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Clay harvested from Nuuskan Island for pottery revives ancient tradition

Nov 21, 2019

Pottery shards dating back over 1000 years [have been unearthed] at Nuutamesanan (Smokey Hill).

People boating past Nuuskan Island on the Nottaway River this August may have noticed some unusual activity. A group consisting of a ceramic artist, a geologist, an art teacher and a filmmaker were busy working on an interesting project.

The idea was inspired by a childhood memory of filmmaker and Nation co-founder Neil Diamond. “Our family spent every summer at Nuuskan,” he explained. “I would dig up clay and form crude objects and fire them in our cook stove.”

Diamond took clay samples from the tidal flats of the Nottaway and Broadback rivers to Montreal to show his friend, ceramic artist Richard Lawson.

“Neil was interested in building foundations for his sauna with the local clay,” recalled Lawson. But Lawson tested it in his kiln and realized it had the plasticity and quality of clay that can be manipulated and fired to create ceramic objects. They then explored ideas to create a ceramic retreat.

“There is something about creating directly from the earth around you that is incredibly healing. The connection of ceramics to the land is unique – it creates a connection to your surroundings unlike any other art. You can paint, write about things, but only in ceramics do you actually take the land and mould it into something,” said Lawson.

Ceramics exist in almost every culture around the world. It is an art that is tied to the land, to the geology, the culture, the place. In fact, there is evidence that a thousand years ago Crees in James Bay were making ceramics from the very same clay.

Diamond and Lawson then reached out to geologist Christopher Covel, archaeologist David Denton and Cree artist and teacher Margaret Orr, and guide Glen Diamond (Neil’s brother) to collaborate on their project. The response was positive and the planning began.

In early August, Covel drove his battered Ford pick-up truck from Maine to Montreal. Diamond, Lawson and Covel then piled in as much gear and food as they could, strapped it all down with tarps and ropes, and drove to Waskaganish.

The team set up camp on Nuuskan Island and the heavy lifting began. “You have to go out to get the clay and then wait for it to dry. There was a lot of physical work involved. Clay is very heavy for us older folks,” joked Diamond.

Diamond also noted that a big challenge was the weather and the isolation. “You’re not in control of a lot of things. You’re isolated and the weather can change on a dime. You have to be flexible. There’s no electricity, no refrigeration, no running water. It’s not like working in a ceramic studio in Montreal.”

Covel started identifying and smashing rocks to be incorporated into glazes. Orr, the Diamond brothers and Lawson got busy building the kilns. A kiln is essentially an oven that bakes ceramics in temperatures upwards of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. More importantly, kilns are where the magic of pottery happens. The process of firing turns clay into ceramics.

According to Lawson, firing is a craft in itself and requires an open mind and a good deal of experimentation. “We used three methods of firing,” he explained. “One is pit firing which is the oldest method of firing ceramics. Dig a pit, put ceramics in and build a large fire over it. In cultures all over the world, that’s how ceramics were, and, in some cases, are still fired.”

The team wanted to test many clays so they built two other kilns that were easier to control: a barrel kiln and a raku kiln. A barrel kiln is basically a fire pit in a barrel which uses less fuel and is more easily controlled.

“The raku kiln was ideal because of its short firing time. It can fire to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit in less than an hour,” said Lawson. It is fired by propane and opened at a peak temperature and the pots are removed and exposed to combustibles for effects.For example, the red-hot object is dropped into wood shavings, reeds or moose hair to create a desired effect.

Moose hair burnt vase

“I think the moose hair raku is particularly beautiful,” commented Lawson. 

They then started moulding the clay using traditional methods, forming pinch pots and using coiling techniques. After numerous firings and experimentation the possibilities and limits of the clay began to emerge.

“Richard fired some moose bones and got this strange colour that I never imagined would happen. There’s still a lot of experiments to be done. Who knows what we’ll come up with,” enthused Diamond.

Next summer there will be a return to Nuuskan to share their ceramics knowledge with participants from the Waskaganish Wellness Centre retreat.

Lawson is excited for participants to learn about the intersection of geology, chemistry and history involved in ceramics.

“What happens in the kiln is similar to what happens in the earth over hundreds of thousands of years when rocks are formed,” he observed. “The temperature of magma ranges between 1,300 and 2,400 Fahrenheit, the same temperature ranges as in a potter’s kiln – it just takes a lot longer.”

Archaeologist David Denton will bring full-scale replica pots to discuss ceramic traditions and dating of ceramics in Eeyou Istchee. “I will provide an archaeological perspective on ancient ceramics from the Waskaganish area,” said Denton.

He has been leading a team that has uncovered pottery shards dating back over 1000 years, the “Middle Woodland” period at Nuutamesanan (Smokey Hill).

As they were packing up their gear to head back to Waskaganish and eventually Montreal, Diamond made a note about the landscape.

“The last time I was on Nuuskan was about 15 years ago,” he said. “It’s become even more beautiful. The beach has grown, it like what you’d find at a resort. There were tons of berries, rabbits, walleye, trout, white fish, sturgeon and pike. It was great to eat like that again. I’m getting fat just remembering all the food.”

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