POTTER, WILDERNESS CANOEIST, PIE MAN
A potter for over 40 years, Al runs Farmhouse Pottery in Mono. With his wife Lin Ward he also runs Canoe North Adventures, which takes people on canoeing and hiking expeditions in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.
Tell me: is the pottery a front for the pies?
Well… when you’re in retail and you’re in a rural-based location, you do need to reinvent sometimes. So we added a cafe here some years ago as a means of attracting first-time people into the gallery.
It’s amazing what happens when you serve very good coffee and really nice pie. You get a steady traffic and a lot of fresh eyes on your work. It’s been a great formula for us.
Pie can solve any problem.
It’s true. We hosted a meeting recently with some folks from Toronto we’d never met before, there were two fresh pies cooling on the counter, and I didn’t really know how to start the agenda… so I just looked at them and said, should we just start this meeting with pie? And they said YES! That’s what we’re waiting for! It’s just a sweet little ice breaker.
Are these Laura’s pies?
Yes, these are Laura Ryan pies, she’s our local mayor. We don’t talk politics here but we do talk pies. We actually host a spring and fall lecture series here in the cafe, Laura’s going to be one of our speakers and she’s going to make a pie. That will sell out that night. We can only sit about 40 people here and they will all be chomping at the bit to know how she makes those pies.
How has the art, retail scene changed in Headwaters over the years?
Headwaters is filled with fantastic, high quality work. I’ve watched retail develop since 1977 and I’ve watched the arts and crafts scene evolve over those decades, and there’s definitely pendulum swings towards things like studio tours and big craft shows. We want to associate ourselves with outstanding work, outstanding interesting people in our lives, and we want people to come here and enjoy this beautiful location, this rustic environment on the river. We just want people to have a really high quality experience, and say wow, we’ve got to go back there one day. And when we share interesting people in our lives with our customers, they absolutely love it.
So pies, pottery… and then, the Yukon.
We started a travel company (Canoe North Adventures), we deliver two-week white water canoe expeditions in the North West Territories and the Yukon territory.
So are you a potter who does wilderness tours, or a wilderness guy who does pottery?
The funny thing is, I’ve been doing it since I was a young boy. In 1977 I had a chance to paddle with my high school on the Coppermine River in Northwest Territories and that same summer I started my pottery venture just south of Erin Village.
How did the pottery happen?
A high school art program. I didn’t intend to start a pottery studio as an 18-year-old thinking I’d be doing that my whole life. But it became a life pursuit, and it’s been a fabulous journey. I’ve never actually had a regular job. I’ve always worked for myself and had the freedom to create whatever I want, and I sell every single thing that I’ve ever made right out of my gallery here. It’s quite a privilege.
What is it about pottery that does it for you?
My work is quite practical. My work can be used for serving, for enjoying as decor, it’s accessible, it’s practical. I also have some very large pieces which tend to be a little more decorative, but even then, my giant salad bowls, if you had 12 or 15 people for a Christmas diner they’re perfect for that.
Also, I think the medium is limitless. It’s one of the oldest mediums, they’ve been making pottery for 10,000 years. The medium is not precise. When those vessels go into the kiln they are kind of out of your hands and into the fire. There’s a sort of alchemy involved, it’s kind of hit or miss, lots of fluidity and uncertainty and sometimes even the type of day — whether it’s a low pressure or a high pressure day — can affect the draft in my kiln. And that can influence the final tonal colours of my glazes, so there’s a certain amount of unpredictable nature to my work, which I quite like.
I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to interview the potter Ann Randeraad (who works out of the Alton Mill Arts Centre), and she often works outside… do you?
Ann is a former student of mine from way back. My kiln is under a floating tin roof, but it is completely outside. I do a lot of glazing outside and I do some raku firing outside. So much of what I do is connected to nature. Potters use earth, water, fire and air to create the body of work and it feels really wholesome.
How do all the businesses come together?
One connection for sure is that my wilderness journeys, 40 years of travelling in the Canadian north, have strongly influenced my designs. A lot of people who don’t know my work will come in, look around and say things like, this work looks really Canadian. Then as I tell then my story, they think it makes really good sense.
One of the vessels that I create here is actually in the shape of a canoe, I call it a ceramic canoe vessel. These are mantlepiece decorative pieces and I’m probably the right guy to make them, as I spend a ridiculous amount of a time in a canoe… over 20,000 miles in a canoe in northern Canada.
So then, I won’t ask you if you’ve lived out Pierre Burton’s definition of what a Canadian is…
Oh yeah, absolutely, especially when I was a teenager!
Just to reflect on Canada’s 150 anniversary this year, with our adventure travel business, Canoe North Adventures, it’s March and we’re almost fully booked for the 2017 season and we’re now booking out to 2018.
I’ve found that people who are interested in handmade pottery and are the same sort of people who value an authentic adventure experience in Canada’s parks. It’s not unusual for us to have someone come in and purchase a wedding gift, and six months later they’re in the back of a float plane flying into our northern rivers with us, saying, how did I get here and who are you people? We sort of hoodwink some people into joining our trips and of course they’re transformed. Many of our canoeing clients become life long friends and repeat customers as well.
They’re also intimate trips, there’s not 50 people on them.
Just groups of 12, and we’re doing 12 expeditions this summer. This is our 27th year. It really just evolved. Our retail customers and the pottery customers knew that Lin (Al’s wife, Lin Ward) and I were doing these trips privately and they really pushed us to include them.
In the early days it was very simple, Lin and I would take a couple of trips a year, take a little bit of time off. Now we’ve built a physical lodge in the Northwest Territories, we have 15 employees, we have 150 customers a year and we’ve even won some national awards. It’s become an absolute force unto itself.
So are you spoiled now, scenery-wise, or do still like the Headwaters?
Oh, we love waking up in Mono every day. So much of what we do is connected to our property, our location, our own day-to-day pleasure with what we do here. We’re awfully fortunate and blessed in a lot of ways to be able to pull all this together. 40 years continuously takes some doing, but we’ve happened to have some very good luck, and we’ve been fortunate to attract really interesting, supportive people into our lives.
Describe where you are.
We’re right in the Hockley Valley, in the bottom, the Nottawasaga river runs right through our property, and when we look out our windows we look up at escarpment. We’re in kind of an intimate part of the valley: Highway 10 could be closed in a blizzard and we could be walking around outside in shorts and a t-shirt.
We have a beautiful autumn, we have beautiful hardwood bush in our view and we have cedar bush right along the river. Tremendous contrast. And we’re surrounded by nature. We could have a kingfisher, a heron, geese, mallards, we have trout in the river here, really nice rainbow trout. We get the odd deer walking through the property but mainly we’re close to the Island Lake trail, we’re close to the Bruce Trail and we get a lot of hikers who drop in to the cafe. Often people from the city will use our place as a meeting place. We’ll help them get launched on their hikes, sometimes they carpool, leave a car here. It works out really well.
Well, they need to hike after the pie I guess.
That’s the other thing: do you hike to eat or eat to hike?
So from June to September, is there a closed sign on the door?
No, we’re open every day! We have staff here who run the gallery, we’re open every single day of the year, 24 hours a day… but if you come after 7:00 pm you’ve gotta bring wine.
Duly noted. 7-o’clock, bring wine. Done.