An Alchemy of Ideas and Ideals

One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

By Steven Ross Smith

Potter Mel Bolen seems to have led his life by finding something in his path and picking it up to see where it takes him. He grew up in Regina, in a house without art, and had no art training in his early school years. As a young man, in the 1960s, Bolen was in Engineering studies at the University of Regina. As an elective subject he's picked up Pottery, and when Engineering lost his attention, Pottery held it. Following that attention led him to an almost forty year career and to becoming one of Saskatchewan's finest potters and ceramic artists. It's also taken him to a distinctive home and studio environment in the Carmel Hills about an hour east of Saskatoon. Here he works, in his words, as a “potter or vessel maker.”

Bolen's work with clay takes two directions — functional and sculptural. The functional items are dishes, bowls, cups, wine goblets, teapots and even sinks. These pieces are elegant and complexly decorated and glazed. The pieces are then 'cooked' in a traditional high-fire kiln to set the clay and glaze. A distinctive feature is the gold trim that often appears on edges and rims. But Bolen says he's moving away from gold trim these days. It's labour intensive, creates fumes, requires fine brushwork under a magnifying glass and takes a second firing.

The sculptural pieces are varied, but include vessels — urns and vases — sometimes slouchy or quirky, sometimes with odd forms emerging from their surfaces – fish, for example. These pieces are often finished with what's known as 'salt-firing', a technique that originated in Germany in the fifteenth century. Salt – table salt or water softener salt, a few pounds per firing, at high temperatures – is put into the kiln along with the clay pieces. During the firing, a chemical reaction occurs with the clay which results in a hard, durable, attractive glaze. Sometimes the result is a pocked surface, known as 'orange-peal stipple'.

There's an element of alchemy in glazing and firing clay, a complex science learned by practice and refined by experience. Mel gained valuable knowledge from his first University of Regina instructor and acknowledged mentor, Jack Sures.

In 1972, when Bolen himself was leading pottery classes at U. of R., serendipity played a hand. A class participant, Dick Welsh, began to ask Mel technical questions he couldn't answer. Bolen was surprised to discover that Welsh was one of only two ceramic engineers in Canada. This accounted for the hard questions. Soon Welsh and Bolen began to work together to design and build a kiln. Since then Mel has built about ten more, including the two he uses today in his rural studio.

Mel Bolen's studio and home is a work of art unto itself. It is a former Roman Catholic church built in 1926 and situated on a five acre height of land about twenty kilometres southwest of Humboldt. When he saw it in 1974 – a windowless, neglected building perched on a barren hump – Bolen saw potential, and wrote a cheque. Then the work began.

By his own sweat and with the help of friends, neighbours, fellow artists, his wife Karen Holden, and the use of recycled materials wherever possible, the church began a transformation which lasted several years. “We started as pioneers,” says Bolen. “We didn't have running water for three years.”

And they called on local resources. “My neighbours, mostly farmers, have been great teachers,” says Bolen. Bob Saretsky, whose various relatives farm much of the surrounding land says, “Mel and Karen haven't isolated themselves from the community. They've adapted themselves to the local culture. I've seen Mel helping out by driving a neighbour's grain truck.”

“We've butchered chickens with the neighbours,” says Mel. “And medicated ostriches,” adds Karen.

Recently, when Mel and Karen decided for the first time not to do their own building maintenance, they hired a contractor who lives just a few miles up the road.

The church houses a distinctive three-and-a-half story home, studio and gallery, with stained glass windows, balconies, two kilns and more. The large studio takes up most of the ground floor, providing lots of room for Mel's clay work and Karen's painting. The sign by the road says North Star Pottery.

While they've learned much from their neighbours, the neighbours have learned from them, about the life and work of people dedicated to art and craft.

And dedication is a word unquestionably applicable to Bolen. When asked how many pieces he's created in thirty-five years, he surprises himself by calculating the number at over sixty thousand. These have been produced in over three hundred firings, or about nine a year. And each firing of the kiln bakes one hundred and fifty to two hundred pieces.

Before the pieces even get to the kiln, they have to be conceived of, thrown (shaped on a potter's wheel), or assembled and moulded some other way. They are glazed, then decorated using stains and oxides. Then they are fired for twenty hours to thirteen hundred centigrade degrees.

A kiln for firing clay is, according to Bolen, a “wild child”. The potter applies knowledge gained from experience regarding the temperature, duration, and materials added to the kiln. Still, results can be unpredictable. The unexpected may appear in colours, patterns, or glaze. And some pieces may change shape, or come out damaged. But Bolen loves the element of the unknown, and resultant surprise.

Another kind of surprise can come after a long thinking period, when Bolen has ample time to “doodle, and follow a tangent”. This is a kind of research and development phase spent imagining and sketching. Sometimes these design periods are subsidized by grants, and the time 'purchased' can spawn new ideas and challenges. The products of these phases are most often sculptural pieces, for example, a series of mottled, slumped vases, or large urns in blues or earthy tones with scored surfaces and bone legs, or Mel's newest tangent — shaped slab pieces.

But whether it's with functional or sculptural pieces, Bolen considers himself a decorator. “I love the decorated surface,” he says. His shapes are pleasing and eye-catching, and the coloured and patterned surfaces of his work enhance their distinctiveness. He speaks of the “sanctity of each piece”, and one senses that he searches for this. Inherent in the quality of his vessels is a grace, born out of a love of the materials, and exhibited through a piece's individuality.

Bolen's work has sold successfully throughout the province, through retail craft stores, and fairs like Bazaart and Artisan. Now, more and more sales are happening from the studio. One event that helps these sales is an annual Mother's Day open house and sale that Karen and Mel host. The upcoming one is May 10 and 11, 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. This includes demonstrations and a gallery show of Bolen's new salt pieces and Karen's portrait paintings.

Bolen's work has also been exhibited in galleries in Canada and the USA on more than seventy occasions. Even with many sales and exhibitions, for Mel, as for most craftspeople, the financial return is modest. But the satisfaction level is high.

The care and attention Bolen gives his work has spread beyond the studio to the surrounding land. In recent years, Mel and Karen have purchased two pieces of land, just over 200 acres, adjoining their homestead. They've done this out of a desire to preserve the land in a natural state. “We're custodians. With land ownership comes responsibility,” says Bolen.

He estimates that they've planted 10,000 native trees on their properties as shelterbelts and to replace trees cleared previously for crop farming. Mel initially grew cereal crops on the fifty acre parcel. The first year, in 1997, he harrowed using a 1939 9N tractor. “Lots of people stopped and stared,” Bolen recalls. Now that land is in forage and free from chemicals.

On the quarter section Mel and Karen are maintaining a farmhouse and a hip-roofed barn, (which is also Karen's summer painting studio) keeping it as a retreat for individual artists and artist's workshops. “Without this added land,” says Bolen, “life would have been simpler, but now it is richer.”

What seems to guide them is a wish for a fulfilling quality of life, and a wise use of time. For Karen and Mel days unfold organically, with time for work at pottery and painting, time to walk or ski, to read a book, or just to sit and contemplate the silence. It seems idyllic.

“There was never a plan,” Bolen says. “It was always a romantic ideal. We sometimes wonder how we've been so lucky in achieving this ideal.” But it's more than luck. Out of a respect for earth's materials, for creativity and community, Mel Bolen and Karen Holden have created a magical alchemy in the Carmel Hills.

Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, and reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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