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Quebec artist Pascale Girardin challenges perceptions about public art


There are only so many malls in Canada where an art installation simulating an oil gush would be a good fit. But Quebec artist Pascale Girardin's amber- and black-hued glass droplets are a welcome addition to revitalization of Alberta's West Edmonton Mall. The pieces - glass bulbs hand-blown in Montreal - vary in size and hue, a contemporary interpretation of the province's most lucrative natural resource. Girardin is also creating a large-scale sculpture for a Montreal private school out of cobalt-blue polycarbonate resin that evokes the circulation of students through the lobby. It's ironic: The projects are Girardin's two biggest on the go at the moment - and neither features her signature material.

It was in ceramics that Girardin, who has a degree in fine arts from Concordia University, got her start 15 years ago. Her first commission was dishware for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts gift shop, a project that led immediately to 400 plates for Soto, a now-defunct local restaurant, as well as orders from the New York restaurant chain Nobu and giftware/concept store Felissimo. "I only wanted to work for high-end [clients]" she says. Her next dishware was crafted for the apex of Canada's high end: Holt Renfrew. "They saw my work in New York and wanted to know why I wasn't doing this great work in Canada." While she never stopped designing products (she took her latest commission, dishware for XO Le Restaurant at Hotel le St- James in Montreal, out of the kiln earlier this spring), Girardin quickly began exploring more architectural projects like mobiles and ceiling clusters. "I wanted to take up more space," she says. But it was interior-design firm Yabu Pushelberg that really ignited her foray into the built environment. Her first collaboration with them, Fin Restaurant at the Mirage in Las Vegas, featured an overlapping ceramic-tile mosaic in shades of muted green and yellow.

Although she has never had trouble presenting ceramics in bold, unique formats, Girardin ventured out of the kiln about two years ago, when Simons department store in Quebec commissioned an art piece - with no restraints. "Nothing," says Girardin. "Not even budget. I couldn't believe it." She used polycarbonate slabs to create 15 ultra-thin white strips folded over along the middle - a motif that, from afar, looks like delicately misshapen French fries. Polycarbonate also played a defining role in Girardin's favourite project to date - the renovation of the Printemps department store in Paris. Working with Yabu Pushelberg again, Girardin was inspired by the building's 1923 floral cupola to create a series of Corian flower pendant sculptures, giving the project a modern edge while celebrating the building's past.

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The co-mingling of old and new resonates with Girardin, particularly as the ceramics industry moves toward a high-tech future. In her opinion, craftspeople in Canada are a dying breed: There is a handful left who can offer certain types of guidance, but "they can't guide us where industry and craft meet," she says. By comparison, she sees European ceramic companies as more poised to adapt to the future. "They have industries that are 500 years old. They have infrastructure. They can't just close down." She points to historic manufacturers like Lladró and Royal Tichelaar Makkum, which are aligning themselves with forward-looking designers such as Spanish designer Jaime Hayon; she also contemplates the idea of her own studio someday shifting into a more R&D environment that could develop relationships between Canadian craftspeople and the manufacturing world.

In the meantime, Girardin is dividing her time between large-scale projects that challenge her engineering know-how and test the boundaries of her materials. She is currently working on pieces for Les 400 Coups and Brasserie T! in Montreal. Her five-person studio also recently relocated from rural Quebec to an airy, light-filled city space almost three times the size. Reconnecting with Montreal has reminded her that, no matter what, people are always going to want quality handmade wares. "The minute I arrived in the city, I had three chefs coming to the door," she says, laughing. "No one even knew I had moved yet."

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