In 2015, the SCC is celebrating its 40th anniversary. In 1975, fifty-seven Saskatchewan artisans organized themselves into a determined force with a single voice and a common purpose. That purpose was to promote and raise the profile of Saskatchewan artisans, improve the quality of work produced, and facilitate communication among the membership. Each of these people donated just $5 to this cause and the Saskatchewan Craft Council was born. You can read more about our history here.
Our board members and staff have come together to conduct interviews with as many of these founding members as we can, in celebration of this milestone. We are interested in these founders’ thoughts around why we came into being and their insights for the future.
Since 1977, Mel Bolen has worked full-time as a ceramic artist from his home studio located in a converted church near Humboldt, where he lives with his wife Karen Holden. Bolen studied engineering at the University of Regina in the 60s, before switching to the Bachelor of Fine Arts program. Following his graduation in 1971, Mel taught pottery at the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan. Bolen is best known for his functional ware—bowls, platters, planters—which he markets through his company North Star Pottery. In his 48 year career, Mel has shown nationally and internationally, conducted numerous workshops, juries, and exhibitions and has pieces in collections worldwide.
What compelled you to throw your $5 and yourself into creating a new organization dedicated to supporting craft?
I sat beside someone who had $10 and paid for me too. We were young romantic and idealistic people who wanted to get something started and we were of course a little rebellious against the establishment. We were a core group of creative artists who believed we could make an organization work. We knew we had to start small but we believed in the inherent value of the hand-made, and were out to promote that to the general buying public. I remember the first WinterGreen, there were deluges of people who came to see what we had. It was good work and the public responded. There was a growing number of buyers who wanted to have hand-made art in their homes. This value of hand-made may have peaked now as the next generation seems to have a more minimalistic style and is prone to the purchase of stainless steel and factory-made. In those early days, we the marketers were all friends who celebrated together at night after the sales. Many of us did 6-8 sales a year and although lots of us are still working in the arts, we have slowed down in terms of the number of sales our age allows us to do. Most of us do a combination of marketing strategies like studio sales and local galleries.
It all began when I bombed out of engineering at the U of R then worked for a year then decided to enroll in a BA programme and had to take a Fine Arts elective. I walked into the pottery studio and there was Jack Sures throwing a pot. I was hooked and so in the late ’60s he became my mentor. I did a real apprenticeship program with him and I owe him everything.
I accepted a position as head of the pottery department at the University of Regina’s Extension Division and combined this with making pottery.
My independent working career began when I found the Church of the Immaculate Conception 13 miles out of Humboldt. It was a beautiful brick building that needed a re-purpose. While in Mexico in 1975, plans were drawn up to renovate the church and share it with Charley Farrero, Robert Oeuvrard, and Anita Rocamora. Eventually others joined us.
I continued to teach doing some credit classes in Pottery for the University of Saskatchewan in Prince Albert and Tisdale. A kiln building workshop in 1977, resulted in the construction of the big gas kiln that I am still using today. We worked together in the church until Charlie and June moved to Meacham 1980, and Robert and Anita moved away in 1981. My wife Karen, a painter, joined me in 1979 and then opened Cottage Boutique in Humboldt which she operated from 1981 to 1991. She was my best marketer, although we still packed things in the truck and headed off to some of the SCC markets. We do lots of gallery work now and of course sell from our own studio.
What are you most proud of over the last 40 years?
I am most proud of the fact that we have planted 10,000 trees at the studio and on our land. It was treeless when we came and this is my way of making amends for the high use of propane. I am also proud of the fact that Karen and I as an Artist couple, have made a living with our work.
What has disappointed you?
Personally, I am upset that the quality of work in Saskatchewan is not recognized for the particularly high level that exists. I am surprised that the public does not just jump at the things made in this province. There seems to be interest in the 12-15 dollar price range but not the $1500 piece of work and then there is always the pull between Art and Craft. My painting professor in art school used to say that the difference between the two is that you “piss in craft and piss on art.” I hope there will be a renaissance of hand-made pieces, as they are scarce these days. The unique part of hand-made is that there is always a story that goes with the article and that gives us the connection with people.
I’m disappointed that there are a lot of governance rules, that SCC is a little top heavy and that we have lost the Craft Factor. On the other hand having the SCC Affinity Gallery is fantastic!
What are your hopes for the future?
My hopes for the future are that we have a new batch of young makers. We see some artists, like Zach Dietrich and Gail Carlson, fostering interest in their children. We need younger supporters and patrons as well. For example, we have a whole group of young professionals who could display art in their offices.
What are you doing to celebrate Craft Year 2015 and our 40th anniversary?
To celebrate Craft Year 2015, I will make the best work that I can, especially the new salt vapour pieces that I have coming out. I hope to attend some out-of-country exhibitions. I particularly enjoyed my attendance as a presenter in Korea at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale in 2009 and inclusion in the Mino Japan Intl Exhibition last year.