Kelsey Rose Dawson is one of the five New Makers that TOAST will be supporting and nurturing throughout the year. Her ceramic pieces are rooted in the language of place and site; the earthy vessels have grid-like patterns linking to the geographical coordinates of her wild clay findings.

On the cusp of finishing her thesis at the Waterloo School of Architecture, ceramicist Kelsey Rose Dawson is looking back fondly on her studies. For her university research she has been working with wild clay as a way to understand place and site. “Part of the origins of that was trying to better understand the land that I live and work upon,” Kelsey says. She grew up on the Haldimand Tract, land that was promised to the Six Nations which includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. It is on the banks of this river where she digs for clay. “I'm trying to understand what it means to be a white settler, living in Canada, working with the land. I started to question how I situate myself as a settler, architect or potter, and began looking down to the ground, finding clay along the banks of the river that I grew up beside.”

Kelsey gathers the wild clay responsibly, so as not to affect any wildlife. She cites the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and her writing about the ‘honourable harvest’, as her guide. “You never take the first of something you see, in case it is the last. You only take what you can carry, you don't take too much or what you can't use,” Kelsey explains. She often sources her clay from land that has already been unearthed, such as on construction sites. For the TOAST Smoulder vessel, she used clay that was found when her family were digging a hole for a tree in their garden in Kitchener, Ontario. “As I've started to look for clay, it's revealed itself to me more. When you have these open eyes looking for it in the world you're able to see it more clearly.”

Kelsey Rose Dawson

Kelsey Rose Dawson

The elemental patterns running across the surface of the Smoulder vessel are created in a smoky fire pit. “The marks on the pot really become a record of the smoke and the fire and the process,” Kelsey explains. “I love patterns that embrace natural phenomena, like smoke curling around the surface of a pot. The shape of the vessel was developed to be put into the fire. These round, smooth surfaces really lend themselves to capturing the patterns of the smoke.” She experimented with different techniques to create varying patterns, such as moving the fire and wood to make certain pigments in specific spots, and throwing in sawdust to create speckling. She also considers what parts of the pot to keep buried in the ash and which to raise to the open air. The whole process takes about three to four hours. “It's very active. You're with that fire constantly and it's the only thing that you're thinking about. You're working with these thoughts to create the surface.”

The Survey and Litterfall vessels also act as thoughtful articulations of place. The Survey vessel is patterned with a grid, which maps latitude and longitude lines along the curved surface. It was a way of Kelsey exploring “how to create straight lines, that Western rationalisation, on a curved surface, like the earth or the pot”. The Litterfall vessel is patterned with abstract marks, inspired by the shapes created by the leaves that fell from trees onto the ground at the area where Kelsey dug for clay in Ontario, “mapping the forest floor”.

Kelsey Rose Dawson

Kelsey Rose Dawson

During her studies, Kelsey was based in the Waterloo School of Architecture building, an old silk mill on the banks of the Grand River in Cambridge, Ontario. She recently moved to Montreal, and has found a new studio that echoes the shared environment she is used to, based along the Lachine Canal in Griffintown. There are around six or seven ceramicists in the building, some of whom Kelsey has already been collaborating with. It’s here she’s been working on a series of vessels also based on place and land, inspired by Monte Testaccio in Rome, an artificial hill formed almost entirely of broken shards of ancient Roman pottery. Almost all the pieces there are amphorae, many of which contained olive oil, and were disposed of there after use. Kelsey studied in Rome for a semester in 2018, and many of her pieces echo the forms she saw in the museums there, such as the National Etruscan Museum on Via Giulia, with expressive necks and handles.

Bound up in ancient pottery are the notions of the boundless passage of time, and how ceramic objects can outlive societies. Kelsey muses on the slow process of clay creation, how it is still being formed with the degradation of rocks, turning into crumbling sediment that comes down from the mountains to be compressed in riverbeds and move along waterways. “It's humbling to place yourself in a part of something that's so completely larger than yourself.”

Interview by Alice Simkins.

Studio photography by Suzie Howell. 

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