MARGARET MACPHERSON

Forged in Fire

Medicine Hat pulls its legacy out of the ashes

By Margaret MacPherson

Artists from around the world come to a land of rattlesnakes and sun-baked clay. The backdrop for their ultramodern studio space is a century-old pottery factory, slung low between buttes and filled with ghosts. Each one of these artists, ceramicists all, leaves the city of Medicine Hat acknowledging the shoulders on which they stand, revitalized and inspired.

“Ceramicists appreciate what we have,” says resident artist Les Manning, casting his eyes proprietarily around the $1.5-million International Shaw Centre for Contemporary Ceramics, which opened on the Medalta Potteries National Historic Site last summer. “They see the old machinery, the photographs and they recognize their inherited history. Because of what has been preserved, they see themselves as part of a continuum, the keepers and extenders of the faith.” 

Manning, vice-president of the International Academy of Ceramics and himself a world-class ceramicist, has worked as a volunteer in Medicine Hat for the past eight years to see this studio populated by clay artists from around the globe. At Medalta, the past informs the future. “People who worked here 100 years ago had a quota to fill every day,” says Manning. “The job of our visiting residents is to master their own creative urge.”

If Manning sounds humbled by the weight of history, he comes by it honestly. He is one of a handful of Albertans instrumental in transforming a crumbling factory on the parched southeastern prairie into an internationally recognized hub for ceramic culture.

For almost a half century, the abandoned Medalta Potteries factory was considered a Medicine Hat eyesore, a derelict series of buildings with bizarre beehive kilns protruding from collapsed walls like brick igloos strung together with noxious weeds. Shunted to the shoulder of the road, on the wrong side of the tracks, in an area locals call the Flats, the Medalta factory could easily be avoided unless an evening at the Top Hat Bingo Hall was in the cards, or some unwanted item had to be hauled to the dump. 

A worker trimming a teapot in the revitalized facility.

A worker trimming a teapot in the revitalized facility. (Photos Courtesy of Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District)

Today, one would be hard pressed to wander the exhibition space of the restored plant and not overhear a delighted, slightly nostalgic voice exclaim: “Oh, my grandmother had one of those! I remember…” Or, across the way, in Manning’s beloved Shaw Centre, to witness a child at the clay table, meticulously recreating a clumsy crock after being mesmerized by wet clay leaping from a demonstrator’s fingers. This is a renaissance, a phoenix-out-of-the-ashes revival of a bygone era and a provincial triumph in urban renewal.

The clay under the nails of those on-site elementary students is their legacy. In 1920 the Medicine Hat clay district, and Medalta Potteries specifically, produced 75 per cent of all Canadian stoneware. A substantial clay belt and an abundance of the natural gas needed to fire kilns provoked writer Rudyard Kipling to call turn-of-the-century Medicine Hat “a city with all hell for a basement.”

The famed white-glove service of both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways featured the signature chunky Medalta pieces in all dining cars, and Canada’s landmark hotels—from Fredericton’s Lord Beaverbrook to Alberta’s own grande dames, the Macdonald and the Palliser—served prime ministers and prairie homesteaders alike using dishes manufactured by hand and fired en masse in southeastern Alberta.

Legacy, history, Alberta’s connection to its past—these have not been songs sung loud or long in this province, and when they have been voiced—shored up by words like preservation, heritage, conservation—they have often fallen on deaf ears. 

Lorne Simpson, one of Alberta’s only accredited conservation architects, claims that only in the past 10 years has this province matured sufficiently to realize the importance of its own history. “Alberta society has finally got past ‘let’s tear stuff down, it’s all about progress,’” states one of the men who played a pivotal role in Medalta’s revival. “We’ve finally started to recognize that we shouldn’t be destroying everything in our way.”

For decades an ancient cottonwood sprawled on the Medalta property, annually shedding its seed clouds on the ruined site. It was under that tree, 35 years ago, that two artists, dreaming out loud, hatched a plan to reconnect the community of Medicine Hat with the place that built Medicine Hat—the sad-sack, ramshackle buildings before them. Jim Marshall was one of those men.

“It was an amazing thing to see,” recalls Marshall, who remembers entering the abandoned buildings in the early 1970s with University of Alberta ceramics expert and researcher Jack Forbes. “The site had been abused and some of the machinery had been stolen. Despite thievery, despite dirt and dishevelment, the place was incredibly intact. We saw ancient machinery with the sweaters and aprons of the workers still hanging on the pegs.” 

Now a sprightly 71 years old, Marshall’s neat appearance and precise gestures betray his creative leaning toward pen and ink drawing. Ask him, and he’s quick to tell you his passion is exact renderings of historic buildings. However, eyes that glow in recollection turn steely in a split second when recounting his 30-year struggle with Medicine Hat’s city fathers and a host of provincial bureaucrats who refused to see the Medalta Potteries site as anything more than a blight on the landscape. 

Marshall’s co-conspirator in those early days was the formidable Forbes, who was visiting Medicine Hat to research pottery production for his upcoming book, Pottery in Alberta: The Long Tradition. 

Under that cottonwood tree, all those years ago, both men dreamed large. What for city politicians was 150 acres of public embarrassment was for two history buffs and artists an uncanny glimpse into an almost perfectly preserved past, the beginnings of a living museum, an absolutely authentic venue for rare artifacts that would speak to future generations about Medicine Hat’s humble beginnings. 

Not satisfied with Medalta simply being a chapter in Forbes’s book, both men amassed information on living museums and slowly enticed others to share their vision. One of their global supporters was Neil Cossons, whose brainchild was Ironbridge Gorge, the birthplace of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

“We dreamed of uniting industrial sites around the world,” reminisces Marshall. “We knew with Medalta we had something unique. We also knew we had the ear of people who cared about history.”

What Forbes and Marshall didn’t have was the support of local politicians: none were willing to back a restoration plan. Despite being designated a historic site in 1986 by Alberta Tourism Minister Horst Schmid, and despite being next on the list following the preservation and interpretation of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and the Tyrrell Museum, the Medalta restoration project was effectively stonewalled at home.

In 1920, Medalta Potteries produced 75 per cent of all Canadian stoneware.

“It was difficult to sell our vision of preservation, programming and public education,” concedes Marshall. “We couldn’t sell it to our MLA, we couldn’t sell it to our city council, and without the blessing of the city fathers, we couldn’t access the funding we needed. They just didn’t see the derelict property the same way we did.”

The dream of a living historic site quickly turned into a battle of wills. By the mid-1980s Marshall was self-employed, his ceramics having morphed into a unique art form: the sculpting of enormous brick murals. Forbes was back and forth between Medicine Hat and his U of A office. While both men attempted to keep pressure on local politicians, Marshall was the guy on the ground. He became the “fisticuffs” of the project, fully supported by Forbes’s technical smarts and a group of city activists united under the banner The Friends of Medalta Society. 

However, like all battles, getting support for the preservation of Medicine Hat’s historic clay district came with a cost. Government art commissions, it seems, do not flow the way of someone fighting tooth and nail for a revitalization plan that Conservative stalwarts dub a crackpot scheme.  

“The personal cost was fairly high,” said Marshall, with no hint of self-pity. “I was in line to install large brick murals at some of Alberta’s prominent heritage sites, such as the Remington [Carriage] Museum. Architects would choose my design, but I could virtually predict that those contracts would never reach my hands.” He shakes his head. “Jack and I were just individuals with no money and no power. I quickly became seen as the enemy.”

Marshall doesn’t feel that way now. Over 70,000 visitors have so far come to view the resurgent Medalta Potteries National Historic Site. With so much of his dream realized, he bears no grudge despite an insider’s knowledge of, in his words, artistic “blacklisting.” With 30,000-plus artifacts displayed to curatorial standards, an educational component up and running and a hotly competitive artist-in-residency program, there is little time for resentment anyhow.

The breakthrough for the Medalta players proved to be education. A shift had to occur in locals’ attitudes, some of whose parents and grandparents had worked in the dust and grime of the factory. They needed to focus less on the sweatshop and more on the cultural, historic and economic benefits of protecting the past. 

Enter architect Lorne Simpson, an entrepreneur with an eye for art, a decided distaste for political manoeuvring and, perhaps most importantly, a freshly minted Masters in Conservation from England’s Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies.

 Simpson hadn’t yet opened his own practice when he first encountered the Medalta visionaries some 30 years ago, but today, from his company’s chic headquarters in downtown Calgary, the co-owner of Simpson Roberts Architecture Interior Design admits it was Jim Marshall’s brick mural—ironically just outside Medicine Hat’s city council chambers—that initially piqued his interest.

“In 1979, still with my old firm, I did the planning study to locate the site for Medicine Hat’s new city hall,” explains Simpson. “We won the contract, and when working on the building I saw two commissioned pieces of art. One was a huge panel of carved brick— absolutely beautiful—depicting the story of how Medicine Hat got its name.” 

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A vessel by Jim Etzkorn, 2009/10 visiting artist for the Shaw Centre for Contemporary Ceramics, on the old Medalta site. (Photos Courtesy of Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District)

The work was an early Marshall piece, and when architect and artist met, the discussion almost immediately turned to saving Medalta from the wrecking ball. 

“Jim asked me to view the site with an eye to its potential,” says Simpson. “What I saw, I liked. It was, of course, absolutely dissolute, but I could visualize it.”

 Together with Forbes, the men assembled materials for a major grant, with Simpson providing restoration qualifications and architectural credibility. Despite their Herculean effort, the grant application was rejected. “There wasn’t the political will in Alberta, let alone Medicine Hat,” says Simpson. “The society soon realized that politicians bend to the will of their constituents, and we needed to get the public on side.” 

In 1987, the Sissons family, owners of I-XL Industries (formerly Medicine Hat Brick & Tile and today the sole survivor of Medicine Hat’s clay products industry) loaned a small shed 30 metres from the southwest corner of the Medalta property to the Friends of Medalta Society. 

Backed by a $10,000 grant, Marshall and his supporters hired Simpson to design a temporary exhibit in the shed and a walking trail that ran by Medalta and over to the still-operational Hycroft China plant. Signage along the trail detailed the history of clay production in the area. Locals began to take notice.

Another advance came when the daughters of long-time mayor Harry Veiner bequeathed their property to the society. While the Friends still didn’t have the coveted Medalta site, their ownership of the adjacent Hycroft China site—itself of historical value—gave them greater leverage with city council.

At the same time community awareness started to rise, the Alberta economy tanked. Through the oil crisis of the 1990s, the federal government ran restoration programs under unemployment insurance [now EI] guidelines. Letters of support from MLAs and city councillors were no longer a prerequisite for accessing federal coffers. Medicine Hat had a huge amount of unemployment, and, as though by divine coincidence, the Friends of Medalta Society had a huge amount of work that needed to be done.

“Only in the past 10 years has this province matured sufficiently to realize the importance of its history.”

A deal was finally struck in 1992, after some political reshuffling. The City of Medicine Hat purchased the Medalta site on behalf of the Friends.

“We bought a whole decade,” chuckles Simpson. “We stabilized the buildings and bought time for a better day. We took 20 unskilled labourers, put them under a mason or skilled foreman, and went to work fixing the roofs because, when it comes to industrial architecture, it’s what’s inside that really counts.” 

The Medalta people taught unskilled workers new trades, received money for materials based on employment numbers, engaged a credible restoration architect and dispatched passionate, knowledgeable people to oversee the restoration. Best of all, the city fathers had begun to see some connection between the old site—a highly designated historic site, mind you, but a site completely falling apart—and money flowing into the local economy. 

Educators formed partnerships with Medalta as the Ralph Klein-era cutbacks took a slice out of arts education funding. Confident in the educational leadership of society director Forbes, Medicine Hat Community College asked if their ceramics program could be executed in the Hycroft space. Red Deer College soon followed suit.

“Suddenly—well, not so suddenly,” corrects Simpson, “we became an educational facility and not simply a museum. The move to education made people realize Medalta was a big part of the money that made Medicine Hat. There was a fundamental shift in attitude.”

That shift propelled change. In the late 1990s, $2-million of local, provincial and federal support was allocated to the restoration of the old Medalta warehouse, and construction began in earnest. Internationally celebrated ceramicist Les Manning was invited back to Medalta as its first artist-in-residence, and he in turn began to dream of a modern ceramics studio abuzz with visiting artists inspired by Medalta’s potters of the past. 

 The rest, as they say, really is history. 

Margaret Macpherson is author of four non-fiction books. She celebrates the shifting Alberta attitudes from her home in Edmonton. 

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