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Peter Powning: A Retrospective/Une rétrospective Excerpt and Virtual Launch

Left: Peter Powning book cover. Right: Artist Peter Powning stands holding his book

Before taking a break for the holidays, we hosted the virtual book launch of Peter Powning: A Retrospective/Une rétrospective with the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. We wanted to share it here for anyone who missed it, along with an excerpt from the book for those who hadn’t. Having ended the launch with a Q and A where Peter was joined by his wife, Beth Powning, we thought a section from the afterword Beth wrote for the book would be a lovely accompaniment to the video. Enjoy!

Signed copies of Peter Powning: A Retrospective/Une rétrospective are still available for purchase and qualify for free shipping within Canada.

In the summer of 1969, newly married and camping our way through Europe on five dollars a day, my husband Peter and I visited the pottery studio of old family friends in Oberammergau. Peter watched potters working in a generations-old studio whose windows overlooked the Bavarian Alps. He saw clay transformed into mugs and bowls, watched dusky-blue tableware emerge from kilns. He threw his first pot.

Back in Connecticut, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day galvanized the environmental movement. New words — ecology, sustainable, organic — entered our vocabulary.

From these experiences, Peter absorbed two lifechanging ideals: making art that would serve a purpose; and living in a way that would not harm the earth.

We visited people pursuing such ideals: the potter Jack Masson, living on a hillside in rural Massachusetts; Ruth Stout, nurturing her hay-mulched organic gardens; Helen and Scott Nearing, “living the good life”; and naturalists Edwin and Nellie Teale, sharing their knowledge of birds, insects, and plants. These were big personalities, strong-minded individualists, writers, gardeners, artists. Restless, inventive, questioning, full of opinions, easily outraged, outspoken, energetic, Peter enrolled at the University of Connecticut and created his own course of study, which included ceramics, welding, and the history of homesteading. Between the art department, the agricultural school, and the newly formed Experimental College, he devised a program guaranteed to grant no qualification other than the skills needed to create a life based on environmentalism and art.

Peter and I came to New Brunswick in May 1970 and bought a farm near Sussex. Peter built his first studio in a converted grain shed. From the outset, the rhythms of country life flowed beside Peter’s art, informing, shaping, and inspiring it. Hands in clay in the morning; hands on axe all afternoon, splitting twelve cords of wood. Fire in the kiln; fire in the kitchen stove. Pebbles adrift in ice; crystals in the matrix of a crystallized glaze. Leaves on winter soil; ghost-leaves in silkscreen. Nature, in those first years, was overwhelmingly present: in the silence of a northern winter; in cold and blizzards; in a ravaging of slugs beneath our mulched garden; in a field of buckwheat, or in swarms of blackflies, houseflies, bats, swallows; in the calling of coyotes; and in the sheer weight of sky. Like the people we had visited, place itself — fields, rivers, forest — now gave Peter inspiration and energy.

In such a life, he learned the value and necessity of community. When it was time to sell his first speckled-brown pots in the early 1970s, Peter joined the New Brunswick Craftsmen’s Council (now Craft NB). In 1985, his arts advocacy began when he served on the Premier’s Advisory Committee on the Arts, precursor to the first New Brunswick Arts Board; he served as the board’s first vice-president. In this process of both joining and forming organizations to support artists, he realized the need for activism. Like his experimentation with materials — clay, bronze, glass, stone, paper — he was not content with the status quo but, rather, sought support for artists. Art, he felt, was as essential to a vibrant community as the health of the environment was to life.

“Afterword” copyright © 2020 by Beth Powning from Peter Powning: A Retrospective/Une rétrospective, edited by John Leroux.

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