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When everything changed

The purpose of this blog is to help me organize and preserve thoughts, memories, and concepts usable for art. The problem, as always when I have atempted this in the past, is how far back do I go? I have gone back to the beginning in my “The Making of an Artist” presentation, as the orign story for my art career, but this blog is an effort to capture material that can be used to stimulate images for pottery, sculpture, drawings, paintings, etc. I suppose I am in that part of my life where it seems appropriate to take stock of my life, and to glean whatever lessons my experiences have taught me.

Something that came to mind this week as being worthy of writing about is the encounter I had with the legendary figure in the ceramics world: Peter Voulkos. Especially finding myself in the outskirts of Oakland, which was where Pete lived for most of his adult life, it seems especially appropriate to put down in words what his presence meant to my artistic development.

As a graduate student of ceramics at the Univeristy of North Texas, I was undergoing a rapid transformation from a narrowly focused maker of functional ceramics that appeared to owe their stylistic influence as much from Marshall

Pottery company, and from craft fairs in the 1970’s, to becoming an artist/mirror/interpreter of the larger world.

I arrived in grad school in the fall of 1978, fresh from a two year stint at Marshall Pottery Co. where I learned how to throw prodigious amounts of pottery in one day, while learning the life of an itinerant potter in the American South in the early 20th century from the mouth of E.J.Humphries, master potter.

In graduate school I hoped to add to my skill at throwing those aspects of pottery making that I deemed important: glaze chemistry, building kilns, firing gas kilns, etc because I saw my life as being in the mold of those ininerant folk potters E.J. told me about of his heritage, who spent their entire lives making thousands of pots that people would buy because they needed them. Somehow I thought I could make pots others would want to buy even though I didn’t know anyone who bought handmade pots for use, except for some other hippy types like myself. Or maybe I didn’t worry too much about that part figuring it would take care of itself.

Anyway, I soon found out my narrow perspective was really not the best way to take advantage of the opportunity presented by graduate school. I was part of a cohort of graduate students all working towards their MFA degree in Ceramics, 10 or 11 in total, each chosen to represent a diversity of stylistic and creative approaches to the medium of ceramics. One person explored the sound producing aspects of ceramics by making clay whistles and ocarinas. Another made works that looked like a pile of boulders, still another made work out of black clay covered in white slip.

I realized that while in graduate school for 2 years or more, I had the opportunity to explore for the sake of learning, something that might be harder to do later when the pressures of making a living took priority. So, I began exploring the venacular of pottery, the terms that are used to describe the parts of a pot: foot, belly, shoulder, neck, mouth, lip, and the metaphorical relationship between our bodies as containers and pottery vessels. I started making pots and altering their forms to create figures in the abstract: pots with breasts, buttocks, human lips, heads growing out of potery necks and shoulders, and using these forms to learn how to use different types of kilns and firing techniques such as salt glazing, wood firing, and raku.

All along I was also learning about the history of ceramics through my graduate level seminars in ceramic history, including 20th century ceramics history. I learned the incredible influence Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada had on the development of the studio potter, which was a complete invention of those two. Prior to their dissemination of the idea of the individual anonymous craftsman working alone, digging clay, throwing pots, glazing and firing, in harmony with their materials, forming processes and firing process to bring to life functional ceramics that contain a life force.

Touted as being just as potent an influecne on 20th century ceramics, but not as accessible for me was Peter Voulkos. In the 1950’s he started a revolution in the art world with his monumental sized ceramic sculptures that were 3d versions of Abstract Expresionist art made in New York, and which brought ceramics into the Fine Art world for the first time.

I looked at images of Voulkos’ ceramics and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. His work was not symmetrical, and it was torn in places, and had holes torn out which showed the massive thickness, and few showed any glaze at all. Why would anyone want to make work that looked so unpolished, so rough, so non-functional?

Pete came to North Texas State University for a 2 day workshop, accompanied by an assistant, a potter by the name of Thom Collins. They were driving a van across country to take the pieces Pete made in the workshop to a wood kiln in New Jersey. The workshop was held in the undergraduate ceramics studio on a weekday morning around 10am. Only, no Pete. The room was filled with students and art afcianados up from Dallas to see the great Peter Voulkos, but noon came an went, and the collectors were grumbling, where is he? It was supposed to start at 10! Elmer Taylor, the head of ceramics, and who had invited Pete to give the workshop, left to go to the motel where Thom and Pete were staying and came back to report that he’d knocked on their door, Thom answered saying: Pete is still asleep. He will be there soon. At 4pm Pete walks in carrying a boom box, which he sets on a table in front of his work area and plays a loud song by Terry ??Adams???. He then begins to work at a feverish pace, making many huge platters and forms he called “ice buckets”, and many large scale forms we learned would be combined into one of his trademarked “stacked” pieces. He didn’t talk much to the audience, which, by that time, had dwindled down considerably. I did see him squat down behind the table and swig from a pint of liquor at one point, and another time he was working with his hands inside a form for some time, then raised up a figure made of clay and paper money to represent what the collectors wanted from him: something worth money.

Pete worked until 10pm, then took a meal break and resumed at midnight, all that were left of the audience by then were around 10 graduate students, and myself. While he was gone we took turns wearing his striped shirt and making examples of his pieces. I made a large platter. When he returned he critiqued them and said we should contact his dealer to show him what we had done, tongue in cheek, of course.

I got to watch as Pete worked with the clay as only a master could. He brought out the qualities intrinsic in wet clay that are usually suppressed: its tendency to split when stretched beyond its limits; the way it tears when it is starting to dry; the way it can be polished when wet by compacting the surface particles. I watched as Pete drew lines that emphasized the line of the form and understood there was a logic to his method I hadn’t understood before. It became clear to me that it was possible to work in a similar way as an expert jazz musician who can improvise on a theme, and create a new melodic counterpoint to an existing work and take advantage of the structure imposed by the existing work, but still be able to express the inner emotions and impulses he feels.

He worked all night, putting the last touches on the stacked form at dawn. All of us were entranced from witnessing his process through the night. As he proclaimed the piece finished someone produced some sparklers, which Pete took, lit with his lighter and pierced the top of his piece all the way through. We all watched as the sparkler burned down from the outside of the form, to cast an illumination on the ceiling of the studio as it burned inside the form, then the fire burned through the other wall of the form as the first rays of dawn lit the studio and I felt as if I had been reborn.

After this workshop, my work took a new direction. I stopped trying to plan out every step of the design process, as I realized there were many opportunities for creation that could only be made in the moment and only after revaluation of all the previous decisions. While making the form I concentrated on what the clay was doing and what its tendencies were at that moment, in that particular structure. After the form was finished, and bisque fired, I made decisions on how to color it based upon evaluating that particular form in that moment in time. This resulted in a piece that was in harmony with itself. The color fit the form and the entirety made sense, at least to me.

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