DIDSBURY, Alta. — A well-known potter working from a rural studio near Vegreville, Alta., is debunking an old saying that suggests that you can never really go home.
Yes, you can, says Debra Durrer, creative force behind Artables tableware and great-granddaughter of Nicholas Cherniawsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who fled Josef Stalin’s bloodstained regime in 1917.
Debra, raised on the farm established by her great-grandfather, draws on her Ukrainian culture, family history and love of nature and the outdoors in lines of tableware that range from casually elegant to comical depictions of moose, polar bears, bison and other Canadian icons.
Each is steeped in the traditions she learned as a little girl, decorating pysanky (Easter eggs) at her baba’s knee.
Debra says humour plays a significant role in her work because laughter and dancing were the only relief when times got tough for her forebearers.
Their first homes in Canada were dug into a riverbank at Hairy Hill, named for the massive piles of hair left by bison scrubbing off their winter coats.
The early settlers harvested the bison hair to insulate their walls and made it into felt for their clothes and boots, says Debra.
Debra now recalls their stories in her ceramics, the fusion of art and tableware from which Artables derives its name.
She embarked on her career after earning her master’s degree in fine arts from Ohio State University.
In Calgary, she taught courses for a year at what was then the Alberta College of Art and started making pottery to pay her student loan.
“I did not miss a single payment. I made 3,596 casseroles to pay off $30,000.”
In 1986, Debra and her husband, Dennis, a professional chef, established Artables from a studio in Calgary.
Then, nine years ago, her father offered them a 13-acre parcel of the family farm.
They packed up their two young daughters and moved, establishing a 370 sq. metre studio where Dennis looks after business and logistics, while Debra works at her craft.
They sell her work all over North America with help from 11 Colorado-based sales reps. She has been marketing one of her lines in China for the last 12 years.
“I now know more Mandarin than Ukrainian,” she says with a chuckle.
The move back to her family home has proven beneficial on many levels. Besides putting her back onto the land she loves, it has helped her daughters, now 17 and 14, make deeper connections with their maternal grandparents, who help with the business of keeping up a larger acreage.
Improvements in technology and transportation have removed obstacles that used to impede rural businesses, says Debra. For her, it was not just possible to go home — it helped fulfill a dream.