In Sheila Kelba-Warawa’s fanciful world, water jugs morph into roosters, ceramic fish resemble wind chimes, and functional pottery has a certain Alice-in-Wonderland appeal.
Her colourful, organically-shaped mugs and bowls almost look like they’re about to sprout legs and amble away. But Kelba-Warawa said she comes by her quirkiness naturally. “It’s just the way I was brought up. My dad was artistic and he did really wacky things.”
The 49-year-old ceramic artist, who runs Mud Hen Clay Studio in Bentley, spent her formative years in her dad’s carpentry workshop where she and her sister were encouraged to build 3-D creations of their own out of wood scraps.
Despite this early influence, Kelba-Warawa once seemed destined for a conventional life — at the age of 26, she held a stable job as an operator with the Alberta Government Telephone company in her native Edmonton.
Then one night, the petite woman was one of seven people who were attacked in their own homes by a neighbourhood stalker and everything changed.
A traumatized Kelba-Warawa realized she’d had enough of the big city. She quit her well-paid job and moved to the Queen Charlotte Islands to join a friend who’d been living like a hippy. “My father thought I was nuts.”
But Kelba-Warawa began her new back-to-nature existence in an unserviced cabin she rented on a tiny, and otherwise uninhabited, island. It was only a short distance from a larger island, so she would routinely paddle across in a two-seater kayak with her dog, Eda, sitting up front.
Whenever the pet shifted her weight and threaten to tip the kayak over, “I’d say, ‘Sit up Eda,’ ” recalled Kelba-Warawa with a chuckle. When that didn’t work, she would have to nudge the dog over with her paddle.
“Everything was extremely comical. . . . Here I was, living in the bush and I was this total city girl,” said Kelba-Warawa, who had to boil rainwater for drinking and chop wood to feed a wood stove — the cabin’s only heater.
Her bathroom facilities were an unenclosed outhouse that previous tenants had created in a hole in a tree. She somehow learned to garden in a rainforest — which entailed covering her crops with a mesh fabric to keep off the giant slugs.
To supplement the meagre money she made from weaving fabric and selling papier mache masks at the local market, Kelba-Warawa took a series of odd jobs, including counting the fish brought in by local fishing boats for a federal survey.
“We had to count all the halibut and salmon,” said the artist, who has no idea why.
She also toiled as a fish plant worker, tagged fish and even went out in a fishing boat once, “but they had to bring me back to shore after three hours, I was so sick.” She waitressed, helped build a local museum addition and worked as a hastily trained dental assistant.
Once she drove to the Quesnel area in the B.C. interior to plant trees. She considers this the most gruelling job ever. “You get all scratched and beat up” by insects, brambles and other natural scourges.
She still bears the mark of a spider bite that once swelled up her left eye.
During her years on the island, Kelba-Warawa socialized with all kinds of artists and a friend persuaded her to apply to the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary.
She spent three years at the college, honing her sculpting skills and driving back and forth to the Queen Charlotte Islands with her two cats between terms. She eventually relocated to Vancouver Island to set up her first ceramic studio.
In 2003, Kelba-Warawa moved to Alberta for a marriage that didn’t last. She’s now busy raising her daughter, Guinevere, as a single parent. The five-year-old has severe disabilities and requires the same level of care as an infant.
Kelba-Warawa admits the responsibility of parenting a special needs child has been stressful. She has had to take on a part-time school bus driving job to boost the family income. “I really worried, because I wasn’t able to work for a year after Guinevere’s birth. I wondered what would happen when I came back into the studio?”
She needn’t have been concerned — creating funky pottery came back to her naturally.
With such a colourful past, it’s easy to see where Kelba-Warawa’s ceramic fish, rooster, pig and goat designs come from. “I’ve always loved animals, and colour and texture have always been what’s interested me,” said the artist, whose work is functional as well as fanciful.
Working with clay “takes me into a different head space, usually, and it’s kind of a diversion,” added Kelba-Warawa, who believes her imaginative creations, which sell from $12 to $350, are born of her own life experience.
“I’ve had such a bizarre life, and done all these crazy things. . . . It was so great.” She hasn’t lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands for a dozen years, but is still in touch with many friends from the old days.
Kelba-Warawa sells her work at the Bentley Farmers’ Market on Saturday afternoons, and is preparing for an exhibit at the Harris-Warke Gallery in Red Deer in December 2010.