What is unique to a country’s culture? How does immigration impact it? Given that some nations/politicians/people view refugees and migrants as threats to their national cultures, these questions are worth delving into. Granted, a blog post is an inadequate format to fully challenge the negative views on immigration held by some. However, the inspiring story of the tranquil and fascinating Jardin de Silice illustrates how a change of country can have a positive cultural impact for the migrant and the community in which they choose to live.
Early this past summer, an unusual garden roof structure caught my eye as I walked along the main street of the picturesque Laurentian town of Val David. To my dismay, a thick wall of cedar hedges blocked the full view from my curious eyes.
In late August, I returned to Val David to attend the 1001 Pots Exhibition, a show and sale of work by talented contemporary ceramic and pottery artists from Québec (and a few from Ontario), Canada. The exhibition was fabulous. Equally wonderful was finding out that the garden, which I had previously caught a glimpse of, belongs to the founder of the exhibition, Kinya Ishikawa, and was open to visitors during the show. Isn’t it an incredible space?
To enter the Jardin de Silice, you pass through a set of large doors and cross a small hallway. From her perch above the second threshold, a small figurine tenderly watches over the courtyard. Lanterns hang from the roof beams. Cedar and other fragrant branches burn inside a rustic clay oven. Vines, growing out of boxes along the top of the walls, twist themselves up the twig roof. You walk through the passageways that run along each side of the courtyard. Here and there, through openings in the pottery-filled grids, you look out at the surrounding yard. You see people in the yard peeking in. Lush ferns, giant Butterbur and more vines dot the pathways and courtyard. Benches urge you to sit quietly and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. You see figures floating in the clouds at the far end of the garden. A whimsical totem pole-like metal sculpture catches your attention. The garden enchants you.
The Jardin de Silice embodies Japanese and Canadian cultural aesthetics. The Japanese concept of meigakure (to hide and reveal) is seen in the exterior fence, openings in the interior walls and the many delightful elements placed in nooks and alcoves throughout the garden. The garden doors create a division between the busy outside world and the peaceful inner garden. The division reminds you to leave your worries outside. The dry garden, with its carefully placed rocks and pebbled courtyard is reminiscent of Zen Buddhist temple gardens. Yet, the structure’s layout resembles that of a church. There is an innovative, creative and sometimes humorous sensibility in the architecture and stacked pottery that conveys a modern Canadian Québecois aesthetic. This hybrid of cultural influences is due to the Japanese and Canadian roots of the people who bring this unique garden to life.
Born in Japan, Kinya Ishikawa came to North America in 1969 as a member of the Japanese bobsled team. The team competed in the Lake Placid Bobsleigh World Cup. Curious to learn more about the North American culture, Kinya decided to stay on after the race. Eventually, he landed in Montréal, Québec, Canada. Knowing only a little English and no French, he found a job at a pottery studio where he exchanged janitorial services for room and board. Having dropped out of university and worked as a designer for a clothing company in Japan before joining the bobsled team, Kinya found his calling, that of a potter, while working at the Montréal studio.
He also met the woman who became his wife, Marie-Andrée Benoit. She worked at the library that Kinya frequented. Now married for over 40 years, their relationship is a testament to the statement “love has no barriers.” Deaf from age six, Marie-Andrée no longer spoke and only understood French when they met. With the aid of English-French and French-English dictionaries, the couple initially communicated through love notes. Over time, they developed their own sign language and Marie-Andrée re-learned to speak. She too became a potter.
Primarily a self-taught potter, Kinya’s entrepreneurial and artistic talents led him to open his own pottery studio in Boucherville, Québec, Canada. His work was soon on display at galleries in North America and Japan.
In 1979, he was invited to participate in an exhibition at the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum. While visiting the UK in preparation for the exhibition, he met with the world-renowned potter Bernard Leach. It was after this meeting that Kinya decided to take his work in a new direction. Rather than create precious items destined for display at galleries and museums, he began to make pottery for use in everyday life.
Awarded a Québec Arts Council grant in 1984, he was able to spend a year practising his craft anywhere in the world. He spent it in Japan. While there, he observed how one of his friends, a cabinetmaker, collaborated with other artists.
Kinya began to think about how to connect with other potters. His thoughts became actions. In 1989, he invited 50 artists to take part in the first 1001 Pots Exhibition. It’s now the largest annual pottery show and sale in North America, attracting about 200,000 visitors during its month-long run.
Continuing to experiment and expand his artistic expression, the Jardin de Silice is Kinya’s more recent passion. A work in progress and now more than eight years in the making, Kinya conceived and designed it. However, like the 1001 Pots Exhibition, the garden is a communal effort. Local artists and artisans help Kinya to build it. They also donate pottery and ceramics to fill the walls.
While beautiful cups, bowls, plates and vases in various states of completion line the shelves of the sun-filled studio that he shares with his wife , Kinya prefers working on the garden. He views the Jardin de Silice as a gathering space for and a tribute to the community of potters that he has helped to bring together (video in the link is in French).
At the garden’s entrance is a whimsical metal cart created by Val-David artist Jean Bisson Biscornet. It houses an enchanting moss and fern-filled miniature garden, which is yet another nod to the Japanese aesthetic.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the pottery pieces are thoughtfully arranged in the walls. And, broken pottery and ceramic fragments create new works of art in the garden’s pathways.
The garden continues to evolve. The small circular room shown below is a recent addition. It’s placed, much like a chapel, to the side of the main structure. The stacked boulders and solid metal walls create a zen-like atmosphere.
As I stood in the room, the sun broke through a large cloud. The movement cast enchanting patterns on the steel walls. Do the shadows look like a dream catcher to you?
Had Kinya stayed in Japan, the beautiful Jardin de Silice wouldn’t exist.
Had Kinya returned to Japan in 1969 after the bobsled race, it’s unlikely he would have become a potter. Not even if he had discovered his passion for making pottery while living in Japan. In Japan, becoming a potter requires a three-year apprenticeship. Years filled with months of completing repetitious tasks as basic as sweeping the floor and weighing clay. Advancement happens only once the studio master decides the apprentice has perfected the current tasks. Japan’s culture of discipline and conformity is a poor fit for someone who thrives on the freedom of discovery and learning through experimentation. How fortunate that Kinya finds the creative and inclusive culture of Québec, Canada a supportive environment within which to realize his passions and visions (video in the link is in French).
Had Kinya and Marie-Andrée made Japan their home country 40 years ago, it’s possible Marie-Andrée would have been treated as an outcast, not because she is from Canada, but because of her deafness. Up until 1979, deaf people in Japan were legally regarded as quasi-incompetent.
How fortunate for the 1001 Pots community of potters, the town of Val David and the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy the collective works of Kinya and Marie-Andrée that Kinya found his destiny in a new country.
How fortunate that the country welcomed him to stay.
Kinya Ishikawa and Marie-Andrée Benoit’s studio gallery, at 2435, rue de l’Église, Val-David, Québec, Canada J0T 2N0, is open year-round by appointment (call +1 819 322-6868). Be sure to ask about visiting the Jardin de Silice while you are there.