Eleven Questions With the Sooke Ceramicist Behind ‘Wicked Wanda’

Sooke-based artist Erika Arbour-Nevins is the creator of Wicked Wanda Pottery, a line of elegant ceramics designed for enduring everyday use.

This holiday season, you can catch Wicked Wanda at markets around Vancouver Island, kicking off with the the Owl Designer Fair in Victoria (Nov. 22 – 23) and the Stagnhare Christmas Market in Courtenay (Nov. 23 – 24). Then, in December, she’ll be organizing the annual holiday sale at Wild Mountain on December 15th.

First of all, please introduce yourself. What is your background and what are you currently doing, in a nutshell?

I am originally from Montreal, and grew up moving around Quebec, Belgium, and Holland. After high school, I came back to Canada to attend NSCAD University in Halifax, where I completed an Interdisciplinary Bachelor of Fine Arts. I fell in love with photography there, and mostly pursued painting and drawing, along with some fiber classes and a few other mediums. Once I was done I moved back to Montreal and worked in film and digital photography, as well as digital retouching for quite a few years. I also did freelance illustration work here and there until 2015. I moved to Sooke with my partner in late 2015, where I decided to try pottery full time—without too much of a plan! For the first two years, I continued to take on freelance work from Montreal, but last year decided to focus on ceramics as my sole source of income. I make functional ceramics for everyday use—this includes dishes to eat on, vases and objects to decorate your home, kitchen tools, and whatever else I dream up. It’s always changing and expanding!

Next, who is “Wicked Wanda” and what does she have to do with pottery?

Oh, Wicked Wanda! I really didn’t think this name through too much—it didn’t even cross my mind that people would assume that was my name when I chose this!

The Wicked Wanda was a sailboat my dad traveled on when he was young. Actually, I recently found out he traveled on the boat with his brothers, after finding it abandoned and fixing it, and, apparently, they named it after a headstrong girl from their high school. I have this great picture of him on the boat sitting on my desk as I type this. He was always an amazing supporter of my art and my projects. He would have my work all over the house — sometimes too much, he kept paintings from high school I repeatedly told him to get rid of so I would hide them in our garage. He passed away in early 2014, and I was compelled to name my then tiny pottery “business” after him. It was on a whim, paired with a quick drawing of a middle finger, to represent a “life is short, go for it” kind of vibe, and that was that! It makes people giggle and ask me questions which I kind of love, but sometimes also feels silly and unprofessional. But then again, I think it helps keep things light!

Why did you decide to take on ceramics as a side project and how has its purpose and your attitude towards pottery evolved over time?

I needed to get back to making art to help with the dissatisfaction I felt in my office job. Even though it was in a somewhat creative field, the digital retouching was quite repetitive and just didn’t make me happy. I had tried pottery in my teens, and always collected ceramics, so I decided to take a class. I quickly got obsessed, and started renting space in a shared studio so I could go there after work, on weekends, all the time, basically!

At first it just felt really fun to make my own bowls or mugs and sell them to my friends. My personal experience using these dishes, as well as feedback from customers, really drove home the idea that having thoughtfully made and chosen objects can make a difference in your home and life. It not only makes a difference in your own everyday experience, but is also a more sustainable alternative to box store mass-produced dishes. I hope it helps reduce over-production and consumption, as well as waste. I hope it also helps people be more mindful and connected when choosing objects (dishes), and when using them. It’s true that this isn’t always as affordable, but I think it’s a lot more meaningful and satisfying in the long run. I think a return to items made by hand, locally is really important for our economy, and society at large. I always enjoyed thrifting for fashion and furniture, as well as supporting local artists, so this was a natural continuation for me.

As Wicked Wanda Pottery you work within a very restrained colour pallet and aesthetic. What inspired you to take this direction with your ceramics?

In terms of aesthetics, I really wanted my pieces to stand the test of time. I wanted them to be timeless, to be passed down, and to go with a variety of things people already have in their homes. I felt there was a notion of pottery as something from the 60’s and 70’s that was tacky and that people didn’t use anymore, hidden in the basement or donated to thrift stores. I wanted to avoid this. Don’t get me wrong, there is wonderful pottery from those eras, a lot to look up to and learn from! But I enjoy a more neutral palette in my life in general—home decor, what I wear, etc., so this just kind of made sense to me. My partner is a chef, so I also had that in mind—what kinds of things will make food look good. Some wild colours and patterns won’t do that, in my opinion. If they do, it will be for a short period of time. That being said, I am open to exploring and testing things out. You never know what will work if you don’t try! I started introducing some colourful pieces to my work this year, but mostly on cups and vases, smaller pops of colour, which has been really fun.

What has been the biggest risk or challenge that you’ve faced since putting your energy into ceramics?

Probably financial stability, benefits, etc. Making a living with ceramics is not an easy task, many struggle with it, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without support from my partner. I know I can get there eventually. It will take streamlining some parts of the making process to be more profitable, while still allowing myself time to experiment and remain engaged in my work. I’m not talking factory style, things will still be handmade, but there are ways to be more efficient. The other aspect is that production can be tedious, and I am really learning that this year—you need to balance the more repetitive tasks with some creative stuff. After all, having a creative outlet is one of the first reasons I went into ceramics, right?!

What was the particular moment or experience that triggered your mentality of conscientious consumerism? Why is it important for you to incorporate this ethos into your practice?

Hmm, I can’t say there is one particular moment… Maybe when I was younger and realized I was over-consuming in the world of fast fashion. I think this opened my eyes to our culture of over-consumerism in general. This idea then spilled out into other aspects of my life, and I think it should be a concern for everybody. Things are already in a dire state, and we need to make change asap. I know not everybody can live this kind of life perfectly or easily, in a lot of ways it requires a certain level of privilege and accessibility. But there are so many ways to reduce consumption and waste, and we can all make change in the ways that match our circumstances. For those of us with more privilege, this means more opportunity for change and positive impact. For those of us with less privilege, we contribute in the ways we can. I think if we all do this it will make a huge difference.

Tell me the story of a personal, functional heirloom or purchased household item that you own and use on a daily basis. What makes it so valuable to you?

That is a really tough question! I am going to be really vague here: anything that I carefully selected and know was made with care really brings me joy, especially when I know I am helping someone like myself to make a living — and especially if they are from female owned businesses! These items range from ceramics by other potters, to handmade clothing, to woven or quilted blankets from friends in the winter.

What, from your personal perspective, makes an item worthy of being added to your household?

That is so subjective! Of course, if it truly fills a need and supports small and/or local businesses, that is always a plus! But really, if it makes you happy, go for it! I have always spent a lot of time making my home a space I really want to spend time in, so I definitely like to make it aesthetically pleasing and cozy. Sometimes it means saving up for a special piece and other times it’s thrifting some cool stuff for a good deal!


ALL IMAGES VIA ERIKA ARBOUR-NEVINS

  • sphere bud vases
  • amphora
  • overhead
  • table setting
  • IMG_7777
  • wickedwanda_erika_2
  • side plates
  • everydayblueberries
  • IMG_7735
  • stack
  • pieces drying
  • IMG_7883
  • ramen bowls
  • wickedwanda_erika_wheel
  • classicmug_lilac_4
  • servingbowl_natural_4
  • outside table setup_1
  • Arc Vase

What is the learning curve and/or what is involved in the process of creating something new, from conception to completion?

When creating something new I usually either have an idea in my head or one that someone suggested. I then sketch it out and build it, or just sit at the wheel and start making. Sometimes it works right away, sometimes I have to make a few prototypes. Pottery can be a harsh teacher, it is a huge lesson in detachment and determination. There is definitely a lot of trial and error! Most pieces can take 3-5 weeks to make.

There are a lot of steps, and a lot of waiting times, but to put it simply: start by making something on the wheel or hand-build with wet clay, then let it dry for a couple days. After that, you can trim it, which involves removing excess clay and finalizing shape, as well as attaching handles, spouts, etc. Then you let it dry fully—this can take a couple days or even a week for pieces with attached parts. Next you fire it in the kiln, clean it once it’s out, and glaze it. You let it dry—again. You then fire it one more time, and finally have your end result! Then, and only then, can you really assess the piece and make your adjustments. I use the piece myself for a bit to get a sense of its functionality before putting it out in to the world.

Creating pieces that are built to last and reduce over-consumption is kind of a Catch 22 because, at a point, it becomes redundant or the output becomes contradictory to the greater purpose… What is Wicked Wanda contributing that makes it stand apart and why should people care about it?

I absolutely agree! That is an important point to think about when you are in the business of selling stuff. But I think if I can help promote local economy, reduce pollution and mass production — which often comes with unfair wages and working conditions, it is a huge step in the right direction. With pieces that stand the test of time, a person might create their collection of dishes and not feel the need to change it all up every few years, only adding things here and there as they are needed. And maybe for someone this is a stepping stone to implementing these values in other aspects of their lives: where they source their food, their clothing, their impact on the environment, etc.

Where do you see yourself and your artistic practice in the next year? How about 5 years? A decade?

In the next year I hope to have processes in place that increase my efficiency, so I can offer my pieces to more people, while giving myself time to be creative. I find that when I make this time, I create work I am really proud of, and work that people really respond well to. I want to eventually be in a bigger space, where I can have a little showroom/store to sell my things and support other local makers. I think I would like to offer classes, but again that takes a better studio space—that might be in the 2-5 year bracket!

I would love to travel again, and stay a while in some places to learn different ceramic and textile practices (I love to knit and weave), and then come back to incorporate that in my life/practice.

A decade?! I can’t even think that far ahead, who knows! I am definitely not a person who has ever had a life plan. I like to see where the people I meet and my experiences take me.

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