Chefs prefer serving their creations on white china. The thinking goes that food looks more appealing when displayed on a blank canvas. But Joan Bruneau, a foodie and studio potter, will have none of it.
She enjoys making meals and the dishes they’re served on, and thinks deeply about how her plates and bowls complement courses, from appetizers to desserts. She thinks even purple corn chips taste better served in a handmade bowl with a deep green glaze. In her view, dishes must stack easily in cupboards, and the handle on your mug of morning coffee needs to feel right in your hand.
But it’s more than that. Each of Bruneau’s pieces, made from Lantz clay, the red earthenware native to Nova Scotia, is sensuous to the touch and gorgeous to behold. That’s why collectors like Jamie Durnnian return to Bruneau’s Nova Terra Cotta Studio in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia again and again. “I grew up with good dishes and everyday dishes,” Durnnian says. “As I get older, I see the flaw in that perspective.” He’s a respiratory therapist who lives in a century-old Dartmouth, N.S. home with his partner, Ian Bishop. Their stunning ceramics collection includes bowls, platters, pitchers, vases, and tulipieres by Jim Smith, Julia Galloway, Jane Donovan, and Walter Ostrom.
“It’s the touch,” he says when asked why ceramics. “When you hold something beautiful, your hands won’t lie to you. The touch of the maker stays in the clay like a memory. That to me is precious.”
Bruneau says she regards the rim of a plate like the frame on a painting. She explored ideas of ergonomic and aesthetic functions in the solo exhibition Full Circle: Flower Bricks and Serving Vessels for the Seasons at the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax in fall 2012. “Preparing and presenting an inspired meal elevates the everyday from banal to beautiful,” she says. Different seasons call for different dishes and table decor.
For spring, start with a flower brick, placed on the table’s centre, bursting with forsythia branches to celebrate winter’s end. Lunch starts with a bowl of soup made with fresh peas fresh from the garden, vibrantly green and served in bright blue bowls. Next up are seared scallops in tarragon white wine sauce, with chives clipped artfully on top, and presented on a turquoise charger. For dessert, there’s yogourt cake and fragrant pears, served on pretty plates fancifully decorated with green leaves and blue flourishes.
Bruneau, who makes daily-use dinnerware as well as pots for celebratory use and floral displays, believes her work comes to life through use and interaction. She distinctly remembers her ah-ha moment when she was a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD University). Walter Ostrom, the distinguished ceramic artist, assigned his students to make a serving dish for their favorite food.
Recently returned from a European backpacking trip, Bruneau decided her platter would showcase Gado Gado, a warm vegetable salad served with spicy peanut sauce. It’s an Indonesian dish she first tasted in the Netherlands at a friend’s mother’s table. The memory of the woman’s cooking still tantalizes decades later, so exotic compared to the boiled and fried fare Bruneau grew up with. “She’d whip up things like rabbit braised in buttermilk sauce without any fuss at all.”
Bruneau is revisiting the assignment in the class she’s teaching this semester at NSCAD: The Art of the Table. The course, part art history, part studio class, explores historical and contemporary approaches to table decoration and presentation. She remembers that the serving dish she made way back then “was the ugliest thing you could imagine,” she says laughing. The tasty brown food looked unappetizing and bland on the earthenware platter, which slumped in the kiln. “Brown on brown just doesn’t look great. Colour and beauty will always be important to me.”