My Canada, 43/150: Bowled over by ceramic beauty

I’m pretty chuffed that sisters of our popcorn bowl and coffee mugs strut their stuff at Canada’s premier ceramics gallery.

Toronto is home to the Gardiner Museum, dedicated to “celebrating the art of ceramics.” It houses the ceramics collection of philanthropists George and Helen Gardiner and regularly features work by top Canadian ceramic-makers, including my friend Kayo O’Young. Over the years, I’ve collected several of his pieces (view in the slideshow, below) created at the idyllic studio and home north of Kleinberg, Ontario, that he shares with his wife Diane Nasr, a noted ceramic artist who creates whimsical, fantastical porcelain sculptures.

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Theirs is hyphenated Canadian love story. Diane was born in Jamaica, immigrated to Canada, and studied art in Montreal; Kayo was born in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and moved to Canada at age 14, his interest in pottery fired by a high-school art class.

The Canadian Museum of History in Hull, Quebec, a footbridge walk across the Ottawa River from the nation’s capital of Ottawa, records that the first ceramics created in the land we now know as Canada date from 3,500 years ago. These have been found near the Arctic Ocean, credited to the “Siberian-inspired Palaeoeskimo pottery tradition.”

In the first centuries of European settlement in Canada, most pottery and ceramics for household use and decorative pleasure were imported. A large-scale commercial ceramics industry never took root. I do remember Blue Mountain Pottery, created in Collingwood, Ontario, being popular when I was a child: everyone seemed to have some vase or figure in its signature blue-green glaze over black. More’s the pity for those who didn’t hang on to them. The company went out of business in 2004 and Blue Mountain Pottery pieces are now hotly pursued collectibles.

My tastes, however, hue more to the delicate than to the chunky. While Kayo does spin his pots on a pottery wheel, what he creates doesn’t feel, or sound, like pottery. If you ping one of his perfectly round bowls lightly with a flick of your nail, it produces a clear, sweet, musical note.

Kayo has produced vases and vessels on commission for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. He is a humble, quiet man of few words, who¬† offers you tea and biscuits when you visit his studio / home. He is a perfectionist about his work, rejecting pieces that don’t work out quite right: when he and Diane had a dog, the pup’s water bowl was a ceramic beauty that didn’t work out quite like artist Kayo intended.

Because I don’t keep Kayo’s ceramics in a display case, rather using them day to day, occasionally his pieces break, especially his gorgeous-but-fragile coffee mugs. If they do, the pieces move into the garden as colourful accents among the plants. From the clay ceramics came, and unto clay they do return.

One last piece of Kayo O’Young from my collection. Photo: Kelley Teahen

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