dogandcatsaltpepperIn an interview with Toronto Design Offsite Festival contributor Janet Macpherson, Mason Journal learns how the ceramicist creates a whimsical narrative through her hybrid figurines of animal forms.  Janet shares the inspiration for her contribution to the Capacity exhibit, and gives insight into her medium and practice on a local and international level.

Mason Journal: How would you describe your craft/discipline?

Janet Macpherson: I work in ceramics using the techniques of mold-making and slip-casting. I find plastic animal toys, religious statues and other knick-knacks from thrift stores, make molds of them and cast them in porcelain. I alter their original forms by reassembling the cast parts to create hybrid figurines, humorous and sometimes unsettling functional and domestic objects, and more recently animal forms that are wrapped in thin porcelain sheets. I bandage, bind and mask them to evoke a dialogue between ideas of freedom and constraint, pleasure and pain, care and hindrance.

I create functional objects for the home in one part of my practice and also spend time making one of-a-kind pieces that are more complex, and often become part of larger installations.

My studio practice consists of creating objects for the home as well as creating one of-a-kind pieces, which are more complex, and often become part of larger installations.

MJ: Can you tell us about yourself and how you evolved into your current practice?

JM: I went to Sheridan College in 1999 to learn how to make functional pottery, but was much more interested in exploring a more personal narrative through drawing and carving on clay. I made cups, bowls and jars that were elaborately carved with images of Christian iconography, anatomical diagrams, and fragments from my childhood. When I went to graduate school at The Ohio State University in 2008, I was committed to making a significant change in my work, I wanted to take my two-dimensional drawings and make them three-dimensional. Thematically I was still very interested in these drawings, but needed them to manifest in a different way. I took a mold-making class and my entire artistic practice shifted into a more figurative and sculptural approach to making.



MJ: Is there a fundamental process or perspective you try to maintain across all of your work?

JM: I primarily slip-cast everything I make in clay. I enjoy the attention to detail that is necessary for the mold-making process, and am interested in what can happen to an object when it is duplicated, altered and re-contextualized.

I am also interested in infusing my ceramics pieces with an uncanny sensibility that I hope is present across my body of work. Perhaps these objects, upon first glance, seem like ubiquitous figurines, or mundane kitsch objects, but upon closer inspection the viewer sees the masked face of a hapless sheep, or the limbless body of a river otter, mired in a porcelain base. I want the viewer to have a sense of the strange and the familiar happening all at once, and maybe even empathize with these creatures and their various predicaments.

MJ: How are you involved in Toronto Design offsite Festival this year?

JM: I am involved in a show called Capacity. It is an annual contemporary design exhibit featuring the multidisciplinary work of Canadian women working and/or studying in the field of design. This year it will be located at the Gladstone Hotel’s Art Bar. It is in its third year, and I am really excited to be participating in this show for the first time.

MJ:  Can you describe your approach to the piece you have created for the Capacity exhibit. What are the goals or expectations of the show?

JM: For Capacity 2013, curators Katherine Morley and Erin McCutcheon asked participants to choose a female designer as inspiration for the work they would make for the exhibition. I chose Vika Mitrichenka, a ceramic designer from Belarus who makes porcelain tea sets and dishes reminiscent of her grandmother’s practice of gluing together broken and salvaged china. Seeing Mitrichenka’s work I noticed a similarity in the way that we reference certain ceramic traditions; delicately painted china services or ubiquitous porcelain figurines, while imbuing these objects with contemporary and personal significance.

I have made ceramic bookends, which feature these wrapped and masked animals. I am looking forward to the public’s response to these new functional pieces that are much more ambitious than production work I have done in the past. I hope to garner some interest from galleries and/or stores in Toronto, and ultimately it would be great to sell some work. It is my first time participating at the Toronto Design Off-site festival, and I am not really sure what to expect. I was away from Toronto for three years to pursue a graduate degree, so I am looking forward to connecting with the Toronto visual arts/design community in a way that I haven’t before.

otter vase

Bookend singlefox



MJ:  How does Toronto Design Offsite impact the Canadian design community and you as an artist?

JM: The offsite shows enables me to connect with other designers on a local level with the potential of national and international exposure. The offsite shows are really accessible to the general public and are integrated into the city in an interesting way. I think there is a buzz around design and its possibilities throughout the city because of Toronto Design Offsite – people can participate with it by simply walking down Dundas Street, and I think that’s really exciting.

MJ: How would you describe the reaction to and perception of your work on an international vs. local level?

JM: I think the reaction and perception of my work has been similar in Canada and the U.S., but a noticeable difference to me is that there are many more venues for exhibitions that include ceramics in the U.S. than there are in Canada. This may be due to the fact that there are many more ceramic programs at universities and colleges across the U.S. and consequently there are more people in the U.S. that have been formally educated in ceramics. I have seen many more really exciting contemporary ceramic exhibitions during my time in the U.S. than I have in Canada, and it seems that there are more galleries that want to show ceramic art in the U.S.

I also found that I received more recognition for my work in Canada after I went away to school in the U.S. and came back to Toronto. This doesn’t seem to be an uncommon occurrence for artists in Canada – that they need the validation of being recognized somewhere else first, before they will get a lot of attention locally.

MJ:  Are there any benefits in having a Canadian-based practice?

JM: I like the fact that the Canadian community is smaller and more intimate than what I encountered in the U.S. As I mentioned before there are more venues for ceramic art in the U.S., but being a part of the Canadian community, which for me began when I attended Sheridan College, has been very rewarding. In my experience, people really keep in touch with each other, recommend each other for jobs and exhibitions, and cultivating relationships that do not seem overwhelmingly competitive.



MJ: How can Canada develop a design identity on an international stage?

JM: Canada is made up of so many different cultures and is so big geographically that I’m not sure it is possible to pinpoint a distinct visual identity.  This sometimes leads to a forced attempt to make something “Canadian”, and fails to reflect what people are actually doing. Canadian design needs to be embraced where it comes from before it can go anywhere else. I am fairly new to this world, but I am inspired by the work I have seen in Toronto, and I think that there are a lot of amazing designers in Canada that are making an impact, especially in the realm of sustainable materials. I feel that Canadian granting bodies need to get on board and start funding designers and design collectives. Canada sometimes seems reticent to take risks on artists, and this could perpetuate the idea that Canadian art/design doesn’t have an international presence.

MJ:  From a local perspective, how do you see the art and design industry shifting over the next few years?

JM: So many people are losing their once affordable studios to condo development. This is putting a strain on local artists and designers’ ability to develop new and experimental work. I think that if art, design and craft are going to thrive in Toronto, we have to try to preserve these spaces for makers. Maybe as a response to financial stress, more artists are going to have production lines that focus on accessible and functional objects, which will bring the art and design worlds into closer alignment. I think this could be a really interesting place for the industry.

MJ: Can you tell us what we can look forward to seeing from you next?

JM: I am always working on new designs for my production line, so there will be new species of animal vases, drinking vessels, salt and pepper shakers and other animal based ceramic objects for the domestic space. I am also going to make some one-of-a-kind wall tiles and revisit my passion for drawing and carving on clay.

Also, I am part of an exhibition at the Practice Space in Philadelphia in May, and the show’s theme explores the concept of the monstrous through various media. Using slip-cast objects, I will investigate my own interest in monsters through masked and manipulated animal hybrids.


For more information on Janet’s work, visit her website at

All images courtesy of Janet Macpherson.