John Chalke

Just heard also that our 20th Fletcher judge, John Chalke, English – born Canadian has also died today. John was born in Gloucestershire in 1940, went to Bath Academy in 1962 for his Art Teachers Certificate and subsequently had a studio in London and taught at Farnham and Harrow before emigrating to Canada in 1968. While he continued to teach, off and on, full-time and part, throughout his career, his real focus was always his studio work. Over years as experimenter, maker and artist he took part in more than 240 major national and international exhibitions. As much alchemist as potter his glazes were famously and identifiably his and his alone. Crusted and volcanic, fissured and crackled, gloopy or glittery, neon green or persimmon orange he used a wild variety of ingredients no one else had dreamed of adding to a glaze and that he enhanced by putting them through numerous repeat firings. Usually averagely sized, for he held no interest in dramatic scale, they mostly alluded to platters but variously deep or with partial edges and most often they sat quietly on a wall awaiting the close scrutiny that they inevitably attracted.

‘The real reason for making art, I think, is because it didn’t work out, and then you go back to square one or square three or some square….’

He loved the firing process and built numerous kilns including a three-chamber wood number out on the prairie in the southwest Alberta foothills and where he kept a small cabin. His joy was to head away there and work alone for days on end as the need took him. Several times he recounted to me about spiritual episodes he encountered while there and believed there was more to our existence than what we meet in daily reality but was uncertain quite what that might be. He also had a sly humour and a profound respect for nature. He brought with him to NZ a wooden branch about the thickness and length of a sizeable forearm sharpened at each end to a point. I was not allowed to have it until I guessed what caused the form. Eventually I got that it was shaped by a beaver and he loved recounting how they worked collectively and how persistent they were that if a dam was breached and destroyed, they waited until all was quiet then just returned to the job starting all over again to construct a haven for their pups. I have it still.

John came to New Zealand in 1996 as our 20th Fletcher Challenge Ceramic Award judge where he chose Japan’s Yasuko Sakurai for the Premier Award. He was a philosophical and considered judge, highly observant and appreciative of a wide number of making principles. But it was Sakurai’s smoky figures that caught his attention most for they reminded him of some of those prairie encounters. He followed up his visit here with being judge for the Sidney Myer Awards in Australia and he was the first recipient of Canada’s top accolade, the prestigious Governor General’s Award for Fine Craft. There were many other awards over the years and his work is in major collections internationally including the Victoria and Albert in London.

As well as a spiritual side John was a naturally gifted writer and this applied to the titles he bestowed upon his work as well as how he engaged with trying to answer questions about his making and ideas. For example one title was,

The First Horses Came Late, But Slipped Into The Province Like Ghosts on a Wet Day.

And one statement reads…

“It’s still hard to know how my pre-making mind operates. I know it sometimes calls upon quarries of ideas, which are based on known previous historical and cultural contacts … early American and English slipware, French wood-fired country pots, Japanese Oribe designs, woodcuts from early children’s books. But then there is another pulse which sporadically appears above the thought horizon, like northern lights. It might be the peeling red and blue paint on a barn door … or a folk art weathervane … perhaps the word “Clinchfield” on a boxcar across the tracks…. What the objects I make must have to operate successfully is a comfortable relationship with the human scale: for example, an engaging encounter with both hands. But they should maintain a querulous position also, like dug up jewelry or a table top in the rain.”

Canada will mourn and our sympathy and thoughts go to his wife, Barbara, who visited here with him.

Those wishing to send a personal message to his family can do so here:



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3 responses to “John Chalke

  1. Philip Clarke

    I recall his speech at the Opening as being rather mystical

    • Guess he was leading up to justification for his choice of Sakurai…. don’t know – he could swing into mystical easily though


    Thank you Moyra – John was unique, a creative eruption in the murky sea of life, and I am so grateful that I was able to enjoy his genius memetic mind. Your words sparked forgotten memories and I am grateful for your wonderful words. The eulogy to Don Reitz was remarkable also. He was such an open human being and it saddens me to read of all these wonderful clay entities passing.

    Your Cone Ten and Descending is so much more than a ‘blog’ and I believe it will continue to grow in an exceptional manner as more people around the ‘ceramic globe’ become aware of it. I always admired your ceramic creations and your amazing gift of critical writing directed towards the clay community will be a source of enjoyment and learning in the future. So many interesting topics you present. I live in fairly remote isolation and I ‘CRAVE’ the opportunity to discuss such topics.

    One I would like to return to is the Edmund De Vaal exhibition review – can you tell me how I can return to that part of your site, I am sure it is staring me in the face but I can’t locate the link. I admire De Vaal’s work and words and although I wanted to enter into discussion when you presented the opportunity, I was unable to at that time.

    Thanks again Glenys Marshall-Inman – Vancouver Island, Canada

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