- Words by Jane Zatlyny Photography by Don Denton
Whether you walk across the threshold of Mary Fox Pottery in Ladysmith or open the book Mary Fox: My Life as a Potter, prepare to be immersed in a world of colour, beauty and imagination. And pots. Lots of pots.
A pretty winter garden leads into a renovated miner’s cabin on a quiet Ladysmith side street. Inside the shop, your eye is drawn to a large selection of pots, tableware, bowls and vessels. Beautiful, impossibly tall pots. Voluptuous oversized vessels. Blown glass and ceramic chalices, mounted in rock. Glazes and textures beyond one’s wildest imagination.
Behind the gallery, apprentice Sarah Wilson attaches a clay handle to a mug in the Creation Room. Shelves upon shelves of pots and vessels await firing in Mary’s massive Blaauw kiln at the back of the house.
Upstairs, in Mary’s private quarters, there are more pots to admire, on low floating shelves under large windows and on higher shelves on the walls. And on her kitchen counter, there are vintage Torquay motto-ware pottery pieces, including her precious childhood egg cup.
Mary uses an adjacent room as a photography studio, and it is here that she has arranged some of her most impressive pieces on wall-mounted shelves, including a rotund saggar-fired pot with the most incredible surface. Made from a mixture of sawdust, copper, and seaweed from the Ladysmith Harbour, it is a prime example of Mary’s artistic ingenuity.
“Ladysmith used to be a coal mining town, so there’s a bit of coal attached to the seaweed, which gives it these red tones,” she says.
The pot looks ancient, very much like it could have been part of an archaeological dig.
“I want people to have that sense of unearthed beauty with my work,” says Mary. “I want them to look and wonder, ‘Is it glass? Is it clay? Is it metal?’”
It’s hard to imagine, looking around, that Mary’s life as a potter almost didn’t happen.
“Ceramics was the only elective left open to me at Central Junior High School in Victoria,” Mary says. “I was positive I couldn’t take the class because I wasn’t artistic; I was a bookworm and a beachcomber.” But take it she did.
“It was love at first touch,” she said.
That elective led to more high school classes, much experimentation and the acceptance of her work at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria gift shop and other Victoria galleries when she was still in her teens.
Mary was ambitious and completely obsessed with pottery. At 18, she planned to apprentice with British potter Michael Leach in Devon. But fate intervened once again.
“I borrowed a friend’s car to deliver some pots to a gallery and had a car accident,” she said. “There was no collision insurance on the car, so that took all my coin and I couldn’t go.”
As a self-taught ceramic artist, Mary has faced numerous personal and professional hurdles, including a devastating autoimmune disease that affected her and her late wife, Heather Vaughan. She persisted through it all, establishing homes and studios in different cities, exploring new methods and materials in her work, and making a living as a potter.
Now 63, she is at the top of her profession and able to look back with perspective on her life as a potter.
“About 20 years ago, Heather asked me what would have made it easier for me as a potter starting out,” she says. “I told her: a low-cost, equipped studio where I could sell what I was creating.”
This conversation marked the beginning of the Mary Fox Legacy Project Society. Mary created an endowment fund through the Vancouver Foundation and the Craft Council of BC, and an apprenticeship program to support young ceramic artists. Today, this project is her focus.
“The world we live in is very different from the world I grew up in,” she says. “It is increasingly important to me to help the youth of tomorrow.”
When she finished writing her book and started putting the Legacy Project together, she realized that she would no longer have the energy to both exhibit her own work and work on the Legacy Project. But that is all right, she says.
“I’ve succeeded in my main life goal of creating pottery and earning my living by my craft. Now it’s time to help the young people—and what better way to do that than by introducing a traditional apprenticeship and an endowment to help future generations of potters?”
Mary Fox: My Life as a Potter
Stories and Techniques
Part memoir, part instructional how-to book for ceramicists, this beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover book offers an inspiring story of love, loss, artistic growth and friendship that every student, collector or individual who appreciates the ceramic arts should read.
In Part I, Mary shares her development as an artist and the highs and lows of her personal life, including the loss of her wife, Heather, in 2007. She also tells readers about her vision for the Mary Fox Legacy Project.
In Part II, Mary offers valuable technical notes, including “things I wish I’d known,” glaze techniques, marketing ideas, and detailed information about her creative process.
“Baring my soul to the world was not on my ‘must-do list,’” Mary admits. “But inspiring and sharing knowledge was, so I shared it all.”
All proceeds from Mary Fox: My Life as a Potter (2020, Harbour Publishing) support the Mary Fox Legacy Project.