A feast for the eyes and the soul

When describing Jim Smith’s pottery, it’s almost inevitable to use words like “yummy,” “delicious” and “scrumptious.” With strong forms, rich patterns and lustrous surfaces, his platters, bowls, vases and serving dishes are a feast for the eyes.

And that’s even without what most pieces are made for: food.

“The pieces really come alive with food,” says Jim (ANSCAD 1983, BFA 1989), playing show-and-tell in his studio/showroom before a rapt audience of one on a recent wintery afternoon. “I don’t really consider them complete until you add the food.”

His pieces are shaped out of the local red clay known as Lantz clay, coated with slip—“like melted ice cream”— drawn on and painted. Then they’re fired and glazed and fired again. It’s a six-week process that keeps him busy during the winter months, when tourist traffic and seasonal residents have all but disappeared from the pretty south-shore town of Chester. He bought the house that provides both work and living space in the early 1980s, not long after he graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Originally from Montreal, he became smitten with Nova Scotia while studying at the art college; he regards the friends and faculty he met there as family. Once he finished his studies, he decided to stay in the province, gravitating to a “quieter place” where he could surround himself with beauty and concentrate on his work. He found the perfect spot to do that in the tiny house at the intersection of Valley Road and Duke Street on the way to “downtown Chester.” It was built in 1860 as a general store and has served as a store of some kind ever since; there’s even a depression in the floor where, for generations, the storekeepers stood behind the counter.

As he says, “all roads lead to my door,” but in case it’s possible to miss, he painted the place terracotta orange with chartreuse trim. The open sign is put in the front bay window from June 1 to Thanksgiving.

Over the years, he’s established a rhythm: producing much of the work in the winter, welcoming his clientele in the summer and departing in late fall for his “cultural fix”—travelling to places with rich ceramic traditions, places like China, Turkey, Mexico, South Korea and Italy.

Once back home again, all those influences are distilled and given the Jim Smith twist; his distinct palette is watery blue and copper green with punches of orange and gold. His designs are graceful and flowing, populated with birds, flowers, branches and curvy motifs; but they’re often whimsical and surprising too, like the marshmallows, paddles and rather enormous mosquitoes that occasionally appear. Somehow, the master ceramicist, whose work is widely collected, published and exhibited, makes even mosquitoes look elegant.

“I like to go out and gather those influences in the context of where they spring from and then bring them back right here,” he says. “Chester is a great place to live and work but I need to go away too,” he adds with a laugh.