Story by Erin Lucuik

Photos provided by Janet Macpherson


It’s difficult to nail down ’s ceramic sculptures. They are at once familiar but strange, good-humored but austere, and common but undeniably unique. Perhaps it’s this enigmatic quality that draws people to her work, which is influenced by a number of factors ranging from her own Catholic upbringing to the zoo at High Park. As an artist-in-residence at the Harbourfront Centre, Macpherson’s career is in full swing and people are starting to take notice.

Plaid had the chance to catch up with Janet to learn more about her work, her inspirations, and her upcoming show.

What sparked your interest in ceramics?

I came to ceramics kind of accidentally. My roommate told me about classes at George Brown College (they have since closed their ceramics program), so I enrolled in their weekend pottery classes.  After a year of this, I was feeling more confident in my abilities, and also my job was proving to be quite unsatisfying, so I decided on a kind of whim to enroll full time at Sheridan in the Crafts and Design program.  I found the necessary limitations of ceramics to be fruitful for me, the material was there, and I learned how to make functional pottery from one of the best ceramics teachers in the country.  I guess it’s the combination of acquiring a real skill and then using that skill to express myself that I found attractive. I love the discipline of the craft but also the versatility of it as a way to tell a story about my life.

You started out making functional ceramics and now your work has a figurative quality. What inspired this shift in your work? 

I had been making functional pottery for many years, and I found that I wasn’t enjoying the making aspect as much as I could be. I loved decorating the objects, I used cups and bowls and vases as canvases for my drawings, but wasn’t having as much fun making the pieces. I thought that it would be interesting to have the drawings kind of come to life in a three dimensional sense.  I went to graduate school at The Ohio State University as a way to purposely push my work in a more sculptural direction. I studied mold making and found that it was a process that I could really throw myself into.  I love finding strange things to make molds of, casting them and then altering the way in which they are put together.  I feel like I can focus more on expression instead of making a cup that functions well or a bowl that people want to use.  I still love functional pottery, but making figurative work just seems to make me happier.

Can you explain the process you use to create your ceramic sculptures?

I find objects that are interesting to me, such as plastic animals, toys, or statues and I make plaster molds of them.  I also have a collection of commercial hobby molds that I use.  I pour liquid slip into these molds, cut apart the casts, and put the parts together in strange ways.  I cut heads off of human figures and add animal heads, or vice versa.   I add things to the casts that don’t necessarily belong, like spheres or cones or spikes.  Everything is cast in a mid-range porcelain casting slip. I then fire everything to a little hotter than the actual temperature of the clay so it gets nice and shiny and vitrified. Sometimes I add a hint of colour with underglaze or an accent of gold lustre.

How has being an artist-in-residence at the Harbourfront Centre influenced your practice?

I began my residency in September, and although it hasn’t been that long, I feel like the atmosphere there has been great for my work.  There are always people working, so I feel a lot of momentum happening around me.  There is also a kind of validation with the space being open to the public because the residents are viewed as professionals who are dedicated to their craft. I like that making is taken very seriously at Harbourfront and all the residents have a pretty serious studio presence. I have always had communal studios, and I enjoy this network of artists as a constant source of inspiration and feedback.

You studied art at schools in Canada and the U.S. From an artist’s perspective, what are the differences between these two countries? 

I don’t know if the schools have many differences in terms of quality of teaching, but I guess the one major thing is the fact that many U.S. schools have great funding for MFA programs. I was able to complete my Masters without incurring any debt and I was given a stipend for teaching that I could live on.  This was one of the reasons I went to The Ohio State University.  In the U.S., artists who end up being candidates for the big tenure track teaching jobs are not the ones who have lots of teaching experience, they are the artists who are making new work, exhibiting their work regularly, doing residencies, and basically putting a lot of energy into their art practice.  I think that this is what institutions in the U.S. are looking for when hiring professors.  There are also many more ceramics programs at schools in the States, and it makes it seem like a very valuable and necessary part of the academic curriculum.

Your sculptures have a great sense of humour, but under the surface they explore some heavy themes. Can you talk a bit about the underlying narratives in your work?

Some of the themes in my work are Catholic restraint and self-denial, the Christian perception of body, the wonder of the monstrous, the curious and complicated nature of hybrids, and the use and manipulation of animals by humans. I like the way that the sculptures function as innocuous figurines until you get up close to them and see that they are somehow a little off or unsettling. The idea of objects living in the world of the strange and the familiar simultaneously is really interesting to me, and I try to make objects that straddle this border.

You cite your religious upbringing as being a major influence on your work. What does your family think of your art?

My Catholic upbringing has definitely been a starting point for my work, and I have been very influenced by Christian iconography and philosophy.  For a myriad of reasons my parents decided to stop attending church when I was about 12-years-old, so my immediate family is not really religious at all.  They all really like my work and are very supportive of my chosen career path. My dad (who used to play the organ at Mass every Sunday) has one of my sculptures, which depicts two wise men joined together in an embrace, leaning in for a kiss. I think he revels in its cheeky defiance.

What’s inspiring you right now?

Reading non-fiction, and books about things I am interested in is usually a big inspiration for me. Right now I am reading a book called The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  It is very sad and strange.  Also, I have been looking around at my immediate environment lately and especially at animals: the many, many dogs in my neighbourhood, the zoo at High Park, and memories of the animals at the Ohio State Fair that I attended every year when I lived in Columbus.  I think that just being in the studio and making lots of work, and trying different combinations of the same parts is the way I make the most progress. I don’t get bored with repetition very easily, so I like the idea of small variations being the catalyst for new directions.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?

I am in a show called LOOK out at the Harbourfront Centre that opens on Friday, January 27th, 2012  It features the work of craft studio residents from the metal, glass, ceramics and textile studios.

What’s next for you?

I have a contract at the Harbourfront Centre that goes until next August, and is potentially renewable for another two years.  It is a vibrant and inexpensive place to work, so I imagine that I’ll probably stay there and continue to develop my work.  I hope to do the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition this summer, and possibly the One of a Kind Show next November.  I would really like to have a solo exhibition at a small gallery in Toronto, so I am working on a proposal for that as well. I am also spending some time finding new places to sell my commercial work, updating my Etsy store, and writing grants for new projects. I spend as much time at the studio as possible – this is the most important thing to me. I feel like as long as I keep working, everything else will fall into place.

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