SUZY THOMPSON

Sculpting a Legacy

Jean LaPointe Mihalcheon has been a quiet force on Alberta's ceramics scene for decades.

By Amber Bowerman

Just as Alberta’s oil riches can be chalked up to a stroke of geological luck, the abundance of ceramic artists in Alberta is in large part thanks to the bountiful clay reserves in the area surrounding Medicine Hat. Centuries worth of alluvial siltation along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River created vast deposits of malleable clay. Coupled with rich reserves of natural gas for firing kilns, the clay resources in southern Alberta gave birth to a thriving industry in the early 20th century. Companies such as Medicine Hat Brick & Tile and Alberta Clay Products flourished. But the clay in Alberta didn’t just pique the interest of savvy businessmen. It also called out to craftspeople, fostering a community of ceramic artists.

Today, Noboru Kubo, John Chalke, Evelyn Grant and Barbara Tipton could rightfully be household names in Alberta. They are all accomplished ceramicists working in a medium uniquely native to our region—not just because of the copious clay reserves, but because pioneers such as Luke Lindoe, who was the Alberta College of Art & Design’s ceramics instructor for 11 years, turned the medium from something merely functional into something fantastic. Vessels, he taught, could captivate as well as contain.

However, the functional aspect of ceramics has in some ways overshadowed its merit as art. Les Graff, an independent curator and former director of visual arts for the Government of Alberta, says ceramics are seen as “the poor second cousins to other art,” and that institutions such as the National Gallery continue to make a loaded distinction between fine art and craft. “If this was Japan, [the work of our ceramicists] would be national treasures,” says Graff. “But we don’t see it that way in Alberta and Canada.”

That is slowly changing. In 2000, Calgary ceramicist John Chalke became the first recipient of the Governor General’s Award in media and visual arts for fine craft. Last year, the Canadian Crafts Federation celebrated Craft Year, a nationwide initiative to promote fine craft. And public galleries like the Nickle Arts Gallery and the Triangle Gallery do much to highlight the work of our talented craftspeople.

Mihalcheon with her paper sculpture The Architect.

Mihalcheon with her paper sculpture The Architect. (Suzy Thompson)

In early 2007, the Triangle hosted a retrospective, curated by Graff, that looked at the work of one of our finest ceramic artists and one of Alberta’s best-kept secrets. The scope of this particular artist’s work surprised even Graff. Beyond Symbolism highlighted the work of Jean LaPointe Mihalcheon. And though you may not have heard of her, she’s been a quiet force in Alberta’s visual arts community for decades.

While Mihalcheon concedes her 79 years on Earth are “more than the average bear’s,” the ceramist exudes the youthful vigour of a woman who’s had to stay fit to meet the physical demands of her work. Maybe it’s her bright spirit and humility that have kept her young. Or perhaps her vitality and sharp wit sprang from the necessity of overcoming a lifelong physical challenge, one that might otherwise discourage her—or anyone, really—from sculpting: Mihalcheon was born with just one hand. Whatever the reason, Mihalcheon defies her physical age in many ways. “She’s older than she seems,” says Graff, a friend and colleague.

Mihalcheon’s Calgary home, however, is filled with little reminders that she is in fact an aged woman. There’s Shelley the caregiver, who tends to Mihalcheon and her husband, George, an esteemed painter. There’s the crowded wall of family photos: Mihalcheon has four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandkids. There’s the art collection—works by John Snow, Maxwell Bates, Wes Irwin, Greg Arnold and Jilli Kerr—amassed over a lifetime lived alongside fellow groundbreaking artists. Mihalcheon’s home is filled with memories of the friends she and George have kept, artists who are part of a formative era in Alberta’s arts scene, like Harry Kiyooka and Katie Ohe, and those who have since passed, including Olle Holmsten, Luke Lindoe and Marion Nicoll.

And then there’s Mihalcheon’s body of work, which erases any doubt that her career has been fruitful as well as long. It is a collection that is epic, a repertoire constantly refreshed over a lifetime of inspiration, obstacles and innovation that can be traced like cracks in fired clay. The sum of its many parts, says Graff, is “delightful, whimsical and lyrical—Jean is a poet.”

From her early clay pots to her stylized clay heads, her later mixed-media architectural landscapes and her more recent paper sculptures, the four distinct streams of Mihalcheon’s work, says Graff, reflect different stages of her life. By examining them, one can see that Mihalcheon is not just a gifted artist but also a pragmatist and innovator.

Mihalcheon was born in 1929 in Domremy, Saskatchewan, where in 2006 the population was pegged at 124. Though she was born missing her right hand, her physical limitations never once put a damper on her childhood dream to “be something special.” She moved to Calgary at 20 years old to enrol in classes at the Alberta College of Art & Design, then known as the Provincial Institute of Technology & Art. Mihalcheon had an eye for design and painting and a passion to match; in those early days she considered herself primarily a watercolourist.

It was during her studies that she met fellow painter George Mihalcheon. After marrying him in 1952, Jean put her career on hold for 16 years to focus on raising her family. “The kids were number one,” says Mihalcheon, who herself grew up with 11 brothers and sisters.

It wasn’t until 1968, when the youngest of her kids was in Grade 4 and Mihalcheon registered for night classes at ACAD, that she flowered again as an artist. Under the tutelage of Olle Holmsten—at the time, Alberta’s most celebrated sculptor—Mihalcheon discovered her calling. And while some might have shied away from an art form that had the potential to cast focus on a handicap like hers, Mihalcheon excelled at ceramics and overcame every challenge she faced without ever exploiting her physical limitations. (In almost every photograph of Mihalcheon, the position of her body subtly obscures the sight of her missing right hand.) In 1974 she had her first solo exhibition of clay pots and thrown heads.

Mihalcheon’s early ceramic planters were, she says, her “bread and butter.” Both functional and whimsically decorated, the pots sold well, allowing Mihalcheon to afford the clay, glazes and other supplies for her more personal expressions, such as the stylized ceramic portraits that would become her hallmark.

Those thrown heads that defined Mihalcheon’s career through the seventies and eighties are highly symbolic yet deeply imbued with character. It was the heads, she says, that “most people really liked.” Graff describes them as “stylized, nostalgic and idealized, aiming at the ideal: the head of heads, the face of faces.” Marion and Jim Nicoll commissioned one of Mihalcheon’s thrown heads, which is now in the collection of Calgary’s Bethany Care Centre.

Demonstrating the process in her home studio.

Demonstrating the process in her home studio. (Suzy Thompson)

Later, Mihalcheon composed large abstract landscapes, primarily using circular canvases and combining small clay pieces, paint and other materials to create dimension and depth. Many of the small clay pieces used in those landscapes were made using her specially commissioned slab roller. Built by DaneKraft, the slab roller proved such a useful tool in pressing out small, manageable pieces of clay that ACAD had one made for its ceramics program.

The landscapes provided Mihalcheon with another distinct form of expression. She had by that time switched to a smaller oven after a fire broke out in her larger gas kiln. An enthusiastic problem-solver, Mihalcheon viewed the smaller kiln not as a limitation, but as an opportunity to make something new—such as the dancing porcelain sticks in Aurora Borealis (c. 1981).

“The sum of her repertoire’s many parts,” says Les Graff, “is delightful, whimsical and lyrical—Jean is a poet.”

“I like to move from one medium to another,” says Mihalcheon. “It’s nice to combine them and get away with it. Although people recognized my work, you couldn’t really put a finger on where it came from. You couldn’t compare it to other people’s work, and in that sense it was unique.”

In the late seventies and early eighties, Mihalcheon also began teaching and serving on the boards of visual arts organizations. She was a founding member of the Calgary Contemporary Arts Society and a member of the Alberta Art Foundation (now the AFA) from 1981 to 1984, chairing its art education and exhibition committee. Her teaching took her back to ACAD, where she taught papermaking, and to the Kerby Centre for seniors. It was there, in 1980, that Mihalcheon and her students completed a bas relief tile wall to commemorate Alberta’s 75th birthday. Kerby Centre CEO Patricia Allen says the mosaic is a “highlight of every tour of the Kerby Centre” and a point of pride for all involved. It also served as the catalyst behind the centre’s now-prolific arts programs.

As Mihalcheon’s age caught up with her, the heavy clay work she’d built her reputation around became increasingly difficult to complete. Ever the innovator, Mihalcheon found a way around this new challenge: by making a single clay sculpture and fashioning from it a plaster mould, she began creating multiple forms out of light, bright paper—images that take on as much depth and presence as any clay sculpture, but without the weight. Mihalcheon mulches, bleaches, presses and dries her own paper. Though it’s easier than working with heavy clay, this is still a very physical endeavour.

Her paper relief pieces, like the thrown heads of her earlier years, display a haunting character despite the absence of colour and other fine detail. They are so frail that they must be displayed in Plexiglas frames, yet so regal that they seem to take on the appearance of marble or ivory. “You see more of the sculpture rather than the medium,” says Mihalcheon, who herself seems tickled by the success she’s had with her latest undertaking.

“I just love drawing into the mould,” she says, fingering a stark white paper face in her basement studio. Sculptures from the same mould can vary depending on the thickness of the paper and how hard Mihalcheon presses it into the recesses of the mould—for example, the two versions of The Architect (c. 1990) sitting side by side in her studio appear to be two distinct faces.

The 2007 Triangle GALLERY exhibition marked the first time Jean LaPointe Mihalcheon’s paper relief work was viewed by the public. She has chosen not to exhibit very often over the years, showing more interest in problem solving and self-exploration than in acclaim, and seems largely unconcerned with her “place” among Alberta’s artists. Without a hint of bitterness, she introduces her husband George and says proudly, if a little teasingly, “He’s famous.” Reflecting on her own career, she says, “I never thought about if [my work] was going to be good or bad or ugly.  I just created it.”

More important than wide recognition or critical acclaim is the legacy she’ll leave her children and grandchildren—a brood she laughingly describes as ranging in height from 24 inches to six-foot-four. “The kids are really happy,” says Mihalcheon. “They’ll be left a legacy, between George and me.”

When clay got too heavy for her, Mihalcheon switched to light, bright paper.

When clay got too heavy for her, Mihalcheon switched to light, bright paper. (Suzy Thompson)

They’re not the only ones. Graff says Mihalcheon will also leave behind a legacy for the ceramic arts in Alberta. In her own quiet way Mihalcheon has challenged the “poor second cousin” status of ceramics.

Her work—even functional pieces such as her early pots—was completed with a painter’s and designer’s instinct: function and form were fused. While on the Alberta Art Foundation board, she played an instrumental role in three major exhibitions which, Graff wrote, “championed creative ceramic development in Alberta and catalogued the achievements of Alberta ceramic artists from 1947 to 1984.” Her innovative approach to ceramic art has influenced institutions like the Alberta College of Art & Design. Her body of work is a true Alberta treasure.

“When I look at the overall development in the province, the contribution Jean made was real,” says Graff. “Jean has made a difference.”

Amber Bowerman worked at Alberta Views for four years before joining SAIT as an editor and adviser for student journalists.

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