Jack Sures

Jack Sures, CM, ceramic artist (born 20 November 1934 in Brandon, MB; died 12 May 2018 in Regina, SK). Jack Sures was a major figure in ceramic art in Canada, both as an artist and an educator. His works won many national and international awards, including the Medal d’honeur at the Geneva International Exhibition and the Grand Prize at the International Ceramic Exhibition in Mino, Japan. He was a Member of the Order of Canada and the International Academy of Ceramics. He received the Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saskatchewan Arts Board and the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Fine Crafts from the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

Early Years and Education

Jack Sures attended school in Melita, Manitoba, before his family moved to Winnipeg in 1948. In 1952, he enrolled in the Faculty of Science at the University of Manitoba, later switching to the Fine Arts program, where he majored in Printmaking and Painting. After graduating in 1957, Sures moved to Regina, where he worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway as a brakeman. In January 1958, he moved to East Lansing, Michigan, to attend graduate school at Michigan State University. He received his master’s of Fine Arts in 1959.

As a graduate student, Sures continued his studies of printmaking and painting. He also took one ceramics course — the only formal ceramics course of his entire academic career. During this time, he was particularly impressed by the work of Franz Marc, Albrecht Dürer and Paul Klee, as well as by the work of several surrealist painters, in particular the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (echoes of Bosch’s fantastical imagery can be seen in much of Sures’s later work).

Early Career

Returning to Winnipeg after graduation, Sures taught for a year at John Hugh Macdonald High School, a job he found unsatisfactory due to the workload and the limitations it placed on his career as an artist. After leaving the teaching job, he moved to London, England, where he took a position at Chelsea Pottery and at a ceramic factory; there he learned about production throwing, mold-making and slip casting — his first real experience working with clay — and had access to wheels, clay and a kiln.

While working at Chelsea Pottery, Sures hitchhiked with a friend to Cypress and settled for a time in the city of Lapithos. He continued his travels in 1961, making art, visiting galleries and museums and working at odd jobs throughout Europe. He worked for several months on a kibbutz in Israel and at an American Air Force base in Lisbon, Portugal. He returned to Canada in 1963 and opened a pottery studio in Winnipeg with the help of a bank loan. He built a number of pottery wheels (using a farmer’s milk separator for one) and assembled the first gas kiln in the province. He was able to make a living selling ceramic goods to meet the growing demand for hand-made crafts. Teaching six-week pottery classes for twelve dollars a session and renting out spaces for artists helped defray his costs.

University Career and Artistic Success

In 1965, Jack Sures was hired by the painter Art McKay (who was then dean of the art department at the University of Regina) to set up the university’s new ceramics and printmaking departments. The job offered Sures a freedom he had not previously enjoyed. “It was a great opportunity,” he later said. “I was struggling to make a living. At the university, I had this great salary… only had to teach 18 hours a week, and the rest of my time was my own.“

In 1965, Sures was awarded a Canada Council grant that enabled him to work and study in Japan from March until September of 1966. Sures met important Japanese ceramic artists and gained insight into their working methods and philosophies. The experience helped him to sort out his own ideas about the history and traditions of the clay medium and evolve a new mind-set regarding how to wed the medium’s craft roots with living aesthetic expression.

Meanwhile, his new position at the university gave him the time and resources to find his feet as an artist. It also put him in a position where he could influence the development of ceramic art as a thriving aspect of regional artistic expression on the Prairies. Ceramic art was in its infancy in Saskatchewan and was largely seen as a subject not fully suitable for university study. Sures worked with Ric Gomez, who had recently been hired to set up the sculpture department, and once again managed to build a gas kiln, this time the first one created in Saskatchewan. He began to take on a vital role in the university’s art department, setting up both the Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts programs in 1969.

In addition to the security and challenges of a new job, the year also brought an opportunity that would have a vitalizing long-term effect on Jack Sures’s art. He had been exploring new methods of making his ceramics, experimenting with inclusion of fibreglass material in his works. This allowed him to create pieces that were becoming more sculptural and to push against the material constraints that limited ceramic art to its functional uses.

Sures began entering his art in national and international competitions, with growing success. In 1967, he was awarded Best Stoneware in Show at the Canadian Handicraft Guild Competition. He also received first prize in the Ceramics ’67 competition. In 1968, he was awarded the Medal d’honeur at the Geneva International Exhibition. Meanwhile, his administrative duties at the University of Regina continued. From 1969 to 1971, Sures served as Chair of the Visual Arts department. He also hired the Californian ceramist David Gilhooly to run the Ceramics Department.

Modernist Art and “Prairie Funk”

Jack Sures’s administrative and artistic leadership contributed to a clay-work art scene in Regina that would eventually gain national and international notice. Regina had already received wide attention in the early 1960s with a group of abstract painters known as the Regina FiveKenneth LochheadArthur McKay, Douglas Morton, Ted Godwin and Ronald Bloore. This group of artists, several of whom taught at the university, were the first group of contemporary prairie artists to exhibit together at the National Gallery of Canada. They contributed to Saskatchewan’s growing reputation as a centre for advanced Modernist art (see Modernist Art on the Prairies).

Within a few years, the fame of the clay artists would shift the attention away from Modernist abstraction to a regional manifestation of what could best be described as “Prairie funk.” Characterized by a craft-based representational treatment of local subject-matter, generally presented in a whimsical, often humorous or satirical manner, the genre was home-grown in its production and appeal. The scene included Gilhooly, Joe Fafard, Vic Cicansky, Russell Yuristy, Marilyn Levine, David Thauberger and several others.

The artists in this group were predominately sculptors, as opposed to vessel makers. In this sense, Jack Sures’s art stood apart in that he continued to work with the vessel form. Nonetheless, he shared his colleagues’ inclination to exploit humorous imagery, occasionally devising patterned arrangements of small animal shapes playing together in implausible combinations. While other members of the Regina group explored the grainy surfaces of low-fired clay, Sures worked with smooth, expertly crafted glazes, often beautifully decorated with invented design motifs resembling oriental calligraphy or Moorish decorative patterning.

Retirement

Sures continued working at the University of Regina until his retirement in 1998, when he was given the honourary title of Professor Emeritus. He continued to make art full-time.

Notable Works and Exhibitions

Many of Sures’s works are included in numerous private and public collections, including those of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, External Affairs Canada, the Province of Saskatchewan, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Regina, the Canada Council Art Bank, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Pecs National Museum in Hungary, among others. He created several commissioned artworks, including murals for the Provincial Office Building in Saskatoon and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, as well as a set of ceramic pieces for the Department of Secretary of State and a terrazzo floor for Regina’s Wascana Rehabilitation Centre, Regina.

Honours and Legacy

Jack Sures was recognized for his accomplishments with numerous awards, including the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Fine Crafts, which he received two months before his death. Although the award mentions “crafts” in its official title, Sures himself seldom considered the distinction between fine craft and fine art as particularly meaningful, saying, “I’ve always wanted to do my own thing. As an artist, I’ve wanted to be truly creative in doing things that I felt best expressed me. Not expressed ideas of our culture or other people’s ideas.”

Awards

Best Stoneware in Show, Canadian Handicraft Guild Competition (1967)

First Prize, Ceramics ’67 Competition (1967)

Medal d’honeur, Geneva International Exhibition (1968)

Grand Prize, International Ceramic Exhibition, Mino, Japan (1989)

Member, Order of Canada (1991)

Member, International Academy of Ceramics (1991)

Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, Alumni Association Awards, University of Regina (1991)

Excellence in Research, Alumni Association Awards, University of Regina (1992)

Commemorative Medal of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada (1992)

Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)

Saskatchewan Order of Merit (2003)

Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)

Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Saskatchewan Arts Board (2017)

Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Fine Crafts, Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (2018)