By: Sandra Ozkur
Every day for 40 years, Eva and Frank Mlcak (pronounced malcak) have walked up the steep hill from their Queenston Pottery studio to place the open sign at the end of their driveway on York Road in Queenston. This quaint gallery, tucked away on the escarpment among trees and flowers, is a testament to the couple’s skill and hard work. Besides the ceramics, almost everything on the property was made with their own hands, including the house, studio, gardens, and manufacturing facility.
Their life is a story of struggle, survival, starting over, and succeeding in a new land. Born in Czechoslovakia, both Eva and Frank are professional engineers, but the circumstances of history changed the direction of their careers. Frank had been working in Afghanistan as an expat engineer when the Prague Spring of 1968 erupted. They had a narrow window of time before the Soviet crackdown instituted oppressive new laws in their homeland. So, the couple made a radical overnight decision not to return to their homeland. Instead, they decided to flee to Canada where they had relatives and the promise of freedom. The next six months were spent in Germany, waiting for their immigration application to be approved. In 1970, Frank and Eva finally arrived in Canada with two suitcases in hand and a babe in arms. Although they were thrilled to become new Canadians, it meant starting over from scratch.
Neither of them spoke English, so it was impossible to find work in their professional field. Being hardworking and determined, they both found temporary odd jobs to support their family while they looked for a home and better employment. Eva had always had a creative flair and started taking pottery classes, at which she excelled. “When I showed Frank some of my work, he thought perhaps I could sell some of my pottery from home,” Eva said. “Frank is extremely resourceful and skilled at many things, so he also took a pottery lesson, came home and immediately built a potter’s wheel. He perfected the craft and in a very short time was making pottery much better than I produced! When Frank decides to do something, he focuses single-mindedly until he perfects it,” Eva stated proudly.
The Mlcaks forged ahead, investing in pottery supplies and a small kiln and kept practicing until they were producing excellent results. Frank mastered the potter’s wheel and created all kinds of original raw pieces of green ware, which Eva then painted and glazed. She loved creating motifs and designs and working with unique glazes to produce unusual colour combinations. “I think we were able to succeed because we worked as a team; each of us became expert at our portion of the process. Frank understood the chemistry of mixing the raw materials and the intricacies of creating vessels out of clay, as well as the technicalities of the firing process. I mastered the finishing process, understanding surface design and the subtleties of mixing and applying glaze,“ Eva explained. “By working together, we were able to produce quantities that a single potter couldn’t physically make on a consistent basis. Pottery making is an extremely physical process: from the mixing of the clay, to the wheelwork, to lifting the individual pieces, loading the kiln, and stacking the finished product. Frank was able to handle the more strenuous tasks so I could focus on the design work and business end of things.”
The couple started selling their work at craft shows in Hamilton, Toronto, and Niagara. It wasn’t long before they were getting regular orders. They realized that in order to meet demand, they would need to take their pottery making from a hobby to a business level. Frank set to work building a shop behind the house and converting their garage to a showroom. He designed and built two large, downdraft car kilns in order to fire a large quantity of pieces at one time. To consistently make a perfect piece of pottery, an expertise in science and engineering is required. Frank had the education to master the craft and went about engineering and building an entire pottery factory from scratch. He built moulds, an automated jigger, presses, workbenches, racks, spray booths, heating and ventilation systems, as well as elevators and railcars for moving heavy loads. He refined his kilns with gauges and controls to precisely control the temperature and oxygen intake required to produce exotic glazing techniques. Their Chinese inspired, copper red glaze technique is sought after by many of their clients. “There is nothing that Frank can’t build or fix,” says Eva proudly.
Over the years, business increased and the Mlcaks were distributing pottery across Canada. Eva remembers, “We were working round the clock to keep up with demand. We had over 14 employees and yet we still had no time for ourselves. So, we gave up the wholesale business and went back to just selling from our studio. We made less money but had more time for family.” Life now is much more manageable: “We prefer the personal contact with our customers. They now come from all over the world to visit our studio; we have regular clients that have been collecting our pottery for years as well as tourists who seek us out.”
Over the years the products have evolved with current fashions, colours, and trends. Queenston Pottery has a full line of dinnerware, as well as serving platters, mugs, plates, and bowls that are very popular. My favourite items are the wine coolers and decanters, which are appropriate items for Niagara’s wine country, as are the berry and fruit bowls that can be used to hold Niagara’s bounty. Each piece has a unique hand painted design and glaze that make them one-of-a-kind items. For the art collector, there are wall tiles with indigenous plant imprints or large art pieces with intricate designs and motifs.
Their business has sustained them for forty years, and now Franc and Eva look back fondly on the interesting people who have visited them during their career. The couple have begun to slow down and now spend a few months in the off season back in the Czech republic with family and friends, but as spring approaches they return home to fire up the kilns and open their door for another season.
Queenston Pottery is located at 1648 York Road Niagara-on-the-Lake. 905-262-4196. Open from March through December.