The daschunds bark a loud welcome, luring you into Black Bird Studios. Inside, you’ll find Paige Coull, listening to music and surrounded by her ceramic art – some finished, some fired, some waiting to be adorned. Should Coull need some fresh air, she can wander out her front door and down to the long stretch of Gabriola Island beach. “We moved here in August. It’s the peace that I need. It’s the beauty in the everyday. I can take my wheel outside.”
Coull has made a quick impact on the island. Her table at the Easter Weekend Pop-Up Gallery attracts all sorts of admirers. There are bowls, mugs, vases, cheese-plates. People are turning her pieces round and round, inspecting the hand-drawn and silk-screened imagery. “Foxes and owls are particularly popular.”
The pop-up crowd is also spending a little more time than usual rubbing the crevices of her work. The hand-cradling tea mugs have an oval of inset glass cast right where the thumb goes. “It’s a personal touch. Something just for you. I put the thumb groove into pieces when they are leather hard. Ceramics is a timing game. You can’t let things dry too fast or too slow.”
One look around Coull’s studio and it is clear that ceramic creation is also a supply-chain game. Given that a single mug takes one month from hand-throwing to store shelf, Coull must take on multiple pieces at each stage. “I can fit up to 60 mugs in my kiln, but I like to vary shapes and sizes.”
What does it take to produce a mug? “I’ll throw them on the wheel. I throw everything by hand. I’ll imprint them with a thumb groove and trim them. Next, I’ll throw a handle and then let them dry slowly for a week. Then, I’ll clean them and put them in the kiln for the first firing. That’s about 12 hours. “
And voilà a mug?
No. “It comes out as bisqueware. I clean it again, then I start glazing it. I tape, silkscreen, add my colour, glaze and then it goes back in the kiln for a minimum of 24 hours.”
Ta-da. A Mug?
“Then, when they come out – after they have a little bit of colour – I apply my custom decals. I let them sit for 24 hours, then they go back in the kiln for another 12 hours. When they come out, I clean them up again and package them for shipping.”
Unlike many, Coull will always glaze the bottom of her pieces. Her mugs have a raised pattern, like wave lines in the sand “It’s that soft touch that you’re not expecting.”
Once her pieces are done, Coull ships across the country: Montreal, Ottawa Penticton, Whistler, Saskatoon, Victoria…. Here in Vancouver, you can find her work at Meadow Gifts and Apparel in Gastown and Smoking Lily on Main.
Black Bird Studios has achieved a level of success that would not have been predicted by the Ottawa high school teachers who kept failing Coull in art. “I knew that I wanted to be an artist, but I never wanted to conform. I never wanted to do a specific project a certain way. I always wanted to make an idea my way. School didn’t go for that.”
Coull started her own house-painting business when she was 13. And, despite the F grades, she kept persisting in art. She enrolled herself at the Centre des Arts Visuels in Montreal: “I paid for all of these classes – jewelry, abstract painting, bookbinding, ceramics. I wasn’t very good at ceramics to start. I took the beginner class two or three times, but there was something that pulled me.”
Her ceramics teacher told her about the Alberta College of Art and Design. “I loved it. It really challenged me in ways that I didn’t think possible.” She started off thinking she would do a fibre degree, but she ended up spending so much time in ceramics, she eventually switched. “It was an area where I could throw everything in – glass work, textiles, silk-screening, photography.”
Coull started Black Bird Studios when she moved to Victoria. She would paint during the day, then pot in her garage studio each night until midnight. She started to do artisanal markets, but figured she would also need to get into stores if she was going to make a go of it full-time. “I put together a ridiculous email with some photos of myself and sent it to 15 stores. I said if I got one or two, I’d quit my job. I got 10 stores. It was scary. I quit my job right before Christmas. I started sending out Christmas orders and worked around the clock.”
These days, Coull is still actively involved in markets. Three years ago, she and her ex-husband started the Congress Collective, where they put on indie markets themselves. “A lot of markets were getting out of tune with artists. They would cost thousands of dollars. We wanted to include local breweries, food trucks, artisans, to create a family vibe and keep things cost effective for artists. I took that over two years ago.”
Coull also teaches F-free art classes herself: adults, kids, wheel-throwing, mold-making, silk-screening, pattern design. “People can be very apprehensive when they come. I find that adults spend so much time out of the arts, they get more self-conscious. We hold back. We don’t take chances. It’s about getting people together with wine and music. It’s creating the atmosphere to let us play and be kids again.”
“Everyone can make pots,” says Coull. She will often start people off with a basic press plate project. “Anybody can make 50 in a couple of hours. It gives you a boost of energy and excitement, then you start surprising yourself.”
With the making, teaching and selling, Coull does work hard. “I work everyday. I don’t take holidays.” Yet, she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “I tried to think of the one thing that I couldn’t live without and decided to try and make a business out of it. The fact that it worked out is just a blessing.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
* Photos of Coull and her finished, single works courtesy of Black Bird Studio