BY JANET DAVIES
The Ye11ow is an art studio that houses hopes and dreams as well as the art of Dawn and Jay Middleton. Jay is a landscape architect/designer by trade and an artist at heart. Dawn is a potter and also a sculptor whose ceramic installations are frankly shocking. “They have a push and pull with the viewer”. Spiky and dangerous, clambering over walls and ceilings and around corners with no obvious means of support – but beautiful, too, fragile and absolutely fascinating.
Dawn and Jay moved to The County in December 2013 after meeting Scott Wentworth, a landscape business owner in Picton. Dawn recalls, “I was born and raised in The County and couldn’t wait to go away to school at 17. My first thought about coming back to Picton was No Way! But Prince Edward County has changed a lot since I was a teenager. We’d heard how younger people are moving in, how things are happening here making opportunities for people like us. We’d always thought about retiring here but never thought we could do it while we’re young and working. When Scott offered Jay a job that changed.”
Dawn and Jay met at OCAD and Design, she took sculpture and installation art where he studied drawing and painting. Jay had already completed a degree in landscape architecture at Ryerson Polytechnic University. He went straight into landscape design work from there, but she kept studying, working in restaurants to finance a course at Sheridan College in clay and pottery design and ultimately a Masters degree in ceramic sculpture installation art, working with renowned sculptor Bruce Taylor. She got a grant to spend six weeks living and working with Agnes Arellano a remarkable sculptor in the Philippines where she learned more advanced live casting techniques. But being an artist is always a hard row to hoe. “We got married, had a baby, we were very busy,” says Dawn. “Jay had a good job, I started an event planning company with a partner as well as doing my sculpture. I had work on display at some good galleries and it was a good life, but it was hard. It’s hard funding life in the city with a big mortgage and way too much traveling.” By the time Jay met Scott they were ready for a change.
“Moving here gave me freedom to explore my own art again, because I have so much more time. I used to stay late at work just to avoid traffic, and I was travelling hours every day. Now I get more time at home and time to spend with our daughter. So part of the attraction of The County was the chance to be more personally creative. Dawn and I built The Ye11ow Studio ourselves and it’s got both our design skills in it. It took us three years but it was worth it. Another attraction was the idea of being involved with a community, a creative community and raising our daughter here. What I find is my work with Wentworth is much more stimulating, too. We work from Port Hope to Kingston, and this area has so much water and beautiful settings – so much to work with. There is more fluidity to what I do, there is such different terrain and more clients who want to be integrated with the environment. It’s inspiring.”
“In my installation art I use found objects and hand-made porcelain pieces. I am interested in repetition – the idea of simple objects turning into something else. I like linear things and working with lines and space and shadow. I make, for want of a better word, little sticks in porcelain and join them with pieces of wood so they seem to defy gravity and either bend with the architecture or ignore it completely. I don’t use adhesives in any way so I have to make them structurally sound so they don’t fall on anybody’s head! They look dangerous, but, being porcelain, also fragile. I enjoy that push-pull thing of drawing you in to look up close but feeling a little fearful that they might shatter. Jay says the name of my thesis, Tenderly and Fearfully Made, sums it up. But using adhesives would be cheating! Anybody can do it with glue. The excitement for me is making it work that seems like it will collapse and teeters on the edge of fragility and strength. I have a passion for sculpture, but I love making functional pottery too. It’s not an either/or for me. I give myself permission to be both a sculptor and a potter.
Functional pottery is a craft, it’s utilitarian but artistic, too. Your body will respond to design elements in the simplest of things – like a mug. You can love it or hate it or feel indifferent. A Tim Horton’s mug probably doesn’t make you feel much, but one made by hand does. Working with clay just makes me happy. I love pulling handles! I pull the clay between my fingers and thumb to get exactly the right shape and ergonomic feel. Artists just want to make things. The business side? That’s something else and I’m grateful to Sheridan for giving me skills to throw clay and make glazes but also run my own studio. My further education was more philosophical, and I call on both elements in my work.
My pottery appeals to people my age, which is great for business. I make stuff I’d want for myself. I use super durable, high fire stoneware that is oven safe so you can bake in it, dishwasher safe, etc. I use colours I like and make things that are strong and work well and are easy to use. Most of my bowls have flatter bottoms for stacking.
I’m aware of what sells, but I don’t follow that slavishly. I won’t make things I’m not interested in. I said no to making a square plant pot the other day. Not interested. On the other hand I make an exclusive line of plant pots for the Parlour Studio in Wellington that are just for her to sell. I don’t carry them myself.
Custom orders? Oh yes. I’ve made platters for Parsons Brewery and the Vic Café uses some of my small pitchers. The General Store and KOKITO sells my stuff. It’s good to get into little local shops because people see your stuff and pick up your cards and can make contact directly for custom orders.
We sell online, we have our website, and I’m eager to see how Amazon Handmade works out. It’s an Etsy-type section on Amazon that is strictly handmade things. Instagram is amazing for small businesses, because it’s free and so easy to connect with people.
I believe it’s a good time for craftspeople. My generation doesn’t have much space to collect stuff, so they want things around them to be things they really like and value. And they value unique handmade objects.
WAS IT A GOOD MOVE?
“We feel much happier here. We’re busy. I brought my event planning company, Ephra Events, with me. Before we moved, my partner and I split, we are still best-friends though and now I have two new partners. We do special events, wedding and festivals. In Toronto I did some international work, too, but now we all want to keep it strictly local or close by. I had to finish my 2014 commitments which meant driving to Toronto three or four days a week. It was exhausting! No more. The three of us share the load, we’re fully booked this year, and we can manage events and still manage all the other things we do.”
Jay admits to having had some anxieties. “We worried a bit about leaving friends and family, but when we thought honestly about how often we visited, we figured we might even see them more of them if we moved. People love coming to The County. I was also a little concerned that in a small town everybody would know your business. What I found is knowing your neighbours and being involved in community is great. I haven’t seen a downside yet. I used to get involved in school stuff in Toronto, but everything you do here seems to have more impact. Everything is closer, more immediate, you see results.”
Dawn continues. “When I started Ephra in Toronto, I worked at home and I was lonely. Nobody knew me. The kicker was when the clerk in my local city store I’d been going to for nine years didn’t acknowledge me or even seem to recognize me. I thought I want to live in a place again where people remember and talk to me. It’s wonderful to feel a part of things again, you feel like you’re part of something bigger, not all alone. You engage with people.” Jay warms to the subject. “People are more involved with each other, and it makes you want to do the right thing, join in and help. Since moving here I took on organizing the Kids of Steel event, the kids triathlon in Picton, because it’s easy to get involved and get others involved. It’s just Hey do you want to help out – and they do.” Dawn agrees. “People collaborate on everything around here! Everybody’s doing something, building a business, renovating a house, planning an event, whatever, and it’s so easy to get involved. I was 37 when we moved, and I didn’t know anybody. I’d lost contact with childhood friends and a lot of them were gone, but it didn’t take long to meet people our age, all sorts of people.
So was it a good move? Yes. We’re busy, and I have to be careful not to take on more work than I can handle, but that’s a good problem to have, right? The County has been good to us so far. We’re happy.”
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