Saturday, December 16, 2017

Art Potter



You can’t quite see in this picture how beautiful Jay Strommen’s ceramics are.  The picture shows color, shape and texture – even the contrast between clay and glass, earth and translucence with all its gradations and flaws might be visible in high resolution -- but depth is hard to show.

Strommen says these tablets were inspired by the view of the river from his studio window at the Bridgeport Arts Center.  So yes, that must be Bubbly Creek, an abused slip of muddy scenery, given some gravity here.  The watery surface is made from a ground glass powder called ‘frit,’ he collects it by the bucketful from an industrial user.  In the kiln it vitrifies, as it cools it crazes, so it’s crackled with light.  On the wall, its depth is changeable, depending on the light and where you’re standing.  If you hold it, it has weight.

Strommen studied fine art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He honed his craft at Shigaraki, one of the ancient kiln sites of Japan.  So his work embodies two major tendencies in post war pottery.  One is abstract expressionism, with its painterly concerns with the vision of the artist.  The other brought with it a different set of concerns – with tradition, humility and accident, the nature of the materials and how they react in fire and air.

Strommen points to a shelf of vessels on the wall.  “Someone familiar with pottery could look at those pots and tell you what period in Japanese ceramics they trace back to.  People have written dissertations about traditional techniques.”  But Strommen says he was brought up short during his studies in Japan. 

The kilns at Shigaraki were anagama kilns, wood fired chambers built on a slope into the hillside in the 16th century, using technology that dates back to the 3rd or 4th the century AD.  Firing them could take 2 to 12 days, stoking the fires was a collective endeavor.  The kilns were packed artfully, the pieces inside were unglazed, or else the glaze was spattered on in irregular patterns.  They would be painted with fire, with melted ash and volatile salts, depending on how the fire hit them as it roared up the kiln. 

The collective aspect of keeping those fires stoked seemed important, the results were beautiful in their unpredictability as much as their rustic forms.  But at some point it struck Strommen that he couldn’t expect to participate in all that as completely as the Japanese potters did.  “They’re burning wood that grew from the clay they’re firing in the kilns,” they were part of an ecological unit.

So he came back to Chicago and established the Chicago Ceramic Center, in an American setting. The studio has been built in an adapted warehouse, the gas fired kilns inhabit a giant elevator shaft for ventilation.  It’s art pottery, but also a small scale manufactory, a school for teaching students, and a gallery to show pottery as both craft and fine art.


The Dolni Vestonice Venus
Pottery has depths in pre-history – it counts among man’s earliest efforts to manipulate the elements into durable forms.  Clay figurines of voluptuous women like this one, dug from ash in the Czech Republic, are thought to be about 30,000 years old. That’s roughly the same age as the world’s oldest paintings, glazed in calcite over centuries, deep in Chauvet cave in France.  Though archaeologists count them in different industrial eras -- such periods don’t advance everywhere in the same way.  More recently they’ve evolved as different categories of art.

Paintings from Chauvet Cave

Pottery has long been as much a technology as an art.  The heat required to effect the ceramic change, where it can’t be softened back to clay anymore, is roughly equivalent to the heat you need to cast bronze; the heat for making stoneware could cast iron.

In Europe, potteries were among the first crafts to be industrialized.  The English potteries at Stoke on Trent employed some 20,000 workers by 1785.  Potteries were also part of the movement that arose against the industrial revolution’s impoverishing effects.  The arts and crafts movement wanted to restore a mode of labor where independent workers design what they make, and an appreciation of handmade objects, over fancy goods that could be cheaply mass produced.

In a 20th Century retrospective of British art pottery, curator Oliver Watson used the term ‘ethical pot’ to evoke the cult of the simple vessel, lovingly made by traditional method.  Both the labor of the potter and the pot itself embody a spiritual and moral dimension.

John Ruskin helped set the stage for the arts and craft movement in the 1850s, in his writings on architecture, and especially his romantic view of European Gothic.  He claimed that he saw a life in its decorative effects that was absent in the symmetry of Classical structures.  He thought it reflected the independence of the medieval craftsman to express the vitality of his imagination, where classical architecture had been built by slaves laboring to fulfill a more static vision.

But Ruskin was no champion of equality among men, or their labors.   He believed a healthy society was a hierarchical one, where each man applies his gifts according to his station in life. “My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others,” he’d once written.  He believed that fine art, especially painting, is the expression of the spirits of great men, and can only be fully appreciated by their peers.

The distinction between the humble honor of rustic crafts and the visionary authority of the painter has been persistent in the modern west.  Though the stature of the rustic, in pottery at least, would take nuance from encounters with Japan.




The most famous proponent of the ethical pot was the Englishman Bernard Leach.  Though Leach didn’t coin the term, and he wasn’t born in England, he was born in Hong Kong in 1887.  He studied fine art at England’s Slade school, but he returned eastward in 1909 and lectured with the Shirakaba Group, which was trying to introduce western art to a Japan that was opening its doors to foreign influence after 250 years of isolation.

In Japan, Leach met Yanagi Soetsu, the father of the Japanese mingei movement that would emphasize the beauty of everyday objects, made by unknown craftsmen with traditional techniques. 
Soetsu’s mingei aesthetic was partly informed by a trip he made to Korea in 1916.  He described what he found there as a “beauty of sadness” that he traced to Korea’s long history of foreign invasions.  He thought the Korean potter expressed it naturally in the “sad and lonely lines” of his pots.  

In the 1920s, Leach returned to England.  He built the first anagama kiln in England and taught Japanese techniques, but he also expounded on pottery as a philosophy, a way of life. Decades later, some scholars would question Leach’s legacy as interpreter of eastern craft for the west.  Edmund de Waal would argue Leach’s encounters had been limited to a few educated Japanese, that they had created something hybrid, informed by western arts and crafts as much as Japanese tradition.  De Waal also saw nationalist sentiments in the mingei movement, like the nationalist ideals supported by folkish theories in Europe.

Aesthetically speaking though, mingei seems to echo an appreciation for the rustic, in pottery at least, that traced back for centuries, persisting as an alternative to the polish of porcelain, even after Japanese potters had mastered both.

The Japanese have had a long standing respect for the skill of Korean potters, and Koreans helped advance both aesthetics. It was Korean immigrants who brought anagama kiln technology to Japan in the 3rd or 4th century, and introduced Sue Ware, a high-fired stoneware, barely glazed with ash, that came out of them.  It was Korean potters brought back by Japanese invaders in the 16th century who found the first kaolin deposits in Japan, enabling a Japanese porcelain industry that would supply Europe when Chinese ports were closed.

Sixteenth century Japan was restless with internal warfare among competing strongmen and their samurai.  The mobilizations of war actually improved lines of transportation and communication across Japan during the period, they channeled patrons to new merchant and artisanal guilds.  They also coincided with a resurgence of Buddhism, with its understanding of impermanence and suffering, and its capacity for tranquil acceptance.

The 16th century was disruptive in Europe too, with the Protestant Reformation and the savage wars of religion that ensued. Enlightenment thinkers determined they needed more reliable sources for their beliefs about the world.  Descartes concluded that authority had to start with himself, as a thinking subject.  Some say the turn to European modernity started there, with a dramatic change in self understanding.  The modern subject gave up trying to orient himself in alignment with some divine or cosmic order, mediated by tradition, and became self-determining.  Or he believed he did.

His perspective on the world would become cooler, he’d become expert in objective observation and instrumental analysis.  But he’d also place great value on self expression, and the artist, as visionary, would climb to the top of that new self regard.

In Japan, Buddhists pushed cultural change a different way.  Their vision of impermanence and suffering inflected their vision toward emptiness, and the absence of self.  They used the term “wabi,” first to describe the loneliness of the isolated seeker, living in nature.  Over centuries, wabi came to connote simplicity, quietness, even an aesthetic of understated elegance.

Zen masters practicing the quiet, ritual intention of the tea ceremony preferred the humble Korean tea bowl to the sophistication of Chinese porcelain.  They found wabi in the roughness and asymmetry of pottery that came from the anagama kilns.

Japanese Sue Ware Bottle

Strommen says pottery took off in the United States after World War II, and that several leaders in the movement were U.S. servicemen, back from the war, who went to art school on the GI Bill.  The towering example of the returning GI turned art potter is Peter Voulkos.  He’s credited with starting the American “clay revolution.”

Voulkos went to art school in his native Montana and taught in California, except for the fateful summer of 1953, when he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  He encountered some influential Abstract Expressionists there, and followed them back to New York in the fall.  Before that, his work was functional earthenware, “elegantly thrown,” according to a review of a 2016 exhibit of his “Breakthrough Years” – the exuberance was all in the brushwork and in decorative techniques borrowed from printmaking.

Afterwards, it transformed into something else.  His sculptures were reminiscent of vessels -- he’d start with a shape turned on a wheel, then break through the leather hard surface, slice, smash, crush them together.  This sculpture, called Sevillanas, is almost 5 feet tall, it’s one of his breakthrough pieces, finished in 1959.  The original was destroyed in a recent California earthquake, Voulkos remade it in bronze.  Collette Chattapadhyay calls it a “totemic mass of compacted and compounded pots” in Sculpture Magazine.

Peter Voulkos' Sevillanas

Voulkos said he was particularly impressed by Jackson Pollock, the action painter known for throwing paint on the canvas, for the way he challenged academic tradition.  “Voulkos’ bold handling of clay are provocative in a manner similar to Pollock’s handling of paint,” Chattapadhyay observes.  They were both interested in art as it embodies process, in accident that mirrors the role of chance in human life, in unconscious patterns expressed.

Though Chattapadhyay draws contrast in the course of their careers. Pollock might represent the terminal trajectory of the artist as visionary, pursuing the expressive concept until it hits a wall.  His paintings generated lots of sound and fury in the 40s, but by 1952, the critic Clemente Greenberg thought he’d lost his stuff, and Chattapadhyay says he had few direct successors.

Jackson Pollock in the Act

Voulkos by contrast had a sizable student following, she names at least 8 of his students who became “significant” artists in their own right, and Voulkos’ own work stayed vital until months before his death in 2002.

She suggests the difference might be partly the artistic climates of the west coast relative to the east, and also qualities of the medium -- clay’s humble earthiness, its malleability and toughness, its inherent age.

She describes a 2001 exhibit of Voulkos’ work, including buckets, bowls and plates, encrusted with chalky pigmentations and soot from the firing process “like relics from some unknown prehistoric civilization.”

There are giant stacks of smashed pots, built from up to 50 pounds of clay, fired in industrial size kilns.  They only “allude” to vessel from a distance, up close you can see their interiors, “dusty, deserted,” daylight filters through the fractures like it might have entered cave dwellings from the distant past.

Jay Strommen Tea Bowl

Strommen says the number of kilns in the United States has multiplied a thousand fold since the 1970s.  He remembers accompanying his mother to her pottery class at St. Cloud college as a kid.  At the time, Japanese Raku was a hot technique.  Rakuware is heated rapidly, pulled from the kiln quickly when it’s still hot.  The exposure to air, and rapid cooling, changes the colors of the glaze.  Strommen still remembers the elemental impression of watching those pots pulled out from the fire with tongs.

Years later, he’d talk his way into a job at a pottery manufactory in Florida where he made useful objects by the thousand until his fingers “got very smart.” He made his way to Chicago through the School of the Art Institute, studying with Bill Farrell, and to the Bridgeport Art Center, partly through connections he’d made at school.

Today he’s interested in themes of community, inspired by the collective processes of wood fired kilns, and of transmitting the craft, but also with themes of mass production.  The anagama kilns had been designed for the mass production of objects for everyday use.

The Chicago Ceramic Center started as a school, with some interest in working as a pottery factory of some sort.  He opened the Gallery in 2016, after the Perimeter Gallery closed.  It had been known for crossing the unofficial divide between decorative and fine arts for 35 years.


Since opening, the gallery at the Chicago Ceramic Center has featured some of the major potters of the Midwest, including Bill Farrell and Warren Mackenzie.  In 2018 Strommen plans a new series of 3 exhibits featuring master and apprentice, pressing the boundaries of art as craft, and expression, as they explore ways to scale up.

Jay Strommen Bowls - photo from Strange Closets

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