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Set to impress

Whether you’re hosting a dinner party or a family dinner, beautiful handmade ceramics will take your meal to another level

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Serving food in handmade ceramics elevates any meal—even a simple salad. Platter, footed dish, and salad plates by Chester, N.S. artist Jim Smith. Photo: Beth Dunham.

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.

  • Jamie Durnnian’s kitchen cabinet displays work from several artists. Level one (l to r): dinnerware by Joan Bruneau, teapot by Peter Powning, plate by Jim Smith. Level two: dinnerware by Joan Bruneau flanked on both sides by mugs by Lucky Rabbit Pottery. Level three: creamer and sugar set by Sarah MacMillan, plate and jar by Jim Smith, server by Joan Bruneau, cup by Jim Smith, Buddha mug by Lucky Rabbit Pottery, plate by Jim Smith, turtle jars by Lucky Rabbit Pottery.
  • Yellow raku-fired teapot by New Brunswick artist Peter Powning. In background is a dessert plate by Chester artist Jim Smith.
  • Chickadee mug by Debra Kuzyk and Ray Mackie of Lucky Rabbit Pottery in Annapolis Royal, N.S.
  • Teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl set by Nortre-Dame, N.B. artist Suzanne Babineau. Painting by Halifax landscape artist Gordon MacDonald.
  • Platter, footed dish, and salad plates by Chester, N.S. artist Jim Smith.
  • L to r: Creamer and sugar bowl set by Glen Margaret, N.S. ceramist Sarah MacMillan, side plate and covered jar with bud handles both by Chester, N.S. artist Jim Smith, oval server by Lunenburg, N.S. ceramist Joan Bruneau.
  • A quiet corner in Durnnian’s living room showcases a platter by Jim Smith and a vase by Toronto ceramist Marc Egan.
  • Ceramics by Lunenburg, N.S.-based ceramist Joan Bruneau.
  • Jamie Durnnian’s mantel showcases (l to r) a leaf pitcher by Calgary artist Greg Payce, ewer by Halifax artist Jane Donovan, pitcher by Greg Payce, background painting by N.B. artist Gerard Collins.
  • A colourful montage of plates, bowls, and platters by Chester, N.S. ceramist Jim Smith. The top left platter has a playful campfire theme, with mosquitos, marshmallows, and paddles.
  • In the kitchen, a large serving bowl by Halifax artist Jane Donovan holds seasonal fruit.
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“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.”

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