Pottery auction supports Six Nations artist stricken by West Nile

·4 min read

They formed a lasting friendship, the family doctor from St. George and the renowned potter from Six Nations.

Now the late Dr. Charles Pickett’s children are auctioning some of their father’s extensive collection of Steve Smith originals to aid Smith’s recovery from West Nile virus.

“I think his spirit would say this is the right thing to do, and when someone’s in need, you help them,” said Matt Pickett, once of six children born to Charles and Dorothy Pickett, who grew up during the Depression and became prolific collectors of Canadian artwork.

Pickett figures his father bought “600 to 700 pieces” from Steve Smith and his wife Leigh at Talking Earth Pottery on Six Nations. Dozens of the brightly coloured and finely detailed pots ended up in the family home, while many more were given away to mark major milestones.

“We all would get them for weddings, baptisms, births of children — the most important occasions,” Matt said, explaining that his father was drawn to the Haudenosaunee symbolism found on each piece.

“Dad was a pretty spiritual guy, and he was also an open-minded guy about spiritualism. So he would hear the stories associated with Indigenous culture and they would definitely move him,” he said. “I also think it was the connection to the land. He loved nature.”

Leigh Smith said Pickett often seemed to visit just as she and her husband were wondering how the business could stay afloat.

“We would think, ‘How are we going to pay our hydro this month?’ And then we would see Dr. Pickett drive in,” she said. “He really helped us survive as artists.”

Those visits doubled as social calls, with the doctor and the potter trading “dad jokes” in the shop.

“Dr. Pickett was a really special customer. Not just a customer — he became a friend, and we would always look forward to his visits,” said Santee Smith, a performing artist and chancellor of McMaster University who spent her teenage summers making pottery and working in her parents’ studio.

What Santee calls “a nice friendship” between the two families endured after Pickett died of a heart attack at his St. George home in August, just shy of his 87th birthday.

His children decided to sell 130 pots and give all the proceeds to Smith, who is still suffering the effects of a “debilitating” and “severe” case of West Nile that saw him intubated in the intensive-care unit after his 2018 diagnosis.

“He barely survived,” Santee Smith said.

Her father, a master potter whose work can be found in collections around the world, is now unable to throw clay because of nerve damage caused by the virus.

“Which makes it really devastating for him as an artist who has spent his whole life working with his hands, that he doesn’t have fine muscle control of his fingers,” she said.

There is no cure for West Nile, which left Smith in a wheelchair and on a feeding tube.

“All doctors can do is treat the symptoms,” Santee Smith said. “He’s responding well. He’s hoping to get strong enough to walk again. He is slowly improving, but he has a long way to go yet.”

Matt Pickett and his siblings have also donated pieces from their own collections to be sold in honour of their late father, remembered as the archetypal country doctor who made countless house calls while caring for patients from cradle to grave throughout Brant and Six Nations.

“We talked as a family about how important Steve’s family was to mom and dad,” Matt Pickett said. “Steve and Leigh and Santee have given us beautiful art. We have been the custodians of these pieces, and now is the time for them to be entrusted to new homes, so we can give back.”

The online auction — run by Timewell Auctions in St. Thomas — closes March 16 at 8 p.m.

Every dollar raised will be put toward accessibility aids for Smith, including an accessible vehicle to get him to thrice-weekly rehab treatments.

“It’s a gift we didn’t expect — a pure gift on their part,” Santee Smith said of the auction in support of her father.

“He was very generous with his craft and time to teach and share his knowledge, so it’s amazing that all of his generosity is returning to him in his time of need.”

The Smiths were invited to choose three pieces from the auction to donate to the permanent collection at Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, to ensure “the legacy of pottery on Six Nations” lives on.

“That’s pretty special as well,” said Santee Smith, who said her parents consider pottery a “teaching tool” to share Haudenosaunee culture, a tradition that had waned until Steve Smith’s mother, Elda M. Smith, formed a group to “revive the lost art of pottery on Six Nations.”

“Our clans, our creation story, our philosophy was in those patterns,” Santee Smith said. “They got to share the perspectives and stories and beautiful, powerful imagery.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator