After years of working with clay, Laureen Purkis still finds joy in her creations, whether it is creating a giant bowl or painting a plant pot.
“The only place I found where my brain is quiet is when I’ve totally focused on that act of creating, and moving of the clay. I’m mesmerized still,” she says. “I could do it all day long and never get bored.”
In January 2020, Purkis was approached by Zach Eaton, head chef at Tryst Wine & Small Plates in St. Albert, who asked if she was able to do large orders. Her first reaction was to laugh, her second was to ask how large was the order: “80 large plates, 80 small plates, 80 bowls, 40 coffee mugs and 20 cappuccino mugs to be done in six weeks,” she says, laughing.
She always wanted to sell to a restaurant, and took on the challenge, despite her hesitancy with the deadline and her full-time job. The following six weeks found her sitting at the wheel, every evening after work.
Heavily influenced by Scandinavian pottery, architecture and nature, Purkis’s calm, quiet aesthetic combines classic, geometric shapes with neutrals. The plate is there to be a silent, lovely partner, she explains. The pieces were practical for everyday use, each plate acting like a halo for the food.
With her six-week deadline, she had to be creative to produce the large order, using a signature technique she developed several years ago: Making plaster moulds from the shape of the Teflon frying pans.
“Its a plate without a handle, a coupe. That’s all it is,” she says.
While a typical clay plate can take anywhere from four to six pounds of clay to make, Purkis’s plates weigh only one and a half pounds. Attributing her speed to muscle memory and slip moulds, she can now make 30 plates a day and create the basic form of a mug on the pottery wheel in seven minutes.
Purkis graduated with a degree in fine arts from the University of Alberta. If the university had offered pottery courses, she would have majored in that.
The now McNally High School art and ceramics teacher came into the pottery world late in life. When she did though, it felt like coming home. She was teaching junior high at Westlawn School, where she was tempted to try her hand at the pottery wheel. One disastrous attempt later and she had enrolled in a pottery course. Now, after 12 years of studying and perfecting her craft, she proudly calls herself a potter.
“I’m making things for you to hold, to eat off of, to use, to create, to bake in, to use in your house,” she says.
Her work, as a whole, is based entirely on the sense of touch. She takes a raw form and creates a piece to hold, encouraging people to touch her work, feel the weight and texture of it. For anyone buying a mug, Purkis wants them to try the handles. The architecture of them has a lot to do with how she found her style.
“It took me eight years to get a handle that made me go ‘Yes, this is my handle,’” she says, holding up a sketchbook filled with handle designs. Purkis uses research and design as a starting point for all her pottery work, extending it to the pottery wheel and moulds.
But commercial glazes weren’t capturing the look that Purkis wanted. Her colour palette is largely inspired by Edmonton’s winter landscapes, when there is an audible sigh from nature. Purkis finds peace in the neutral colours, the browns of the trees, the white of the snow.
After seeing the difference between commercial and individually created glazes (thanks to another pottery class), she began creating her own. A book — The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes, by John Britt — got her started and she’s never looked back.
“I love it so much. I’m going to do it for the rest of my life,” she says.
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This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Edify.