Article by Judy Donnelly

H
istorians have observed that pottery is one of humankind’s oldest manifestations of graphic design. Strong, beautiful, often simple lines and shapes, painted and carved onto pots of all types, have for thousands of years told stories, denoted tribal allegiances and religious beliefs, and communicated ideas, transforming useful vessels into beautiful objects, often with a message.


Two Canadian ceramicists have carried on this tradition through a collaboration that began with a visit to an abandoned pottery factory.

Kate Hyde and Thomas Aitken have worked together since graduating from the Masters program in Ceramics at the
University of Wales Institute in Cardiff in 1996, more recently making their home in Warsaw, Ontario. For many years, Aitken has focused on producing aesthetically pleasing, skillfully-executed housewares, notably dinner sets, while Hyde concentrated on porcelain sculpture, influenced by her interest in textiles, and on drawings inspired by clothing and the human form.

Their creative collaboration began in
earnest in 2005 while they were artists-inresidence
at the Medicine Hat Clay
Industries National Historic Site in
Alberta. In the early twentieth century,
this area was a major source of ceramics,
pottery, brick, and clay sewage pipes for
all of Canada. When these industries
gradually closed, the district’s historical
significance was recognized, particularly
that of one manufacturer, Medalta, which
operated from 1915 to 1954 and was the
largest manufacturer of household
crockery and hotelware in Canada. Its
colourful, sturdy dinner sets, crocks,
bowls, vases, lamps, pitchers and
advertising pieces found their way into
homes and commercial kitchens across
the country, to the extent that Medalta
pottery is now regarded as an intrinsic
part of Canadian iconography, with
continued popularity on eBay and at
collectibles fairs. Today, the Medalta
factory itself is at the centre of the historic
site serving as an industrial museum and
as a thriving centre for contemporary
ceramic artists, and where Retro Medalta
pottery is made and sold.

When Aitken and Hyde went to
Alberta, however, the site had not yet been
refurbished, and evidence of the plant’s
overnight closure was still in place: the
factory was as if frozen in time, with
equipment, tools—even workers’ shoes—
still in place. Spending time in this
environment had a profound impact on
Kate Hyde and, after looking at a reproduction
of a Medalta catalogue, she began to
draw on pottery that Aitken had made,
creating a body of work that has informed
their collaborations since that time,
creating an ongoing contribution to the
intersection of graphic arts and ceramics.

This joint endeavour is perfectly
captured in the form of a bean pot tribute
to Medalta, made in 2006 and exhibited in
“On the Table: 100 Years of Functional
Ceramics” at the Gardiner Museum in
2007. This piece showcases Aitken’s skills
at producing functional pottery with
clean lines and a strong sense of form, and
Hyde’s artistry. While they describe the
imagery on many other collaborative
pieces as “whimsical” and evocative of
such variant artforms as Harlequinade,
medieval frescoes, poetry and textiles, the
history of ceramics is also a recurring
theme in their work. For Hyde and
Aitken, Medalta has taken on both the
wider meaning of its cultural importance
to Canadians and the personal significance
of the time these two artisans spent in the
dusty factory that led them to their
unique collaboration, so it is not surprising
that they would choose to honour
Medalta with this piece.

The shape of this ‘lowly’ beanpot is
elegant but practical, the decorative
lettering and imagery delightfully
self-referential: drawings of a bean pot on
a bean pot, labelled “BEAN POT.” And in
respectful but playful fashion, the
historical company’s name—“MEDALTA
POTTERY”—has left its usual, quiet place
on the bottom of a piece and now
dominates this commemorative object,
one of about five similar pots created by
Aitken and Hyde. The larger lettering—
shaded and serifed, or solid black—emulates
type, whereas the numbers and
smaller words such as “pint,” “quart,” and
“individual” that snake their way through
the larger words and drawings are
executed in a simple, almost child-like,
lower-case script. These words were taken
from descriptions of wares in the Medalta
catalogues with the result that some
phrases (not visible in this photograph)
were “quite flowery,” as Hyde recounts.
She was interested in the way words
change meaning over the years as this
added another dimension to the
decoration of the pot. “Sometimes the
meaning of the sentence/word might
affect how it is used to emphasis the
meaning visually … I used the illustration
of pots as a hook, and the writing tied the
design together.”

“We wanted to make useful pots,
[inspired by] a place and time, but
united with utility,” Hyde says, adding
that their work is strongly inspired by
Aitken’s keen interest in the era when
the Medalta factory flourished, and
Alberta was developing its own “make it
happen” identity.
With their distinctive use of line and
colour on this bean pot, Aitken and Hyde
have succeeded in what Aitken describes
as a celebration of “the functional object,
its history and associations,” that is both a
highly usable cooking vessel and a
conversation piece, telling the old story of
its historical beginnings, and the newer
story of the complementary skills and
artistic odyssey of its two creators.

Image: Thomas Aitken and Kate Hyde, Bean Pot, 2006
Porcelain, wheel thrown and hand painted
17.17 x 30cm
Photograph: Courtesy of Gardiner Museum