Wayne Ngan devoted much of his life transforming clay into art – specifically, into pottery of such complexity and beauty that it attained the level of sculpture. Mr. Ngan found much of his inspiration in the driftwood, shells, sea pods and plant life on the beaches and garden surrounding his home studio on Hornby Island, B.C. He died on June 12 from lymphoma, on the island that had informed so much of his life and work. He was 83.
“He had a really exceptional eye and really looked very closely at natural forms,” says Scott Watson, director and curator of the University of British Columbia’s Belkin Art Gallery, which has several of Mr. Ngan’s works in its permanent collection. His bold explorations of technique and form helped affirm him as one of the most important ceramic artists in Canada, Mr. Watson adds.
Ngan Guey Wing was born in the village of Yuen Ha, near Guangzhou in southern China, on May 19, 1937, according to his immigration papers, although his precise birth date is lost to history. At that time, China was embroiled in intermittent warfare with Japan, and when he was just eight months old, his father left the family to join active combat.
He then spent his first dozen years in a hardscrabble existence while his impoverished mother struggled to raise him and an older brother. Their poverty prompted his first experiences of shaping forms from earth: “When we were kids, we would make toys with clay, because we had no money to buy toys,” he told a reporter in a 2004 interview.
When he entered his teens, his mother arranged for him to immigrate solo to Canada. His paternal grandfather, who had earlier settled in Richmond, B.C., had visited the family in their village a few years earlier, and the documentation of his visit allowed the family to claim to officials that this child was his son, facilitating his immigration.
The boy then lived in a two-room bunkhouse with his hard-drinking, gambling, womanizing grandfather – a lifestyle that he didn’t want for himself. An art teacher at middle school recognized and encouraged the young Mr. Ngan’s talent, and he dropped out of school in Grade 9 to enroll at the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design). His grandfather was so enraged that he kicked him out of the house.
Later in life, Mr. Ngan professed not to have learned much in art school, but he did learn how to fashion clay, fire a kiln and “throw” pottery (the term for shaping the clay on a spinning pottery wheel). Equally important, he entered a community of like-minded spirits who provided inspiration and support.
“He was there at an exciting time, when the artists who would become part of the Sixties generation were there,” Mr. Watson notes. One art-school classmate, potter Heinz Laffin, would become one of his closest friends for the rest of his life.
Mr. Ngan supported himself during art school by taking a year off to work at a shingle mill and later by selling the ceramic tea bowls he made for five dollars apiece, a hefty sum at a time. His skeptical grandfather was astonished, Mr. Laffin recalls: “He said to us, ‘But in Chinatown you can get them for 75 cents!’” From then on, Mr. Ngan realized, he could make a living from his art.
When Mr. Ngan graduated from art school in 1963, the status of ceramics had elevated to that of painting, sculpture and architecture. The New Design Gallery – one of the region’s only contemporary art galleries – exhibited his early works, sealing his reputation as an important emerging artist.
He and Mr. Laffin shared a house in Vancouver for several years and then, in 1967, the two friends moved together to Hornby Island. They jointly purchased a parcel of land and planned to build a communal kiln-equipped studio.
Around this time, Mr. Ngan met a young French artist, Anne Feveile, who saw him demonstrating pot-throwing at a craft fair in Vancouver. “I was thrilled with his liveliness, exuberance and enthusiasm – although I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying,” she recalls. Their relationship intensified even as Mr. Ngan resettled in Hornby. They married in 1968, welcomed their first child, daughter Goya, in 1969, and purchased their own land at Downes Point on the island.
With help from his spouse and friends, Mr. Ngan cobbled together a remarkable house. Out of beach logs and plaster, they built a firing studio, garden, sod roof and repurposed chicken coops into bedrooms. A second daughter, Gailan, was born in 1971.
Mr. Ngan continued to develop his pottery making, ultimately hand-building three different kilns for distinct firing techniques. He became highly skilled in hakeme – hand-brushed decoration on pottery – and in salt-glazing, in which sodium chloride creates a beautiful mottled glaze during the firing process.
A three-month sojourn in Japan in 1978 further deepened his appreciation of the art and craft of pottery. Later that year, the Vancouver Art Gallery recognized his stature by hosting a solo exhibition of his work. In the exhibition catalogue, curator Doris Shadbolt positioned Mr. Ngan as one of the most important ceramic artists in the field, one of the few “who, out of earth and fire, out of the same few forms and variations, set out to create something as old as the human spirit, yet something that did not exist before.”
With his national renown well-established, Mr. Ngan proceeded to build an international reputation by exhibiting in Japan, China and Taiwan. But in the 1980s and 90s, ceramic arts suffered an extended period of relative indifference from the curatorial world. It would be decades before another Canadian art gallery would host a major pottery exhibition.
Mr. Ngan’s life continued to evolve after he separated from his wife in 1983. He then purchased another Hornby Island property and designed a second house-studio-kiln-garden complex and began anew. Like the earlier house, his new complex turned out to be a magnet for neighbours, visiting artists, students, apprentices and admirers, becoming an interactive salon of sorts. Anyone committed enough to make the pilgrimage there usually would be regaled with lively stories and insights into his work.
Mr. Ngan kept exploring ways to advance his art. His two daughters absorbed the creative atmosphere in which they grew up, with Goya becoming a landscape architect and Gailan becoming a renowned potter in her own right. Following a brief relationship, Mr. Ngan’s third child, Meris, was born in 1989.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Ngan shifted his artistic approach, creating ceramic pieces that look like radical sculpture rather than functional vessels. In 2004, his works both old and new figured prominently in the six-artist Belkin Art Gallery exhibition Thrown: British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and their Contemporaries, curated by Mr. Watson. The exhibition helped inspire a renewed appreciation of ceramic artists in general and Mr. Ngan in particular.
“He was always experimenting with form and surface,” Gailan says. “This extreme exploration made for many works needed to be discarded but gave him a way to reach new possibilities within the medium. Every 10 years or so there would be a shift in his pottery.”
The periodic reinvention kept him on the radar of the art world. On the very day of his death, an exhibition of his newer work opened at the Nathalie Karg Gallery in New York, which represents him. A selection of his works will also appear in the exhibition Modern in the Making: Post-War Craft and Design in British Columbia, which will open at the Vancouver Art Gallery on July 18.
“Wayne’s star is solidly placed in the firmament,” Mr. Watson says, “and will only glow brighter in the years to come.”
Mr. Ngan leaves his ex-wife, Anne Ngan, and his children, Goya Ngan, Gailan Ngan, and Meris Ngan Colby.