Heidi McKenzie

“I believe it is important for everyone to dig a little deeper to understand where we came from. In my parents’ generation there was a tendency to not speak of the past. I think this tendency is widespread. The past so easily blurs and disappears. We are the sum of all those who came before us.”

“My studio practice engages issues of identity and belonging, archive, memory, and migration. Through abstract portraiture, I capture self, an individual, or a culture.” Heidi McKenzie is an incredible artist who is using her pieces to tell the story of what it means to have mixed heritage and the trials and tribulations of different identities and cultures. Her work intricately captures the emotions of her inspirations while forcing the viewer to really consider the message behind her pieces. Her experiences have proven that the stories of ancestors and of marginalized identities are begging to be told if someone will listen, and McKenzie stresses the importance of making that a priority in her life and work; “I grew up on the East cost of Canada, one of a handful of brown faces in a sea of white, at the corners of “Canadianess.” Holding space and making place for people of color matters. Telling my family’s stories matters.”

McKenzie explained that, “I draw my inspiration from my life, my lived experience of chronic pain, invisible disability, and from mine and my father’s experiences of racism; from my ancestors’ experience of indentured servitude, my mother’s Irish roots, and my parent’s bold decision to marry in 1957 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Sometimes the work I make is a commentary on an aspect of society, Western Society or from the lens of Western society in which I grew up.”. McKenzie is well known for her incredible imagery, and she often incorporates photographic images in her pieces; “I began incorporating photographic imagery on clay in 2014 to viscerally depict the fragmentation of body, and have moved on to explore image as archive. This body of work speaks to my personal histories through photographic imagery coupled with abstract representation. My work is informed by the everyday lived experience of my mixed heritage. In the 19thcentury, my ancestors travelled from Ireland to Canada and India to the Caribbean in hopes of a better life”. Her pieces push her viewer to consider history and understand how it’s long-lasting effects reach into present day; “My practice challenges dominant power centres by confronting racial marginalization and troubling little-known histories/herstories. The portrayal of 19th and early 20th century Indo-Caribbean indentured workers on porcelain redresses their erasure through a feminist lens. My Indentureship and Family Matters series ask the viewer to consider, acknowledge, understand, and transmute in our times the historical barriers of class, race, migration and colonialization”. Her ever changing style captivates the audience, but McKenzie explained that it’s just her following her emotions; “My work is conceptual, and changes with whatever it is that I feel I need to express. I don’t have a “look” or a style or a clay body that I prefer. Every project or series I start from scratch and test materials until I arrive where I need or want to be. I work rather intuitively, but with precision and planning as well”.


When asked why she chose the ceramics world, McKenzie said, “Ceramics found me. It took a several decades, but eventually I found the message in the bottle I had written to myself at the age of ten for a school assignment. My mother, who kept everything, gave it to me for my 40th birthday. I had been “wandering in the woods” with my career, and when I read in my own hand that I always wanted to be a potter – it was as if a lightning bolt went through my entire body. I called up someone we knew in India and he was taking apprentices and I asked all my clients if they could wait four months for me… and I went. I never looked back. The next year I was enrolled advance status in the Ceramics Program outside of Toronto, and after that I went on to complete an MFA in Art Criticism and Curatorial Studies to get to know the visual art world”. Since gracing the industry with a booming artistic voice, McKenzie has found incredible success. She has featured internationally and received a variety of awards and accolades. She has won the 2017 Craft Ontario Award, Best in Show on the Ontario Artists Association Biennials award, and the 2019 Canada Council Explore and Create Visual Artist Grant, the Toronto Arts Council Grant to Mid-Career Artists, and the 2019 Craft Ontario Award. McKenzie credits one of her mentors with helping her to discover what she wanted to say with her work; “After completing my first year at Sheridan College I decided to take a summer course at the Metchosin International Summer School for the Arts on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I enrolled in the late, great, Les Manning’s Aesthetics for Ceramic Arts course. I went to find out who I was as a potter, to find my voice, and to prepare for the upcoming rigorous final third year thesis project upcoming at Sheridan College. Up until that point, I had been throwing vessels, often with mixed clays, or mixed slips. Manning was one of the most gifted mentors I have ever had the privilege to work with. He challenged and pushed us to dig deep, to really think about what we had to say, and many in the class were already established with “a voice” that he pushed them to re-frame as well. I found myself throwing pieces of agateware and piecing them together – and realized that what I wanted to say was not unlike what many artists are speaking to the world – the story of who they are. I created my first self-portraits in clay at Metchosin. I don’t know if I would be where I am today if it weren’t for his guidance, and gentle “nudge” as I faced my fears and accepted that I am a person who needs to tell her story. I continue to tell my story and my family’s stories through clay”. This lesson is one that McKenzie hopes she can pass on to other artists; “Self-discovery is key. Start by telling your own story. In my case, it was abstract portraiture – but it could be any part of who you are or what makes you unique in this world. I also feel artists need to jump in with both feet when they are able, but not wait until they feel they are able. Get your resources shored up and just go for it! If you write a proposal and you get rejected, recycle the proposal until someone goes for it. Keep tweeking it. Keep improving your ideas, but don’t let go of your dream. You don’t need to have a plan, but if you do, all the better – in terms of trying your hand at a residency, working with other people, getting to know a different part of the world. All of these experiences enrich your source material, your soul”. She also points out that to truly love what you do and create, you have to make it for yourself; “One piece of advice I would give to emerging artists, any artists, is don’t make for the market. Make what your heart tells you what need to make. I have been struggling with this for some time – the work I am making with the photography and archive around family histories is quiet, fairly “tight” and contained. The flavour of the day, or the past few years, seems to be loud, colourful, full of energy. This is merely my observation and a sweeping generalization. That kind of work is not me. I can’t make that me. I have to make what I make and trust that there will be an audience and a market in time. If you shift to make what the world wants to see, then you aren’t really creating art, you are making commodity for the economic engine”.

The stories of her ancestors are reoccurring themes in McKenzie’s pieces, and she challenges other emerging artists to listed to their ancestors; “When I started working on my indentureship series, I found it was critically important to read – to read fiction about the Caribbean, to read non-fiction about indentureship, to engage with academia and community formally and informally. To continue to nourish my curiosity. To reach out to relatives on both sides and piece together the broken telephone of my father’s family tree. My father passed in 2016 at eighty-five. He was sixty-five before he picked up a book to find out about his own ancestors. I found the first book he read, with his margin notes and underlines after he passed. This led to me to try my hand at writing a biography about my life with my father. I spent more time writing creative non-fiction about our lives during the pandemic than I did in the studio making ceramics. One of the most amazing gifts I received were three lengthy video interviews that my husband filmed with my father. My challenge to all artists, is to invest the time now to interview the elders in their family, to record/transcribe these interviews and to share them with their families. The material may not immediately become source material for future creative work, but I believe it is important for everyone to dig a little deeper to understand where we came from. In my parents’ generation there was a tendency to not speak of the past. I think this tendency is widespread. The past so easily blurs and disappears. We are the sum of all those who came before us”.

While McKenzie has found amazing success, she explains that there have been several obstacles to overcome along the way; “Life is never easy. I struggle with chronic health issues and I have at times had to step back and turn down the gushing of my creative faucet in my mind’s eye to varying extents. I would have to say that my human vessel has been the greatest challenge that I continue to face in my chosen career. Also, as I enjoy working as a writer, and have a whole career as an arts administrator, manager, fundraiser and strategic planner behind me, before I decided to take up clay. It has been a challenge to emerge as an artist later in life. There are a number of systemic ageist barriers and stigma associated with coming to one’s art at mid-life. Another barrier I have faced more locally is shaking off being pigeon-holed as an arts manager and not taken seriously as an artist. When I send in my credentials, depending on the audience, I am very careful to try to stand on my credentials as an artist. At the same time, I wouldn’t be making what I make, or be the artist that I am, had I not experienced the life that I have experienced prior to finding clay”. The struggles have all been worth it for McKenzie to do what she loves and there have been amazing mentors and incredible moments along the way. McKenzie completed a self-directed 3-month residency that she arranged in Sydney, Australia. McKenzie said that, “Over the past eight years, the most pivotal time for me was a three-month self-directed residency I arranged in Sydney, Australia. I was awarded a grant to complete this residency. The place I set it up with changed their policy and I had to scramble to find a new place, but with the help of the mentor I went to work with, Mitsuo Shoji, whom I had met in Jingdezhen four years earlier, we found a nearly deserted residency and artist studio in the middle of the former Olympic Park site, 300acre nature reserve at the end of the ferry route from the inner city. The experience of creating a whole new network of friends, colleagues, mentors, teachers from nothing was exhilarating – I felt like the whole city and craft community opened their arms t o me, and I just went and did and saw and connected, and worked”. She recalled that, “I saw a piece at the back of a supply shop that resembled a sketch I had just completed, and tracked down the maker. He turned out to be an Albanian eighty-year-old retired women’s shoe designer. I spent a day with him at his studio learning his techniques and combined them with Shoji’s, and my Spaces Within series had its genesis. I had never worked away from the wheel or plaster moulds before. Coil building was completely new – and I threw myself into it with ideas that had been in my mind for years. I connected with the consulate cultural affairs people, and I managed another small grant that allowed me to connect with the Indigenous ceramic community in Alice Springs in the heart of the desert – and to see this extraordinary part of the world. I stood next to the works of Ernabella Indigenous artist Derek Thompson – whom I saw create a world away in Jingdezhen, China, in 2013, in a ground-breaking exhibition, curated by Indigenous artists from seven different communities/language groups. The connections I made, the people I spoke to, led me to propose a panel about “decolonizing clay.” I returned to Australia, this time, Tasmania, in 2019 for the Australian Ceramics Triennale, to write, create, exhibit and present around race and decolonizing clay. This step has, and continues to, fuel my ongoing practice. Taking a chance on myself at the other end of the world turned out to be the most fruitful gift I have given myself and continues to fuel what I have to give back to community”. McKenzie has proven that holding on to your passions and understanding what you want to say with your artistic voice is a key part of navigating this industry. Heidi McKenzie’s incredible work has forced this industry to take a moment to listen to the stories and experiences she masterfully captures – and it’s waiting in earnest to hear what she stories she has for us next.

Educational/Personal Growth Opportunity

“Don’t make for the market.  Make what your heart tells you that you need to make.  I have been struggling with this for some time – the work I am making with the photography and archive around family histories I quiet, fairly “tight” and contained. The flavor of the day, or the past few years, seems to be loud, colorful, full of energy.  This is merely my observation and a sweeping generalizations.  That kind of work is not me.  I can’t make that me.  I have to make what I make and trust that there will be an audiences and a market it time.  If you shift to make what the world wants to see, then you aren’t really creating art, you are making commodity for the economic engine.”
Now it’s your turn to be challenged:
My challenge to all artists, is to invest the time now to interview the elders in their family, to record/transcribe these interviews and to share them with their families.  The material may not immediately become source material for future creative work, but I believe it is important for everyone to dig a little deeper to understand where we cam from.  In my parent’s generation there was a tendaency to not speak of the past.  I think this tendency is widespread.  The past so easily blurs and disappears.  We are the sum of all those who came before us.”