- TRACY MCEWEN & NICHOLAS HALL
"When I was young, I decided when I grew up, I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to live in a funky old house, and I wanted my studio in my home". Tracy McEwen has grown up to be a potter, to live in a funky old house (built in 1880 with a setting to die for); and to have a studio in the basement of her home. The front room of the house she shares with her partner, Nick Hall, at 25 Grove Street, is also a showcase for Tracy's work and for the work she and Nick do together.
"It's the lines in Tracy's designs that resonate with people." Nick tells me as he shows me around, "They're very bold." It is also these lines that make Tracy's pottery unique. The lines are called slip trails, which are common in Europe, but not used much in North America; Slip is a mixture of clay and oxides, and is put on before the first firing. The rest of the stain, or decoration, is put on after the first firing. People are also drawn to Tracy's work because it seems to have aspects of other cultures. Some pieces have a deflnite Mexican look. One family from a village in Italy described Tracy's pottery as "just like home". A man from Lebanon said it was "just like Lebanon".
Tracy has only been on her own for about three years, but her pottery is already all over the world. There is a baby mug in the Arctic circle, a vase in a beachhouse in Bermuda, "tons of stuff" in Australia. A friend of hers told her he saw one of her bowls on "The Vicky Gabereau Show." "It wasn't actually on the show," Tracy says, "it was just a prop." "Yes" Nick agrees "Vicky didn't interview the bowl."
Tracy has a calendar in her studio that depicts a different insect each month. Tracy's newest design is insects. She and Nick wanted a piece of stained glass for their front door, and the friend who was making it said they could do a swap: the stained glass for pottery . . . with spiders on it. Next someone commissioned her to do a piece with bees, then she expanded to dragonflies. People also began asking her for pieces which correctly reproduced the insects . This takes much longer than the cartoon-like ones; "hours and hours", Tracy says. Recently she has been commissioned by a woman to do a mirror with guppies on it, the woman's daughter is getting her Ph.D. in guppies, and another piece with worms on it. "Not an earth worm, a particular type of worm that attaches itself to a particular type of fish". She usually researches the various insects people ask for herself, but "I asked those two commissions to bring me in pictures themselves; that's getting way too specific for me".
Nick is a woodworker and has had a shop on Woolwich Street for 10 years. Originally he did renovations, but decided to branch out when he started getting restless, and wanted more of a challenge. He now custom builds furniture. He shares a shop with six other woodworkers in a kind of co-op: they share not only space but some of them also share their larger tools. This means than an investment to get started is, at least, not prohibitive. Nick renovated The Meridian. He liked this job because he gutted the inside and was given pretty much a free reign. Nick makes all the displays for Tracy's pottery, both for her shows and the smaller displays she has around town. One such display is in Aquarius, behind The Bank of Montreal on Wyndham Street.
Tracy and Nick also do some collaborative work. When I ask him how they started this he replies "It just made sense, we had two mediums going on, what can they do together'?" The dovetailing of their work started about a year or so ago when Nick renovated Tributaries. Nick was looking for something interesting to do with some rather ordinary looking Formica tables. He hit upon the idea of inlaying them with large ceramic dots. Tracy was commissioned to make the salt and pepper shakers, napkin holders and some of the serving bowls, and incorporated the same dot design into them. Their collaboration evolved into making inlaid furniture together. Nick makes and cuts the clay tiles himself; Tracy decorates and fires them, and Nick grouts them into the wood. They also make chess sets together. Nick makes the boards from smaller pieces of recycled wood, an old table leaf for example, that would otherwise just be thrown away. Nick feels that this is a responsible use of resources, especially for woods like padouk, which are tropical and non-renewable. Tracy makes the pottery chess pieces. Tracy is also just beginning another collaboration, making bird baths with a metalworker. She is throwing the bowls and the metal worker is making the bases.
Not surprisingly, there are a few nettles embedded in Tracy's dream life. We discuss the difficulty of trying to sell a high quality product, that has been lovingly handmade, in a world ruled by the Wal-Mart culture. "When I first started, and I sat down after the first couple of years to figure how much money I was actually making, I realized I was just giving things away. I still don't get paid for all my time", she says, "but that's the price you pay for doing something you love." People are sometimes unwilling to pay even the prices that Tracy does ask. Often it is because they are unaware of how complicated and time consuming the process of making pottery is, so she has put together a photo brochure of the process, which she brings to her shows. People are often stunned, and change they their minds about the relative price of Tracy's work. Tracy also pushes herself very hard. She used to work from 10AM to 6PM every day, take about a two hour break to spend some time with her kids, then work again from 8PM to 2AM, get up the next day and do it again. "You just can't keep doing that; you get to the place where you burn out. You just can't work anymore." She still works very long hours, but she is trying to slow down a little and pace herself better.
Tracy has a stall at the Guelph Farmer's Market. She tries to make something new to take every week, and this in itself keeps her quite busy. One person came all the way from Quebec, to go to the market, to buy some of Tracy's work. She wasn't staying for the week-end or visiting anyone; she came only to get her hands on some of Tracy's pottery. Apart from being at the market every week, Tracy does two shows every year. The London Home County Folk Festival in London, which this year is being held July 17-19, and Fair November at the University of Guelph. Nick takes orders for custom furniture, and together they take commissions for their inlaid furniture.
Christine Stodart May 1998