Merry Potters: The Artists of Woodlawn Pottery Studio

While online shopping is appealing, and dangerously easy, it’s still wonderful going out on an old-fashioned hunt for gifts that both come from the heart and are made by hand.

Absolutely Luminous: Raku pottery by Kumiko Claros

This crisp December weekend, one such hunt led me to Woodlawn Pottery Studio’s 2016 Show & Sale.

The Woodlawn Pottery Studio 2016 Show & Sale at Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw St.

The artists’ work shone in a light-filled former classroom at Artscape Youngplace on Shaw – a school-turned-cultural community centre near Trinity Bellwoods Park.

There are some people that just don’t take a bad picture; they look good from every angle. The same could be said for the pottery in this show.

Mind you, as one of the artists revealed, that’s not necessarily true of the pieces that didn’t make it to the show.

“When I was starting out in pottery, someone told me that if you make a piece that is ugly, don’t fire it because it will outlive you for decades,” said Michele Silveira, smiling.

Woodlawn Pottery Studio artist Michele Silveira examines a fellow potter’s work

Silveira took time out from helping at the cash to tell me about Woodlawn Pottery Studio.

An artists’ co-op, it’s located within a YWCA woman’s centre in midtown Toronto. It started as one of the Y’s educational programs, but the program was cancelled in the 1980s. Several of the potters banded together to run the studio as a co-op, and so it continues to this day. There are 19 members, all women, but men are welcome to take courses there.

Silveira says several founders are still active in the group, including Joyce Wheatley, whose work reflects her lifelong fascination with East Asia, and Japanese culture in particular.

Wheatley’s mastery of technique is matched by the soul of an artist, 80-plus years young. As she writes: “In working with the clay, I try to capture that spontaneous instant when it does something magical and fresh. And when I do this then the piece has a vitality that a machine-made pot never has.”

Wheatley makes a living from her art, while Silveira – who works in radiation therapy at Sunnybrook Hospital – does pottery as a therapeutic hobby, though her work is highly professional.

“For me, I find it meditative,” she says. Part of that is the routine she has before she begins any piece, studying the clay for a long time, thinking about what would be good to do with it.

I ask if there’s an ideal potter’s personality — if most potters, like her, approach things slowly and methodically. Not at all, she replies.

“Some people work in a frenzy,” she says, adding that the members come from all backgrounds, including social workers, teachers, medical professionals and graphic designers.

Every potter’s style evolves, she notes. Silveira’s own work is evolving from more practical pieces to more expressive, emotional works, and figurative pieces.

Michele Silveira was keen to demonstrate her evolution as an artist in the show

“My goal is to do a big sculptural piece,” she says, gesturing something almost life-size. It would depict a female figure.

The women of Woodlawn Pottery Studio have found an art that allows them not only to shape and transform clay, but themselves in the process.

For more information, or to learn about their courses, visit their website:

Backstage at the Opera: The Art of Costumes

Opera is something my Dad listened to on the radio when I was growing up. I didn’t understand what they were singing. It felt remote.

Years later, friends invited me to the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome, staged by filmmaker Atom Egoyan. I’d seen his film Exotica, which involved some similar plot points – older men, younger woman. Voyeurism. Raw emotion. His artistic direction in an opera could be interesting.

As the lights went down and focused on the stage, I saw SURTITLES™, the COC’s brilliant invention. They’re like subtitles for a foreign film, projected above the stage. Suddenly I understood the words.

There were extra visual clues. These exceptional singers were equally great actors who conveyed plot through movements. Themes were conveyed in set design, choreography … and costumes. Magic. I’ve been going every year since.

“It’s all visual,” says COC Costume Supervisor Sandra Corazza. “And people are getting more and more visual, demanding things be more different and better.”

It’s working. The COC posted a $32,000 surplus for the 2015/16 season, a return on investment in artistic excellence — including the wardrobe department.

This past week, I had the treat of visiting Corazza and her team in that very department. We started in a room stacked floor to ceiling with jackets, shirts, trousers and boots, the first of many such rooms. I gasped.

The department has a big budget, but has to, Corazza says.

“If you’re doing a play, that doesn’t compare to an opera chorus of 40, with a dozen supers [extras], eight soloists,” says Corazza. “You cannot feed that many people with one chicken.”

And they recycle. She describes the investment they made in the wardrobe for The Magic Flute — back this season — as similar to investing in a Little Black Dress or men’s suit to last for years.

“It’s ours, we built it,” she says with pride. “And because we know we used decent fabric and put seam allowances and side seams in [to every costume], we can put it on again and know it will still be beautiful.”

The COC’s original Magic Flute wardrobe just returned from the U.S. Co-productions are common now, helping distribute cost. Corazza shows me how the U.S. company treated the costumes with respect. She pulls out a skirt worn by the lead female singer. It was hemmed, not cut. Now Corazza’s team can simply take out the hem to lengthen it.

Natassia Brunato works on the women’s wardrobes for opera productions

There’s still a tonne of work to do. In addition to The Magic Flute, the COC is staging an all-new production: Riel. They’re building the wardrobe from scratch.

There are challenges. Fitting, for example. One of the male cast members stands 6’8” — not your standard tall guy. Every performer must be measured individually.  Natassia Brunato takes care of the female cast, and Christie del Monte outfits the men.

Christie del Monte is painstakingly polishing all the men’s shoes

They work in subtle details that make a huge difference. Louis Riel’s supporters will all be wearing black jackets. Corazza says if the jackets were identical, the men would merge into a single silhouette — not the desired effect. So every jacket features a different texture and hue.

Some Magic Flute costumes have to be recreated. The complex ones will be sewn by tailors across southern Ontario. Corazza shows me a skirt for a character called Papagana.

Sandra Corazza exhibits the exquisite design of one of their favourite tailors

“The person who made Papagana, the talent on her finger — it’s incredible,” says Corazza with awe.

She says operas have a significant role in keeping the craft of tailoring alive. And by helping to build dreamlike and breathtaking productions, the wardrobe department does its part to keep opera alive.