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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Arts: Pottery expert offering classes at old Virgil school
Valerie Belisle now offers pottery classes in her studio in the old Virgil elementary school. LINDA FRITZ

In the past few years, two former school buildings in Niagara-on-the-Lake have been repurposed to make way for a day care centre, bicycle shop for migrant workers, a place of worship and artist studios.

The former Laura Secord School in Queenston is the workplace for artists Sharon Okun and Adam Markovic while the old elementary school in Virgil houses Belisle Pottery, owned and operated by Valerie Belisle.

As you enter the pottery you may hear a discussion about whether it’s time to run a glaze fire or perhaps a bisque fire. A visitor can only hope for an explanation.

Belisle, a franco-Ontarian born and raised in Ottawa, started out in the hospitality industry. 

She studied culinary arts and business management, and her work took her to Europe, Montreal and Newfoundland. 

She eventually arrived in Niagara, where she worked at Pearl Morissette, a Jordan winery and restaurant that aims to reflect “the European ideal of destination dining in the heart of agriculture.”

During her career as a sommelier and front-of-house manager, Belisle met a potter who created dishes for one of the restaurants she worked at. 

Stunned at the quality of the items, she asked the potter to teach her. Basma Osama of Ceramik B in Montreal became the first of many mentors who helped make her the artist she is today.

She decided she wanted to make her own pottery and started slowly, with a wheel in her basement. Her goal was to sell her products online.

Eventually she wanted to do more but needed a kiln, so she started looking for a place that had the space to handle one, as well as a wheel and the other tools she needed. The old Virgil school proved ideal.

The space needed work. Walls had to be removed, new shelves had to be installed. Belisle and other artists, including Okun and Markovic, built a table that was high enough and wide enough to accommodate her needs.

Once she was established in the building, Belisle began to take on students. She offers open scheduling whereby 16 students purchase eight classes. 

They have 12 weeks to complete the course and can choose the days they attend.  

The students have varying levels of expertise, which isn’t a problem. It’s a unique and inclusive experience, Belisle says.

She is pleased that they tend to choose the same day and time each week. Community, it turns out, is very important. Many have returned for more training.

Indeed, Markovic is one of her former students. Along with his paintings and furniture he is now creating his own dinner services.

Belisle’s students work with a potter’s wheel while her assistant, Audrey Wall, handles classes in another form, called hand building.

It is similar to working with play dough. Students sculpt, roll and shape their work with their hands.  A class of Grade 12 students from Lakeshore Catholic High School in Port Colborne were recently involved in creating hand-built objects.

Belisle’s work will soon be available in area shops such as Honey Fields. Located near Line 8 and Four Mile Creek Road, the farm shop also sells its own honey in a variety of styles and flavours.

Belisle is now working full-time in her pottery business and because of the local demand she has been so busy she hasn’t been able to plan how to provide an experience for the tourist market. 

She says the NOTL community has given her so much and she wants to spend her time giving back.

  • Belisle Pottery is located at the old Virgil schoolhouse, in classroom #2 at 1665 Four Mile Creek Rd.  Call 514-994-5741 for hours.


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