Elspeth Watson did not have the most auspicious start in Port Alberni.
Watson and her husband, Robert, had only been living in the Alberni Valley for two months in the early 1950s when their house burned to the ground. The Watsons were shopping in town for furniture for their new Beaver Creek home when the blaze started in the middle of the afternoon. An undated article from the West Coast Advocate referred to the couple as the luckless Watsons—a nickname that daughter Moira Schmidt says her parents laughed at for years.
With no insurance, the Watsons had nothing left after the fire. But the people of Port Alberni fundraised for them with a benefit dance.
“They were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and this community rallied around them,” said Schmidt. “That was the beginning of their love affair with Port Alberni.”
Elspeth Watson passed away in 2020, at the age of 88. But she leaves behind a legacy of artwork and love for her community. Art Rave and the Alberni Valley Museum will hold a retrospective of Watson’s art on Saturday, June 4 at Echo Centre in Port Alberni.
Born in Scotland in 1931, Watson was interested in art from a young age. She was even offered an art scholarship at the age of 16, but chose instead to pursue work. She met Robert, who was just out of the army, when she was 19. After marriage, the couple decided to move to Canada to pursue a better life and eventually found their way to Port Alberni.
Watson took a few painting classes that were offered at Gyro Recreation Park, but she found her true love the first time she tried pottery.
“Everyone in this town knew her pottery,” explained Schmidt. “My mom sold everything she made.”
Watson, with help from her husband, built her first kiln in the 1960s and began sculpting mugs, pots, vases and dishes. Eventually, she moved towards more artistic pottery pieces—clay houses and dolls, and even a replica of the MV Lady Rose.
Over the years, Watson organized craft fairs, taught pottery classes and won several arts council grants that allowed her to travel to places like Denmark and England. She even took a trip to Japan to study with Japanese masters. No matter where she travelled, Schmidt said Watson always returned to Port Alberni to inspire the next generation of potters.
Watson was “instrumental” in establishing a pottery studio at the Echo Centre. Her mastery of pottery led some of her potter friends to refer to her as “Yoda.” She even made all her own glazes for her pottery.
Along with her work as an artist, Schmidt says Watson also loved to volunteer for various community organizations in Port Alberni. Watson was one of the first Girl Guide leaders in the Alberni Valley, and she also volunteered at Camp Goodtimes and at the Bread of Life. She was a member of the Community Arts Council of the Alberni Valley for more than 30 years.
“When I think of my mom, I’m most proud of her for all the volunteer work she did and the fact that she loved this town,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt hopes that the community will be able to come out and show their love for Watson during an upcoming retrospective put on by Art Rave Alberni and the Alberni Valley Museum.
“A Life in Art: Elspeth Watson” will take place in the Cedar Room at Echo Centre (4255 Wallace Street) on Saturday, June 4 from 2-4 p.m. The event will include a display of Watson’s pottery, silk paintings and weaving, as well as pictures and articles from her life.
“It’s a chance to honour her contributions to the arts in this town,” said Schmidt. “Her art was treasured.”
Admission is free and light refreshments will be provided.