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Visiting Irish artist says Vernon roadsides are ‘clay heaven’

Irish artist Sarah Ryan with a bag of local clay she dug up from around Vernon.
April 20, 2016 - 4:30 PM

VERNON - An Irish ceramics artist has been bicycling around Vernon, visiting places like Pottery Road, Okanagan Lake, and 27 Street, among many others, for the purpose of digging up local clay.

Sarah Ryan, from County Laois, Ireland, is in Vernon as the Caetani Centre’s latest Ceramics Artist in Resident. Using locally-sourced clay is something she’s done at home, but she was surprised to find so much available around Vernon.

“I’d heard about the clay and Pottery Road always stood out, so I went back to my old haunts and got my bike and my backpack and found myself getting clay from the roadsides,” Ryan says. “It’s clay heaven.”

She began her excavations on Pottery Road, an area where famous potter Axel Ebring dug up clay back in the 1930s. After retracing his steps, she began collecting samples from elsewhere in Vernon, like a construction site on 27 Street, the hills off Silver Star Road, and an area around Okanagan Lake — anywhere she happened to notice it. Once locals heard about her fascination with local clay, she was even invited out to people’s homes to dig it out of their backyards.

Ryan jokes that many people don’t like clay because it causes construction issues and isn’t great for growing garden vegetables — but to her, it’s like buried treasure. 

“It’s quite a nice feeling to come as a stranger to a place like Vernon and you begin to work with the earth, and then you begin to work with the people. That creates a lot of inspiration for my work,” she says.

Most of the clay she’s found is grey in colour and turns a terra-cotta orange when fired in the kiln, but she’s also gotten her hands on some ochre-coloured clay from Silver Star Mountain thanks to the knowledge of a local potter.

“It was really inspirational to meet him and see that someone else has an interest in it too and you’re not completely mad,” Ryan says.

Ryan does her excavating trips by bicycle and loads clumps of clay into her backpack. From there, she transports it back to the studio at the Vernon Community Arts Centre and tests the samples.
Ryan does her excavating trips by bicycle and loads clumps of clay into her backpack. From there, she transports it back to the studio at the Vernon Community Arts Centre and tests the samples.

Once mixed with water, she says the clay becomes quite workable. She’s been testing lots of samples and has made dozens of figurines.

“I’ve started bringing them (figurines) back to the landscape. I leave them unfired and place them back on the roadside,” she says. “If it rains they will seep back into the landscape. Or, in the summer they will dry and crumble apart.”

For her, art is as much about the process as it is about pulling something out of the kiln at the end of the day.

“It’s not completely based on the finished product but on all the bits in between,” she says.

Compared to a more refined product, local, hand-dug clay can be trickier to work with and often takes on a mind of its own, Ryan says.

“I have to do what the clay says. It’s kind of like the clay’s turn — the artist always has the say. Sometime’s it doesn’t work for what you want it to do,” she says.

Ryan has been working out of the studio at the Vernon Community Arts Centre and will give a talk about her work tonight, April 20. It starts at 7 p.m. at the arts centre.

Clay deposits in the Silver Star Road area.
Clay deposits in the Silver Star Road area.
Image Credit: Sarah Ryan

A clay deposit on Pottery Road where Ryan has collected some of her material.
A clay deposit on Pottery Road where Ryan has collected some of her material.
Image Credit: Sarah Ryan


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