'I pursued a dream': a revered Abbotsford pottery pioneer bids farewell

Herman Venema is retiring after 50 years of teaching pottery at his Matsqui Prairie studio.

After more than half a century of potting, Herman Venema has fired his kiln for the final time.

Last week, students-turned-long-time-friends wiped down the counters and tidied up Herman’s once-bustling studio. Since the 1970s, Fraser Valley’s pioneer of pottery has taught the fine art from his Abbotsford property. But after a final farewell sale this weekend Herman will close his studio doors for good.

The Beginnings

In 1968, Herman moved his family from Richmond to Tacoma, Wash. to pursue his master of fine arts. Like many today, when Herman returned to the Lower Mainland in 1970 he was priced out of Vancouver and decided to move further east, purchasing a rural property in Abbotsford’s Matsqui prairie.

By 1971, Herman had opened his studio and was potting full-time. Shortly after, pottery became a “craze,” he said.

“Anything you made, no matter how ugly, would sell.”

Herman taught students at his Matsqui property until 1977, when he built a dedicated studio space adjacent to his home. About half his income came from continuing education courses he taught for the University College of the Fraser Valley.

“It was a good time for potters and it didn’t last.”

In the early 80s a market crash shifted people’s spending habits. Herman then divided his time between the studio and a paying job in construction. He was no longer instructing, but he didn’t stop potting for himself. After a brief break he resumed teaching in the late 80s.

Students, Colleagues, Friends

The demand to learn pottery eventually made a comeback.

“The interest in pottery today outstrips what we saw in the seventies—well, it's probably the same,” Herman said. “We have way more people wanting to take classes than we could possibly offer.”

For the last 10 years, classes have been full and those hoping to get a seat could expect to be on the waitlist for a year or two. He estimated he’s taught roughly 100 students each year up until the conclusion of his most recent workshop in December.

Long-time friend Dave Dobie, who first met Herman as a student in the ‘70s, thinks the renewed interest in the craft is driven in part by the relief it provides from the traditional workday.

“It’s kind of the antithesis to modern society where everything’s instant,” Dave said. “This is a very slow process, you have to make it, you have to be patient while you make it, and that takes a number of steps.”

But with the closure of Herman’s studio, Dave said potting classes in the Fraser Valley are essentially “non-existent.”

Naomi Unrau, who manages the pots at the studio, and Jake Stelpstra, who teaches classes, are unsure what comes next for them.

“I don’t know what to say, except that [Herman] has been a mentor to me in more ways than just pottery,” Naomi said. “It changed my life.

“I’m 71 and it’s going to be hard to think what I can do next that matches the value that pottery has been for me…It’s going to be a hard act to follow.”

Jake, who first started coming to the studio 27 years ago, said the studio’s closure is a loss of a community. It’s a place where friendships flourished, motherhood was mastered, and cancer was conquered.

“Now where do we go? What do we do?”

A Final Farewell

Before Herman switches the lights off at the studio, he will host a final farewell sale of his pottery this weekend.

The sale will take place over two days at Venema Studio on Herman’s property (34917 Harris Rd.). The sale runs from 3 to 8pm on Friday and from 10am to 4pm on Saturday.

On April 1, Herman’s property will be put on the market. But some of his former students are hoping to save the space as part of what they’re calling a legacy project.

Potter Cathi Jefferson was in her early 20s and had just finished nursing school in 1974 when she saw an ad in the local newspaper for pottery classes. Cathi credits Herman’s mentorship and generosity of studio space for her pottery career.

She is now working with three other women to try and raise funds to purchase the property to preserve the studio.

“We thought there’s no other clay facility,” she said. “We wanted to get a legacy project going and hopefully raise funds to be able to buy the property… and continue to have not just clay classes, but art classes there as well, too.”

“It would be a real hub in the Abbotsford area for art.”

Herman’s Final Thoughts

Herman’s retirement was not expected. Currently in his 80s, he didn’t plan to quit just yet. But his health told him otherwise.

“It’s sudden. There’s an underlying note of sadness. But times do change. And we always hoped to age in place here and we had a pretty good run of it.”

He’s most proud of earning a lifetime achievement award from the Abbotsford Arts Council, but even more so of all his accomplished students.

“Several students that I’ve had over the years have done really well. And they have outstripped me, they make good stuff. And I’m proud of them.”

Looking back on a long, successful, career in a precarious industry, Herman just had one thought.

“I pursued a dream.”

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