Artist seeks help to build ceramics school

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An acclaimed ceramics artist and teacher is planning to expand the facilities on Salt Spring where local clay talent can grow and is looking for community support to make that happen.

Julie MacKinnon has been making her living as a ceramic artist on Salt Spring for the past 20 years, and has integrated teaching into her practice for the past 15. Her small studio has overflowed with students seeking her enthusiasm and skill in teaching, reaching 1,000 students this year. 

Until now she has accommodated students and emerging artists as well as possible in her personal home studio. The surge in demand means she has turned her attention over the past two years to how she can support their growth with a purpose-built teaching studio capable of year-round programming. 

“The need has changed,” MacKinnon explained. “My local students, who now have solid skill sets, need a different model moving forward.”

MacKinnon views the future school as a social enterprise that will fill gaps in island arts education, community-building and professional development opportunities, and will benefit women in particular. She notes she has always made time for anyone who wanted to learn, squeezing in lessons and clay advice while producing her signature porcelain tableware for the retail market. 

“In no time at all, my space turned into a community hub,” she said. “I’m friendly and I like people, and I’m really, really interested in people’s projects. And so it’s come into this communal area, where it’s not just about me, it’s about the community that is created.”

The squeeze to support others’ work was not just a matter of available time, but also space. MacKinnon somehow found room in her 300-square-foot studio for one or two others to work alongside her. Eventually she extended her teaching space outdoors.

MacKinnon had already incorporated an annual workshop schedule into her business model, mainly outside of the busy tourist season, before the pandemic hit. The appetite for her weekend-long and four-day teaching workshops only grew after that. With limited space and only outdoor classes possible, these have been so popular they sell out far in advance.

Of those people who have taken workshops so far, 80 per cent have been local to Salt Spring and 95 per cent have been women. MacKinnon said the sessions have built a much-needed sense of community and have been the seed for some of those students to embark on professional art journeys of their own. Five Salt Spring women to date have moved on to advanced techniques and then on to selling their work professionally, while around 30 per cent of first-time students go on to take continuing classes.

Workshops are often booked by entire family groups, and MacKinnon also offers sessions especially for children a few times each year. 

Along the way MacKinnon has found ways to include everyone regardless of means. Advanced students may transition into paid internship positions, and she has a work-trade system for lower-income clay enthusiasts. She often gifts free workshops to women in the community who are undergoing hard times, whether from grief, recovery from trauma or exhaustion as front-line workers. She recently developed a program with Islanders Working Against Violence to offer free classes to women and children staying in IWAV’s Transition House or secondary housing, or accessing their support services. 

“The conversations in my workshops have exposed me to many social and financial gaps in our community for women needing creativity and companionship,” MacKinnon said. “For years it has been my studio’s goal to create more access to the healing and empowerment clay offers.”

During the first year of the pandemic MacKinnon was able to offer outdoor classes until the weather turned in October. She then distributed her studio for the winter by renting out her wheels and providing clay and tool packages on island. Her kilns have been kept busy firing all of those people’s work, and MacKinnon offers glazing services with a line that she’s personally created. 

The outdoor classroom is now gearing up for a second year, but MacKinnon is also hard at work trying to ensure a permanent option for incubating the island’s growing talent is realized. The school will include drop-in times for self-sufficient workers and an ongoing community/social source for sharing ideas. She has already invested in most of the equipment and materials needed; a building permit to add the new building to her home property has been approved and an all-local build team has been assembled.

In addition to her own contribution, MacKinnon is hoping to find a major donor or four major donors who could bring $50,000 each to the social enterprise project. 

A short video about her work made by Amelia McCluskey called Julie MacKinnon Ceramics — Clay in Community was accepted to represent Canada for the Ceramics Congress this month, and can be viewed on YouTube.

Further information about the project is available upon request to juliemackinnonceramics@gmail.com.

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