Bibi Clement: Vigil of Angels

A selection from the Vigil of Angels Exhibition. Photo by Ross Bradley

A selection from the Vigil of Angels Exhibition. Photo by Ross Bradley

by Eileen Coristine

The Prairie Art Gallery re-opens with a celebration of Bibi Clement’s delicate journey.

After a lifetime of experience and three years of building, Hythe potter Bibi Clement is preparing to share her angels with the world. Each is a vessel containing the memories of good times and bad times. Some of the angels are white, some are black, some have 18 carat gold wraps around their heads; every one represents someone, someone who has taught Bibi a lesson.

Vigil of Angels, will be the first show held in the new Prairie Art Gallery’s Contemporary Gallery at the Montrose Cultural Centre. “This exhibit would have taken place in 2007, had the gallery not collapsed shortly before its scheduled opening.” says Robert Steven Director-Curator of the Prairie Art Gallery. “ The Gallery has always believed strongly in this project, and intends to present it at this, its earliest opportunity. We feel proud to feature a Peace Country artist at this time, and want to set a tone for frequent exhibitions of Peace Country art to come.”

This inaugural show invites visitors to walk among more than 100 angels and wonder, “who are you?” Although not portraits, each of the angels represents a real person, maybe it’s someone you know, or maybe it’s you.

“Each one represents a very special person in my life,” Bibi explains. “The angels are a tribute to the kindness given to me. But, there are dark angels, too, representing dark moments and experiences in my life. There are people who make our lives more difficult, but there is always a lesson. Maybe it is that we are not going to be like them. Maybe it is that we learn to understand another person’s pain. If you haven’t had difficulty then you can’t have compassion.”

“Our journey is so delicate,” says the artist. “These vessels are very delicate, yet have strength.”

Bibi’s angelic representations range from life size to 20 centimetres. Either they stand, kneel or float. Symbolic wings wrap them each in a cloak, which Bibi describes as a “cloak of comfort.” Her earlier careers in fashion, dance and theatre inspired the draping clothing they wear and the expressive movement of each piece. Through the clay and the firing methods that she has been developing over the past twelve years, each piece manifests as an individual.

These scupltural angels have no faces. Bibi likens them to characters in the classical Japanese Noh theatre. In Noh the characters wear masks and as Bibi explains, “the mask is the same in every pose, just the movement of a hand or a shoulder gives the emotional expression.” Although the angels in her Vigil of Angels won’t be named (they are, after all her angels, not ours) at least one has already been recognized.

Bibi’s process begins with the idea of the person she wants to recreate, and moves through her experiences with them. Some of the pieces begin on the wheel, some are built out of clay slabs and others are mechanically extruded and altered. Then the robes and heads are added.

Bibi Clement. Photo by Marijka Dronyk

Bibi Clement. Photo by Marijka Dronyk

Once the building is complete, the angel is fired in either the wood-firing kiln, the salt firing kiln or the downdraught kiln. “The porcelain angels will be fired in the salt kiln, because they are so light,” she explains.

Bibi’s wood-firing kiln, Bishogama, was built by Bibi’s friend and mentor, Yasuo Terada. Yasuo brought a crew of seven people with him from Japan, built the unique wood firing kiln and named it. “The B stands for his father Bizan, sho means flying ash and flames through the kiln,” Bibi explains, “and gama means kiln.”

Firing the Bishogama requires a crew of six people who will commit to a six day and six night firing regime. Carefully loading the kiln, which requires up to 1000 pieces to fill, can take three days. Once the kiln is lit, Bibi says you must “let the kiln speak, it will dictate what to do.” One firing can require thirteen cords of wood. Vagaries of weather can have a significant effect on the outcome of a firing.

All of this requires very hard work compared to flipping a switch on an electric kiln and waiting a day or so for it to fire and cool down. The wood has to be cut, hauled and chopped. The fire has to be minded in long shifts and built up according to the kiln and the weather. A firing demands a lot of the people, but there is a centuries long tradition that has taught Bibi patience and awe.

Risk is also an element in the wood firing practices that Bibi implements. “ I want the fire to do all sorts of things; it adds another dimension. Canadian clay only goes up to Cone 10 (1280 degrees C.) but I fire up to 1300. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference,” she explains, “but beyond that things quite often slump.” Consequently some pieces are broken, bent or ruined during the firing.

“Compared to the Japanese,” she explains, “we are young to understand the work that goes into wood-firing so we don’t have the appreciation. The wind can shift and knock the temperature of the kiln down. This can be frustrating with so much at stake. But when you open the kiln there is so much beauty looking at you.”

Those angels that are ruined in the kiln are replaced. Every person will have their angel, even if it doesn’t work the first time. This isn’t to imply that all of the angels are pristine. Some angels have flaws and some have cracks that Bibi has repaired with 18 carat gold. Such extreme firing can also result in angels that come out of the kiln looking even more like the person who inspired them due to surprising changes in the glaze or the colours of the robes.

Most of the pieces for the June installation are ready, but some are still waiting for their turn in the kiln. To this firing, Bibi will add the dozens of smaller angels she’s been creating to accompany special editions of her upcoming book. The book, which is being written by her daughter Dymphny Dronyk, will be a retrospective on Bibi’s 35 years as a potter.

Later this spring the crew will be assembled and the arduous but exciting kiln vigil will take place. Her subjects have evoked Bibi’s memories and their lessons have been poured into these angelic vessels. Now they and their creator have only to listen to and obey the dictates of the kiln.

“These pieces encompass my life; all of these people have influenced me. After a life time of wonderful things,” she says, “the moment is now.”

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