A new landscape for Strawberry Hill

June 2020

A screech owl with wide, popped eyes. Delicate snowbirds with flowers on their backs. Folksy mice with alert, quizzical stances. With expressive faces, smooth glazes and graphic botanical elements, there are few things that symbolize Thunder Bay as well as the beautiful, bold and distinct pieces of pottery from Strawberry Hill Werkshop. Once confined to galleries, high end gift shops and the living rooms of avid art collectors, the ‘werkes’ are experiencing a resurgence via online resale markets like Kijiji, Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Etsy.

Strawberry Hill Werkshop was the creation of Peter and Liz Powlowski. A Westfort boy, Peter met Elizabeth at art school in the UK, where they found they were both inspired by traditional folk sculptures from around the world. Together, they worked in Mexico for several years to get inspiration, study techniques, and hone their craft. They returned to Northern Ontario and the banks of Strawberry Creek, Kamanistiqua. In 1967, Strawberry Hill Werkshop was born, and the local art scene would never be the same, with some of their pieces finding their way into the hands of eager collectors around the world.

“I’ve noticed that there has been an increasing demand to purchase them, with supply not keeping up with the demand,” says Wayne Pettit, owner of Paper Chase Antiques and author of Strawberry Hill Werkshop: A History and Collector’s Guide. “My wife and I would find the occasional piece at a yard sale or a charity shop, and they would be snapped up as soon as we offered them for sale.”

That’s understandable, since the Powlowskis deliberately kept their business small and personal during the twenty-seven years it was in operation, resisting the urge to step into large scale production that would have met the global demand. That insistence on quality over quantity, uniqueness over mass market profits, made it inevitable that their pieces would always be in short supply, and therefore, in demand. A smart move for artisans who prided themselves on the perfecting of the craft. So why the recent resurgence on online platforms such as Kijiji and eBay?

One theory is that the first run of original collectors is now downsizing. Strawberry Hill Werkshop ran from 1967 to 1994, with an avid collector base of Baby Boomers hitting their career strides during that time. Strawberry Hill pieces were favourites as wedding and house-warming gifts, as well as being the go-to gift item for visiting friends and family. Now that those Boomers are moving to smaller homes and/or apartments, there is less room for collectibles of any sort. The pieces have such character that they almost become part of the family, and it is often with great sadness that the sculptures are sold off

That said, Strawberry Hill werkes often serve original owners well as investments, because the pieces are still highly sought-after and have retained and/or increased in value over the years. Thunder Bay itself has experienced an artisanal resurgence in the last decade, with a new generation of artists making their mark on the world stage. In turn, this new generation of buyers appreciates hand-crafted, locally sourced, works of vintage art, and nothing says ‘vintage art’ like Strawberry Hill.

The newer generations have also honed the skill of shopping online, which is one reason for the increase in werkes found on sites like Kijiji, eBay, FB Marketplace, etc. No longer found only in antique shops and thrift stores, the online activity of young collectors, in turn, is exposing these wonderful sculptures to international markets once again. Naturally, with all things involved in buying online, there are some things to be aware of given that Strawberry Hill Werkshop ceased production in 1994, all werkes are used, and minor chips, cracks, and scuffs are to be expected. Still, as an avid collector myself, I’d happily pay full price for a SHW lynx or raccoon with a scuff on his toe. They are that good.

Also, there seems to be confusion with another local studio, Dog River Pottery, and sometimes, Dog River pieces are advertised as Strawberry Hill. Dog River Pottery is honouring the tradition of wonderful, quirky Canadian wildlife sculptures, but, to an untrained eye, that might make them seem like they’re the same.

“Most pieces were marked with an ‘SWH’, etched on the base or bottom for ‘Strawberry Hill Werkshop,” says Pettit, ‘while “Dog River Pottery pieces are marked on their base with a ‘d’, an ‘r’ and a ‘p’, along with a two-number date.”’

I am happily one of those who is constantly adding to her collection of clay-mould animal friends from both Dog River and Strawberry Hill. My Dog River pieces were purchased from the studio here in Thunder Bay, but my Strawberry Hill screech owl came from my uncle. He lived in Australia, Japan and Montreal, and proudly displaying this werke to all who came to call. This little piece of Thunder Bay made the journey from the banks of Strawberry Hill far across the Pacific, then to the shores of the St. Lawrence, and back again. That crazy screech owl is just a little piece of art, forged with love, care and craftsmanship, and he has seen a lot of history with those wide popped eyes. Like, I assume, all the werkes that have gone before him.

For more information about Strawberry Hill Werkshop, check out Strawberry Hill Werkshop: A History and Collector’s Guide by Wayne Pettit at www.lakesuperiorstore, or check out Kijiji, eBay, FB Marketplace and other fine antique shops around the world!

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

Visit her website at www.hleightondickson.com

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