Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In Conversation With...Jennifer Houghtaling

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, July 4, 2012 by Sara Mattinson.

At Jennifer Houghtaling’s booth at the Pugwash Farmers’ Market, richly glazed mugs and bowls mingle with bags of homemade granola, plastic containers of honey and several varieties of bread. To one side hang hand-knitted toques, but there is no sign of her other weaving. When I tell her I’m asking for one of her blankets as a Christmas gift, she says, “Oh, I’ve got to get back to that. I haven’t done any weaving since February.”
My mother, standing next to me, calls her lazy and tells her she should be doing more.
Jenn laughs and holds her hands out on either side. 
“Clay in one hand on the wheel, shoving the shuttle on the loom with the other.”
Then she raises one foot off the ground.
“And I could bake bread with my feet.”
We’re teasing but there must be days when this 32-year-old wife and mother of two young children feels like she is juggling many things with her hands and feet. There is no question she has a formidable work ethic but she also follows her passion, and her heart, a journey that has taken her from a childhood in British Columbia to Fredericton,  Vancouver and Thailand then to Pugwash.
Jenn was born and raised on a 400-acre ranch near Prince George, B.C. Homeschooled until Grade 5, she was driving a tractor by the time she was 8. She went to university to study nursing but only completed one semester. She then went to college but can’t even remember what she took.
“When I was 21, I was working in a convenience store and waitressing,” she says, “and one day, my supervisor told me I was going to be the supervisor soon.”
She remembers this with a grimace and says, “I immediately quit my job and went tree-planting.”
In the middle of that five-year career, which involves intense, non-stop work for three months of the year, Jenn followed her boyfriend, Ben, a fellow tree-planter and a musician, to Fredericton. Before they broke up, Jenn discovered a place that would change her life: the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design
“It blew my mind,” she says. “I didn’t know there was a place where they taught you to be an artist.”
Finally, she had found what she wanted to do yet even as she immersed herself in textiles and pottery, she felt the need for futher self-exploration. Instead of paying the tuition for her final year of school, she hopped on a plane for Thailand (the trip ended after three months only because her money ran out).  
 “I went because I wanted to know if I could go somewhere far away from everybody I knew, all by myself, and be okay,” explains Jenn. “I wanted to be able to trust the world, to put myself out there and not get hurt. Part of the reason I picked Thailand was because there was this mediation centre there where you could go for a 10-day silent meditation,” she says. “As soon as I finished it, I swore I would go back at least once a year but I never have. Because when I got back home, I got pregnant.”
After returning to Vancouver and reuniting with Ben, after another tree-planting season, Jenn discovered she was pregnant. They couldn’t afford a home in Vancouver so they packed everything they owned in a cube van and headed east. They arrived in Nova Scotia in February, when their son was 4 months old, and lived with Ben’s mother in Amherst until the house they bought on Crowley Road was fixed up.
They arrived only with ideas and ambition, love and friendly dispositions. 
“I knew I was going to do pottery because I had dragged the contents of my entire studio here,” Jenn says. “And we’ve always gardened.” 
She also brought with her a lifelong love of cooking. 
“My grandmother taught me to bake,” Jenn says. “She lived a kilometre away from us until I was 14 and we baked almost every day. She taught me to crochet and knit.”
So the Pugwash Farmers’ Market is a natural fit for Jenn, who thrives on connections with other people and believes handmade crafts and food should be available everywhere. At first, she saw the market as a place to sell her pottery and their spring greens then she took over bread-making from two women who were withdrawing from the market. 
“Doing the farmers’ market for me is just as much about having stuff available to the community as it is a business,” she says. “I really like the idea of selling local produce. I want that stuff to be available in the community. I don’t want them to have to drive to get it.”
Their Crowley Road property is a blooming mess of productivity and creativity. With Ben’s various enterprises flourishing, a 50-foot greenhouse in the middle of their raised beds, and the completion of a stand-alone pottery studio, plus two bright, wild-haired children scampering around, it appears Jennifer’s winding road of self-discovery has culminated in a life vaguely reminiscent of the place where she began. 
“I feel rooted now,” she says. “We have a good, solid foundation. We have no intention of moving anywhere.” 

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