WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘I’ve got to be honest with you,’ I whisperto Denis with some trepidation as he leads me into the main gallery space, ‘I’ve never actually been here before.’ Even as the confession trickles from my lips, I’m not sure why I feel the need to tell him. There are lots of places I’ve written about after only one visit. Restaurants. Breweries. Entire neighbourhoods. And yet here,at The Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery in Uptown Waterloo, walking with the Gallery’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, Denis Longchamps, I feel compelled to divulge this (surely) innocuous transgression.
Maybe it’s because from a young age I was taught that a city tour (whether in Europe, or the States, or closer to home) is never complete without a museum or gallery visit. Maybe it’s because this place, with its high ceilings and poured concrete walls, stained glass and natural light, bears more than a fleeting resemblance to a medieval cathedral– that is, to a literal place of confession. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because this gallery – planted firmly in the heart of Uptown Waterloo, along the edge of Waterloo Park – has beenin my mind ever since my dad, a retired Film Studies and English Lit prof, championed this ambitious project back when it was being imagined. Whatever the case, the words are out. And, lucky for me, Denis is the forgiving type.
‘You aren’t the only one,’ Denis chuckles through a distinctly Quebecois accent. ‘When I took over as Executive Director, I heard from many folks that they didn’t even know we existed. Indeed, at least three individuals I spoke with thought the Gallery was a high school.’ He pauses for a second, pondering his next words, before uttering them with certainty: ‘I’m here to change all that.’ Indeed, he is – and has been.
As we enter the main gallery – a glorious open space with sloped wood-slatted ceiling, large windows and a fantastic array of rose window stained glass on display – Denis elaborates: ‘My primary mission is to re-introduce the Gallery to our community: to create a groundswell of excitement about the place.’ He continues:‘It’s not enough that the Gallery is free tovisit. Instead, there should be no confusion about the fact that this is an hospitable place– an entertaining and cultural destination that individuals, friends, and families think about when they’re deciding what to take in around the region.’
And how does one manage this re-introduction? ‘In small steps,’ Denis replies, unreservedly optimistic. ‘And from day one.’ Indeed, during the very first week that Denis began his job at the Gallery, he installed, in the otherwise empty front foyer, children’s art tables generously equipped with paper and colouring tools. ‘The very day we set up the tables,’ Denis recalls, ‘there was a line of kids waiting to get creative at them.’ A line of future artists, visitors, collectors, donors. At around the same time, Denis set up a community gallery in the main foyer and moved the staffed front desk – at the time directly facing the main entrance – off to the side of the foyer space. ‘I wanted it to be less imposing – and more welcoming.’ Mission accomplished, then.
Another evolution of the space that Denis and his fantastic staff (whom he does not stop lauding throughout the length of my visit) have accomplished is the Gallery shop. Truly, this ‘gift shop’ full of hand-made glass and pottery and jewelry is a gem. In fact, understandably, much focus has been placed on transforming this part of the Gallery into a destination unto itself. As Denis leads me into the shop space, I can’t help but look to buy birthday and holiday gifts for friends and family. My gaze falls onto a modern- looking stained glass panel by Cambridge artist Gord Brown – the perfect piece for any window
in my brother’s west end Toronto semi. Next I lust after an earth-toned vase (with miniature ceramic birds perched on the lid) by Quebec artist José Drouin – something I know my fiancé, Liz, would love. And it doesn’t take long before I lose myself in a minimalist pastel ceramic serving platter by Nova Scotian artist, ToniLosey – an ideal candidate for a Christmas gift for my mom. The place is magical, its shelves of tantalizing merchandise seemingly endless. Filled with fantastic examples of clay, and glass, and more – a wide range of gorgeous decorative and functional pieces. So worth a visit – quite apart from a visit to any of the Gallery’s fantastic and ever-changing exhibitions.
And Denis’ expressed urge to make the entire place more accessible hasn’t been limited to ‘front of house’ improvements, either. Indeed, many of his first months on the job he spent toiling on the second floor – organizing the Gallery’s archives to make things easier for visiting researchers. ‘When I first arrived,’ Denis tells me, ‘the Gallery’s archival materials – documents, photographs, and other ephemera from artists whom worked in ceramics, glass, and copper enameling – were strewn here, there, and everywhere.’ He chuckles: ‘I even found boxes of materials in one of the broom closets.’ And so, with help from staff, Denis consolidated and organized the materials into a wonderful upstairs room: the Ann Roberts Archival Centre. (Another confession: callow youth that I was during my first year in Fine Arts at Waterloo, I paid little attention to the stunning achievements of Ann Roberts, who I was fortunate to have as my studio prof.) Adjacent to the Ann Roberts Archival Centre Denis and his staff have organized and refined the resource-filled Sinclair Family Library, comprised of books, exhibition catalogues, and periodicals related to ceramics, glass, and copper enameling locally, nationally, and internationally.
‘Resurrecting the Archival Centre and Family Library have been especially meaningful acts for me,’ Denis observes. ‘Both Ann Roberts and the Sinclair family have been important founders and donors of the Gallery. Making sure that their legacy is preserved here is so utterly important as we continue to grow this place.’ Indeed, nurturing relationships with committed supporters – as well as with the larger community – has become especially important during the COVID era, when so many arts and culture institutions have registered a need for all the help they can get.
With this in mind, I ask Denis about how the pandemic affected the Gallery. ‘We actually used the lockdowns and closures as an opportunity,’ he tells me. My curiosity is piqued. He continues: ‘Lockdowns meant that the bread-and-butter activity of the Gallery – hosting visitors in the exhibits – completely halted. We knew that if we wanted to continue, and build upon, any sort of community outreach, we’d have to look toward other avenues. And so we did.’ Soon after COVID forced the Gallery to shut down, Denis and his staff began creating DIY pottery kits (including clay, underglaze, tools, and more) that were complemented by instructional online videos where folks could learn a technique and complete a project from their homes.
‘Once these projects – mugs, charcuterie plates, what have you – were complete,’ Denis tells me, ‘participants could drop them off at the Gallery where they would be fired and made ready for pick-up.’ This initiative was wildly successful. ‘Soon after,’ Denis goes on, ‘we received funding from Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada and the Grand River Rotary Club to make available three hundred free drawing kits for kids.’ Another success. And it didn’t end there. When pandemic lockdowns ended, Denis and his staff kept making their popular pottery kits available – for an affordable price. They even came up with a ‘Date Night @ Home Kit’ which includes two kiln-fired clay kits (including clay, underglaze, and basic tools) and a bottle of wine. Fantastic.
And there’s more. Once pandemic lockdowns ended, the Gallery leaned into the public’s interest in crafting their own pottery by offering a number of classes and workshops in-house. These continue to be offered. Every Saturday and Sunday from October until June, for instance, the Gallery host ‘Claytime’ – an all-ages beginner’s pottery workshop. It also hosts stained glass workshops, vase-making classes, date night pottery-making events, glass ornament-making sessions, and more. The staff even host workshops that engage with current exhibitions and the permanent collection where instructors talk about artists’ pieces on display while teaching the specific techniques the artists used. (Schedules are kept updated at theclayandglass.ca – go take a look.) ‘We even rent out our classroom for bachelorette parties, friends’ get togethers – the options are almost endless,’ Denis tells me excitedly. Community engagement at its most robust.
At this point in our conversation, my head is reeling at all the terrific initiatives the Gallery offers. The shop. Archives. Library. Classes and workshops. And Denis hasn’t even begun to tell me about the place’s permanent collection – comprised of nearly one thousand pieces, including mostly contemporary works in ceramic, glass, and copper enameling by Canadian artists. But perhaps this will have to wait for another day. Another visit. Another exploration of this extraordinary regional gem.
As Denis walks me back to the main entrance and bids me adieu, I still feel a little guilty that, after so many years, this has been my first trip to the Gallery. It certainly won’t be my last.