by Sandra Marshall
Colette Beardall was born in the sixties when Toronto was still considered a grouping of small towns with friendly neighbourhoods rich in culture. Her parents had immigrated from Germany and established businesses in Toronto. She was always surrounded by art experiences growing up. Besides enjoying music concerts, her mother excelled as a professional dress designer. Concerts and excursions to the ROM and art gallery were regular outings. Beardall remembers her youth as always being involved in some sort of artistic or animal rescue adventure.
She had to drop out of high school to take care of her mother who had developed dementia following a car accident. Her father had died the previous year, so there was never time to go to art school or pursue higher education. However, she is proud of the fascinating jobs she undertook throughout her youth. Punk band bass player in the 70s, and jobs such as wardrobe head on feature films and in other capacities on film sets. During the time she was working as a legal secretary, she met her husband.
After they married, the couple settled in the Yukon and were entranced by the wild north. Her husband had a position as a federal prosecutor based in Whitehorse and travelled regular circuit courts. During that time Colette was a new mother and interested in learning native crafts such as moose hair tufting, bead work and creating traditional northern parkas. Living, hiking, horseback riding and driving in the wild splendours of the Yukon and Alaska strengthened her love of nature. Then following an eleven year sojourn in Alberta, they moved again, settling in the town of Metcalfe, south of Ottawa, where they raised two children and a lively animal menage including her beloved miniature horse Montana.
Covid has put a blanket on travel for Colette, but she is happy living with her dog and horses on their little five acres of woods, which has brought her into closer contact with wildlife than she expected. Her backyard woods have been home to foxes and temporary shelter for porcupines, bears, raccoons, skunks, stoats, coyotes, and multitudes of birds. That has been her pleasure and respite: in the woods soaking in the atmosphere and watching the seasons change. She considers that has been a great influence on her work.
Throughout her adventuresome life, she has explored different art mediums, searching for something to suit her unique interests. She loves woodworking and sewing, but felt her efforts paled in comparison to her mother’s skill and her father’s furniture design and refinishing abilities.
When the Beardall children were very young, the family had settled in St. Albert Alberta for a time, which Colette felt was fortuitous. The city’s vibrant art community boasted a beautiful municipal centre designed by Douglas Cardinal. Mother and daughter registered in mom-and-tot clay classes and her interest in clay really just evolved from there. Her skills developed, so that soon enough she started teaching at the St. Albert Potters Guild when her son began half days at school. She taught kid’s and adult hand building classes and created school board art curriculum. Colette also enjoyed some local success as a potter. But her love was always sculpture , an attraction which had begun when she was a youngster.
In 1971, family friend and professional sculptor artist Sigfried Puchta sculpted 11 year old Colette’s likeness and in so doing, set her artistic direction: Puchta gave Colette her first lump of clay and asked her to make something in time for their next sitting. She made a torso of a male figure on one side and a female on the reverse. Watching Puchta’s face as he studied it, she remembers his words to this day. “You have a gift. You need to pursue it”. It’s taken her time, but she is now firmly dedicated to figurative clay sculpture.
For Colette, the process of sculpture begins when she is moved by an engaging news story or conversation, She imagines it in a sculptural context and seeks to express that emotional quality in her work. For example, concern about difficult historical events engages her feelings and is translated into her art. The sculpture Nightingale Whisper, a prize winner at the national . Figureworks Exhibition this year is a powerful example of the haunting tragedy in the Ukraine. She does not make for the sake of making, and says that is why she finds that she is slow in producing new work.
Clay is a fantastic, soft flexible medium. If a piece is not working for you, you can reclaim it before it’s fired. So nothing is really lost. And maybe some ghost in the previous work finds itself adding to the work to come. If she is feeling blocked, Beardall simply rolls newspaper into shapes and ties them with masking tape to solidify a form. Other times, inspiration may be a rough sketch of an animal. The best way to move forward is to just start making. And if it’s not working, smoosh it and start again.
For Colette today, the most difficult part is starting. Bur near the middle of the creation process, she engages. Previously she really disliked glazing because it so often can take away from and ruin a piece on which you’ve spent a long time. But she has refined her method and now is excited by her new technique. She began using lots of clay slips, engobes and oxides to colour the clay and then firing it to higher temperatures. She finds this method is great because it makes the work stronger. Beardall is also known as a raku artist, but it is a low firing method and the pieces can be delicate.
Clay is a medium where you will never know everything and of course, in her opinion that is a great thing. It is a lifelong adventure of learning.
Every sculpture Colette makes will have a different emphasis and motivation, but animals are one theme that she returns to often. She quotes her hero David Bowie. ‘I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise I won’t bore you.’
As a self-taught sculptor, Colette Beardall has taken workshops in every aspect of the medium – except sculpture strangely enough. From throwing workshops to hand building classes and glazing studies, she feels that she always comes away with some kernel of new information. She advises her own students to learn from many other teachers. Each will impart something unique, and some will speak to you more personally than perhaps another. Read on the subject. Working in clay requires many steps. Practice, practice, practice. If you are doing figurative sculpture, devour a good anatomy book.