New Brunswick

Fredericton potter Joan Shaw retires after 50 years of throwing clay

Fredericton potter Joan Shaw is retiring at the of age 76. After a successful career, she sold her equipment to a next generation potter, recent NBCCD grad Carolyn Saunders.

She may be retiring, but the tools of her practice will help another artist create magic from clay

Joan Shaw has been crafting teapots, mugs, vases and one-of-a-kind pieces from her Fredericton home studio for more than 5 decades. (Jan Lakes/CBC)

Spinning, sculpting and firing — all in a day's work for Fredericton potter Joan Shaw. But now at the age of 76, she's turned off her kiln and set down the clay and is selling her home and studio.

Shaw has been throwing clay for more than 50 years, but felt the time had come to retire Garden Creek Pottery, a decision precipitated by a major life event.

"The downsizing and that, that was actually the result of my losing my significant other of 46 years … That was kind of the part of the equation and the planet is kind of aligning and my making my decision," said Shaw.

Joan Shaw's handcrafted pottery graces the tables and shelves of people from all over North America and many other parts of the world. (Jan Lakes/CBC)

Arthritis also played a part in the decision along with the physical nature of the work 

"The clay comes in boxes that are 50 pounds, and so you're lifting heavy boxes of clay," she said.

It was also a major life event that sparked Shaw's career, after learning the craft from her then-husband John Shaw.

"I was married to a potter for only five years, and I probably was mainly self-taught and probably learned a certain amount through osmosis, watching him make pottery," Shaw said, although she'd always been creative, even as a child she would "find mud somewhere along the river and and kind of make little pinch pots, you know, and dry them in the sun."

Both craft and business

When her marriage ended, she had to find a way to support herself and her young son, Jason.

"It wasn't coming out and creating something wonderful and one-of-a-kind for a gallery somewhere, it was making mugs and things that I could sell to, you know, pay the bills."

A much-loved Joan Shaw teapot. (Submitted by Jamie Kitts)

But as her career progressed and her reputation grew, she also showed her work in galleries and other exhibitions, a getaway from the demands of regular production. 

Her schedule was flexible, she said, so while she approached it like a regular day job, she could also work into the evenings and weekends if something needed to be done, with her studio in a small building next to her home.

"In the early years when my son was a toddler, of course I had a babysitter, but I could sit in my studio and look out my window and watch him playing Frisbee and doing fun things. And [I'd] get to come in and have lunch with them and my little morning break," she said. "And so I had the best of two worlds." 

Joan Shaw spent decades working in her home studio with a view of her backyard where her little boy would play in the sun. (Jan Lakes/CBC)

The backbone of her business, the item that really paid the bills, turned out to be, in her words, "the almighty mug." Even when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Shaw continued to turn out mugs for her customers. 

"A lot of people were working from their home offices. So they were they were coming into my studio and they were buying mugs, and the next car would be buying mugs and mugs. And I thought, 'What is going on?' And then I finally made the correlation between working from home and wanting a nice vessel from which to drink your coffee," Shaw said.

Joan Shaw always used the tip of the same paintbrush to sign her creations. (Jan Lakes/CBC)

But the item that gave her the most pleasure to create is the vessel that pours the hot liquid into those mugs. 

"You know, my favourite part to make, actually, is a teapot. I love tea, and tea is sort of symbolic of friendship, and when my friends come, I put on a pot," she said. 

Next generation inspiration

One of those friends who dropped by to drink tea was a young artist from Cape Breton starting her own business.

Carolyn Saunders graduated from the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design's ceramics program in May. She met Joan Shaw when she first moved to Fredericton to start her classes.

Saunders would sit on Shaw's veranda drinking tea and listening to her talk about her craft.

Carolyn Saunders became friends with Joan Shaw and has been inspired by her work. Saunders now has her own craft business, Dirt Factory Ceramics in Marysville. (Morgan Hornibrook)

"That really inspired me about how ... a young woman, fresh, ready to start a career, can actually make it as a potter," said Saunders. "That to me was one of the most inspiring things I've ever heard," Saunders said.

But good company wasn't the only thing Shaw had to share. When Saunders heard about the impending retirement, a deal was struck.

"I was just like, 'Well, I might have some interest in your equipment, if you're ready to move on to the next chapter of your life.' And she said, 'Carolyn, come on down, we'll work out a deal.'"

Saunders said now she's fully set up now with a kiln, a wheel, a pugmill for mixing materials, a slab roller, some clay and other bits and pieces that will get her Dirt Factory Ceramics business started.

"I just feel so good that she's going to be using equipment that served me so well. So it's sort of a paying it forward kind of kind of thing. And it feels good," Shaw said.

Joan Shaw's equipment and materials will not go to waste. Carolyn Saunders now has a kiln, a potter's wheel and leftover clay for use in her own ceramics business. (Jan Lakes/CBC)

Saunders said it meant "so much" to her as a recent grad to have Shaw's help.

"It really showed me how much making personal connections within the community really means as a craftsperson, and how so important it is to know the people who are ahead of you," she said. 

And there's an open invitation from Saunders to come to the studio, "If I just get itchy, itchy and just have to get my hands in clay," Shaw said. 

She will miss the personal contact with her customers, as well, but Shaw said she knows this is the right time to let it go.

"It was my job, it was work, it was very physical. But I loved it. I absolutely loved that."

As you are sipping your coffee this morning, perhaps it is out of a Joan Shaw original. The Fredericton artist has been creating unique pottery for 50 years. But she has now decided to step away from the kiln. The CBC's Jan Lakes took a visit to Joan's home and workshop to find out more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Rudderham is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick. She grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and moved to Fredericton to go to St. Thomas University in 2018. She recently graduated with a bachelor of arts in journalism. You can send story tips to hannah.rudderham@cbc.ca.

With files from Jan Lakes

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