to him through music and religion.
Though intrigued by the Far East in his University years through his birth in Singapore and his interest in Chinese and Japanese culture, he now seeks to affirm the West. “Once, in making a Celtic pot, it was a deep experience for me to unravel all those gorgeous, sensuous loops and swirls. I acknowledged that to be my culture, my background and heritage. I’m a Western man, and I want to develop our traditions. I’m also an existential man. This is life and there’s no dress rehearsal. When myth and tradition are being smashed around us, it’s humour that saves us.”
In future Geoff wants to work towards life-sized figurative pieces in clay. He’d like to model his two lovely daughters while they’re young. “I’m grateful for the opportunity of this present exhibition,” Geoff says. “I think now I’ve finished my apprenticeship.”
by Beverley Cairns, September 1991
Some of my happiest memories are of teaching friends and neighbours the mysteries and magic that I found in the clay and the fire.
UPDATE – 1997
Over the last years Geoff Stevens has pursued a new theme in his work, that of the Garden of Eden, weaving autobiographical material into that of the great myth. After all the distractions of running the production studio, teaching, taking courses at University of Waterloo and single parenting, the Garden of Eden theme draws him still. A visit to North Queensland, Australia, only inspired him further. Paradise calls.
UPDATE – THE ELORA POTTERY, TWENTY YEARS IN 2004
“I didn’t know it in 1984, but creating The Elora Pottery was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The challenges that confronted me there changed my life, infinitely for the better.
“Looking back over the last 20 years, I find myself amazed at all of the changes – creative, practical, emotional and spiritual, which occurred in that time. Right from the start, my brand new gas kiln failed me, leaving me with a wife and child to support and no means by which to do so. All that was available to this production studio was an old electric kiln incapable of the high temperatures and reduction atmosphere that my work at that time depended upon. Without this crisis, I would never have developed the “Majolica” technique that became a staple in the gallery and represented a creative breakthrough that bloomed into a large variety of colourful themes and expressive techniques.
And so it went. Inspired by the village’s nurturing community of creative spirits, pushed by a growing body of faithful patrons and endlessly challenged by the medium itself, I was led to produce everything from baptismal fonts to burial urns and all things in between. Tableware, garden sculpture, bathroom basins, tiles, raku and pit-fired figures, totems, platters and planters, the muse sometimes seemed relentless. Some of my happiest memories are of teaching friends and neighbours the mysteries and magic that I found in the clay and the fire. Above all, the greatest creations and the best gifts bequeathed by these last 20 years in Elora are my three gorgeous daughters.
“But now it is all over. In the spring of 2004 I sold the pottery, passing the reins of the studio into the creative hands of a former student, Stacie Barron. For reasons of health, although I suspect it is that restless muse at work again, I must make a bigger change and move on in life. I’ve elected to become a teacher of English as a Second Language and so step away from my beloved Elora and try myself in the wider world. With all that I have learnt and experienced here, I feel that I am well prepared for Life’s next creative challenge.”