Fireweed Forever

The Prince of Wales had his supper served on it. It’s on dining tables and in display cabinets around the world. It’s uniquely Yukon, but pays homage to traditional Japanese design.

Now, the fireweed pottery that is Patrick Royle’s signature is celebrating its 25th birthday.

“It’s not that common for potters in North America to have a line that they’ve done for that long that is still popular, desired and collected,” Royle admits.

Royle has created other designs over the years, but the fireweed line is his most successful, with thousands of pieces sold to Yukoners and tourists from far and wide.

The simple pink and green design resulted from a conscious decision to find something that represented the Yukon, rather than his earlier work inspired by the man he calls the “national Japanese treasure”, Shoji Hamada.

“There I was in the early ’80s painting bamboo and cherry blossoms, pine boughs, that sort of thing. The glazes were all very oriental in their browns and ochres and subdued tones,” he says.

But there was a problem. It wasn’t selling that well.

At the time, Royle was working nights in his studio while holding down a day job managing the Yukon Gallery’s framing shop.

“After about two years, I got fired, because I couldn’t make it into work in the morning before 10 or 11 o’clock, because I was staying awake all night perfecting pottery.”

The gallery owners, though, still wanted to sell his pots.

“So I struggled along for the next couple of years. In all my arrogance as a young potter, I was never going to make anything other than art pottery and one-offs.”

Eventually, Royle realized, “when push comes to shove, you have to make a living,” so he headed off to Red Deer College to learn more about his craft.

“At some point, it just struck me that the bamboo is never going to grow in the Yukon and I’m never going to be Japanese, so I’d better figure out what’s in my own backyard and get real about what I was doing.”

After experimenting with various glazes to get the precise colours he wanted, he launched his fireweed line in 1986 – with Hamada’s influence still in mind regarding how many fireweed sticks to include.

“I didn’t put two on, or four on, I put three on, just like he had with bamboo. Same pattern, just fireweed instead of bamboo,” he says.

Even his technique for applying the design has Asian origins.

“It’s that Japanese brush stroke. I just changed it to here instead of there.”

Over a quarter century, Royle has hand-painted that design on countless pieces, from teapots, plates and platters, to vases, mixing bowls, even funerary urns.

For anyone curious about what size of vessel is needed for human cremains, Royle quickly explains the formula: one pound of the deceased’s weight turns into one cubic inch of ashes.

“Potters need to know a lot of things,” he says.

As a symbol of rebirth, fireweed is an appropriate image for commemorating life.

“As soon as you’ve gone past a fire site from the previous year, all of a sudden there’s this smother of pink. It’s the earth reinventing itself, re-growing.”

Besides its appeal to private collectors, Royle’s signature design has also garnered public attention. In 2007, the prestigious Gardiner Museum of ceramic art included his work in a national exhibition.

When Royle visited the display, he was immediately struck by the museum’s décor.

“They had these massive images on the wall, canoe, beaver, maple leaf – and I couldn’t believe it, 12-foot fireweed painted on the wall,” he recalls.

“They took the image right off my pottery and painted it on the wall. Obviously it said something to the curators that it was part of the iconic flora and fauna images of Canada.”

Royle cherishes the honour of being in that exhibition – “I showed with Emily Carr,” he jokes – and having the Yukon Government commission a 12-piece dinner setting for the 2001 visit of Prince Charles.

But the reaction he gets from teaching pottery in small Yukon communities is especially gratifying.

“It’s fun when I get children from one of the communities come up to me in the grocery store and say, ‘Hi, Clay Man. What’s your name again?'”

A new collection of Royle’s work, entitled Fireweed Pottery – a 25-year Love Affairopens at 5 pm Friday, May 6 at Yukon Artists @ Work, 120 Industrial Road.

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