Ceramics connect us—makers, users, cultures, peoples—as do food and flowers, all thanks to cross-pollination serendipitous and intentional. The oeuvre of esteemed Nova Scotian ceramist Walter Ostrom applies a time-travelling, seriously playful hybridization of traditions and techniques to a field rooted in, sometimes humbled by, utility. Over his fifty-year career, the multiple award-winning, internationally-exhibited artist and teacher has explored the craft’s limitless possibilities in works that exalt and transcend function, while always honouring ceramics’ role in daily life. 

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia retrospective, Good Earth: the pots and passion of Walter Ostrom, (October 8, 2020-March 14, 2021) celebrated the artist’s legacy in an array of earthenware, stoneware and porcelain as varied as the blooms in an enchanted garden. Brainchild of craft historian Sandra Alfoldy, Ostrom’s late colleague at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the show was a visual feast of shapes and colours so luscious they summoned taste, conjuring the very substances vessels are made to contain. 

Good Earth: the pots and passion of Walter Ostrom, Installation view: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Photo: Steve Farmer

A vibrant through-line traced Ostrom’s lengthy career at NSCAD, beginning in the days of Conceptualism, where fearless experimentation fuelled his teaching. Informed by a background in chemistry, he is revered as an innovator who explored low fire ceramics—maiolica—in an era when stoneware dominated and decoration was associated with grandma’s teacups. His masterful decoration in maiolica and polychrome glazes, using hand painting and techniques such as sgraffito, elevates a confluence of traditional and experimental forms to stunning effect. 

“Craft is life,” says the artist, whose teaching is inseparable from making—a fact celebrated by curators Shannon Parker and Julie Hollenbach’s inclusion of former students’ works as testaments to Ostrom’s influence.

As Good Earth’s range of works demonstrated, the potter himself is a vessel for knowledge and learning, whether in creating installations of dessert plates, stoneware sculptural pieces, or earthenware soap dishes painted with political messages, an example of his lifelong activism. Deep Bowl with Byzantine Flowers (2007) (12.5×32.7×33.0), an earthenware wheel-thrown piece with neo-maiolica and polychrome glaze decorations, exemplified the delicious fusion of influences and approaches that make Ostrom’s ceramics so dynamic. 

Spirit Pot/Fen Ping, 1996. 150.0 x 50.0 x 50.0 cm, Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Purchased with the support of the Canada Council Acquisition Assistance Program, Ottawa and Tony Saulnier, Halifax, 1997.
Jealous Potter III, 2013-2018. 55.0 x 58.5 x 88.0 cm, Jingdezhn stoneware, moulded, PRC Laser cut cardboard Collection of the artist.

Throughout the exhibition, decoration transformed utility into function on a metaphorical level. Spirit Pot (1996) (150.0 x 50.0 x 50.0cm) is an earthenware, wheel-thrown and press-moulded pillar-shaped vessel with metaphysical allusions, decorated with objects of Nova Scotia’s touristic iconography that subvert utility. Satire becomes self-effacing when human history yields to nature’s. Jealous Potter III (55.0 x 58.5 x 88.0cm), one of a series created between 2013 and 2018, features a tortoise figure in Jingdezhen stoneware—perhaps inspired by Ostrom’s family pet, Retlaw—with elaborate, laser-cut cardboard vessel shapes sprouting from its carapace. A nod to McLuhan, its mediums are the message, human ephemera set against earthy timelessness. 

Behind Ostrom’s legacy is a thirst for travel and exploring other cultures, a profound regard for place and the origins of clay—for stoneware and porcelain works he created in Jingdezhen (the ancient Chinese centre for porcelain, the Ming Dynasty’s most transcendent of earthly materials), and earthenware made of Nova Scotia’s red Lantz clay—and a passion for gardening, as his renowned gardens in Indian Harbour and Lunenburg attest. 

Ostrom’s interest in botanicals inspires not only his decorative motifs but many of his forms and their functions. A highlight of the exhibition was its selection of earthenware flower bricks and baskets inspired by 18th century, Chinese-influenced European designs—the perfect forms for maiolica and polychrome glazes. Wheel-thrown, altered and constructed Flower Brick in the Shape of a Tortoise (1991) (21.0 x 50.8 x 36.2) is a masterpiece in earthenware and maiolica. Using maiolica with resist decoration, earthenware Flower Brick with Garden Panels (2004) (27.0 x 21.0 x 17.0cm) features minute details contrasting nature’s rampant growth with human efforts to shape it. In imagery suggesting an espalier, it bespeaks the artist’s genius: giving form to the beauty that sustains us, and embracing the glorious what-ifs in working to contain it. 

Good Earth: the pots and passion of Walter Ostrom will be on view at the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario from May 22 to September 12, 2021.

The book of the same title that accompanies the exhibition (Goose Lane Editions & Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2021, 175pp, $50) is now available.