From her studio in Victoria, ceramic artist Sarah Leckie creates utilitarian designs illustrated with her signature fantastical circular narratives.
This holiday season, Sarah will be doing a craft fair tour including five markets across BC: Refresh Market (Squamish, November 15-16), Abeego Makers Market (Rock Bay Victoria, Nov 22-23), Craft Cartel (Victoria, November 29 – December 1), Got Craft? (Vancouver, December 7-8), and Wintertide Handmade Market (Victoria, December 13-14). The busy woman recently took a brief breather from her preparations to retail her own story…
What is your background and how did you get into making ceramics?
I originally came to Victoria to study ethnobotany at the University of Victoria, and ended up with a degree in anthropology and archaeology. I got obsessed with ceramics in the last semester of my degree, dropped out of my honours program to spend all my time in the studio, and once I’d graduated I went back to study ceramics at Kootenay School of the Arts. Since graduating the ceramics program in 2015, I did a brief apprenticeship in the Cowichan valley and a number of artist residencies including at the Banff Centre, James Black Gallery, Bonnie McComb Kreye, and in Jingdezhen, China. Most of the past few years has also gone towards developing and selling my line of functional ceramics.
What is currently keeping you busy?
I just moved back to Victoria this summer and into a new studio in September, and I’m deep in production for this holiday market season. I’m also working on pieces for installations this fall, and setting some things up for the new year, including gallery applications for new works, residencies, and developing workshops on surface decoration for here in Victoria.
Your pieces have a very narrative and folkloric quality…what’s the story? Tell me about your creature characters and what is happening in your illustrations.
I’m not really sure where the creatures come from… most of them started from making abstract strokes of black slip on my porcelain and pulling creatures out of it like a Rorschach test. Or trying to draw something specific and it coming out as something completely different and new. I then try to put them into little interactive stories and sequences, like maybe it would be great if this rabbit-esque deer were spitting snakes into the mouth of this other bear-type creature in the middle of some dense foliage. I like that any number of stories of what is actually going on could come out; it’s very open to anyone’s imagination.
Also, working with a round canvas (mugs/vase etc.) is innately narrative – it’s like a never-ending story. The viewer is always turning the piece around to see what happens and where the characters end (but they don’t). The focus and frame is way different than working two dimensionally. The narrative is built into the form itself. Because of this I like to create pieces that have little surprises as they are turned, or stories and creatures that change and morph and turn back into themselves around the piece. It’s neat because to be seen fully the piece has to be turned and held and engaged with.
To me, your black and white aesthetic seems inspired by traditional print-making methods. What was the original inspiration for your style and how has that changed or evolved over time?
I love the sharpness and high-contrast look of traditional print-making, but I think the recognizable aesthetic is mostly born from a similarity in process, specifically working reductively. The way my work started was with sgraffito, where slip is painted on a piece and areas are carved away to the clay underneath to leave the final image – same as wood cuts or linocuts. I’ve changed that to painting on general areas in black and carving in the details with a similar end aesthetic.
For the most part I am learning how to draw through painting on clay, so that has kind of dictated the style. I feel like it is a collaboration between me and my tools – every time I bring a new paint brush or carving tool or colour into the mix it changes and morphs my work and a new evolution of my style emerges. I’ve actually been trying to find ways to translate the style of my pottery onto paper, so have been trying linocuts and ink painting lately – it feels kind of bizarre to not be working just on clay and I’m still trying to get use to it.
How does your sense of place and environment – in particular Vancouver Island – affect your creativity and art practice?
The ceramics community here on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands has made a big impact on me. I feel lucky to be able to learn from and work with ceramic artists who have been making for 40+ years and have shown me such a high calibre of fine craft. On the flip side, the housing crisis and increasing cost of living in Victoria has definitely made it hard to be here as a full time artist. I’ve been renovicted/demovicted from the last two places I was living in, and finding studio space is getting harder and harder. But it’s really pretty and I keep coming back!
What initially drew you to pottery? What motivates you to keep making and sharing your ceramics on a day to day and grander scale?
I did ceramics as a teenager and the first time I touched clay I was like ‘Damn, this is what’s up!’, and that feeling never really went away. I did night classes in clay through my degree, and in my final semester I took a course in ceramics and had a great professor (Cathi Jefferson) who took me under her wing and introduced me to the ceramicists in the area and the broader world histories of ceramics. I was able to see the possibilities in form, surface decoration, firing techniques, function, sculpture, glaze chemistry, etc, and I wanted to explore that.
Finding new ideas and processes still motivates me. Sometimes I’ll change my work a little, like adding some spikes or gold, and it starts feeling new and exciting again. So does people connecting to my work and having their own relationship with it. Social media is interesting because people share stories of using the pieces they’ve gotten from me, and I get a glimpse into how that mug or cup is living its new life. I like that people are using and interacting with the work I am making. It’s wild to think of thousands of my pieces out there in the world being (hopefully) used regularly.
At the same time, I made ceramics my job, and that is a motivating factor financially in needing to continually produce and share my work. I never planned on having a ceramics business, and I have been pretty resistant to some of the back-end stuff.
A common affliction among creative people and, I think especially artists, who make a career out of their passion is reconciling that feeling and artistic freedom with the day to day reality of work. How do you manage those potentially conflicting aspects of art and work? What are the compromises that you make?
The conflict is real! And even though I’m conscious of it and trying, I’m not so sure I always manage those two parts of my practice so well. I love what I do and I love seeing it in the world, but in order to make a living from it I need to do quite a bit of repetitive production of my designs. This can get me down and make me feel locked into the ‘brand’ or style I’ve created, and make me feel like there isn’t space in my market for me to work outside of it. Being in that zone for too long can make me feel totally burnt out. I’m trying to pay attention to that and take time off to do exploratory art residencies and also time off to just recuperate and relax.
In the past couple years I’ve been taking lots of time from my production work and just playing around in different studios and spending some time all over, and it has felt totally refreshing. I was able to dive into ideas that I wouldn’t have given myself the time to explore, and also just recharge emotionally and mentally. Receiving artist grants has also helped me create more space for exploration.
In general I’m trying to find a bit more balance in my life around working in the studio. Working for myself can be really isolating and hard on my body/mental health/relationships because there is always pressure to self-motivate and continually be working. The constant push is very normalized, and I’ve been really trying to take a step back and push back against that idea of productivity.
From what I’ve gathered you’ve done some extensive traveling and continue to pursue unexpected and new sources of knowledge. Where have you been so far?
This past year I was traveling more than usual. It wasn’t entirely pre-planned, but every opportunity seemed to flow into the next. The longest I was in one city was two months, and for most of the year I was in a new place every month. I did residencies in Vancouver, Victoria, and Jingdezhen, China. And I worked out of studios and on projects in Montreal, Nelson, San Pancho and Maui.
Being able to work in Jingdezhen, China was amazing. It flipped most of the things I thought I knew about working with clay and being an artist all around. It was beautiful to be immersed in a city with such a depths of history with porcelain, and an ongoing vibrant ceramic culture. My brain exploded a little with all the new ideas and techniques and I’m still trying to sort through and pull pieces back into my practice here. I’m planning to go back this year to follow up on some ideas I was developing.
Where do you still want to go, and what skills, materials, and/or methods are you most intrigued to learn next?
There are so many other places I would still love to go! I have plans in place for 2020 to do a residency at Medalta and I will be at the KIAC residency in Dawson City. I am also looking into some opportunities in Oaxaca and Berlin. I’d love to continue exploring different forms of surface decoration and also start working on some bigger pieces, installations and tile murals. I just want to keep developing my work and refining my ideas!
Imagine a hundred years into the future that someone is discovering your ceramics for the first time. Without any prior knowledge of you, what do you think your work says about you, and Victoria?
Probably that lots of people were drinking coffee out of handmade cups on the West Coast!