Once a Potter,
Always a Potter
Ninth Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture
Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art
at Alfred University
November 1, 2007
If we reflect on the ways in which ceramic sculpture
has evolved in the past forty or fifty years, patterns emerge in how
artists have related to accepted practice. For all that may be rejected
in the process of pursuing new directions, some concepts are too basic
A number of years ago I was in Korea and saw the 3rd
World Ceramics Biennale. The exhibitions were numerous and dazzling.
The most interesting to me was the entitled “Trans-Ceramic-Art”
in which work by sculptors who had formerly done pottery was shown
alongside that of sculptors who had never thrown pots. There were
differences in how they conceive of form. I can’t say that
the work of either group was more significant or more compelling
than the other. It is just that those with experience in pottery
had resources at their disposal that continue to inform their work.
I took my first class with Pete Voulkos the summer of ’58
in Missoula. Before we could make anything we had to master throwing
an 18” tall cylinder. I assumed that the point of that was
to get the feel of it for our hands only to realize years later
that we learned considerably more than how to reach that height.
There are many things about a cylinder that throwing enables you
understand. It helps if you approach it with what Suzuki-Roshi,
a Zen master in the Bay Area, called a “beginner’s mind”.
Approaching your life with a “beginner’s mind”
will lead to discoveries you would never have imagined. Now, for
instance, (picking up a cardboard mailing tube) if you look through
a cylinder from one end as I am doing, it becomes a framing device.
If I look at any of you through it, I can separate you from the
rest of the audience. It is the same as if I were looking at you
through the lens of a camera.
You might sit down sometime and hold the
tube up to your ear and just listen. It is even more remarkable
to hold a tube on each ear. The longer you sit the more you will
discover the nature of what is around you.
Another extraordinary thing about a cylinder
is its strength. Stand it on end and it will support your weight,
but if you lay it on its side you could crush it. To be strong one
way and weak in another are interesting contradictions. Stood on
end, the tube is stable and won’t go anywhere. On its side
it might roll out from under you.
I can cap it at one end. A cap, of course,
is what you put on your head. Stick one on the top end of the cylinder
and it becomes a drumhead. It’s curious that when we make
a clay cylinder we have the head at the bottom, like a wellspring.
In that way you make a container, which implies that it can be filled.
Yet it doesn’t have to contain anything to be full of something.
The hollow has a life of its own to be enjoyed as it is.
You can see that the end of the mailing
tube is a perfect circle. Yet when I set the tube down and look
at it from an angle, what I see isn’t a circle. It has become
an ellipse. You can watch the ellipse change shape by walking around
it. What you see depends as much on you as it does on what you’re
looking at. That applies to most of the things we encounter.
Those of you in the audience who are sitting
close to the stage will see that this mailing tube was constructed
in a spiral. Spiraling is what we associate with growing plants,
the twining of vines as well as the branches that emerge from them.
The spiral is also the form that clay takes when it is being thrown
on the wheel. Once you open the centered mound, it will spiral out
to where you will begin the wall. Pressure will make it rise and
spiral into a cylinder. At the same time you will also have created
an axis inside it. You only see the one but you get them both.
When I came back from the Biennale in Korea
I thought about what some sculptors owe to their having started
out by making vessels. I would like to show you what I’ve
begun seeing in their work.
John Mason is an excellent example. The
image on the screen is of an early outdoor work that I remember
from the Pasadena Museum in about 1972. (see
image behind Melchert at top of page)
John had abandoned throwing, having found the wheel to be tyrannical.
He first built massive clay walls and used a grid system to cut
them. Later he even questioned the notion that is dear to craft
that your work should show evidence of the hand. This led to his
using commercial brick as a modular unit. He chose to build the
structure with kiln brick. Years before he had dispensed with utility
as a function of pottery. Now he was rejecting utility as a function
for kiln brick. But consider how he held on to the circle and the
vertical axis that he knew as a potter. He bisected the circle and
had them interlock at their centers.
image #2) In more recent years he turned
from brick to large slabs of clay. He continues to rely on a vertical
axis along which the blades are positioned in a spiral. (see
image #3) What John Mason’s work
shows us is that you don’t necessarily throw the baby out
with the bath water when you leave pottery for sculpture-making.
Now I am going to make a big leap. In contrast
to the austerity of John Mason’s classic sculptures, let us
consider a very different sensibility by taking a brief look at
a work of Howard Kottler’s. I have chosen his vessel in the
shape of the lower case letter “i”. (see
image #4) He has doubled the dots,
no doubt a gender reference, and has attached flanges that indulge
a taste for flamboyance. His colors are a triad of intense primaries,
red, yellow, and blue. The piece can be read as a declaration of
personal identity, the “I” of who I am. The work is
prescient in that it anticipates much of what has since occurred,
not only in regard to the aesthetic canon, but in the social politics
of recent years.
Adrian Saxe is a master at making the most
of attachments. He likes to exploit the incongruity of the components
that make up a teapot. No one does it better. (see
Adrian’s phenomenal sales didn’t
escape Mark Burns’ notice. Mark was a student of Howard Kottler’s
and like him, initiated new directions. In this case it is the drawing
of the salesman that alludes to the newspaper ads of a used car
dealer. (see image #6)
Commercial cartooning was not a source of ideas for my generation,
but by now the stuff of advertising has become a magnet for many
a young artist.
A teapot of Jeremy Hatch’s proposes
that this icon could take the form of a kit. The work is in porcelain
and made of detachable parts that can be unscrewed and reassembled.
(see image #7)
The soft melting surface of this ware by
Kathy Butterly winks at George Ohr. (see
image #8) It has the look of a nearly
deflated balloon, leaving the piece with more surface than its size
would suggest. The preciousness of the attachments stretch its humor
All this is to show that there are multiple
ways in which artists have explored forms that draw on those basic
Leopold Foulem sets up an engaging conundrum
by depriving an iconic vessel of its opening. It is a vessel that
is not a vessel. (see
The live void inside one has long interested
Toshiko Takaezu. She has found a way to alter our perception of
its volume by reducing the size of the entrance to it. For her the
hole is also the critical point where the interior and the exterior
meet and become the other. (see
The opening in a Ken Price ware never looks
arbitrary or passive. It can give an amorphous shape an interior
and an orientation. (see
Tony Marsh uses a field of perforations
to lighten the mass and obscure the form of what would otherwise
be solid objects. The field almost sets up a vibration in the way
that filigree pattern does. (see
By contrast we have Pete Voulkos’
iconic “Rocking Pot” from 1958. (see
image #13) You sense the determination
of the knife slicing through the clay to liberate the interior,
to liberate Pete himself from prevailing notions of what constituted
I’ve see two or three of Eva Hild’s
sculptures in which the openings lead to interweaving caverns. (see
In English we have only one word for a hole.
In Italian there are two. A buco goes all the way through, like
a button hole. A buca doesn’t, such a hole in the ground or
an oven. (see image #15)
Richard DeVore liked to use both and play one off the other. By
inserting a false bottom, he would have you perceive the outside
and the inside differently. (see
image #16) An opening in the pit sometimes
exposes more than one lower cavity.
Peter Beasecker has also worked with the
notion of the ambiguous chamber and hollows within walls. (see
image #17) Like John Mason he has a
good feel for geometry. This basket-like tray of cups also plays
with walls within walls.
I want to talk about kilns next and ways
in which artists have extended our concept of their interiors and
the openings into them. But before we do, let’s take one last
look at the spiral which has been central to this discussion. Mary
Roettger is an alumna of Alfred who lives in Minnesota. She has
been making sculptures like this big coil that can be seen through
its axis or (see image
#18) from its side, either way it is
the essential metaphor for the thrown clay cylinder.
Gifford Myers has done much of his ceramic
work in and around Faenza on the northwestern coast of Italy. Gifford
once wrote that he was intrigued by the process of ceramics as a
genre dependent on technical know-how. He has remarked that the
process of firing is often more fascinating than what comes out
of it. “The Furthest Way About Is the Nearest Way Home”
is a 40” long clay tube glazed at one end. (see
image #19) The work began when he improvised
a simple kiln with a can, a tank of gas, and a burner. He inserted
the glazed end of the tube into the can through a hole on its side
so that that half of it was completely fired. The tube is now presented
as a wall sculpture, but it is really evidence of how it was made.
The half that was outside the “kiln” registers the progression
of the heat from one end to the other. It is entirely linear work.
Potters who take turns firing wood kilns
know what an event it is, but what matters most are the wares inside.
Already as a student John Roloff thought otherwise. For him the
essential part of the process was the firing. By the late ‘70s
he began constructing outdoor kilns that would simply fire themselves.
(see image #20)
The work on the screen is “Untitled/Earth Orchid” and
was done in 1982. It is 20’ high, 34’ long, and 4’
deep. The walls are made of cast refractory cement, reinforced by
steel, and insulated with a temporary ceramic fiber. It burned natural
gas. The center is where the heat first built up. The glow proceeded
down the two channels towards the stacks. (see
John is quoted as saying that visually “the
process suggested the idea of transformation or growth, as if sap
were flowing through it, making it alive.” (See footnote)
John recalls that the sound of the burners suggested that the kiln
was alive. (see image
#22) You can see how much was changed
by the fire. Since the stacks were left in place as part of the
The final work I want to show you is by
John Balestreri. He once built a wood burning kiln by tunneling
into the hillside on his parents’ land near Boulder. It had
to have taken a lot of work. Once it was done he chose to honor
the cavity by using it as a press mould. He packed the walls with
clay connected to a core that could be removed after the firing.
(see image #23)
He then exhibited it section by section like a great sliced creature.
What he had done was transform a negative space into its positive
counterpart. Such an act has ties with the “beginner’s
mind” that Suzuki-Roshi would have us cultivate.
Footnote: The quote is from an interview
with John done by Nan Hall in May 1990.