Former Montrealer Myrna Schwarzbartl Lightman is now a long-time resident of Ottawa, Ont., and every summer she looks forward to luring art lovers westward with her whimsical and mostly useful pottery.
In early June, she displays her wares at the Arts in the Park show in Stittsville, a suburb just outside of Ottawa. Then, in mid-August, she showcases her work at the Central Experimental Farm’s Art on the Farm festival.
But during snowy weather is when she is the most creative, working away in the Nepean Visual Arts Centre. The collective studio, located upstairs from the Sportsplex run by the City of Ottawa, is home to a hive of activity.
There Lightman is a “studio potter,” one of the dedicated artisans who have accrued enough courses in pottery classes to work without instruction in the top-notch facilities.
Though she’s been making pottery “only” for the past 20 years, Lightman was always creative.
“Growing up, I’d help my dad in his workshop all the time. He used to make ships in bottles, something he learned when he was interned in Sherbrooke, Que., during the war,” she says.
Her father was one of those Austrian Jews sequestered as an enemy alien with the very Nazis he fled from before the war broke out.
“I stumbled into pottery because a friend took a course in hand building and encouraged me to try it. I had a phenomenal teacher, Shirley Lawrence. It’s like baking, rolling dough and you’re playing with your hands making mud pies,” she jokes.
The process demands more attention to detail than Lightman lets on. She presses designs into the clay with textured rolling pins or imprints into it foliage, like delicate fan-shaped ginkgo leaves or more robust Savoy cabbage leaves.
She then glazes her creations in blues, pinks, tans and other hues chosen from a rainbow of glazes.
Sometimes she cuts out lacy perforations to serve as fancy edging or, more practically, to hold earrings.
She delights in hump moulding (laying a slab of clay over a convex plaster mould, semi-drying it and removing it as a concave dish) and slump moulding (settling the slab of clay into a concave bowl to assume its shape).
She applies food-safe glazes before presenting her works to be fired. Doug Moir, the technician who maintains the five kilns at the studio, has to juggle the demands of all the potters as well as the classes of children enrolled at the centre.
“One of the requirements of the studio is we must buy our clay there because somebody once made the mistake of smuggling in something her kid did at school, not realizing it had to be high-fire clay,” Lightman says. “It melted all over the kiln and all over people’s work. No, it has to be Cone 5 or 6 clay. Cone 6 is fired at 2,232 degrees Fahrenheit (1222 degrees Celsius).”
The potter also crafts humorous, hand-moulded pieces that keep the others sharing the facility in stitches.
There’s Smedley, the snooty butler teapot, in his high collar and white-gloved spout. Another piece is a spoon rest, at the centre of which a fried egg lies in state, with his weeping, unbroken compatriots gathered around him on the rim. It’s etched with their comment, “He was a good egg!”
At “Myrna’s Creations in Clay” on Facebook, you can scroll through images of her pottery, from vases and cake plates to a Mazel Maven figure of a friendly woman bearing a basket of “Mazel”-inscribed cookies that Lightman conceived to cheer an ailing friend.
“My husband Morrie is my rock at shows,” Lightman says. “We’ve got to shlep the tent, three big tables, the shelving, the tablecloths, the chairs and then there are five crates of pottery. It’s like moving house.” Luckily visitors are always happy to lighten her load going home.