Connecting to clay at Medalta

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Finding the coolest way to learn about Medicine Hat’s past

Medalta Medicine Hat
Touring the Turning Room.
Photos by Jenn Smith Nelson

JENN SMITH NELSON

MEDICINE HAT, Alta. - “What’s that funny smell?” My son Finn asks as we sit down at the pottery wheel for a clay experience. “Know what that smell is? It’s Medicine Hat,” says Aaron Nelson, Medalta’s associate director.  

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Nelson’s referring, of course, to the earthy goodness that is clay; a product in which Medicine Hat is rich in and enabled the city to cement itself in Canada’s industrial history.

“Here is probably the best geology for clay east of the Mississippi except California. It’s unique,” says Nelson.

We arrived in Medicine Hat a day earlier and didn’t have to look far to see the town’s spirited inspiration. Artwork hanging in our suite at the Hampton Inn & Suites showcased Medalta images of machinery and chimneystacks prints – a nod the city’s proud history.

Plan your artistic adventure to Medicine Hat and the Medalta today.

Following blue signs reading Historic Clay District, we make our way the next day to Medalta, the famed pottery factory.

medalta medicine hat
An exposed underfloor kiln can be viewed in the reception area at Medalta.

I’ve been here before – well technically my work has – for a student exhibition called 1000 Miles Apart. I had earned my BFA in Visual Arts with a specialization in Ceramics, and was beyond excited to be exploring Medalta now, alongside my family.

We meet up with Nelson for a tour of the facility. “What we are sitting on right now is a layer of clay and natural gas,” Nelson explains. “What we are doing here is taking these things and turning it into culture.”

We begin in the resident artist studio spaces where Zevin asks to hold a work in progress, a ceramic ax. “Now that’s a photo that captures Canada,” laughs Nelson.

Throwing at Medalta
Aaron Nelson teaches the family how to throw

From there we view the outdoor and indoor kiln areas, the glaze room and eventually our workstations. Here we don adorable aprons that read “Medalta Made In Canada.”

We listen and watch as Nelson demonstrates how to throw a vessel. “You’ve got to centre it really well and then push in the clay until it feels smooth,” he says. “Slow down, after that and be patient. Don't be afraid to fail!”

We take our places at the wheels and attempt to make something of our small lumps of clay. “Ooh look,” Nelson says, motioning to Zevin’s mound. “He's making Hoodoos. It's awesome!”

He then puts on the song from the movie Ghost and garners laughter from those in the room old enough to relate it to the famous movie scene.

Finn’s having a lot of fun and within minutes he has clay all over him.

Finn at Medalta
Finn on the pottery wheel at Medalta during a throwing lesson.

It can be hard to hold the interest of my boys, but this is one activity they are thoroughly enjoying. After all, getting muddy is somewhat appealing right? Laughter and chatter fill the room and once we finish our masterpieces, we continue on the expansive tour.

At the reception area we see the inner workings of an archeological dig revealed in an exposed kiln site below our feet. From there it’s onto the Yuill Family Gallery, a magnificent space where a new exhibition is just being set up. The show features past resident artists who decided to call the community home. “Medalta’s really become a hub,” Nelson says. “They come to learn and then stay for the community.”

Next we step back in time to learn about the early processes of pottery production and its place in Western Canada’s industrial revolution. Ambling through the Old Factory, we see a room where production pieces are still skillfully being created.

Interesting Fact: Medalta was the first Western Canadian industry to ship manufactured goods to Eastern Canada.

Before we move into an exposed excavation site, we see an enormous tunnel kiln and pause to watch a video on how it worked. It’s chilly as we walk underground viewing old machinery and methods used to move the clay from floor to floor. 

Medalta Pottery Museum Medicine Hat

Back above ground, we move through a space used for receptions and year-round marketplaces, which attract 35,000 people a year.

Then we have the pleasure of exploring inside the iconic beehive kilns filled with Medalta vessels and peer into glass cases housing the visual history of Medalta ceramics produced in chronological order.

The tour naturally ends at the gift shop, a great place to pick up a little piece of usable history, and new creations from resident artists. It takes every ounce of restraint not to add to my already over abundant ceramic collection.

While you're in Medicine Hat 

Medicine Hat is full of fun things to do from swimming at Echo Dale Park to skiing during a delightfully long sunset. For more ideas and activities, visit the Tourism Medicine Hat webpage.  

Learn more about the history and tour information at Medalta by visiting their website.

Medicine Hat is a four-and-half-hour drive from Regina and about a three-hour drive from Calgary. 

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