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Place and Pottery

by Dave Yanko

Ceramic artist Mel Bolen points through his second-storey kitchen window to a distant cluster of buildings located low and to the northeast of the church he converted into a home and studio.

Bolen's converted church, near Humboldt.
Bolen's converted church, near Humboldt.

"There's Humboldt, it's 17 miles away," he says, sharing the impressive view from the old church, which sits at the top of a height of land. "We can see 25 miles in every direction here."

Bolen constructed his unique living and working space from a vacant Catholic church he bought in 1974. The church was actually rebuilt twice, he says, "the second time correctly".

The result is a spacious studio and a beautiful home that blends the original vaulted ceilings of the church with living areas and decks that protrude from the sides of the structure.

It's been an enormous amount of work, but Bolen and his artist wife Karen Holden love their home -- they're now into a third round of rebuilding and renovation.

"We're romantic fools," says Bolen.

That might help explain why they one day hope to give the home away.

"When I'm 80, and I can't do ceramics any more, I would like to run into a couple of idealistic, 22-year olds and say 'here's your break, here's your lottery. Take care of it. Continue'."

Ceramic artist Mel Bolen.

Saskatchewan's premier ceramist is not about to pack up his potter's wheel any time soon. His new "model railroad" - Bolen's term for a creative tangent - is salt-vapor glazing in a special kiln. He says the process produces delightfully serendipitous results and he feels he is just beginning to sink his teeth into it. However, it seems clear through conversation the recent death of his father has Bolen considering, perhaps only a little more than usual, some of the bigger things. Things like giving back, coming to terms, and leaving behind.

At an early stage in his career, Bolen got a big break when he acquired the old church for a song.

After art school in Regina in the '60s and a back-to-the-land sojourn at a Quaker colony in British Columbia, Bolen took a position as head of the pottery department in the University of Regina's extension division. It was a good gig. He had his own studio, access to plenty of resources and light teaching duties. And he was showing right across Canada. He was hot. But after more than four years in a university setting, it was time for something new.

He advertised in newspapers across the province for a small acreage serviced by all-weather roads, and three of the more than two-dozen responses came from the Humboldt area. Off he charged in his panel truck, make-do sleeping quarters in the rear, to check out the prospects.

Fat ceramic vase.
- art images courtesy AK Photography

It was while driving through the countryside to look at another property that Bolen spied the old church, a well crafted, brick-veneer structure built in 1926. He flagged down a passer-by and found out the owner was the Benedictine Diocese of Muenster. One thing led to another, and by the time Bolen returned home there was a letter waiting for him saying the church was his for a mere $500.

"It was just an absurd price," he says. "Absurd."

Still, short on cash, he had to borrow money to buy it. He spent two summers rebuilding it before moving in with fellow potters Anita Rocamora, Charley Farrero, Robert Oeuvrard and their partners. Bolen did a good deal of the construction work himself, an ability he now views as a gift from his father, a man who was concerned when his son lost interest in his university engineering classes and opted for art.

Thin ceramic vase.

Money remained tight at the beginning. Bolen made ends meet during the first year by teaching off-campus classes for the University of Saskatchewan. And his pottery took a turn towards the more functional.

"In the (Regina) extension department I was showing highly-lustred, high-fired, shiny, porcelain, jewel-like pieces. Goblets, mugs, plates - all those kinds of things, but really juiced up. When I came here, there was an immediate push to start to survive."

By 1981, marriages, separations, new families - life - left Bolen and Holden sole owners of the converted church. Holden launched a women's clothing boutique in Humboldt, a business that helped contribute finances to the household for 10 years, while Bolen earned a respectable income exclusively on the sale of pottery.

Bolen says he always made sure to budget time for creative expression and the new experiences that feed it. Without taking risks, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, he says, "I might as well be selling shoes."

But there are constants in this work, as well. An artist's residency in Banff a few years ago reminded him what he learned while living in the mountains in the early 1970s: four hours of sunlight do not meet the daily requirement for a Saskatchewan artist. Bolen is a prairie potter. It's bone deep and reflected in his work.

Ceramic plate.

"It's a real clear, non-trendy, knee-jerk interpretation of this climate, these skies, the changes of season - of the extremes of this place."

Returning home from travel outside of the prairies reinforces Bolen's view he lives in an exotic part of the world. It's a place where he can see weather approaching from a great distance, or whistle for his dog a mile away. He and Holden can crawl onto the roof of the old church and watch meteor showers and northern lights in one of the biggest skies anywhere, or relax beneath the stars in the wood-fired hot tub on the deck.

"We sit there at night and listen to the coyotes and owls. Our neighbours have ostrich over there, so we can hear them booming at night. It all adds to the exotic flavour of this place."

They bought about 200 acres of land in two small parcels on the east side of their home, and Bolen even dabbled in farming until his time with ceramics suffered. The land is now in forages and eventually will be rotated with organic grains. But there are days when Bolen still feels the need for "a little tractor time".

The larger piece of land is a quarter section (160 acres) that includes a studio where Holden draws and creates works in papier mache. It also contains 10 acres of virgin prairie the couple proudly protects.

"The land is such a subtle teacher, and there's so much to be learned. They talk about Ireland and the thousand shades of green. We've got that here. And a thousand shades of white and grey, as well."

Goblets and mugs.

Bolen often wonders where he would be, politically and spiritually, had he become an engineer. He might now be tied into that high-debt lifestyle he sees so many other people living "in pursuit of the gold ring".

But that's not the course he chose.

"If somebody gave me $50,000, I wouldn't buy a car," he says, laughing heartily. "I wouldn't buy anything. I mean, if anything, I would buy myself some experiences."

Bolen and Holden operate North Star Pottery, a gallery located on their premises. Phone for appointment: 306-682-3223.

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