THE POTTER OF VERNON
Compiled and written by Ron Candy, Director/Curator
Greater Vernon Museum & Archives
Axel Ebring was born in a small village about 200 miles south of Stockholm, Sweden, in 1874. His father and grandfather were both potters. Thus, Ebring was exposed to the potters’ trade at a very early age. Ebring immigrated to the United States when he was about 18 years of age. He was a restless man in his youth and tackled jobs like logging, prospecting, mining, and railroad work as he roamed throughout the mid-west United States, the Canadian prairies, the Yukon and British Columbia.
Ebring homesteaded for a short time near Terrace, British Columbia but by the late 1920’s had settled in an area north of Salmon Arm known as Notch Hill. There, he established a small farm and raised goats and chickens. As fate would have it, he discovered a clay deposit near his farm that was suitable for making pottery. This discovery had turned his thoughts to the skills he had learned as a child back in Sweden, back to a time when his father had built him a tiny potter’s wheel and had shown him how to “throw” pots. Now, at middle age, Ebring built himself a “ponderous kick wheel” out of cement four inches thick by three feet in diameter, along with a brick kiln, and returned to his craft.
It didn’t take long for people in the region to discover the beauty and charm of Ebring’s work. This was especially true for a frequent stream of visitors from Vernon. His business did well and within ten years Ebring had used up all the good clay on his land and began looking for a new source.
Around the middle of the 1930’s Morris Middleton, owner of a large ranch in southeast Vernon, brought Ebring a sample of malleable clay from a small section of his ranch where a brickyard once operated. Ebring was excited about the deposit and was able to purchase two acres of land from Middleton. By 1937, Ebring moved to Vernon, set up a potter’s studio, and built a small house below the hillside from his new clay deposit
Ebring produced a wide variety of functional earthenware and his list of admiring patrons grew steadily over the years. He worked in the traditional manner and never abandoned his foot-powered potter’s wheel. Nor did he ever use a thermometer for his wood fired kiln saying, “The best thermometer is an old man with enough experience.” According to those who knew him, the things Ebring liked to make most were bowls, vases, and jugs. Many say his blue glazes were his real fame.
On June 19th, 1947 an article appeared in the Vernon News about Ebring. The following are excerpts from that article…
“…In the small hill at the back of his plant is the clay…There are at least seven different types (clay), all of excellent quality for their various purposes. Dug from the veins, it is put to soak in tubs of water until about the consistency of cream then put through a sieve with 80 mesh to the inch. After three of four months of standing to cure in a vat, the clay is ready for use.
Mr. Ebring pulled a handful of clay out of the vat, took it into the workshop, kneaded it on the bench to work out air bubbles and lumps then plopped it on the wheel.
‘You have to work with hands, feet and head, explained the potter.’ With his foot he revolved a large disc connected by an axle to the wheel rotating above the work bench. With his hands held about the blob of clay he brought it into cylindrical shape. With his head he directed responsive fingers to the proper point and pressure which hollowed out the cylinder and made the sides rise in the beautiful curves of his mental plan. The shaped vase was complete in about 15 minutes.
It was then set off to dry. It could be set in the sun the next day and dried in about 24 hours, but Mr. Ebring is not in a hurry. His workshop is lined with forms drying slowly as they await the kiln.
This (kiln), as all other tools of his trade, he built himself. When he has sufficient articles to fill the kiln – a brick oven of about four feet square and high – he is ready to give them the first fire.
Then, for about two days, Mr. Ebring must go without sleep. The fire must be built up very gradually, to an eventual temperature of about 2,200 or 2,300 degrees. ‘I have no thermometer. They use them in factories, but the best thermometer is an old man with enough experience.’
This experience includes controlling the fire even to the point of allowing for the variable drafts caused by the breeze blowing at the time. All the work is wasted if the gradual building up and dying down of the fire is not delicately graduated.
There are several processes of colouring, too complicated to explain to a newspaper reporter. Mr. Ebring made it clear that he did not go out and get colours from leaves and roots. He buys mineral oxides from commercial producers. Mixing them to get the exquisite colours in his pottery is a secret only because it is a combined art of sensitivity and long experience.
…Colours may be put on before the first firing, before the glazing, or even with the glaze, by processes already mentioned as too complicated to describe. The glaze goes onas the objects are dipped in a sand coloured liquid coating containing quartz, flint and feldspar, which dries on the object. Under the next firing, the minerals melt and form the transparent glass surface, revealing the delicate hues which until then had been drab blobs of dull colours.”
Ebring never married. When asked in 1947 what his true age was he replied, “Can’t say, it might spoil my chances of getting a wife.” Axel Ebring died in 1954 and is buried in the Vernon Cemetery.
The Vernon Museum has over 300 works by Axel Ebring in its collection.