Dragon Jars and Lotus Bowls

– a talk by Jennifer Fahrni –

An award-winning artist’s contribution to international culture

Jean MacKay Fahrni (1919-2019)

I’m normally introducing The Irish Rovers to audiences of 5000, so I will try to tone it down this evening to appropriately honour these magnificent pieces of art from ancient Asia for the dignified audience we have here today: friends, family, Museum of Vancouver staff and the devoted volunteers who made this evening the grand event it is. Tonight we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Canadian Society of Asian Arts, and the 100th birthday of Jean MacKay Fahrni.

Thirty years ago this important collection was packed away into the bowels of the museum. So first of all, I would like to thank and congratulate the Museum of Vancouver for uncovering these important artifacts and bringing them back into the light.

Jean-MacKay-Fahrni
The late Jean MacKay Fahrni at the opening reception for “Dragon Jars & Lotus Bowls” wearing a bracelet made in 1964 by her close friend Bill Reid. Photos by Eike Schroter

The story of this collection is a true Vancouver story, and a triumphant Canadian story, starting with the one fact of where the collection was housed for over 25 years: Jean’s giant log home on the west side of Vancouver where local artists, dignitaries and politicians would frequently gather, share ideas, and indulge in Jean Fahrni’s plum wine.

Jean was born 100 years ago, in Vancouver. She was raised in the prairies by a poor minister’s family. Then, at 17, she returned to Vancouver, became a nurse, and married a young intern who served overseas as a medical officer before they were able to carry out their dream and raise four children.

In 1957, her husband Harry traveled to India where he lived with the Bhil Tribe while studying the workings of the spine. At the same time, Jean started studying art and ceramics part-time at UBC and Vancouver School of Art.

Then in 1968, Jean and husband Harry were in Djakarta on a self-funded project to train young Indonesian doctors to become orthopaedic surgeons. This was a pre-Doctors Without Borders project that Dr. Harry Fahrni created for CARE Medico. In order to do this, Mum had to retrain as a surgical nurse back at VGH. Keep in mind that at this time she was a Vancouver housewife and mother of four.

Now, this was all volunteer activity. I can’t stress enough the importance of volunteers. The people who don’t talk about it, they do it. We all owe so much to the endless hours and thankless work of volunteers. I must say I was often jealous of the time my mother gave to the Museum and away teaching others. But I look at these treasures, the friends and the artists we have here today, and I now know that it was well worth it.

At any rate, this was a monumental task they took on. In 1968, hospitals in SE Asia were primitive, and cleanliness didn’t exist. On Jean’s days off from the blisteringly hot surgery, she rewarded herself by roaming the local markets. She found ceramics that were strikingly similar to what she was making back home. A connection with a potter working at their wheel across the ocean was made. Jean always encouraged other artists, so she purchased large number of those pots to bring home and share with her artist friends in Vancouver.

When she got back she learned that many of those pots similar to her own were in fact centuries old. These potters she had made a connection with had died hundreds of years earlier.

In 1972, Jean returned to South East Asia, and on her own traveled the ancient trade routes – researching and digging while connecting with more artists and collectors. Since Jean was a potter as well as a collector, she was able to learn much more about these pieces than most collectors.

Throughout the next 20 years, Mum often loaded up her rambler convertible with slides, a screen, a large selection of pots, and a few bottles of her best plum wine. She’d set off driving town to town, teaching and sharing information while always encouraging others in their creative endeavours.

Jean’s resulting 600-piece teaching collection of ancient Asian pottery was used for hands-on lectures for potters and scholars, over the next 21 years. Her collection, which honours Vancouver’s largest growing population, became renowned throughout Canada and beyond. Later, with the help of the Hong Kong Bank, it was transferred to the Museum of Vancouver.

Before I finish, I want to tell you one more thing that might sum all this up. When I was an art agent working for Charles Bronfman, I had the great fortune to meet Les Manning. Les was the Head of Ceramics at the Banff School of Fine Arts. We were introduced and he said, “Fahrni? Are you related to Jean Fahrni?”

“Yes, I am. She’s my mother.”

He said, “I have to tell you something. I have been working with ceramics all my life, taught all over the world. But, I never truly understood ceramics until one day I was standing in your mother’s home and she put one of her ancient pots in my hand. At that moment…I finally understood ceramics.”

Jennifer Fahrni is a Vancouver-based actor, director and producer.

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