Humans of Campbell River: Martha & Gordon James

Humans of Campbell River is a collaboration between Destination Campbell River and Bluetree Photography. Showcasing the stories of those who call our coastal community home. Each week we deep dive into a new story and the connections between people and place. This week we’re sharing the story of Lisa Petrunia. 

We met in high school in Calgary 1966. 

G: My mom loved doing ceramics, that is using mold-cast greenware and commercial glazes. Eventually she got her own electric kiln and I started melting and stretching pop and beer bottles. I started playing with “pug” or soft malleable clay and kept on with it. Then I got a kick wheel when I was about 16.

M: My dad remembered the mud pies I made as a child from gully mud and grass. I dried them on the back porch in the sun. I played Clarinet in grade 10 junior band at William Aberhart in Calgary. He was the tallest, skinniest. baritone sax player, later tuba, in the band. It turned out that we shared an enthusiasm for mock German pep bands.

G: We both loved being in the band and had very goofy behaviour. We got in trouble sometimes for joking around and then Martha would laugh. Neither of us had taken an art class yet. I was still struggling with the kick wheel at home but made some progress and had a job pouring greenware from molds at a ceramic hobby shop.

A couple standing in front of their studio smiling

G: After we graduated from high school we began dating and Martha gained an interest in pottery from me. We started working together in a makeshift studio in my parents basement. When I decided to go to art school, she was taking a course in broadcasting but decided to switch over to University of Calgary in Photography but a summer class in Ceramics sparked her interest in clay. In my final year of art college I became interested in printmaking ,especially etching.

M: My dad bought a property on Quadra Island in January 1976. We graduated that spring, got married in May and came to Quadra on our honeymoon. My parents said we could live in the house until we were settled and so we built our first studio and slowly started making the first James Pottery.

G: The first winter on Quadra we nearly froze. The house had hardly any insulation and the only heat source was a barrel burner wood stove – but no firewood other that a stack of cedar shingle offcuts. We could often see our breath when we spoke. At the studio we built a large cross draft kiln with the intention of it being a combination wood and propane burner. The wood didn’t work out because we could never store enough beachwood to let it dry enough to burn properly. I remember our first firing in the kiln. It took 24 hours to reach temperature and when the kiln was opened we had 20 teapots with fused on lids from the ash deposits. Beautiful but useless.

A couple looking at art in their studio

M: We found our beloved property in the fall of 1979. it was the perfect amount of ramshackle for us to be able to afford it. The old Joyce homestead on the Southern tip of Quadra with two old buildings to renovate. One became James Pottery and the other, a floathouse, our home. We began the epic move of 3000 hard bricks to re-build our kiln, only better and moved into the house on Gorde’s 30th birthday in 1981.

G: Quadra was so much fun in those early days. There were a lot of us Boomers moving out to the country and the islands were a popular destination. We were partners in a co-op craft shop and each artist worked one day a week to keep it going. There were lots of parties and dances
then. We jacked up the old farmhouse and put it on a concrete perimeter foundation, built additions to the studio until it eventually was quite grand. Then I started on the kiln.

M: Our kids, Elliott and Alec were born in 1985 and 89. We had an intercom system set up so that we could hear them in the studio if they woke up. Most of our work was done in the evening when they slept. Around 1990 I took a professional development workshop at the Banff Centre. Talking to other potters at the workshop made me realize that we needed to add a gallery/ display space to the studio and we opened it in early spring of 1990. The gallery immediately became the primary outlet for selling our pottery.

A couple smiling and waving from in front of their home and studio

G: It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for over 45 years. I still wake up every morning and am eager to get to the studio. It’s my place and I don’t ever want to retire. About five years ago I added a larger room to my print studio upstairs and Martha has her darkroom set up there too. I wish I could spend more time doing etching, collagraph and painting. Finding the balance between pottery and printmaking isn’t always easy.

M: After all the years of firing with propane we are making a change to electric firing to help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Electric firing has its own characteristics and challenges, so for the past two years we’ve been testing new glazes and are slowly making the transition. In my photography studio I currently have over thirty unprinted rolls of film waiting to be worked on. Printing in my darkroom is the only place I love to be alone.

G: Martha and I are so lucky to be able to live and work together every day. We share so many interests in a variety of areas: art and craft, being involved in our local film club and artist studio tour, playing music together in the Campbell River Community Band and my rock ’n roll sax playing in Go Dog Go. Our art practice is constantly changing which we both like.To see a piece made years ago is to meet an artifact from our past again.

M: In the last three and a half years we’ve been blessed to have three beautiful young grandsons. Being a Baba and a mom and an artist is what I am on this earth for.

A couple smiling together in their pottery studio

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