Chance Elements: On Wayne Ngan (1937-2020)

In his former studio, Wayne Ngan, 1983. Photo: Robert Minden.

Six years ago, while browsing in Nanaimo, British Columbia’s Value Village, a black vase with gold highlights caught my attention from across two aisles. Even though I had only seen a few examples of Wayne Ngan’s work in person, I knew immediately that it was his. I rushed over to discover that this pot had lived well. An original firing crack extended up the side from the foot, and another more recent crack that sheared off a quarter of its lip had been lovingly restored. These imperfections explained why the vase might have been left behind by bargain hunters, but they also spoke to the way the vitality of a good pot shines through. The price tag said $5.99, but that vase gave me an invaluable lesson about the depth and resonance possible in a piece of pottery, and I continue to learn from it.

I returned home, clutching the stoneware in my hands, and pulled out the catalogue for Thrown, the 2004 exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery that highlighted the works of BC potters who apprenticed with Bernard Leach, as well as their contemporaries like Ngan. I read that the round seal on the side of the pot’s foot was from one of two soapstone stamps made for Ngan by a Chinese painter in the ‘60s. I estimated that the pot was made in the early ‘70s, after Ngan and his family had moved to Hornby Island and built a home and studio overlooking the ocean. That Island remained Ngan’s home for the next fifty years until he died there on June 12, 2020, at the age of 83.

At Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, 2013. Photo: Goya Ngan.

Ngan was already a celebrated potter by the time he moved to the island in 1967, but his new environment catalyzed a period of experimentation and growth. Hornby is renowned for its distinct topography of craggy bluffs, erratic boulders, and undulating sandstone formations edged by wind-torqued coastal arbutus and Garry oak trees. Ngan was deeply influenced by the energy of this landscape, which he manifested in the forms and on the surfaces of his pots. These surroundings also made it possible for Ngan’s life and work to become completely integrated – the island’s rural zoning allowed him to experiment with improvised architecture and high-fired kilns in a way that would never have been allowed in a city.

Ngan’s first kilns on Hornby were often provisional and prone to contingencies. Even the gold blushes on my vase that I had originally seen as intentional highlights were in fact chance elements caused by the intense heat and variable atmosphere of his oil-fired kiln.

Sometimes these irregularities were embraced and encouraged, as with his raku kiln, which was made from an oil barrel on a platform of fire brick and set up on a pulley system weighted with an old car-tire-rim full of scrap metal. This allowed Ngan to single-handedly remove the pots, red hot, and place them in a metal garbage can full of grasses or other natural materials, trapping carbon in the glaze and encouraging variations in tone and color. The sharp temperature changes made for a high attrition rate, but Ngan’s successful raku pots carry an astonishing beauty. His other kilns left less to chance but were more vulnerable to disaster. When I first met Ngan, two years after I found his vase, he showed me a single brown cup with a crack from a falling brick when his original 1970 salt-glaze kiln collapsed during its first firing. The cup was the only survivor. But Ngan persevered, and his second salt kiln produced many stunning pots in luminous cobalt or black with the pleasing orange peel-like texture.

Wayne Ngan, three raku pots, 1970s, Diane Carr Collection. Photo by Sean Fenzl, courtesy of Nanaimo Art Gallery

Ngan was accustomed to perseverance. When he emigrated from Canton, China to Richmond, BC, as a teenager in 1951, he arrived into life in a run-down boarding house with his hard-living grandfather, and a society rife with anti-Chinese prejudice. Yet he found his way to art and put himself through the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University) by working nights in a shingle mill, graduating with honors. One fellow artist he connected with early on was German-born potter Heinz Laffin. In 1963 the two of them opened a studio together in Vancouver, and four years later they both moved to Hornby Island to build their dream work and living spaces, each supporting the other through their transition to rural life.

When I visited Hornby in 2016, Ngan was living in his second home and studio set on a cliff above the ocean, just down the street from Laffin’s place. I was working on the Nanaimo Art Gallery exhibition Trusses, which considered how architecture functions in dialogue with other art practices, and featured ceramic works by both Wayne Ngan and his daughter Gailan Ngan, among others. Pottery and architecture have long shared affinities, not only through their relationship to inhabitation, but also in the fusing of aesthetics and use. Ngan and his family molded their built environment around their lives and work. I was so grateful to Gailan, her sister Goya Ngan, and their mom, painter and weaver Anne Ngan, for showing me their first beautiful island home, where Anne still lives. They constructed it by hand in 1969, starting with two repurposed chicken coops and expanding from there with plaster, driftwood, salvaged materials, and a green roof of moss, grasses, and wildflowers that is now 50 years old. As Anne noted in in an article published in Architectural Digest, in 1978, “Houses are like clothes when they are built by the family using the house, they keep changing as they wear it – elastic.”

Wayne Ngan’s first studio built in 1969. Photo taken by the author in 2016.

Ngan also used found materials to build his first pottery studio and kiln shed. He worked with experimental designer and builder Lloyd House, who is responsible for a number of celebrated Gulf Island buildings. They made the kiln shed roof out of a spiral of hammered-out car fenders and chose a perfect piece of driftwood to form an arch over the studio door. Perhaps the most considered natural element was the light, which streamed in from organically-positioned windows and skylights. These structures where Ngan lived and worked were indivisible from his practice as a potter – like the buildings, his pots were born through a sensitivity to circumstance and an openness to chance. The pots he made in the ‘70s and early ‘80s possessed a softness reminiscent of his first studio of undulating wood, plaster, and recycled glass. His later pots are more angular and precise, much like the second airy and elegant West Coast modern-style home and studio he built in the mid-‘80s. However, Ngan couldn’t stay away from experimenting with kilns, and, with a Canada Council grant he received in 1984, he built a huge Sung dynasty-inspired, wood-fired kiln inside his second studio.

Ngan often drew inspiration from nature, at first obliquely and then later in his career with increasing directness. As he led me around his space in 2016, he picked up a seed pod and held it next to a recent pot: the forms were similar, but what really struck me was that the color of the glaze and texture were an exact match. At 79, here was a master craftsperson still at the height of his abilities.

Bouquet in Wayne Ngan stoneware vase, early 1970s. Photo and collection of the author.

Ngan was strongly influenced by traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese pottery, but he also forged a distant-yet-deep connection with the work and life of 20th-century Japanese potter Shoji Hamada (1894-1978). Hamada is often associated with the Japanese folk-craft movement Mingei, and Ngan shared Hamada’s dedication to the embodied and intuitive brushwork associated with traditional folk pottery. While some North American potters believed that following this tradition meant that pots should be sold as inexpensively as possible so that they could speak to their fullest potential though humble everyday use, Ngan made his pots to be used – though he also felt they should be sold for what the market would bear.

Ngan believed in the value of his pottery and his labor, and he had no reservations about his pots being sold through commercial galleries, as well as from his home studio and elsewhere. But pots are always at risk of being radically undervalued in the wrong context. The sheer volume of Ngan’s output made it inevitable that pots like the vase I found would make their way to estate sales and thrift stores. As we were deciding on what works from his personal collection to exhibit at Nanaimo Art Gallery, he told me the story of how he had found one of his own pots, an absolutely stunning cobalt raku piece from 1973, stuffed full of potpourri and shoved on the bottom shelf of a Value Village. When I picked it up from his coffee table to look at it more carefully, I noticed that Ngan had left the store’s $9.99 price tag on. We chose that pot for the show.

Wayne Ngan, hakame teapot, 1974, Diane Carr Collection. Photo by the author, courtesy of Nanaimo Art Gallery

While Ngan’s pots were always valued by curators and collectors, they weren’t only created for display. His bowls, jars, and vases were made to be used – no matter how sculptural they became. For Ngan, the use-value associated with pottery was not a deficiency, but rather an asset, linking 20,000 years of material and cultural history. Ngan’s interest in this history never diminished. Even at 80, he made special trips to the Emily Carr University library to look at pictures of 16,000-year-old Jomon pottery. As Doris Shadbolt articulated in a 1978 catalogue essay for an exhibition of his pottery at the Vancouver Art Gallery, potters “set out to create something as old as the human spirit, yet something that did not exist before.”

Through his singular perspective and technical mastery, Ngan channeled all of his influences into some of the best pots ever made in Canada. He received numerous accolades including the Saidye Bronfman Award for Masters of the Crafts, and his pots are in the country’s best museum collections. But equally important are his works that exist in the personal collections of those who visited his studio on a summer camping trip, or received a set of cups as a wedding present. The intimate way that we experience vessels – hand on foot, hand on belly, mouth on lip –  is one of the key reasons handmade pottery is still valued in the face of mass production.

Wayne Ngan tea bowl, late 1990s. Photo and collection of the author.

As I write this I am drinking tea from a Wayne Ngan cup made in 1998. Its foot has four small crescents where the glaze was blocked by three fingers and a thumb as he dipped the cup. But I can also feel the artist’s touch in the cup’s perfect balance, and the resonant materials used in the glaze: slip made from clay sourced from BC’s lower mainland, and a glaze made of apple wood ash with a touch of robin’s egg blue stain brushed on in a timeless design. All of these elements speak to me while I sit with this cup.

We have lost a great artist. And yet, those of us who are lucky enough to live with his pots engage in quiet conversation with him every day.

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