Susanne James does a pottery demonstration in Head Lake Park earlier this year. James is a new addition to the Studio Tour joining Studio A. /Photo submitted

Potter's work always evolving

By Angelica Ingram

Published Sept 27 2016

Thom Lambert still remembers the piece written by former Haliburton County Echo editor Martha Perkins when he joined the Haliburton County Studio Tour 12 years ago.

The long feature is still hanging proudly in Lambert’s mother’s home.

As the artist and longtime Haliburton resident looks ahead to the upcoming tour he reflects on his pottery career and creative journey.

A resident of Haliburton for decades Lambert 55 began doing pottery 20 years ago following a career in outdoor education.

“This is totally second career for me” he said. “I was working outdoor ed I used to do contract work for basically everybody.”

It was a night class offered by the Haliburton School of the Arts that intrigued his wife Sue Shikaze and him.

“She convinced me to take a night class and that was it that was the beginning of it” he said. “At the end of my first night class I had pots. I was lucky I had a certain amount of feel for it.”

He continued to take classes to grow as an artist and improve his abilities. He also worked at the college as a studio tech which he says “was an education in itself.”

The artist spent the next few years renting out studio space from the college before transforming part of his home into a workshop and display area about 13 years ago.

Located at 5623 Gelert Rd. in Donald Lambert’s studio Singing Dog Studio features shelves of colourful pieces from functional pottery such as mugs plates and bowls to Raku wall hangings with landscapes painted on them.

“Pottery is attractive to me because it’s equal parts technical and expressive” he says. “I quite often say to people that pottery is one of the most difficult mediums because there are so many things that can go wrong.”

Lambert says when he was younger he never considered himself an artist but he “got lucky” with pottery.

“I kind of had it in my hands.”

During his early years as a potter he made primarily functional pieces such as dishes before expanding to non-functional work.

“I didn’t consider myself to be the kind of potter who made abstract or non-functional stuff” he says. “I started looking at clay and began realizing I could do landscape with it.”

Lambert says since he started he’s always had a line of work that has incorporated landscape. He says moving away from functional work was terrifying as he could no longer fall back on the idea that the pieces would still result in objects that could be used.

One of the things he prides himself on is the variety he offers and the ever changing collections that appear in his studio.

“If you bought a mug from me even three or four years ago it’s likely that I don’t make that mug anymore. I don’t have that kind of attention span.”

Lambert says his regular customers have come to expect the innovation in his studio and that’s what brings many back year after year.

“I have to constantly convince customers to buy into my artistic vision” he says. “I have to convince people to collect my work rather than collect a certain line.”

He says maintaining the same pieces year over year is a whole skill onto itself but is just not reflective of him or his work ethic.

The pottery process is a lengthy one as it can include multiple firings glazing and many stages in between. Lambert says the quickest timeframe he can turn around a finished piece is five days but that would be pushing it.

He is not shy to admit it took multiple applications before he was accepted on the tour pointing to the high quality of the artists selected as one of the reasons the studio tour has lasted as long as it has.

Coming up to its 29th year the studio tour is a juried show that includes fibre artists painters woodworkers potters and more. It strives to offer a variety of work and media which can make the application process that much harder for artists.

Some of the original members continue to showcase their work on the tour a testament to the grit and determination of the founders and artists who have created a legacy that began with a simple vision.

“The county overall as a place that has become a real haven for artists owes a huge amount of that to the originators of the studio tour. The studio tour has always been I think for a lot of working artists one of those things that’s out there that lets you imagine you could actually make a living as an artist in Haliburton County. Thirty years ago it wasn’t like today … the original people that got together 29 years ago and said let’s start this … it was incredibly visionary.”

A private organization the studio tour doesn’t receive government funding and is volunteer driven. The Haliburton County Studio Tour is the second longest running one in the province said Lambert behind the Bracebridge tour.

Held over two weekends in October the tour can attract thousands of people to each studio meaning artists must be prepared with a large quantity of offerings. Some studios will get upwards of 2000 visitors in a day during the tour.

With more than a decade of tour experience behind him Lambert has gotten to the point where he can almost expect certain customers on a specific day and time.

“I and most people on the studio tour are lucky that we have those folks that we have those customers. We also work really really hard to make it worthwhile.”

Making it worthwhile includes having a high level of quality work a significant amount of inventory and of course the delicious snacks that can range from homemade cookies to wood fired bruschetta.

“If somebody shows up on Sunday at 4 p.m. that it’s not a poorer experience than if I got there first thing on Saturday morning” he says. “There should not be empty shelves there should not be empty spots on the wall.”

The experience is what sets the studio tour apart from just a shopping trip. Interacting with the artists watching them create and being a part of the process is what has brought people back year after year.

“I have customers who come in who say I really don’t need anything I just really wanted to see what you’re doing.”

Lambert thoroughly enjoys the conversations he has with those who visit him and ask him questions.

“I consider it a real honour to do my part to keep it going. I see no reason why the studio tour shouldn’t celebrate its 40th year.”

As a former chairman of the tour Lambert admires the hard work and effort that has gone into continuing the tour.

“I’m in awe of the people that originally started the tour they started it in a completely different environment … when the people started this tour they were swimming upstream against a very strong current.”

Lambert is looking forward to the excitement of another tour and what it will bring to the area.

“With the studio tour it’s great because people want to know why you do what you do. They want to know the story of your work and that’s incredibly gratifying.”