Peter Powning: A Retrospective, John Leroux, ed. Goose Lane Editions & Beaverbrook Art Gallery, November 2020. $45 CDN. 192 pp. ISBN: 9781773101927

“Alchemist” and “polymath” aptly describe renowned New Brunswick sculptor and ceramist Peter Powning in this volume celebrating the artist’s 50-year career and a touring show that features over 160 works. The book is much more than a usual exhibition catalogue: its bilingual text and images of the work, most photographed by Powning himself, offer a rare, intimate glimpse into a life devoted to the pursuit of a multi-disciplined practice.

Editor John Leroux, manager of the Beaverbrook’s collections and exhibitions, provides an insightful foreword that introduces critical essays by noted curators Rachel Gottlieb and Peter Larocque and arts writers John K. Grande and the late Allen Bentley. An afterword by Powning’s life partner, acclaimed author Beth Powning, is a moving account of the intensely creative life the couple has shared in rural New Brunswick since emigrating to the Sussex area from New England in 1970. Powning’s lengthy acknowledgements complete the text with a chronology of the many stages in the largely self-taught artist’s career, an homage to the artists, curators, gallerists, and urban developers who have supported his achievements, which include winning the 2006 Saidye Bronfman Award and having his art featured in numerous public, private, and corporate collections.

Each essay is thoughtfully illustrated with examples of Powning’s work, from his formative days as a studio potter making functional stoneware and raku vessels, to his unfolding sculptural practice creating large-scale commissioned public artworks.

Regardless of form or approach, Powning’s visual vocabulary stems consistently from his materials—clay, glass, bronze, iron, wood, and paper—and their transformation through fire. The chronological arrangement of the volume’s 114 colour plates details the progression of his vision over the decades and his fearless experimentation with various processes, departing from kiln-firing to pit-firing ceramic vessels, to casting bronze and iron and incorporating these materials and slumped glass—sheet glass that’s been fired and melted over forms and in moulds—into imposing sculptures. Works such as Shards of Time, created with pigmented shotcrete, stainless steel and cast bronze, and installed in 2014 on Saint John’s Harbour Passage, have an out-of-time, enigmatic quality that summons the idea of lost worlds and deconstructed civilization. As Bentley carefully elucidates, Powning’s small and large-scale sculptural works conjure the world of myth, “an apocalyptic landscape where space and time unite in a continuum of enlightened meaning.” (p. 47) Allusions to the metaphysical are eerily present in his Reliquary series, for example.

Yet, throughout this oeuvre, the use of glyphs and other cultural references and marks remain oblique, sparing the work from being identified with recognizable schools or ideologies. Grande notes that Powning’s visual “language is as much about the process, and the artist’s inner narrative, as it is about the physical product that results from that process,” and sums up the artworks’ “qualities of mystery and imagination” as “Edgar Allan Poe meets Star Trek” (p. 39). As the book demonstrates, this is simply one way of viewing the work of an artist who defies categorization and continues to thrive in the art world well beyond the boundaries of his adopted province and chosen craft.