by Mary Lou Devine
The first piece of art one sees when walking up to our October profile artist’s home/studio in central Ottawa is a vase in which nestles a healthy, green Boston fern and which portrays a very recognizable national political figure, glasses and all. This is only a prelude to what one discovers when invited into the home.
Sandra Marshall, a long-time NCNS member, lived in Montreal for the first part of her life. Trained at McGill University as an architect, she worked for a short time in that field until her family began to grow. She moved to Ottawa in the ‘80’s where she took a research position at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. While sidetracked by family and career, art was never far from Sandra’s mind or fingers.
She spent many of her younger years summering in Lake Memphremagog, and remembers digging in the shoreline clay to model animal figures, and trying to harden the clay in a beach fire, with a disappointing result. She loved to paint and draw and, as a child, attended art classes at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. However, her favourite memory of that time was participating in clay modelling activities in the white tiled stable space behind the museum. She recalls that the students were allowed to dig into the huge, wet clay bin and make whatever they wanted. Oftentimes, as a result of her love of horses, those figures were equine in nature. At the age of 17, Sandra received a scholarship to the junior art program but had already enrolled at McGill and had immersed herself in the challenging architectural program there.
She did, however, continue to indulge her love of art. She took life drawing classes with a former MMFA teacher and, while at university, with her fraternity, won honours for her design of a snow sculpture depicting Lady Godiva, clad only in her long tresses, riding a horse. Also, during her university days, under the guidance of their architecture professor, she and her fellow studio students initiated a youth group in Griffintown, a small area of mixed residences and industry near the Lachine Canal. Her artistic background resulted in her sketching portrait souvenirs of some of the area’s children.
Sandra began working with clay in a sustained way after her first child was born, partly as an outlet from her home duties, but also as a means to fulfil her need to create, maintain and enhance her artistic skills. While she has created some large pieces using a pottery wheel, she admits that her preference was to stay with her first love of clay modeling, focusing mostly on animals and people. The first piece that she produced was a horse, which she has to this day. She has gone on to produce many more horses, in various forms, some of which I was privileged enough to see on my visit with her. The horse has actually come to mean a lot to Sandra and her work. She says that whenever she is stumped with what to do with the clay, she would often make a small horse – it was her motif and a way to move her easily into a new piece of work.
When she moved to Ottawa, Marshall joined the Ottawa Guild of Potters and bought an old kiln which allowed her to fire her work at home. This, of course, required that she learn more about glazes and firings. She no longer considers her self a potter as her pieces are more sculptural in nature. She wants to tell stories with her work, asking the viewer to explore the meanings that her pieces portray. She is constantly trying new materials and finishes which are not traditional. She is currently working on a piece which is not clay based at all but, rather, is on a piece of driftwood. She is utilizing new materials and methods for this piece, continuing to experiment as she moves forward in her career. She is hoping that this piece will be ready for the upcoming Sculpture EXPO to be held at the Horticultural Building at Landsdowne Park in October.
Marshall has explored other media such as watercolour and acrylic painting and continues to sketch. She and her family love to travel and she has always brought a sketch pad with her to document where she has been and what she has seen. One of her favourite memories is when she was in the Dominican Republic and she spied a small group of children which she began to sketch. She was soon surrounded by the children who were happy to watch her work as she sketched them. Even though there was a language barrier between them, the love of art brought them together. She has recently joined the Ottawa Urban Sketchers group to share this common love. She is testing other media forms such as Paverpol (a liquid polymer), acrylics and waxes as a means to find finishes that do not require firing a kiln. She believes that climate change requires that
we change how we seek our artistic fulfilment. Summers in the country have made her sensitive to changes in our environment and she strongly believes that we need to protect nature.
As with many artists, Sandra’s process starts with an idea. For example, she wanted to explore the notion of the tortoise and the hare and its applicability to our current world. “Society is in such a hurry, we don’t stop and think about where we are going but, rather, we just keep running to keep up with the latest fad”, she opines. To portray this, one of her sculpture ideas was to show a rabbit jumping through a vertical hoop, with a small turtle hanging on to the top of the hoop for dear life. As is often the case, the sculpture required a great deal of thought to determine how to make it structurally sound. This challenge is all part of the process – it is like solving a mystery and the result is the enjoyment which comes when all of the parts come together.
Her favourite part of the process is the modeling of the clay. She loves the feel and texture of the wet clay. Her challenge has been with the glazing process. She has found that test pieces are never the same size and often do not fire to the same finish. Also, since her pieces are one of a kind, Marshall cannot rely on tried and tested glazes since each piece requires a different treatment. She uses paints, waxes and other materials in her process.
Marshall continues to challenge herself, exploring new ideas and materials and determining how well they fit into her process and her world concept. She offers some advice to those who would like to take up ceramics. She feels that it is important to take instruction in the art as clay has particular physical qualities that the artist needs to understand – adhesive strength, workable moisture content, dry shrinkage, adherence ability, shrinkage, etc. She shares the advice that every new piece one makes is a new learning experience, one which I believe Sandra Marshall has learned well, judging from the pieces on display in her home and studio.
Both her home and her basement studio and even her yard are filled with her beautiful artwork. I was enchanted with the pieces of functional art such as the vases and the horses’ busts made into living room lamps. There are some wonderful human busts, full bodied sculptures (I particularly liked the dancers) and framed watercolours on the walls as well as a plethora of animals such as giraffes, buffaloes, tortoises and hares, a playful otter still in the making and, of course, the ubiquitous horse. Each room that I entered opened up a whole new world of visual discovery and I kept finding pieces on which to focus my attention as I made my way through the house.
You can view Sandra’s work on her website at www.sandramarshall.ca and see her work in person at Sculpture EXPO at Landsdowne Park on October 25-27, 2019.