Tales of a potter

South Surrey's ceramics and pottery guru Don Hutchinson is honoured with a retrospective at Surrey Art Gallery

A retrospective of South Surrey potter Don Hutchinson's ceramics Jan. 21-March 19 revisits some 50 years of work; including such diverse pieces as Phoenix

A retrospective of South Surrey potter Don Hutchinson's ceramics Jan. 21-March 19 revisits some 50 years of work; including such diverse pieces as Phoenix

During the 30 years South Surrey pottery guru Don Hutchinson spent as an instructor at Langara College, he had an invariable tradition.

“Every class started with a story,” he said.

Whether it was a humourous tale designed to provide motivation for students, or a narrative tracing a historical context for the evolution of a technique, Hutchinson said he found the practice invaluable in engaging students in the possibilities of the art of ceramics.

To this day, he’s a fascinating fund of information on the way pottery is inextricably linked with the story of civilization – from the fact that Charles Darwin’s voyage to the southern hemisphere was funded by British pottery magnate Josiah Wedgewood, to attributing the development of china, glassware and cutlery to the availability of new vegetables and spices that changed eating habits during the Renaissance.

It shouldn’t, therefore, come as a any surprise that there is a story behind each of the pieces in Hutchinson’s upcoming retrospective, From Form to Fantasy, which runs at Surrey Art Gallery (13750 88 Ave.) from Jan. 21 to March 19.

“I find it really flattering – they approached me about a year and a half ago, came out to my studio and selected all the pieces,” he said of the show.

Opening reception for the show is Jan. 21, 7:30-9:30 p.m., and those who want to experience Hutchinson’s storytelling abilities first-hand should note he will conduct an artist’s tour on March 19, 2-3:30 p.m.

There’s an added bonus for pottery and ceramics enthusiasts – the show is presented with a companion exhibition, Inspired! Surrey Ceramic Showcase, which features selected work done by members of the Fraser Valley Potters Guild and the Semiahmoo Potters at a workshop led by Hutchinson at Kwantlen University last June.

“There is some really nice work there – I’d like to take some credit for influencing them, but I don’t know if I can,” Hutchinson said.

“You don’t really know how people are going to use the information you give them; whether they’ll react to it, or regurgitate it, or do whatever they do to make it their own. It’s a privilege to be able to pass on what you know, and it’s also quite good for the ego – an ego massage.”    `

Some 35 pieces in his own exhibit will show the range of Hutchinson’s work, from functional mugs, bowls and carafes to whimsical, fantastic birds and creatures in which he seamlessly blends international mythology into stories that have sprung from his own imagination.

“The story comes first,” he said. “I make up a story and then make up a creature to go with it. I like to do what the Greeks did – to create stories that explain natural phenomena.”

It also provides motivation for his work during the solitary hours he spends in the studio, he explained, noting that, for him, art is not a result of the “zap of lightning” school of inspiration.

“I go with little things – a couple of little things combine with a couple of other little things and, in the end, they amount to something big.”

Hutchinson – who is celebrated for sourcing his own materials, including finding natural minerals he crushes to create his own glazes – agreed that his work latterly has been largely intuitive.

“With the functional things in the beginning – well you have to pay the rent and feed your family, but as you grow and gain confidence you can wander off into more playful things.

“The joy of having kids is that they respond to fantasy. I remember doing peacocks for one of my sons when he was five years old – I could draw a peacock that looks like a photograph, but kids need a super-stylized drawing or rendering that can involve a child of five or six, that has the naivety of a child’s drawing.

“That’s what I’ve always tried for – the fresh, naive look that children get in their work.”

There are also continuing motifs that have become almost ritual in Hutchinson’s work – he loves creating fanciful owls (including one piece in the show, The Professor, that he describes as “a self-portrait”) or celebrating the elegant lines of the heron in his decoration of pieces.

“I think I’ve painted them about 18,000 times – I just love the feel of the brushwork,” he said.

Hutchinson’s love of world mythology is very much to the fore in sculptural pieces such as Demon Chaser, in which a shamanic figure is depicted in the act of transformation into a kayak, borne on the back of two sacred fish, or Phoenix – which, he points out is a Chinese phoenix, female counterpart of the dragon, and not to be confused with the phoenix that is consumed by fire and emerges from the ashes.

One of the most in intriguing pieces is titled Night & Day Being Introduced Into the Universe, in which two symbolic birds, one black and one white, sail through space in the vessel of the Jade Emperor (or God) in search of the ultimate source of light.

So why the goat in the boat’s bow? Hutchinson’s answer is typically idiosyncratic.

“I like goats,” he said. “I like their shape – and they have really good eyesight.”

For more information, and opening hours, call 604-501-5566 or visit surrey.ca/artgallery