Jack Olive, Potter
Once upon a time, in a lifestyle far away, Jack Olive applied his degrees in math and chemistry to a mainstream job as a research chemist in an Oregon laboratory.
“While I was working there, I found myself more interested in the art courses I was taking in my spare time,” he says.
Deciding that a biochemistry degree might lead to a more interesting career, he applied and was accepted into a postgraduate program at his alma mater, Minnesota’s Moorehead College. When he discovered on arrival that the course had been cancelled, Jack took a sharp right-brain career turn, and enrolled in a graphic design program instead. “And when the ceramics instructor called out the door of the pottery studio that he now had an opening for me, I found my life’s work,” Jack says.
In 1971 Jack Olive moved to Vancouver with his young family and become a founding member and director of the Vancouver Clayworks Society, a cooperative ceramics studio launched with an Opportunities for Youth grant.
Here, he began applying scientific left-brain logic to right-brain artistic design – figuring out how to stretch images around a curved surface to create a “peripheral view” effect He discovered that rich, layered ceramic glazes are particularly useful in creating a sense of depth in design.
This discovery led to his distinctive multi-glazing technique and its unique look.
The multi-glazing – and the multiple firings required to set each glaze – required specially formulated materials that would also respond to the lower, energy-saving temperatures at which Jack fires. “No one else fires at the cone 1 temperatures,” he says, so configuring his own clay and glazes was necessary. Here, the left-brain analytical scientist melded with the right-brain artist, and resulted in development of fine-bodied stoneware and tight-fitting glazes used to create durable, useful works of art that are dishwasher- and microwave-safe.
Many of the subdued, semi-impressionist images that adorn Jack’s pottery have an oriental quality that may owe much to the quiet, solitary and contemplative way of life he has chosen. It is, he says, “a very solitary occupation.” Even in a shared studio, the potter works in his or her own creative bubble. Even when undertaking joint projects with his children (both graduates of Langara College’s ceramics program); each carries out their tasks in a certain solitude.
Each of the potter’s various tasks in the chain to a finished product has a particular appeal (or lack of it). For Jack Olive, “Glazing is labour.” Considering how many layers of glaze go onto each piece, this attitude is understandable. But he finds the creative process of throwing pots on the wheel relaxing, and it’s his favourite part of the job. “It’s almost like a meditation,” he says. “The general format of building on the wheel is kind of like music – with a limited number of notes, but infinite variations.”
A selection of teapots illustrates this perfectly. Voluptuously curved, tall, squat, some with rustic apple-wood twig handles, they sit gleaming on a workbench. “Whenever I prune the apple trees, I keep and bend the twigs for teapot handles,” he said – pointing out a rack full of apple-twig loops awaiting their pots.
“I only do about 20 teapots a year – they have a mystique. But they are probably the most labour-intensive, and I have to charge accordingly – somewhere in the $65 to $85 range.”
Recently, Jack has explored the techniques and possibilities of raku. Named for the Japanese family that discovered the process (and still continues its tradition 15 generations later), traditional raku technique applies glaze to a pre-fired – or bisque – item, which is then kiln-fired just to the point where the glaze melts. The pot is then immediately removed red-hot from the kiln with metal tongs and placed in a bed of some flammable material (sawdust, dried leaves etc.). The pot’s extreme heat ignites the material and a lid is quickly placed over this “smoking chamber” to reduce oxygen for the fire. The resulting thick smoke in the chamber produces a distinctive hazing, crazing and/or colour-altering effect on the glaze which is “frozen” by quick cooling with water.
Jack has also been using “naked raku” techniques, which result in a pot that is white with a black line image. A dry pot is covered with terra sigliata (liquid clay), fired once to bisque temperature, then covered with a high-fire clay slip and a low fire glaze, through which he etches the design. The piece is then fired to raku temperatures, and placed into the smoking chamber. When the piece is cooled, he peels off the slip and glaze to reveal the black line on the white background. The resulting pots have a lighter, more textured quality than his traditional stoneware.
“The problem with raku is that even more so than most pottery, it is very labour-intensive,” says Jack. But the intricacies and experimenting of the process is more personally satisfying. He says simply, “I like the results.”
The results will be on view and on sale at Jack’s Studio Sale, to be held at his Grantham’s Landing home studio over the July long weekend. Watch for the sign on Marine Drive, or call him at 604.816.1110 for details or to arrange a studio visit.
Galleries from Vancouver to Halifax carry Jack Olive’s work, which is also listed on ArtExchange.com, a website catering to architects and interior designers. It is available locally at Gift of the Eagle, Gibsons Public Art Gallery, the Art Barn in Roberts Creek, and Windsong Gallery in Sechelt.