“In the city, you’d get arrested for arson if you were doing this sort of work,” jokes ceramicist Michelle Grimm. The East Vancouver-based maker has a studio that’s on 17 acres of farmland in Langley—and when you do the kind of firing that she does, open space is a must. 

Grimm explains that a lot of modern ceramicists use electric kilns to get their results: “They’re really consistent, and you pretty much always know what you’re going to get,” she says. But Grimm herself prefers to fire the old-fashioned way: with (you guessed it) fire. 

Grimm's wood-fired ceramics.
Grimm’s wood-fired ceramics. Photo by Jarusha Brown.

And fire is unpredictable. “You have to recognize that each object really becomes what it wants to become—I’m just one part of the making equation,” says Grimm. “Once it leaves my hands and goes into the kiln, it’s really on its own journey.” No two of her handmade vases (which earned her a finalist position in the Maker category of WL‘s 2022 Designers of the Year Awards) are the same.

Grimm's soda-fired ceramics.
Grimm’s soda-fired ceramics. Photo by Jerusha Brown.

Grimm first started working in ceramics in 2017, after exploring careers in fashion (she worked with brands like Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga), and commercial interior design. “I wanted a way to be more in touch with my hands, because most of my creativity was computer-based at the time,” she remembers. She enrolled in a community centre figure sculpting class in Sydney, Australia, where she was living at the time. “Working with clay felt so natural and human—I love the tactile experience, and even the earthy smell of clay,” she says. 

Grimm's wood-fired ceramics.
Grimm’s pit-fired ceramics. Photo by Sophia Hsin.

Fire isn’t the only variable that Grimm works with: she experiments with all kinds of different methods to achieve the organic, irregular and beautiful designs on her vases. One of those methods uses horse hair, which her neighbours in Langley happily supply. “I lay the horse hair across the vases, and smoke singes onto the pot and creates these beautiful graphic patterns—it’s very striking,” she explains. While horse hair is the go-to material for this sort of firing (it’s thick and coarse, which is ideal) she’s also made vases with cat hair and even clippings from a friend’s young son’s haircut. “I know that sounds kind of weird and creepy,” she says with a laugh, “but it can be really beautiful—and it’s a fun way to preserve the people and things that you love.” 

Grimm's horse hair/raku ceramics.
Grimm’s horse hair/raku ceramics. Photo by Jeremy Wong.

Because fire is so fickle, Grimm is used to her creations not turning out quite the way she expects them to—if they turn out at all. “When you’re doing these sorts of atmospheric firings in the kiln, pieces break a lot,” she says. She’s recently started collaborating with Vancouver company Mended With Gold to bring broken vases back to life using Kintsugi, a Japanese art of fixing cracked ceramics using gold. The Michelle Grimm x MWG collection is available online, and is part of Grimm’s effort to make her practice as sustainable as possible. 

Grimm's collaboration with Mended with Gold.
Grimm’s collaboration with Mended with Gold. Photo by Sophia Hsin.

In addition to firing with wood and horse hair, Grimm’s has vases made by soda firing, pit firing and raku—you can find them all on her website. 

Ceramicist Michelle Grimm. Photo by Jarusha Brown.
Ceramicist Michelle Grimm. Photo by Jarusha Brown.