1840 Journal

Meet the artisans, discover their expertise, and share their passion.

Chronicles

An iron hand in a porcelain glove

5 Nov 2018

Meeting ceramicist Marie-Hélène Robillard 

Every morning, as soon as she arrives at her studio, Marie-Hélène Robillard makes her rounds. She surveys the tables that hold her ceramic pieces and lifts all the covers to make sure that her latest creations are doing well. She takes advantage of the day’s first light to fine-tune, care for, and polish them.  

As you might have guessed, Marie-Hélène is a bit of a perfectionist. However, this greatly benefits her craft. Working with porcelain as she does and shaping it by hand requires extreme precision and dexterity. 

A Bold Choice 

Porcelain, which some consider to be the white gold of ceramics, captivated Marie-Hélène for a number of reasons—its unparalleled sophistication, its remarkable durability, and its dazzling appearance that allows light to shine through it. “The magic of porcelain is in its translucent beauty!” In fact, to preserve this particularity that she values so dearly, Marie-Hélène has developed exclusive glazes for her pieces.

Photo credit: Nathalie Choquette 

The challenge that this material poses to the artisan who works with it is also certainly part of its many charms. “Porcelain is difficult to manipulate because it isn’t very plastic, but once completed, it’s not porous and is very dense and solid. This is why you can use it to make things that are extremely delicate.”

It’s a bold choice, certainly, but one that earns her the admiration and recognition of her peers. It’s also one Marie-Hélène is very proud of. She hadn’t the slightest idea while making a living from behind a desk that one day she would flourish so well in such a physically demanding manual job, run her very own business, and even make a living out of it!
 

From Wheel Throwing to Handbuilding

In craft school, Marie-Hélène discovered the complexity of ceramic and the numerous ways to make it shine. “In the beginning, I wanted to practice the wheel throwing technique, but then I discovered handbuilding and I fell in love with it!” 

Wheel throwing mainly produces spherical objects, while handbuilding allows for the creation of more organic forms that really stand out. It’s this unique cachet that Marie-Hélène likes most. “I love handbuilding not only because it puts the hand in contact with the earth, but also because of the sophistication you can achieve. I love having complete control and being in charge of each step.”

Though her heart belongs to handbuilding, her hands haven’t completely left behind the other methods. She produces a few of her pieces differently, but regardless of the technique used, she always incorporates a bit of handbuilding. This is how Marie-Hélène leaves her mark—leaving a trace of the creator on each creation. 

All Good Things Come to Those Who Wait 

Like all valuable and sought-after objects, porcelain takes time.
It’s a material that requires many small steps: kneading, forming the shape, making additions and improvements, creating the texture, deforming the shape slightly (a signature of Marie-Hélène’s work), drying, polishing, glazing, and finally, firing!

While most pieces are generally made in one day, the drying time alone for porcelain can take up to two weeks. “During this step, it’s extremely important to protect the porcelain pieces with covers. If not, they can break in two!” It’s a lesson the artist has learned well, albeit after a few unsuccessful experiences and many losses… 

Photo credit: Nathalie Choquette 

Once the ceramics are completely dry, they undergo a very technical double firing at extremely specific temperatures over a number of hours. The first firing, called the bisque firing, is irreversible. “Beginning with this step, we’re writing history!” The second, called the sharp firing, causes vitrification. During this firing, the clay becomes almost liquid and reveals its small imperfections if there are any. “Porcelain is a memoir of actions and sometimes it contains surprises!” 

A Contagious Passion

In addition to the days she spends creating in her studio, running her business, and managing a new sculptural installation project that she plans to exhibit soon, Marie-Hélène teaches two days per week at the Cégep du Vieux Montréal in order to pass on her skills and experience to new craft students.

Ceramics are Marie-Hélène’s cup of tea, provided that it’s served in a pretty porcelain teacup, of course!  

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