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  Computers and Clay

by Dave Yanko
Michelle Harris

They're at opposite ends of the technology time-line. But potters' wheels and computers are becoming companion tools for many people who work in clay.

"The Internet is vital to me," says Saskatchewan potter Michelle Harris. "(The Net) gives you a wider sense there are people all over the world pursuing the same lifestyle. It's validating."

Harris feels no dearth of support from her fellow potters in Saskatchewan. Quite the contrary.

"I'm proud to be a Saskatchewan potter," says Harris. "The pottery community here is very much more in contact with each other than some of the other groups."

However, pottery is a solitary pursuit. Harris lives in the country about 80 kms (50 miles) northwest of Saskatoon and the Internet allows her to keep in touch - on a daily basis, if she wishes - with potters from around the world.

"This way, I have potter friends in West Virginia, Manitoba, Prince Rupert, Australia, Florida, California, Arizona. . . ."

- all art images courtesy A K Photography

Through Web sites like "ClayNet", as well as in chat groups devoted to pottery discussions, Harris finds support and suggestions on everything from glazing techniques to ethical questions "like whether you should patch with epoxy". Moreover, the relative anonymity of the Internet allows potters to bridge generation and stylistic gaps, as well as the more obvious ones involving distance.

"In our chat group, there's a 16-year-old boy and a grandmother who are both interested in pottery.

"Where else would these two people talk to each other about pottery? It's not likely they'd be drawn to each other if they attended the same (crafts) show."

Some artisans are reluctant to have their work featured on the Web. They fear their ideas may be stolen by an unscrupulous craftsperson or, worse yet, mass produced in some "knock-off" factory in a far-away country.

Harris harbors no such anxieties. She's planning to get a homepage and a scanner that will allow her to electronically display and transmit photographs of her work. And even if someone were to steal an idea or two, it would have little effect on Harris. By the time the items were copied, she'd be on to something else.

"I could do "bunnies" my whole life if I wanted to," she says of her very popular line featuring a rabbit theme. "I can't make them fast enough."

Instead, Harris is moving ahead. She's turned her focus to traditional "blue and white" porcelain and a process called "sgraffito", in which she uses a delicate wire hook to etch designs into her work. The result is a sophisticated line of gold-trimmed dinnerware and vases.

At 35, Harris suspects her willingness to change comes, at least in part, from her "Generation-X" circumstances.

"Generally, people my age are more open to shifting. They've had to do that all their lives."

She spent her first 15 years in Lloydminster, on the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary, and moved to central Alberta, Manitoba, Norway, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and then back to Saskatchewan in following years.

Quilting was one of her first creative endeavors. She started at a young age and continues to stitch colorful and elaborate designs between stints on the potter's wheel. Harris says that as a child, she was never pushed towards artistic expression. She arrived there by choice and inclination.

"Being the youngest of six, a friend tells me, you've got the least to prove. I was left to do my own thing. I wasn't spoiled, I just did my own thing."

Harris ended her formal schooling with an education degree. After almost five years of teaching Grade 4 students in Prince Rupert, BC, she was in need of a little diversion.

"Another teacher and I took a recreational pottery class," she recalls. "That's when I really got interested.

"I thought it was very therapeutic, although, I don't know what I was treating myself for. I guess teaching was stressful."

The opportunity to pursue her pottery on a full-time basis came after she married Richard Harris and moved to her home on a hill overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, near Waldheim, SK. Her success came quickly. She's been a full-time potter for only four years.

Yet, true to form and in spite of her success, Harris has no difficulty imagining herself pursuing a different creative path in the future.

"I'm lucky that what I've done has been received so well. I love to work in clay. But that's not to say I wouldn't get into wood, or something else, at another time."

It's fitting the only tool this Saskatchewan potter seems unlikely to part with is her computer, a modern-day symbol of change. No tool in history has had such an impact on human endeavor. Except for the wheel.

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