Sylvia McGourlick doesn’t have a sign up in front of her pottery studio.
She doesn’t advertise her work in newspapers, or pump her products on various Facebook pages, or try to get into art brochures and leaflets at galleries and shows.
She doesn’t even have a website.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to sell her pots and bowls and oil bottles and serving dishes. It’s that she’s too busy to keep up with the demand already, so she can’t take any more business.
And McGourlick is one of the lucky ones in the art world, in that she’s not a potter because she needs to make a living at it. Yes, she’s a potter by trade, but she doesn’t do it because she needs to. She does it because she wants to.
McGourlick was first introduced to pottery – or rather “ceramics” – in the 1970s, when her husband got a job in Haida Gwaii (then the Queen Charlotte Islands) at a logging camp.
“When you’re in a logging camp, there is not a lot to do for the women and kids,” McGourlick says. “But the company was really good, and tried to make sure there were things for the wives to do, because I guess they understood the old cliché, ‘Happy wife, happy life,’” she laughs.
There was a “ceramics” room at the camp, as it was a popular passtime of the day – “it was like scrapbooking is now,” McGourlick says – and she just started playing with clay. There was no opportunity to actually learn how, but it was fun to just mess around with the materials.
In 2000, when her husband was transferred to Campbell River, she was still having fun “playing” with clay, but was suddenly in a place where she could actually formally learn some techniques – or get the fundamentals she still didn’t have.
So she took an introduction to pottery course at North Island College (NIC).
“That’s when it really blew up, you could say.”
After some time working in the ceramics department at NIC – “when you register for a course you can go into their studio anytime,” she beams, “so there were days I was in there from nine in the morning to nine at night” – she realized it’s what she needed to be doing and took the plunge, making a studio in the room in their house that was meant for a hot tub.
“It’s great in here,” she says, smiling around at the shelves full of pots and bowls in various states of completion. “So much natural light.”
And so for the last 15 or so years, she’s been playing away in her studio, developing her own style, which turns out is a style other people like, as well – so much so that she actually has to keep herself from working as much as she could.
She goes into the studio three days a week, she says, for anywhere from four to six hours per day.
And that’s enough for her.
“I need to make things I like,” she says. “People have asked me to make special orders, but it was either way out there or didn’t make sense to me. I’m pretty lucky that I make what I like, and it turns out that other people seem to like it, too. I do pretty well.”
She doesn’t want to take on more work, because she likes having time to play with other mediums, explore other ideas in her work other than what will sell on the market, and do the other things she doesn’t see as “work.”
“In the summer, I like to turn my attention to my garden,” she says, “and I want to have time to do my stained glass, or my knitting, or my quilting, or just play with my clay, like I used to.”
And she thinks her other artistic and creative dabblings make her a better potter.
When she works with stained glass, she’s exploring colour and pattern, for example. When she explores other artistic facets of her life, she learns things she can incorporate back into her pottery work. When she was learning to paint, for example, some of her pottery work started having little birds on it.
“I enjoy the process of learning new things and trying new things,” she says, “but I always end up back at the wheel throwing clay.”
McGourlick is part of a pottery collective in the Comox Valley called The Potters Place, and while she’s happy to be a part of such a supportive and inspiring group of like-minded artists who have a place to gather and practice their art, and she encourages everyone to support local artisans and vendors – she does certainly tries to.
“Even when I’m in Vancouver at Northern Reflections or something, and I see something I like, I wait and buy it when I get back here.”
She also donates work to various charity causes, like the annual Potters’ Chilli Bowls event where for $15, the public can get a bowl of chilli in a local potters’ work, keep the bowl and know that all proceeds go to You Are Not Alone, an organization which helps families who need to travel to access medical treatment for their children.
So what would she say to someone thinking about getting into pottery?
“I would just say go for it,” she says enthusiastically. Despite there not being a huge market for pottery, she would like to see more people practicing the art. Pottery is so personal – people like what they like – she doesn’t feel more potters take market share away from others.
Some styles of pottery sell better in different places, after all. McGourlick says she knows one local potter whose work simply doesn’t sell in this area, but flies off the table when she sets up a booth at a show on Granville Island, for example.
“With art, there’s no right or wrong, it’s just a matter of finding a market for the work that you want to make.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Check out The Potters Place on Fifth Street in Courtenay the next time you’re down that way or head over to thepottersplace.ca if you’re not familiar with McGourlick’s work.
Or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch directly.
I’d tell you to just drop by her studio, but there’s a reason she doesn’t have a sign out front, remember?
As busy as she wants to be, anyway.