Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Art Acquisition or A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

As our savings dwindle and our RRSPs shrink before our eyes, we are glad that we haven’t always scrimped to save, and that some of our money is already spent on things we still have and will continue to enjoy forever. Specifically, I’m thinking about the beautiful ceramic platter we bought on vacation this summer. For five of the last six summers, we’ve found ourselves renting a tiny place right on the ocean in Nova Scotia. Because we always plan a return, we’ve never felt the need to lug home any souvenirs from our trip. But this year we decided that nothing stays the same forever and we needed to mark the event somehow—to bring something home that would remind us of our wonderful summers. Souvenir shopping can be fraught with problems. We want something that won’t wind up in a junk drawer, something unique, something that fits or is allowed across the border, or on the plane, or in the already overpacked car, something that will always return us to a moment in time, a place, an experience, the feeling of a vacation. In the globalized world, it can be hard to find something you can’t find anywhere else. The last time we were in France (on the highway and in need of a WC), we checked out an IKEA store to see if there were any major differences between ours and theirs, and, no surprise, there was virtually none. Okay, I know IKEA is an extreme example of uniformity, but it illustrates the problem of the ubiquity of mass produced goods. Our solution is to look for local artists or artisanal producers, antique shops, or something from the natural world.

So, one day on our seaside vacation, we set out on an ambling drive with the vague objective of acquiring something to take home. We wound up in Chester, a patrician sailing town full of lovely old houses, a gentle coastal landscape, calm marina, and many tourists. We passed by many little shops crammed with ill curated selections of tourist luring products. Although there may have been some treasures within, N and I are not hard core shoppers, and didn’t feel up for a hunt.

Jim Smith's studio and store front (images from

We were on our way out of town when we drove by a gorgeous storefront window so beautiful, that even at driving speed, we knew it was something special. We turned around, parked, walked in and discovered the studio and tiny storefront of acclaimed ceramicist, Jim Smith. We weren’t surprised that a place so striking and singular was the product of a fine artist. Inside, the ceramicist’s partner, Shannon, was painting a white clay slip over the surface of some heavy red clay plates. She explained the artist’s process: Jim forms his plates, vases, platters and bowls from the native red clay of Nova Scotia. Then, a fine white clay is applied over top. When the white slip has dried to the appropriate texture, Jim draws his evocative and thoughtful patterns into the slip revealing the red clay beneath. Coloured glaze is applied and the object is fired again. The look of the objects is both substantial and delicate. The patterns are not merely painted on, but carved into each piece. They all evoke the rich world traditions of ceramics and manage to appear simultaneously fresh and ancient. Jim himself was listening to our conversation and came out from his studio to meet us. He is passionate about his work and excited about his new pieces. It’s nice to meet a non self-effacing artist so evidently proud of his work. Jim is a sophisticated artist with a very disciplined practice. His work is unique, and I think that is especially unusual in the realm of functional ceramics. We fell in love with his style and his philosophy and purchased a beautiful platter to take with us and ordered two dinner plates (his plates are the only non-existing pieces he accepts orders for). The plates should be fired any day now and should arrive here sometime this month. We plan to visit Jim Smith’s studio every time we return to the south shore and amass a collection of his work bit by bit. I hope you'll visit his website and take a look at his beautiful work.

Large oval platter with peas by Jim Smith, 2008

Souvenirs of trips past:

Our most daring import was from a trip to France. We brought home a little cooler full of unpasturized, semi-dry, washed-rind goat milk cheese in various stages of ripeness (and mold growth) called Picodon de Dieulefit. When we showed up unannounced on his doorstep, the cheese producer had taken us into the ‘cave’--really more of a warehouse--where the little round cheeses age, and fed us samples of cheese from its smooth-textured fresh beginnings to its incredibly piquant full maturity. We couldn’t help ourselves; we had to take some home. The cooler, suspicious looking in its swathes of yellow Lufthansa packing tape, made it home without drawing the slightest interest from customs officials. What they pulled us out of line to question us about was a bag of tulip bulbs clearly labeled as approved for importation to Canada that we’d picked up at the Schiphol airport. Go figure.

The Picodon cheese label. The cheese, unfortunately, is long gone

Our most used vacation souvenir is the beautiful yellow and green coffee service we bought on the same trip in Poteries des Grottes Dieulefit. We use the little yellow cups every morning for shots of espresso (yes, we are unabashed espresso, latte, and cappucino drinkers).

Some pieces from our coffee service from Poteries des Grottes Dieulefit

I also love the tiny fig leaf pressed into the pages of a travel journal (everytime I find it there, it brings a smile to my face), and...

fig leaf

a brass cicada pin from a little shop in Provence where the cigale is a ubiquitous symbol of good luck, and...

The brass cigale (cicada) pin

books. I’m always seduced by gallery catalogues or histories of historic buildings or gardens.

I’d love to know what other people bring home from vacation. Do you shop/collect/gather alone or with someone else? What is your favourite vacation souvenir?


katiedid said...

What a wonderful post! We, too, try to bring home a little something from our travels. For awhile, I would look for a locally crafted picture frame and then put a picture of our vaction in the frame. But I soon had way too many. But I still treasure some of the very special ones. Now I look for textiles, dishes or glassware....something that we will use, just like you. Books are also a must.

S and N said...

Thanks Katiedid!
Textiles and picture frames are great (and portable) souvenir choices. Because we only take digital photos these days, we've printed very few pictures from recent vacations. Maybe a special picture frame would be the incentive we need.

Michelle said...

I love your pressed leaf. I often tuck little natural objects (leaves, seeds, shells, pebbles) in my pockets or books and find them months (or years) later. It's always a welcome surprise.

I know, "take only photographs, leave only footprints" - I'm totally disregarding my own advice.

S and N said...

Hi Michelle,
Yes, but I know you do good deeds wherever you go--like ripping out invasive species (dog-strangling vine beware!) when you hike. I'm sure the occasional seed or pebble is fair exchange. Thanks for visiting the blog.

My Notting Hill said...

What lovely finds. The platter is gorgeous. I"m pretty sure Blomberg is carried in Canada because when I called a US toll free number for them - it turned out the message gave numbers for Canada but none for the U.S. I got a call that it's in so we'll be arranging for it to be delivered to our house - most likely Friday. I'll definitely post about it. Michele
p.s. - I love, love Canada! I grew up in Auburn NY and when I was a kid we had the CANUSA games - a mini-kid olympics between our town and another town in Canada.

S and N said...

Hi Michele,
Thanks so much for the Blomberg discovery--I'm sure we'll investigate further. I'll look forward to your posts. You must be excited about it--I know I will be when we finally get to that stage. I am not at all in love with our current fridge, but N was able to solve our non-defrosting crisis with a cheap part and some help from an appliance repair website, so we've got time to reach an informed decision.

Ian Buckle said...

It feels strange to comment on a post written so many years ago but so new to me. Having just stumbled on your blog I was compelled.

My better half and I often collect picture frames and natural trinkets whilst on vacation but I introduced him to a tradition from my own family whilst holidaying in Malta a few years ago. We now collect glass Christmas baubles whenever we go away. It's a real treat to watch the collection grow each year and adds to the festive memories as you carefully unwrap each one to hang it.

The impulse arose when we entered a shop selling the locally produced Mdina glass which is vibrantly coloured and speckled with attractive bubbles. Since, we have picked up some Murano from venice along with others.

It's a great way to take home a trinket that might not fit with your everyday decor, especially since we live in a tiny 500sq ft apartment where everything needs to earn it's space.

S and N said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ian. We've been neglecting this blog and it's lovely to think of such an old post evoking this description of your family's tradition of collecting glass Christmas ornaments on your travels.
Strange new world.