Medalta is one of Canada’s best-kept secrets. Nestled against the red cliffs of the South Saskatchewan River in Medicine Hat, this beautiful, old brick factory and clay works has become one of the premiere ceramic arts centres in the world. Occupying over 40 acres, the setting is a unique combination of bucolic and dramatic; the magnitude of the prairie sky with its vast and ever changing canopy provides a striking backdrop for the industrial grandeur of the site.
Shortly after my arrival in Medicine Hat, Barry Finkelman, Medalta’s gregarious and indomitable Executive Director and General Manager called me. He had gotten word that I’d directed Brick by Brick: the Story of Evergreen Brickworks, an award winning documentary about another adaptive reuse design and suggested a screening which would involve comparing and contrasting the two projects. As it turned out, Barry was also a transplanted Torontonian. He and I had even grown up in the same part of the city. Between our affection for The Big Smoke and our shared interests in the intersections of history and culture, we quickly forged a friendship.
Decades back when Barry started at Medalta, he was just a crazy kid with a dream. The site was more crumbling ruins than anything else and you had to look hard to see the potential. Moreover, many locals, who had worked under extreme conditions inside the plant, harboured less than positive feelings about the space.
Nonetheless, funds were raised, people hired, and over the decades, the vision realized. With its 10 kilns – including a soda kiln, car kiln and large gas car kiln – Medalta draws artists and artisans both from Alberta and around the world. It has also become a community hub, hosting a weekly farmers market, special events like an interactive Hallowee’en installation that is a must see for kids and adults alike, and has becoming an exceedingly popular venue for wedding receptions and other events with waiting lists a year long.
Visiting ceramic artists are able to choose from four separate residency programs ranging in length from two to twelve months. Participants are often housed in the community, though Barry is currently busy with plans to convert part of the former Medicine Hat Brick & Tile factory to an on site residence. However, one standalone dwelling will be specially remodeled for one of Canada’s foremost ceramic artists, James Marshall. On the day I toured the site, he was busily marking up a concrete floor with chalk, indicating just where he wanted walls for his new home to go.
For other visual artists, such as Barbara Mitchell, Medalta itself is the muse. During the course of a lengthy archeological excavation, Barb and her collaborator Sheridan Bullman took inspiration from the dig. They created a series of eight 4’ by 6’ immersive photographic canvases that, along with a video work, resulted in the exhibition Re-History, shown last summer at the Esplanade Gallery. These striking industrial ‘portraits’ were immensely popular and the duo is exploring touring the show.
With my academic background in history and armchair interest in architecture, I was taken with both the historical artifacts and the sheer physicality of the site. Fortunate to be invited on many tours, as I walked through the kiln buildings, drying rooms and old factory floors, each time I marveled at some new element: the cinematic light that pieced through the building’s exterior shell; the stillness now almost engulfing a once deafening workplace; and the cool, almost damp interiors which contrasted with the dry hot heat of an Albertan summer day.
Once a major centre for clay products, Medalta and other neighbouring Historic Clay District industries supplied Canada and the United States with everything from bricks to sewer pipes – all necessary infrastructure material for a rapidly urbanizing continent. By the early part of the 20th century, Medalta Potteries had became well known for its crockery and pottery, at one point even producing a specially ordered set of dishes for the Ethiopian Emperor Halie Selassie.
Today Medaltaware is a collector’s item, commanding a high price. A vast array of all these artifacts is artfully displayed in the Medalta Museum. Part of the collection is even housed in a restored beehive kiln, which is certainly one of the more unique museum spaces I have encountered. The work of resident ceramic artists is also on display in the Art Gallery. And if all this isn’t enough, tours are available so visitors can get a sense of how the plant operated back in the day.