Getting “Skooled” by Ceramic Artist, Teacher and Illustrator Julia Chirka

You may recognize Julia Chirka as one of the more colourful personalities at Brassneck Brewery (that was my first introduction/impression) but she is so much more: a ceramic artist, an illustrator, a teacher at Summer Skool and perpetual student. We spoke with Chirka as she was preparing for this year’s TOQUE fundraiser and craft fair (December 1st – 3rd at the Western Front, 303 E 8th Avenue).

Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in Calgary and moved to Vancouver when I was 21.

Your favourite neighbourhood haunt? I like Bistro Wagon Rouge! I used to really like Dockers too, but for totally different reasons.

Favourite rainy day activity? Looking for and at mushrooms in the forest.

What’s your arts background/education? For ceramics I took a couple of classes at the Shadbolt Centre and one lone class at Langara, but mostly I’m self-taught. I always liked crafts and as a teenager would be doing batik, jewellery making, sewing, and for many years I was really into pastel crayon drawings of curly haired mystical women.

How did you get into ceramics? About nine years ago I decided to learn something new every January. The first year I learned how to spin yarn and did that obsessively until the next January when I decided to take a beginners pottery class. I haven’t looked back! What you can learn in ceramics is bottomless, so in a way I’m keeping up with learning a new thing every year, it just happens to be in the same arena.

Tell me something that you recently learned. In October I was selling pottery in the Big Apple. I’ve never done anything like that before and it felt like I was a little out of my league, but that meant I zoomed forward and learned a lot in one go. I learned about shipping things to another country, customs (what to write and what not to write on the form); how to pretend you’re a professional when you actually don’t know what you’re doing; and that I could do this thing that I didn’t believe I could do, like sell things at a fancy market.

What’s something that you’d like to learn in the future? I’d like to learn more about different kinds of trees.

Your favourite teacher? My first pottery teacher, Jay MacLennan.

An unexpected and/or unusual source of inspiration? Youtubes with less than 20 views, preferably less than 10. I can’t tell you why, but I really love them. Also, infomercials.

Your favourite ceramicist? My favourite contemporary ceramicist is someone I met this summer at Alfred University. His name is Nick Weddell and I love everything he makes!

What was the first piece of pottery that you made? A ceramic potato.

My pride and joy…. Is it a potato or an egg shaker that looks like a potato?

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How has your practice changed since you started? I’m experimenting more with my own style. When I started I tried to make the things I saw, but now I see things in my mind and try to make them. Also have expanded my knowledge of different types of firings. I really got into raku firing for a bit – maybe I’m still really into it. I’ve done a bunch of wood firing and soda firing. You can sort of bounce around and now that I feel more comfortable in clay I guess I bounce around a little more!

What’s the next project that you would like to accomplish? For a practical project, I would like to update my website and also learn how to make a business card. For an exciting project, I would love to do a pit firing of non-functional pieces, maybe decorations for my house.

Who are the “people” in your illustrations? I’m a pretty shy, introverted person and most of the time when I’m in a group setting I just observe everyone instead of participating. I love people’s expressions and their micro-expressions and the subtlety of body movements. I think I have a file folder in my head where I bank all of these things and when I’m drawing people I use those as inspiration. So I guess in a way some of the people are the energy of the folks around me. Or it’s me! I often try to make the expression on my own face and have the posture of what I’m drawing. I set up a mirror in front of myself because it gets pretty funny sometimes.

Tell me about Summer Skool. Summer Skool is the name of the studio that I share with Maggie Boyd and Glenn Lewis. We started it when we moved in to 1654 Franklin a little over two years ago. Maggie and I teach classes and run workshops and it’s where we have our own studios as well. It’s been a really great experience and I’ve learned a lot from it and met so many nice people and new friends, and been given a lot of opportunities. It’s still evolving and probably always will be. Right now we teach one class and a couple of workshops every season and have a handful of people who have some experience with clay that work out of the studio, learning freely.

What are your favourite/least favourite things about teaching? It’s a true delight to see people go bananas about the things they’ve made. Ceramics is such a long process that has many steps, so the journey to be able to hold and use the thing you made is kind of long. When the big reveal comes out of the kiln people love it. It’s heartwarming to see them get so excited! My least favourite thing about it is that I’m a quiet gal and getting up in front of and commanding a group can be tricky. It’s positive too though, because every time I teach I can put a big check mark next to my “do one thing a day that scares you” tally. It’s also getting easier. The very first class I taught I was so nervous that a fog came into my ears and I could barely hear anything. It was nuts! That doesn’t happen anymore.

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