Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
A visit to Earth and Vine Studio
Earth and Vine Studio is the workspace and creation centre of Pugwash mosaic tile artist Jennifer Houghtaling. The studio, which she built about 10 years ago, is a straw bale structure. The inside walls are covered with layers of clay added by Houghtaling and finished with a final coating of lime plaster to protect the straw from moisture. She has carved nooks for shelves, embedded bottles for visual appeal, and added textures and lines that make the entire structure a huge sculpture. “It’s like my giant work of art,” says Houghtaling. “I’m always continuing to work on it and have lots of fun with it.”
The space invites creativity and radiates possibility. Pieces of pottery, sculptures, and tile mosaics add colour and inspiration. This past fall, Houghtaling began adding tiles outside to the gable end of the building, adding another element of interest.
While she began her artistic career creating functional pottery, she has since extended her craft to include sculptures and mosaic tiles. “I have enjoyed going from making mugs and bowls and teapots to focusing on form and trying to allow the clay to become something out of sort of nothing,” she says.
The beauty of nature inspires her work. “I grew up on a 400-acre ranch riding horses and being left alone with my imagination,” she says. “I love nature and the ocean and spend as much time as I can in those places. I am also very interested in the creative process and how it seems to come only with intention and focus.”
With that mindset, Houghtaling enters the studio. “I know if I pick up a piece of clay and start moving it, and kneading it, and working with it, I’m able to find that place where the clay takes shape and the artwork emerges.
“Sometimes when I’m creating I get into a flow state, as some would call it, and I open up to the process. I’m always searching for that moment of inspiration and waiting for it,” she continues. “With clay, it’s very interesting to follow form and take something that doesn’t have any form and turn it into something that speaks to people or even has movement within it.”
Houghtaling also feels moved by global issues such as climate change. “[My] mosaic titled, We Are The Bear, has two polar bears in the water. This piece came after reading the book, Circling the Midnight Sun by James Raffan, about the north and climate change, and the effect on polar bears and ice.
“‘We are the bear,’ was a line in the book that really touched me, and I was inspired to make the piece based on that. It came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a plan or a sketch, I just started making pieces and they came together.” The finished product is a two-foot by four-foot mosaic made from many pieces in varying shapes and sizes.
“My favourite part [of creating tile work] is taking a piece of clay, shaping it into a form that puzzles in along the others to bring the whole together.” The individual sections of the mosaic are placed on plywood and grouted. The finished art is heavy and is hung using a French cleat.
Houghtaling, who grew up in rural British Columbia, is active in the community as a volunteer and as a councillor for Cumberland County. “We have an East Coast way of life that does not exist in other places and is the reason I love it here. We are humble and community-oriented,” she says. She’s a founding member of the Pugwash Farmers’ Market, where she sells her work, and part of the Pugwash Artist Collective. She has enjoyed recent local exhibits of her work at the Fraser Gallery and the Ice House Gallery, both in Tatamagouche. Houghtaling is also a contributor to the Pugwash Open Air Gallery, a program meant to increase awareness and interest of local contemporary artists. Reproductions of artwork were acquired and installed on exterior walls of buildings in the village. For Houghtaling, it’s a three-foot octopus.
In 2020, Houghtaling put her creative projects aside and shifted her attention. “The pandemic certainly changed my focus, and it took me away from art for a while as I decided I needed to be more involved in the choices being made in my community. I became a councillor in Cumberland County,” says Houghtaling. “After getting to understand a very different reality, I have come back to my art with a heightened appreciation, as it can sometimes be a lovely escape from trying to solve the issues around the council table.”
When asked about the future, Houghtaling says she enjoys learning new ways to extend her knowledge and her art. “I would like to see more large sculpture work, and I have been dabbling in raku this past year, which I love.” Regardless of which form her clay takes on, it will be both beautiful and insightful.