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Outspoken, acclaimed ceramist Léopold Foulem challenges traditional ideas about conceptual art. Mike Landry crafts the story.

At the opening reception for his solo show at the Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, internationally acclaimed, contemporary Atlantic Canadian ceramist Léopold Foulem stood in front of the puzzled crowd defending his ceramics as art.

"Shouldn't a teapot be able to hold tea?" asked a woman near the back.

"Yeah, they do have a purpose. They make you think!" said Foulem, pacing and waving his arms. "You don't go into a museum and try walking on a painting."

Foulem is used to people not understanding his work. He's the winner of Canada's top honours for craft, but says he isn't a craftsman. As a ceramist he's worked to expose artistic prejudices and stereotypes, while exploring themes of gay sexuality and identity. Foulem's show is a collection of his work over the past decade. It's significant because it's in a contemporary visual art gallery—somewhere Foulem isn't usually welcome.

"I'm marginal because I use ceramics," says Foulem. "People say it's craft but I only work in the medium. I'm not a craftsperson, so it makes it very difficult. It's a really grey zone."

The newest series in the show,

Récupération, is a collection of traditional-looking vases on metal mounts. Foulem called it Récupération because the mounts, the shapes and colours of the works are appropriated from classical works.

"I didn't create them, I copied them. One day I was in my studio and my brother came in. I had a book and he said, "You're copying!' That's the idea. I have no complex."

By copying classical works Foulem makes abstractions of the originals. They're like shadows. They call to mind the original, but the ornate floral images on his vases are cheap decals that he sticks on. He says the decals are as good as hand painting. Besides, he's not trying to make a better vase. He's creating something new—a comment on ceramics and popular culture. "Everything is credible, but it is all faux. It's not the real stuff. It's about the real stuff."

It's this confusion that drives his critics crazy. But it's also why he makes cups that you can't drink out of, with a coat hanger as a handle or a Disney Pluto toy as a stem. With a skilled craftsperson's eye, Foulem prefers putting together cheap and found materials to making the pieces himself. He spends hours in flea markets and, in New York, prefers antique stores to museums.

"I make art. Why should I make a teapot? You can go out to Pier 1 and get a teapot. It's not that. It's another thing."

The division between craft and art has long been debated in the art world. Foulem says the debate's irrelevant and will challenge the boundaries of craft at the international NeoCraft Symposium held in Halifax, November 23 to 25.

"He challenges people to consider how they've categorized objects on the basis of what they're made of and what they look like," says Robin Metcalfe, director of Saint Mary's University Art Gallery. "By continuing to work in ceramics he challenges and dares people to get out of their own conceptual boxes."

But Foulem doesn't strictly work in ceramics. He's also had four shows of bronze sculpture—a medium he says is much easier to work in than ceramics. With bronze he says he gets the artistic credit he feels his ceramics deserve.

"When you do bronze, you're an artist. People won't say, "Is it art?' They know it's art—it's bronze! But when you do ceramics you're really walking on a ledge.

"If you were an acrobat you would be walking a tightrope and I kind of like that. It's very difficult."

It isn't only critics that are skeptical of Foulem's work, he also has a hard time selling his ceramics. He's lucky to sell one of his pieces a year. And although his work is in The Victoria and Albert Museum's collection in London, England, most of his work is shown in commercial galleries, which rarely make a sale of it.

"When you go to see a painting you say, "Is it good?' Well, when you look at my work you shouldn't say, "Is it art?' you should say, "Is it good?'" says Foulem, exasperated. "If I was to start over I wouldn't do , but I've been at it too long and I'm still convinced that my work is good."

Léopold Foulem: Récupération until November 25 at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, 5865 Gorsebrook, 420-5445.

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