As It Happens

Wayne Ngan — B.C. ceramics artist whose 'whole life is an art project' — has died

Wayne Ngan saw the whole world as a work of art and drew inspiration from the natural beauty around him, says his daughter Gailan Ngan.

'I think through nature, he was able to see things differently,' says daughter Gailan Ngan

Wayne Ngan, an award-winning Canadian sculptor, has died at age 83. (waynengan.com)
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Wayne Ngan saw the whole world as a work of art, and drew inspiration from the natural beauty around him, says his daughter. 

Ngan, a prolific and award-winning Canadian sculptor, painter and ceramics artist, died on June 12 due to lymphoma. He was 83.  

"I think as an artist, you have a different way of looking, and he had a particular way. And for him, nature was very much a big part of his life. And I think through nature, he was able to see things differently," his daughter Gailan Ngan, a ceramics artist herself, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I think his whole life is an art project."

'A survivor immigrant'

Ngan was born in Canton, China, and immigrated to Canada by way of Hong Kong in 1951 in his teens.

He couldn't speak English, and he had few resources at his disposal. When he first arrived, he lived near Richmond, B.C., with his grandfather, who Gailan said was not equipped to act as a father figure to Ngan.  

"He's an artist, but he was also a survivor immigrant," Gailan said. "I say survivor … because he was able to make connections with almost everybody.… Six years later, he was at art school and he was, you know, partly living with an art school teacher of his.

"He knew how to meet people and connect. And I find it amazing, you know, coming without the language and in the 1950s. I can't imagine the racism he endured."

Ngan and his daughters when they were children. (waynengan.com)

According to the Times-Colonist, Ngan attended Vancouver School of Art where he received the Marie E. Lambert Pottery Prize. He graduated with honours in 1963 and moved to Hornby Island, B.C., four years later.

It was there that he would spend most of his life, at a picturesque home studio that he built himself "right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean."

It's a sprawling piece of land, Gailan said, some 5,000 square feet, including their family home, which is filled with windows and skylights so nature is ever-present. 

"There's animals, you know, wildlife everywhere, birds, trees, the ocean," she said. 

The prominent B.C. sculptor and potter was internationally recognized for his work. (waynengan.com)

For many years, the studio's most prominent feature was Ngan's massive, Sung Dynasty-inspired wood-fired kiln, which he built himself with money from a Canada Council for the Arts grant.

"It's almost like having a dragon in your house. It had a presence, you know," Gailan said, adding that her father eventually took it down — perhaps partly because it wasn't exactly the epitome of safety.

"He was well-known to the fire department here," she said.

Ngan used a grant to build a 300-cubic-foot, Sung Dynasty-inspired wood-fired kiln, based on one he saw at the Beijing National Museum. (waynengan.com)

During his career, Ngan won many awards for his work, including the 1983 Ngan Saidye Bronfman Award for Masters of the Crafts and the 2013 British Columbia Creative Achievement Award of Distinction.

His work has been displayed around the world, including in China, where he often travelled to lead workshops. 

Ngan's works varied from the utilitarian to the purely artistic, his daughter Gailan Ngan says. (waynengan.ca)

But he is also remembered for the inspiration he gave to others, including his former student Douglas S. White, a prominent Nanaimo, B.C., lawyer who spent an entire summer apprenticing under Ngan in 1990. 

White, who is also known as Kwulasultun and Tliishin, told the Times Colonist: "I spent the summer being immersed in his rhythm and his approach to making art. I spent the summer being surrounded by beauty.

"I spent the summer drinking out of his bowls, eating off of his plates. In this way, I learned what a good pot is."

Gailan Ngan says her father always made vessels, whether simple or complex. (waynengan.com)

Ngan was also an inspiration to Gailan, who followed in his footsteps as a ceramics artist.

"I grew up in a pottery studio, and I learned a lot, but I didn't actually start throwing [clay] until I was 19 or 20. But by then, I knew how to do all the other things," she said.

"I think the beauty about ceramics and pottery is that it is something that is, you know, everyday use, as well as being a sculpture or art. So it's very much kind of human scale. And I think lots of artists loved his work because of that. They love pottery. Artists love pottery."

Her father's work straddles those lines, too, she said. 

"The ceramics was a huge range itself, you know, from the very utilitarian bowl or cup [or] tea bowl, to something quite, sculptural — and still in vessel form but sculptural."

Home again in the end 

Toward the end of his life, Ngan spent less time on Hornby Island and more time in Vancouver. But when COVID-19 hit, that all changed.

The whole family decided to ride out the pandemic together at their childhood home. Ngan was there with Gailan and her 11-year-old son, as well as her sister Goya and her two sons, ages 12 and 15.

Ngan will be remembered for his work and the inspiration he had on others. (waynengan.com)

"It's a pretty special time, and I think that there's some sweet moments there," Gailan said. "It's also neat to see, like, see my dad and his grandsons. It's quite striking. I can see the genetics there."

It's like the time all three of them built a forge in the nearby parking lot and didn't tell anyone until they were done.

"They just they love creating stuff," Gailan said. "It's great fun to see."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Gailan Ngan produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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