Published on May 2, 2022
On Creativity, Challenges and 'Aha Moments' with Potter Diane Gwilliam
“When people say to me, ‘I don't have an artistic bone in my body,’ I know that they haven't found it yet,” says Diane Gwilliam with the confidence that comes from nearly three decades of teaching and a lifetime of creating. Known predominately as a potter, Gwilliam has been a fixture of the St. Albert arts scene for years, as an exceptionally flexible artist, a pottery instructor, former St. Albert Pottery Guild President and City of St. Albert arts administrator.
“Everyone has [creativity] in them,” says Gwilliam, “I taught pottery for years—27 or so years—and I think what I love the most is when people would come in and they'd say, ‘I can't do this.’ But they all—every one of them—has that ‘aha!’ moment.”
As Gwilliam tells it, however, that ‘aha moment’ was slightly delayed for her personally when she first tried her hand at pottery, as the artform didn’t come easily to her. While she describes art as something she “always” did—and even says that her very first memory is colouring—pottery was a struggle.
“Most everything else made sense to me and I could just do it,” she explains. “I could paint, I could sew, I could knit. I could do all those things. And when I started pottery, I hit a roadblock. I couldn't center for the life of me and I wanted to quit. And my husband said, ‘you know, you finally found something that's hard for you. You're not quitting.’ And so I probably mumbled under my breath and I kept going to pottery classes and all of a sudden everything clicked in. It just worked.”
Decades later, Gwilliam’s work is immediately recognizable on the shelves at W.A.R.E.S in St. Albert Place or in the gift shop at the Art Gallery of St. Albert. There is an earthen elegance to her pieces—curved and comfortable, she uses mossy greens, rich creams and the kinds of blues you only see glistening across Alberta lakes.
While, as a potter, her style is uniquely hers, as a teacher, she is loathed to enforce any hard perimeters around creativity. As a student, if you’ve ever asked her to help her make your project a closer proximity to her demonstration piece, you’ll be gently turned down, and lovingly encouraged to follow the lead of your own inner-artist.
“If I look across the studio at someone’s pot and they're doing something to their pot that is going to make it collapse or they're going to wreck it, I will say, ‘can I help you? Can I touch your pot?,’ says Gwilliam. “I will usually be able to fix it enough that they can continue and finish it on their own. I won't finish it for them, but I'll save it.
“We call a collapsed pot a dead body. You can only have so many dead bodies and then you're frustrated and you're not going to get anywhere. I guess there's a teaching mentality where you just let people fail all the time until they either figure it out or quit. But I don't want people to fail. I want them to succeed. Otherwise we're not going to have a future generation of potters.”
Her lifelong dedication to the success of others made her a particularly apt choice to create the awards for the 2022 Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts. Every year the awards are hand-crafted by a local artist, and Gwilliam’s interpretation of the assignment resulted in six hand-build re-creations of local landmarks. She choose sights all St. Albertans would recognize; including, the Children’s Foot Bridge, the clock tower, St. Albert Place and more.
“St. Albert’s really important to me,” says Gwilliam. “The arts community in St. Albert is really important to me. I wanted to honour that. I wanted to show these really cool cultural and iconic places in St. Albert that people pass by every day, and maybe don't look at with that artistic eye.”
The project presented a new pottery challenge for Gwilliam, many years since she first conquered the art form. She called the formation of such miniature structures a “huge learning curve,” compared to her steady production of mugs, cups, platters and bowls.
In fact, in her regular practice, it’s the functional aspects of pottery that are continually front of mind when she’s creating. She wants, for example, her mugs to feel good cupped by the hand, for those sleepy Saturday morning coffees.
“The functionality, the end result and the user of it, I'm always thinking of,” explains Gwilliam. “I mean, I want people to buy my pottery and use it every day. I don't want them to buy it and put it on a shelf.”
Last edited: May 2, 2022