Alanna Baird lives in St. Andrews and has a background in both pottery and engineering. She combines these skills, along with recycled materials and the inspiration of things she finds on the beach to create some truly unique and remarkable pieces.
How long have you been here, located in St. Andrews?
The first time I moved to St. Andrews was 1991. I was away for 5 years and I’ve been back for 6 so you can do the math on the dates on that one, but this particular studio we built when we came back. This building is only 6 years old and it was built around me as I was building the big fish for Huntsman, the 15 foot one. Having this studio’s nice. Before that I had part of the house as the studio which has become living space and before that I had storefront studios in various scenarios here. I lived in Pocologan for 14 years before coming to St. Andrews.
Are you from (Pocologan)?
No, I finished high school in Saint John and my dad had grown up in Saint John. He moved us from Ontario back to his hometown in 1971, so I’ve been in the Maritimes since then. I was 14.
How did you start getting into the tin fish?
The tin came from work I was doing as a potter. I went to the New Brunswick Craft school. After a year and a half at the school I graduated with a diploma in clay. It wasn’t the College of Craft and Design, it was the Craft School then. I was living in Pocologan. I was doing a lot of fish imagery on the outside of pots and some of them were relief fish on the outside. I saw a call from the Museum of Civilization, which has another name now, for a weathervane competition. I’d always thought weathervanes, whirly gigs, something like that would be kind of fun. So deadlines, you know how they get closer and closer, and I was thinking “oh my god. I wanted to do that and I didn’t get any material.” I was still thinking about it and then I thought well, I have fish scales lining my recycle box, all these circles already cut out lying there. Why can’t I use that? I thought about it some more and the first one I built went off to this thing and it was purchased by somebody. I submitted a photo of it to a(n) American Crafts Council in 1993 that was publishing a desk diary. It was 52 images, one for each week, to celebrate the year of craft in North America and they chose the picture of this first fish as one of two Canadian pieces in the whole book. Considering it was a North American book, they only had two Canadian pieces, but it got accepted. It was an incredibly crude piece, but it was just different, a different material, a different approach to metal I guess, and gradually the attention the fish were getting took away from the pottery and superseded the pottery. Tin will wait for me. It you’re working in clay it needs you back when it’s ready for you. Tin will sit there and wait so (there are) lots of different reasons that I kind of morphed over. When I had a storefront for awhile I didn’t have a space there to build tin, so I started doing printmaking again, which I did in highschool. (I) picked up the lino printing, basic hand printing, not using a press, but (it was) something I could do in a small space while I was minding the store, so (I was) doing the two and taking turns. I’m now going back to visit the pottery. I’ve sort of come full circle. It’s been probably ten years since I was doing any pottery at all and that was some teaching while I lived in Ottawa. I’m revisiting old forms, using them to cast in wax, to make bronze. Now I’m using them as forms for the new work I’m doing in plastic. It’s kind of interesting to see all of these bits and pieces pulling together into a whole new body of work in a new material.
You work with so many different materials. From your tin fish to your plastic pieces, your pottery and your prints as well, how do those processes compare?
I don’t do any work in clay now. Any of the processes I’m doing now will wait for me I guess. The wax will. I thought working in wax would be similar to working in clay, but it is actually quite different. It’s tougher, it’s more forgiving. You obviously can’t throw it. You can’t lick it and smooth it out, but you can melt things back together. You can drill holes in it and you can do different things. I like learning new techniques because I’m using traditional sheet metal techniques which aren’t what’s taught say to jewelers. It’s more what a tin smith would use (or) someone doing duct work or going even farther back (to) car fenders and autobody type stuff from the good old days. I have tools in here like a(n) English wheel which is not a traditional craftsman’s tool, but it is a traditional sheet metal working tool. I’m not working with straight lines and straight edges because I’m sort of more free-forming things. I’ve always wanted to do bronze. It’s something close to that like of pottery, but again I’m using things I learned as a potter towards other things (such as) carving styrofoam. I used to carve styrofoam to make draped molds for clay things. You could take a slab of clay and drape it over a styrofoam shape and that would give you a platter or something. Well now I’m carving styrofoam, making completely different molds, and I’m using fiberglass on them…My husband’s a boat builder now, so he’s got fiberglass sitting in the shop so I’m playing with a bit of that, playing with whatever’s at hand. The plastic is something that’s come from wanting to use, initially, computer technology to change the scale of what I was doing in bronze because you couldn’t get a computer to print in wax now. Scanning is a very expensive technology and I wanted to retain the hand-made, not computer design because computer design is very stiff and linear. It doesn’t have fingerprints in it. If you could scan something and then shrink it to an inch size or expand it to twelve feet you would still retain the surface textures and things. But it got too expensive and I also don’t have (the) computer know-how to do it and when I couldn’t find someone to partner with I was ready to abandon it. Then I heard about this hand-held pen. It’s basically the printer head out of a 3D printer, but I’m the computer. I’m drawing what I want instead of having to program the computer to draw it, which gives me the option of working much bigger than (a 3D printer). A 3D printer’s usually a foot square kind of size whereas with this I’m limited by how much I want to draw and I was starting out with 3D printer size, but then starting to expand into bigger (sizes). It’s a very soft kind of material, but with structure, with ribs, and things.
So there’s quite a bit of engineering involved here?
A little bit, yeah. I actually studied engineering years ago.
What kinds of things are you inspired by lately?
Well, right now a lot of this work is based on a sea urchin, but I spend a fair amount of time on the beach here. There (are) a lot of broken things on the beach: pottery, sea glass, shells, and I’ve been looking at them more and more sort of deconstructing (them). My favourite of the bronze pieces was a cast that failed. It came forward and then kind of went gnarly at the top and didn’t form. (I was) like holy cow, this is perfect, this is exactly what I want. So (for) the next ones I’m going to try and purposely fail more and get things like what I see on the beach. It’s things that are around you. I mean, these are all things from the beach that I’ve just made molds of and cast, but now I’m looking at deconstructing some of those things the way that the beach does.
And making airships. I made the big bowl shape and then the bigger bowl shape by the door. They’re sitting in here dangling and turning in the wind and I’m thinking “hm” this is really interesting. This one looks so much like a hot air balloon I had to put something underneath it. My grandson has a couple of really good kids books that have a bunch of airships in them, so now I’m onto flying machines. In some ways my engineering background (is) coming back to haunt me in understanding structure.
What’s been a challenge of your growth as an artist?
Making a living working full time. I went to the Craft School in ‘77 / ‘78 and other than some time with kids I’ve been pursuing my art since then and it’s been a pretty minimal income level, but gradually getting there. Things like grant money have been fabulous because I’ve finally been able to play with something entirely new.
What’s been a highlight of your career so far?
Some of the bigger commissions I’ve gotten, the one at Huntsman, that’s a fifteen foot fish. That was a challenge to build and a piece that I’m very proud of…and it happens to have stayed here which is cool. I won the Canadian National Sculpture Competition at Kingsbrae (Gardens) in 2013, the three salmon. I did a similar one for the town of Montague, PEI, with three mackerel, but (it’s) more horizontal. They have a sculpture trail in PEI. I have a big one out in Drumheller, but the one here is my favourite. It’s nice that it’s here and people can see it.
I noticed that you’ve some design work for Quoddy Marine (Link). Is that right?
Yeah, they’ve used the whale imagery from my lino block prints and I’ve been doing the t-shirts, printing here, because it’s the same as printing on paper. It’s just a different ink and not paper. It’s one of the ways of making my living and making different things because it’s very hard on you physically to do the same thing constantly. If I were going to just be doodling all day I’d end up warped and twisted or if I’m hammering too much my arms are going to fall off. Having a variety of work is good for me physically as I age. I did some shirts ages ago with some whales on it and…there was one particular image of a group of all the whales that they see out here which we used on a t-shirt for Quoddy Link last year. Then this year they came up with the idea of wanting to do the buff. You can customize things, so all I had to do was digitally manipulate the artwork a little bit to get it into a pattern, a repeat pattern for them. It’s taking what was an image with four whales and a porpoise on it and mak(ing) it into 50 whales or however many it is. That was quite fun and it’s something just a bit different for the tourist market, having something that’s not the same shirt as every other whale company, with just a different whale company name on it. These ones are unique to that particular company and it’s a nice thing for me because I earn a little bit of money for every one they sell. I’m in the market with my t-shirts and with the other ones we just add the Quoddy Link’s logo to them and then they’ll buy them in quantities so it’s a way to spin out more of a living.
With that being said and with all your work around fish and sea urchins, something I’m fascinated by is the connection that I’m seeing between conservation and the art world…
I didn’t necessarily get into what I’m doing because of conservation. I got into using the tin cans because it was a cheap material and it was readily available, but it got attention because of being recycled. That has spun it much farther than if it had been any other material. I’m feeling terribly guilty using plastic. It’s not recycled plastic, it’s new plastic. It is a vegetable based plastic, apparently, so it’s not as bad of a plastic as other plastics and I am playing with recycling my plastic. It’s hard to work in recycled materials because you can’t buy your raw material. I depend on people dropping it off here and I’m running out of certain colours. They’ve stopped making cat food that’s got a blue lid and I have very few of the green ones left, so at some point I’m going to be back to just silver and gold. I can’t phone up a company and say “send me another box of green lids.” You can have an idea for something, but then I suddenly need 25 orange juice containers. Where do you get them?
Another fun project in Saint John is “DotSpot.” That was really fun and that was one I could get my family involved in because it was a(n) almost no budget project. It was the Area 506. They had some money from Canada 150 for that, so they put out a call for shipping container architecture. They didn’t really say very much about what the parameters were and I got very excited thinking “oh, I’m going to stack them, all kinds of them and do some stuff!” Anyway, I was away while this was going on, but I wrote them and I said, “How many containers can I use?” They said, “One, (a) twenty-foot one.” Then I said “Ok, well what’s the budget?” They said, “four thousand dollars” and I went, “what?” What can you do? You can’t even put doors and windows in something for four thousand dollars and I thought jeez, how do I do that? I had kind of shelved it and then I thought about it and I thought well, if I can’t fill the holes with something I’ll just cut more holes. Initially, I was thinking of creating it into a useful space like a studio or a market stall or something like that and putting nice windows and making benches and things out of recycled stuff, but then it was like, “oh, I’ll just make a space.” I got my two nephews who are engineering types to help with cutting. I got my sister to help with painting and Alastair helped with things. Then we got someone from here in town to do the poured epoxy floor. That was fun and it didn’t happen here. It happened at my nephew’s shop because he’s got a bigger plasma cutter than I do. It was involving people who were not art people at all in an art project and sharing a sense of pride with my family which was quite fun to do. That one would actually be a highlight because it wasn’t just me. It was all of us doing something.
Have you found ArtsLink resources to be helpful?
I used your lights and your camera. The hardest part is the distance, going to get it, coming in, using it, but that wasn’t so bad because I have a digital DSLR, but it’s old now and it won’t take a photograph (with a) big enough file for someone who is doing a book publication. So I took the little workshop that they gave on photography because I’ve done some over the years, but that was nice to have a refresher and see how your camera worked. One of the things that’s hardest for people is product photography, having a space to do it…Look at this space. Where do I take pictures of five foot fish? It’s one thing to shoot (smaller pieces). Jewelers can stick it in a little light tent. If they wanted a resource, having a room set up as a photo studio would be fabulous because then you could just deliberately take your wares in, turn the lights on, shoot it, (and) take your wares away. I bought a background, so I’ve got this thing in that black case, (but) I have to clear everything out of the room, try and set it up, try and get lights ready, and I don’t get as good of a shot. Having a background and having a space..would be huge. It (would be) a room that you could use for other things in between because it really just needs to be an empty room. You could use tables, chairs, whatever, but that would be very nice to have.You want hooks from the ceiling to hang things…or (a) tabletop. Everybody needs a good photo. I’ve sat on juries and I’ve looked at different people’s photos and sometimes the photo is what makes or breaks whether the person gets the grant. We’re all in the same boat of having to do our own bookkeeping, do our own advertising, do our own everything. We’re wearing so many hats and trying to work out of small spaces. Even here, Sunbury Shores doesn’t have room to do that. Their spaces are in use all the time. We need a fourth floor warehouse space in Saint John…But grants are definitely helpful. I said in my last grant application I cannot stop what I’m doing and devote six months to a new project. I have to keep doing my market (and) building fish, so I’ve said I’m spreading my grant out over a year and I’m working on this part time. I’m going back and forth because you can’t stop what you’re doing if you’re making a living from what you’re doing even if they’re paying you some money to do it.