Tag Archives: American artist

Sculptor Louise Nevelson: 1964, Smithsonian oral history interview


“Sky Landscape,”by Louise Nevelson. Vermont Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. Sculpture dedicated on March 10, 1988. Paid for and erected by the American Medical Association. By photo dctim1 via Wikimedia Commons

 Louise Nevelson and Neith Nevelson, 1965. Previously unpublished picture. By NeithNevelson via Wikimedia Commons

Louise Nevelson and Neith Nevelson, 1965. Previously unpublished picture. By NeithNevelson via Wikimedia Commons



Public domain work citation: Oral history interview with Louise Nevelson, 1964 June-1965 Jan. 14 and undated, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Nevelson discusses The Club, the “Art News Group,” and European artists’ migration to New York. She speaks of new concepts in art, and debates with Seckler the questions of public acceptance of new art forms and changing standards. She also talks about her work, how she developed her box sculptures, her use of odd forms, spaces and abstractions.

Biographical/Historical Note: Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) was a sculptor from New York, N.Y.


DS: When our previous tape ended, Louise, we had been talking about your first box sculpture which had been made in an empty carpet box and in which you had assembled pieces of wood that had caught your attention in various ways, including their nail holes; and I wondered if we might pursue that first experience and how it opened up, and how it developed from there, a little more.

LN: Well, this box was rather long, it probably had a rug 9 by 12 in it but it was very narrow. I didn’t use small pieces of wood but I found lumber on the street that had nails and some nail holes in it and different forms and different shapes and I just nailed them together and I knew this was art, and I began to learn more about the technique, learn more about the forms; and went right on. But before that, even at the Nordness Gallery, as I told you, I already used furniture and already used imagery of, say, mankind, with broken glass strewed in and furniture perhaps, and electric lights for eyes. So I was already familiar with these forms, but I enclosed them. And then, as I got more in it, I wanted to enclose them more until now I’m using glass in front of them. There’s something — they get closer to me, I want to embrace them more and I don’t want to expose them, like putting them on a stand and in the round. And, year after year and time after time and all the time, they’re getting more and more enclosed. And now I’m using glass in front of them. And, in my coming show this fall, I will use other things so that they themselves are growing. In other words, it isn’t I imposing altogether — but I’m recognizing things and using them to create a completeness. It’s like a marriage; you are not the total actor; you play with another actor, and my play with the other are my materials. Sometimes they tell me something and sometimes I speak to them so that there is a constant communication toward a oneness, for that unity, for the harmony, and for the totality. And they are changing. It’s very strange. I will look at a work that I did, say, some time ago, standing with work I’m doing today and the great difference to me is overwhelming. It may not be to an eye that’s not discerning, or not acquainted, but for the one who is doing it, for me, I see great changes all the time. That’s what fascinates me. Otherwise it would be repetitious. And that’s what drives me, too, to do more.

DS: Before you did your first box — let’s say, had you been carving wood? You had not been assembling it?

LN: No, I had assembled it.

DS: Oh, had you even then?

LN: Oh, yes. At the Nordness Show they were all assembled woods and there were different kinds of wood put together. Oh, yes. Because I wanted the form and I didn’t care for the carving. I wanted something more immediate because my creativity was faster and so I wanted a way of saying it and I said it then. But as time went on, I just said before, it became more enclosed and more enclosed. And now it’s even more enclosed. I haven’t done a piece in the round, so to speak, that could be seen from three dimensions since I have been enclosing. There’s something about it — I can’t come out in the open any more. It’s become enclosed.

DS: You had spoken last time, too, about your special interest in the quality of the shadow and that seems to be something that belongs in the enclosed form particularly.

LN: Well, I think that the shadow, let’s say, for a better word, is the forth dimension. That shadow I make forms out of is just not a fleeting shadow but it has as much form as a Cubistic form would have. It has forms and I give them forms and to me they’re much more exciting than anything that I see on earth. That is another reason that I don’t particularly need to travel because I’m always fascinated by these forms; they mean something. I call it, for clarification, the fourth dimension. I don’t need so much material and matter to tune in and identify and recognize that fourth dimension. To me that’s remarkable and very wonderful, very wonderful. And probably night and day are very necessary for my kind of thinking, the light and the dark: very important.

DS: Did you start painting — the first one, you said, was painted black?

LN: Yes.

DS: And had you been painting your sculpture black before that?

LN: Pretty much. Pretty much. There was some experimenting with painting them, and also different woods put together, the tonalities, but not very much because I didn’t want to make sculpture and I didn’t want to make form as such and I got through that very fast — I wanted really to get beyond that. I never thought I made sculpture or made anything. I’m not looking to make anything. I want something else entirely. I want that extra dimension where you don’t make things; you live with that place and you give that place a form and in that place where you give form you bring back here and hope to communicate on that level. Some people do get it. Even if it’s a little late, they get it. I don’t know if I’ve said it well, but I’ll say it again: I don’t want to make sculpture and I don’t want to make paintings; I’m not looking to make anything. I myself need, for my place of consciousness, a form. It’s almost like you are an architect that’s building through shadow and light and dark. You are really an architect in that place, but you don’t want to make buildings for people; you are — in another dimension — you are the architect, you see. But it’s a very real world. I never use a word like “imagination” because that word “imagination” means to me that you extend immediately to that great dimension. So it’s not imagination. It’s a great reality but the material you are using is in that place instead of in this place, you see. So it isn’t through the intellect, it’s through vision that you give form and structure to that place. And so, naturally, you are an architect in that place.

DS: How do you arrive at your scale? “A certain place” is interesting there. Your boxes, of course, are within the limits of what one can reach — up and down or within, perhaps with a ladder or a box — and still it has a sense perhaps of being of a dimension that’s unlimited to some extent; it’s very real. How do you arrive at these? Well, partly these pieces that are available, I suppose, or that you worked with before. You could make them larger if you wanted to, or you could make them smaller.

LN: I told you I have made them larger.

DS: Yes.

LN: Well, within your being you have a sense of scale and measurement, because anything outside in the world you have inside in your consciousness and consequently you identify with this scale and weight and measure and you’re there with it; you’re just there with it. For example, I had the straight walls and somehow it came to me that I would like to give circle to the straight. And, before I knew it, I did it. And then I wanted great enclosure so I thought of black. It’s very simple. Everything is here and it’s up to you to use it. It’s not any great shakes to do these things. And again you can think of modern dance, the way the body flows. I told you that, for many, many years, I studied modern dance. Well, that modern dance also has all this; you’re not just jumping, but you have space and the body has space. Look, all these places are empty; there’s air in them and they have space and, if we recognize that this is architecture and we recognize what we are made of and how we are made and put together, the rest is an extension. And I can still go back to say that it’s your consciousness and your awareness of all this. It is kind of a remarkable grandeur and you use this because you identify. So all that I have said all along the line is that I don’t want to make anything; what I am doing is living the livingness of life, the livingness of the livingness, and using all these things to extend this awareness.

DS: Do you sense that in other artists too, or do you feel this is a unique experience of your own?

LN: I feel that any artist who knows what the word means has to have these things. I have never seen a Picasso figure or object that wasn’t in the right place; they never fall out, they never fall in. They are there to stay. Now that is the body’s awareness of the rightness of weight. When he used that period of bone structure, they were right. Or whatever he does. Now I know, everybody knows, that he’s a great artist and all, but I wonder if they are aware of these things that he is aware of and that are at his fingertips. I don’t think he has to study. He’s aware of these things and he uses them so well. But how could he not use them well? It would be impossible. There are different ways of expressing it. For instance, look at some of these wonderful chess players, what they tap; or even ball players. I think they all are aware or they couldn’t run for the ball and catch it. Or they couldn’t study it. Of course, they study the technique to perfect these things and also, in studying it, they communicate it on that level. A ballplayer wants to know what a ballplayers does. An artist wants to know what an artist does. That’s a communication and also it’s very enlightening. But you have to know that. You’re born with it. Why are some people two feet tall and some six feet tall? They’re born with these things. It seems to me we come pretty ready-made, but what we do here is fulfill it. I’m not talking about religion. I don’t know where this comes from but . . .

DS: But you have been very much interested in comparative religion at certain periods in your life?

LN: Yes.

DS: How has that entered into your work? Could you define that at all?

LN: Well, in some ways, all my life I didn’t feel quite that I belonged here. I didn’t really, in my closer being, identify too much on any level, so I just had to fill something in myself, and there was that great hunger, great search. And so, at one time, I thought maybe religion would do it; at one time I thought philosophy would do it; at one time I thought heroic things would do it. I didn’t care where I could communicate with it as long as it somehow gave me a measure, some measure, of just contentment. Not really contentment — gave me some measure of peace between the storms, you see. I had to have my rest period. And so I would search desperately, and search desperately. But I must say that not one yet has fulfilled what I’m searching for. Consequently, I don’t stay with it; it isn’t that I thought it all, or understood it all. I’m not saying that. It just doesn’t quite seem to fit this thing. But it fed me at certain times in my life and, at least while I was searching and hoping to find, it gave me a little contentment. And also I think it absorbed my mind enough to move with it, you see. That is the whole thing in our times that is really difficult for mankind on earth, no matter where, because so much as been broken down and I don’t think there’s been enough built up. So there’s great chaos. That may be in the world, but I don’t want that to be with me because I need more structure than that. And so that was a search on that level. But I never found it totally.

DS: You’re not aware of it having affected the kinds of forms you use?

LN: No, not affected my form but it affected me as a being. Then naturally something happened to the form because we can’t be aware of anything unless it affects us. So you can say — I don’t like the word “indirect” either — but it’s like you say: I’m living, you’re living, you eat every day. Well you don’t remember if it’s the apple or the chicken but something gave you life and it sustained you until the next time. So it gave me life, an awareness of life and naturally that would affect what I was doing.

DS: Louise, in the very recent past, of course, you’ve been involved with Artists Equity, and I know that, as you said before, in earlier periods of your life, you had been reluctant to become so much involved with this knowing a great many people and being involved organizationally. But now you’ve come to accept that as something you can give at this period. Is there anything you’d like to say about your experiences all along the line with your fellow artists or with the art community and the way you regard it?

LN: Well, now I find that I can communicate better with artists. I just happen to be able to communicate better. Also, at htis point, I’m in a position where I can be of service and it’s not a great effort on my part. On the contrary, the thing that it has given me is just so remarkable: it’s opened another consciousness and I feel, there too, it’s on a certain kind of level of awareness. And so it’s just been very important. The National Artists Equity is not the only thing I’m with. I’m active in other things. But it seems as if it’s important to me. And I also think it may be a time in our history when artists must stand together. While in my work and myself I stand alone, in this there is a sort of pooling on another level, and in that level it isn’t only that artists will be recognized for certain things, but I think art itself may have more to say creatively. That’s what interests me about it.

DS: One of the things that’s of interest to me and fascinates me perhaps about you is your ability to be very sympathetic to and interested in many manifestations of contemporary art that are very different from your own, even including such movements as Pop art and so on. This may be rushing ahead of our story too much but I think your openness to the possibilities of many kinds of expression is unusual in someone who is so completely and highly individualized in her work.

LN: Well, now, I see all these movements as very real in my kind of thinking and they are just another side of life. For example, if you open a book and you go through it and on every page is another vision, you don’t destroy it; you’ve recognized it. And I certainly think all these new so-called faces of art are very vital, very living, and very important to my vision. I don’t think that one should close himself off because that just doesn’t make much sense. I want to see more and more sides. And a strange example: a diamond, even though you can shape it into many forms and it gives off many lights, that doesn’t mean that one shines a little more or a little less, or that a little light can’t be as important as a big light. It’s light. I don’t know of any new vision that hasn’t its place in the sun.

DS: One of the interesting aspects of your life is, of course — we haven’t mentioned very much — is your role as the mother of a son who is also an artist – Mike Nevelson. I wondered if there’s anything that you’d like to cover as far as that relationship is concerned, and how it grew.

LN: Well, I was just blessed to have a wonderful son. I don’t think I gave him any particular attention. I don’t even think I understood what being a mother meant, as such. And that, too, became an interesting thing in my life — to not just communicate on that level but to try to understand another human being. And, as I say, I just happen to have been blessed because it grew into a great communication. Somehow there’s nothing closer on a human level than a parent and a child. And it’s a great, great, great satisfaction to me, and it’s a great satisfaction that he is doing the work he is doing and has found his own avenue of expression, because I can understand how it must be and how difficult it must have been for him to do it. But he has shown his strength on that level and he stands as one individual and I stand as another individual, and I think it’s working out very well. And, as far as raising him — as a mother I found him to be a very gentle person and I didn’t have great complexes with him. Somehow, at times, I thought he was older than I because, when I would get into a frustration, he seemed to be the person with the wisdom. And so that was a very remarkable experience; and I think it is remarkable.

DS: He’s married now and has his own family?

LN: Yes. I have three granddaughters and they all show signs of creativity. I don’t quite know why, but it just seems that that’s where life is to us. And I just feel extremely blessed with my son as a sculptor and with the three growing grandchildren, three growing granddaughters. And they happen to be pretty besides.

DS: That’s pride. Louise, one thing we should fill in for the record is something more about various shows you’ve had in your gallery activities. We had followed you through to Nierendorf and Nordness and then, of course, later on I know you went with other galleries. During the middle 40s, what galleries were you showing with at the time?

LN: Well, Nierendorf went to Europe for two weeks after the Second World War, and he stayed a year and a half. I was ready for a show and he came back; in a few days he passed away. After that I didn’t show for about four or five years. I was working all the time and it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t recognize this quality of being professional and on the scene. So I thought — well, this is lovely; I have a lot of time for myself. And then the Grand Central Moderns — Miss Roberts, the Director, came up to me in the Museum and she said, “Would you like to have a guest show in our gallery?” I said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And then, since no one asked me and I had not asked anybody, I said eventually, “Yes.” That was also a show that I called “The Royal Family.” And it also had this theme and it was all ready; it was rather big. I used beams from big houses for kings and queens, and I used these old materials for things; but they were more in the round. So, step by step, there was not really a great difference, you see. But anyway . . .

DS: What year was that again, Louise? — “The Royal Family?” After the war?

LN: After the war; but it was four or five years after. So I would say it was in the 1950s.

DS: Early ’50s probably?

LN: Probably. I have my records upstairs, dear, if you want to see them.

DS: Well, this is close enough. We can correct it later.

LN: Yes. And then I had another show, and another show; I had several shows with the Grand Central Moderns. But I was also showing around, like with a group show or wherever I was asked. And then, since the Grand Central Moderns is really an unprofitable organization, they expect eventually that you go into another gallery where sales are made. And so Martha Jackson asked me to come with her. Then Cordier . . .

DS: What — that was with Martha Jackson . . . ?

LN: Martha Jackson, yes.

DS: Was that mid-50s or later 50s — I suppose?

LN: No, it was late 50s. And Cordier came here from France and asked me if he could represent me in Europe. So I had those shows. But then, you see, I had been showing around different places anyway. And then I went with — what’s his name? Sidney Janis.

DS: Before we get to that, though, where did you show in Europe? I want to fill that in.

LN: Oh, yes, I showed at the Cordier Gallery in Paris. But then, you see, we had been sending shows from the Sculptors Guild aknd the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and National Women and, oh, there were other New York Women and other groups. They were sending works of ours though South America, through Japan, through all the different countries; and through America particularly, in different museums and all. So they were really shown quite a bit. And then the Biennale two years ago.

DS: You were very important there.

LN: Yes. Well, then I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art to show in Paris where I had three enormous rooms.

DS: Three enormous rooms of the . . .

LN: My . . . yes, show.

DS: That was 1962?

LN: Yes. 1962 — June.

DS: June in Paris?

LN: No, it was Venice.

DS: Venice, that’s right.

LN: Paris — that was the year before.

DS: Paris was ’61?

LN: I think ’61, yes.

DS: I’m sorry I interrupted. I just wanted to be sure . . .

LN: That’s all right. After Janis, I went to the Pace Gallery in New York, had three shows last year and this year, one in the Hanover Gallery, London, the Gimpel-Hanover in Zurich, and another show in Italy — Turino. And of course now this month I will show in — what’s the name of that place in Germany — Dokumenta.

DS: Oh, yes . . .

LN: Oh, yes, and, of course, you knew I was in the “16 Americans” in the Museum of Modern Art. And I’ve shown at the Whitney. You also know that I am in many museums. I also had a one-man show in Caracas where there’s quite a a bit of my work. And also Martha Jackson will have a show of my work in Japan.

DS: Mmm!

LN: In about a month, or this summer — this summer.

DS: Is there anything you’d like to say about any of these shows?

LN: Well, I had about three or four shows with Martha Jackson.

DS: Yes. They were important ones, too.

LN: Yes. And I had a show last year of etchings and drawings at the Balantroub. I’ve had, you see, all these shows. I had bronzes with Martha last summer in thegarden.

DS: And the museums — I suppose it would be too much to list them all — the most important ones — how about the ones abroad?

LN: Well, Tate, London. And I think we are going toe be selling to a few more — the Museum of Modern Art here, the Whitney Museum, Queen’s College, New York University, Riverside, Caracas. And I’m in others — Norfolk Museum, the museum down in Venezuela — and I don’t know — it seems to me all over the place.

DS: Europeans have apparently received your work very warmly, as well as Americans and you have been a particularly favored American, I think, abroad.

LN: Well, I would say that I think the European artists wwere almost the first to recognize me; and among them, Mathieu wrote a forward for my exhibition in Paris for Cordier. He came to America and he wouldn’t fly back ’til he acquired one of my things and took it on the plane with him and he asked American Artist who I was. In other words, he alerted them. And then, when Art had its big show at the Museum of Modern Art, that was the first evening of my opening of the big black wall there. He was so wonderful and I had not met him. I still haven’t met him but he wrote an important article. It was a poem and it was published. And so really I feel that my heritage and culture is pretty well rooted in the Western World and I certainly feel very close to their thinking. But then I also feel a vitality in myself that’s very close to this continent. And I love the American Indian work. Have you seen my things with Parsons?

DS: I have seen some when I was here before but I haven’t seen them recently.

LN: Yes. So that, there again, I understood the American Indian work and I love the American Indian and what he has done.

DS: Louise, your home itself is a museum and has always been such an exciting place for artists; and it certainly has for me. I wondered if you’d like to talk for a moment about the kinds of things you’ve brought together in this great house and loved and cherished here.

LN: Well, truly, by nature I didn’t want to be a collector, but my kind of — what would you say? — by communicating with these things; somehow they just come to me and, before I know it, there’s a collection. I have even tried not to collect, but then someone will give me something because we attract certain things by our nature. And so it’s just sort of a natural for me, just a natural. It is true with, say, for instance, almost, the jewelry. Now my jewelry — there are things like jade, or they’re chunky or they’re very refined; they’re the two extremes. Well, somehow it was natural and I identify with these things and they mean something. There’s a kind of a recognition, like one friend recognizes another. Well, these things I recognize and they seem to belong here. So there was never a great feeling of collecting because too many colectors don’t collect the right things. These things, somehow, I do love living with, I do feel they belong. For example, I think my acquaintance with silver — now silver like, we’ll say, Sheffield, that is in a way a poor man’s luxury — but the etchings that were done on them, the work that was done on them — when you think of the mind that created them through time, they are works of art and my living with them did something for me. I even clean my own silver so to see the forms in them. And the same with linens. I’ve made some linens of my own and worked on them. Somehow I think that I learned more through these things that I’ve been living with than books. If you go to a museum, you really walk through a museum, but with these things you live and if you want to look at them again or touch them, or clean them, or not clean them, they’re right here, and there’s a sensitivity about your sense of touch with them and there is communication with them, and they have been somehow, I think, integrated in my being for creativity.

DS: That’s a very, very interesting expression, Louise, that feeling that things around you form you and you form — and then you almost have a conversation with them, I suppose.

LN: Well, yes, on that level you can say that. You don’t have to talk verbally — not that kind of a conversation, but you certainly have a communication with them.

DS: I remember, of course, the first time I came to your house, the enormous collection you had of the works of Eilshemius.

LN: Yes.

DS: And then the American Indian things and . . .

LN: Great collection of Ralph Rosenborg’s things.

DS: Yes.

LN: I have a great collection of his.

DS: Yes. And George Constant — wasn’t he in it?

LN: Well, I don’t have many of his, but I have some, yes. I have some different pieces of different works of art by many other artists, but I really have quite a collection of Eilshemius’s and I have a wonderful collection, that I think is wonderful, of Ralph Rosenborg’s who I think is a very great artist in our time.

DS: And of course your house is full of wonderful pieces of wood that are getting under way to becoming Nevelsons — becoming works of art.

LN: There again, you see, I feel, by having used old wood and by my understanding them, and being in oneness with them and giving them really to the world, is an avenue for another communication — that it doesn’t have to be what the world thinks are expensive materials because how many times do people abuse expensive materials? But the creator feels that everything is on a level, it only depends on how he or she likes it, not the price of it. And so you can take materials naturally and you give them their position and you place them.

DS: That is an unusual aspect of your work. Some artists have used discarded materials and they have emphasized their pathetic character as discards. You seem to do an opposite thing sometimes. One can still see that it’s a simple material and that it might have been part of something else and yet it takes on a new kind of dignity.

LN: Well, in that place that I’m talking about, that place of consciousness doesn’t have a price tag. Also, I did say in the beginning that a creator — what makes the character of a creator are many ingredients and among them one is that you want the other eyes to see what these things are; that all things are wonderful if you see them that way; all things are important if you see them that way; and you can shine them up to that place, you see. I think it’s even more than that. I think that — not to quote the Bible, but on one level, they do say that the meek and the humble shall inherit the earth. And so why shouldn’t these inherit the earth? They start on a humble note and they become as much of a unity as any other law that we understand. And so they can stand. Of course, when we speak of silver or works of art or linens or architecture or whatever, it slipped through some conscious mind, or it may not only be one mind but it may be hundreds of years of minds pooled ’til it comes to an essense; and of course in that place you give that consciousness to everything, that you will do as much as you can, as much as you understand, as much as you’re aware of.

DS: This is a transcript of an interview with Louise Nevelson. It was made in January 1965. A condensation of the earlier part of the tape includes the information that she was not a member of The Club, had not met the emigres from Europe after the war, had not known de Kooning and the other abstract expressionists, had not been influenced by them, but was very much aware of what was going on in the group around Art News.

LN: . . . at that time and Mondrian But I had just met them I wouldn’t say that I knew them very well, and, as far as the others, I didn’t even meet them at the time. No, I was busy.

DS: At this time you didn’t know de Kooning or Rothko or Gottlieb or . . .

LN: No. I might have met them but I didn’t know them, so to speak. No.

DS: But their ideas were not, of course . . .

LN: No.

DS: You didn’t get Art News and devour it?

LN: No. Well, I got Art News but, I don’t know, I don’t read very well, I guress. But I didn’t know exactly what — in other words, I was not too aware of these things because I was sort of digging my own way, you see, and it seemed it was a full-time job. And then I didn’t know them very well, and they probably were finding their direction. Maybe they didn’t even know how serious I was, you see; and we never got to the point of knowing each other well enough to find out.

DS: One of the things some of the artists in that group were being involved in at that time was psychoanalysis and it had occurred to some of them, first having been exposed to the idea of Surrealism and then going into analysis themselves, that there might be ways of drawing directly on the unconscious in their art. Had this kind of thing occurred to you independently?

LN: Never! Because somehow or another I must say that I didn’t particularly like the pictures that I saw that were being painted by the Surrealists. I think the only one that really I liked was that wonderful Italian — what’s his name? — that did these greens and he had the figure . . .

DS: De Chirico?

LN: De Chirico. Now he was the only one out of that whole group that interested me because of his subject matter and the mood he was creating, but I wasn’t very excited over the other things. I didn’t particularly like the quality of paint. I didn’t like breaking up so much of the plane surfaces and the canvas is what I mean, and they were too literary for my taste. So I wasn’t really involved.

DS: De Chirico had done somehting which I wondered if you might have noticed at any point. When he was in Ferrara he had painted great paintings into which he had set sort of shallow boxlike shapes, things like those oddly-shaped Italian biscuits, curious things like that, that he saw in the shop windows in Ferrara. They took on geometrical shapes but they were sometimes biscuits or parts of toys, and so on. But you don’t recall those?

LN: No, I’m sure. Not only I don’t recall them, I’m sure I never saw them because, had I seen them, I would have remembered. They would have interested me.

DS: I just happened to be writing an article on De Chirico after I had talked to you last spring and, when I came to these boxes with these curious things inside, I thought — well, they’re like Nevelson’s.

LN: Now where were these boxes? Were any of them ever in America?

DS: They’re painted boxes — they’re paintings — they’re illusions.

LN: Yes.

DS: Very concrete, you know, but they’re still rather abstracted in their sense of geometrical composition. Well, I suppose some of them have been shown here, I don’t remember just where. I’ll show you some of them in a book I have on his work. I think it’s by Soby.

LN: Well, I’d love to see it. But you see, there’s another thing: I have never been that conscious of books, and books on art really don’t mean that much to me because almost the total day has been given to doing, in my case, and that goes for my past in other ways. I don’t particularly feel so close to things that another mind has left. I think it’s wonderful if you can identify with it but I haven’t been able to do that easily. It’s been much easier for me just to do the work.


LN: But, as I said, I think De Chirico would be the one I would have said that I liked because there was this great mood in his work that appealed to me so much.

DS: Yes, there was a strange, brooding, melancholy quality . . .

LN: That’s right.

DS: . . . beautiful in many of them, I think, especially in his early work.

LN: That’s right. At that time.

DS: Yes — not now. You mentioned, of course, Picasso. I guess because Picasso was everybody’s grandfather in a way, except for the younger ones who do not seem to feel it as our generation did. What part of Picasso did you like best, what aspects of Picasso’s work?

LN: Well, I like to say all aspects of Picasso’s work because in back of his work is Picasso.

DS: This strange, wonderful quality of his of transforming everything, and recreating it in his own way. Now, apparently, the younger men today don’t feel any urgency about transforming. They’d just as soon just take, and the idea of invention is much less important, I would gather, to them than it was to all of us for whom Picasso was the big mover.

LN: Well, I think in our time, and I think it’s valid, that the artist is taking another role. He really is concerned with ideas, and somehow to me, as I see it, oil paint has become sort of old-fashioned as such.

DS: From their point of view?

LN: Yes. I don’t want to, at this point, bring out names but it seems to me that the most prominent young, younger, so-called artists are the artists that have ideas. They’re projecting idea more than executing work as such.

DS: That’s very true. Perhaps in this country that resulted very particularly after abstract expressionism came really into focus. It was then apparent that what we had was an art concept more than a percept whereas, when I was younger and going to art school, the assumption was that the artist was like a sensitive, fluctuating wire that went out and perceived the world. Now the artist conceived it. He had a basic way of coming at whatever he did which informed everything that he did, everything he made. He was imposing a concept, almost, rather than reflecting a percept of the world. And, maybe for that reason, oil paint seems less palpable, less tangilbe in making something that is there.

LN: Particularly with the oil paint because new paints have come in that dry faster and do things on a different level. In other words, oil paint, I think, gives a luminosity and a beauty that other paints may not, but our time demands other performance, a faster one. The mind pertaining to the canvas or to creation in that dimension is — the approach is quite different; the approach is different. And it’s very possible that we will be coming, as we go along, into new things. Now I have gone to a few shows — I don’t see many — and it’s remarkable that these shows may not be profound but they are inviting a new observation and they are giving it another kind of image.

DS: Could you mention any of them?

LN: I’d rather not do that.

DS: What kind of things? Could you just talk about it from that point of view?

LN: Well, for instance, if you take — first, you see, the flat surface like painting and sculpture have become closer. Now I went into a gallery and the object or the material or — what would you say when you use . . . ? — the subject matter is what I was going to say. The subject matter came out of the canvas. Say, if it was an apple, the apple was blown up to, say, two feet and coming out of the canvas, and they made a whole arrangement out of this. Well, it’s very interesting. I don’t feel it’s profound; but somehow it’s interesting and it is also giving us for the moment — the eye — it’s giving to the eye anyway a new way of seeing this.

DS: You don’t think it might be at the same time robbing the eye of a certain sensitivity? I mean if you see an apple blown up several times its size nad painted a flat color — well, this makes it very readily recognizable and very identifiable and you don’t have to look for any subtleties of light or space. It’s just there, you know, appleness. That doesn’t seem to you as possibly a blunting . . . ?

LN: Well, may I say — I did say in this case that the apple wasn’t black. It might come out where a painting or sculpture would become one.

LN: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I do feel that we can’t have everything and so one thing has been given up and another thing has been gained. I do feel it may be lighter, lighter in to do this, but there is room for it because all music also must have rest periods. This is always found and so this may be a quieter period in some ways, but it also is transitory and may be leading to something so I suddently wouldn’t reduce it. But, nevertheless, I think there is a period where we have surpassed, where we need light, shade, and this and that of the old school. I think there will be new ways of saying these thigns.

DS: You mean you think that we will not return to the light and shade and space and so on?

LN: No, not that way, because — I use the word “architecture,” you see — there will be different performances. The artist will somehow even be more of a composer, even more. He will take shadow, he will take reflection, he will take the objective or whatever he does and he will become an architect of this and he will give it his stamp of the way the sum total will come together. And I don’t think there will be a return because we don’t return to, say, in science things have been very important, very valid, that have been discovered and used. We don’t return to them as such, we may return to them and use them in another way. So that means we won’t give up these things but I think we’re going to have to compose them in another way. We’re going to have to give a meaning in another way. Our structure will be another kind of a structure.

DS: Do you think that there’s any implication in this when Clement Greenberg says, for instance, that “sensitivity is a bore?” Would you imply that he means sensitivity to the older ways of looking and feeling, or does that have any particular meaning to you at all?

LN: Well, I don’t know Mr. Greenberg. I’ve heard a lot of things he’s said that I don’t go along with and I’d really have to know what he means. As a matter of fact, I go along with so little of what he says that I don’t know how he would mean this. If I knew what he meant — what sensitivity is a bore? Do you think he knows what sensitivity is?

DS: That’s very nicely put, Louise, and I won’t answer it on the tape. But what you were saying, I think, is very fascinating. The forms that are coming into being replacing the older instruction, and so on. The curious and sometimes, I suppose, disquieting thing about this is that one rushes to meet the future and, at the same time, as you say, forging a new link in the chain and the old link, of course, has to be lost. I suppose that’s why it is that a great many artists whose work has been rooted in the older perceptions of space and color and light and tone suddenly feel as if there is nowhere to go, you know; that they are now pushed back into the past.

LN: Well, now, we see artists who are using old forms. Let us take, as an example, a man like Hopper. Now Hopper is not truly an innovator; he’s not an innovator; he’s a man of 82 and he’s painting. But in his work there is a quality that’s eternal and that is why he is not old-hat and that is why he is valid. So some people might call it soul, or some intangible, some will call it the sum total of a consciousness. Whatever you call it, there is something in an awareness in some creative minds that the tool, no matter what it may be, does not overpower this quality, and this quality is rare and goes on in spite of the technique they use. The technique is there, but it is in spite of the times, I should say, that we live in. I think that goes through the ages. There must be things of integrity in the being and, once they are very solid and they are not in doubt and they are really strong and believed in, I think they jus will go on.

DS: It’s really, I suppose, the second and third-rate artists who have always been somewhat hesitant as to who they are. They are the ones who suffer.

LN: Well, I don’t know whether they suffer. If they didn’t have convictions in the first place, maybe they don’t have the great capacity to suffer.

DS: Well, I mean they suffer in something like lack of confidence.

LN: Yes, yes, that’s right. I think art is tough and naturally an artist is sensitive and tough all at once. It’s like a beautiful instrument that has the fortissimo and the pianissimo. You can’t be shouting all the time; you can’t be whispering all the time. Man has that range and I think that the more magnificent the range and the bigger the range, the more you get the extreme that there is where great art would lie.

DS: I became so fascinated by what you were saying about the forms that are emerging today that I somewhere got lost in the 50s. So here we are coming to the period of, say, the early 50s. Was there any other important change? I think we did come perhaps to where you began to work with the boxes, the day you found the rug boxes, say. What had you been doing just before that, Louise?

LN: Well, I was using plaster and working right along daily, actually making rather big abstract forms. They were not totally abstract but I had abstracted the universe and the material I was using I’d abstracted. In other words, if I used the human form, so to speak, I abstracted it but I didn’t do it coldly; it was done freely. That goes for all the other living objects on earth. And then you can do it by addition and substraction. And you can reduce all these multiple forms, say, into one, or you can multiply it from one into the infinite. That’s a personal thing. I never just mechanically do it like a geometric thing that leaves you cold.

DS: I would gather that the plaster forms you were working with were more a matter of reduction and then, once you began working with the boxes, it was more a matter of multiplication, of diversifying and extending. Would that be true? Was it a change of association for you when you began working with the boxes? I mean as far as the kind of things that you had associated with, the forms you were using.

LN: Well, it’s a funny thing. I suppose I’ve lived so much with form that, for example, I might go to bed and all these forms would take on a life of their own and they moved as if you plugged in the electricity; they would all move. And you can do so much with these things in the mind. I don’t remember any great revolutions in my consciousness when I worked from one thing to another. It just seemed natural for me — like a tree; out of the root another branch developed and another branch developed; there was no great mental search in that direction. It happened. But I think what always was wonderful is my eye would affirm it, and would stamp the approval; this was right, right for me; and I didn’t question art; I never had that great struggle. Art was here and I felt that it was right, it was living. Art is a living thing. Art is as alive as our breathing, as our own lives, but it’s more ordered and it has more order — it’s kind of like the essence of life.

DS: And every piece to some extent to you is as if you had to — you enjoyed the process of making that whole concept in this simgle thing.

LN: Well, I have felt — I feel that, in the work, you are coming closer and closer to this great order. Nature, too, has this great order; and humanity has — well, humanity to me is nature anyway.

DS: You don’t distinguish very specifically in some ways, do you?

LN: No.

DS: It wasn’t too much of a jump for you to go from the figure and plaster to the box forms . . .

LN: No. No.

DS: . . . which were not figures — or were they figures?

LN: No. Well, not really. No really, no. No, I think that to me all of creation basically is that you are searching for a more aware order. Now, what is this order? Some people will say order is to clean house you make order. But for me it all meant a great structure that was right, all the parts were right; that it was like a great symphony where there was nothing left out; it was right. Now it could all fall out and still be order but then that would be right; the all-over pattern would be right. I guess it is hard to speak about these things but I worked every day and all my life because there I’d find the livingness intensified and none of the unnecessary things that man lives with most of his life. In other words, most people live from day to day in a certain level of mentality and that’s it. Well, in this creativeness there is this great order and it is somehow necessary for my awareness and consciousness. Soem people at one time probably in life need great religion, or someone needs great wealth to fulfill what they were wanting to do. But for me the whole thing had great meaning and has great meaning when I am working toward this great unity. There is no waste there of the awareness of consciousness. There is no waste when you are really becoming more and more aware.

DS: And you can begin in a piece of sculpture — it doesn’t matter where you begin — because then each one calls for another. You just start with this curving form and then that calls for an intensification and then a contrast. Cna you remember any specific piece that you might trace through? The way the chain of thought developed?

LN: I always depend on my eye. I always come back to the eye. It’s like a building, a beautiful thing you might — well, say some of these wonderful pyramids in Mexico or the wonderful architecture in Greece. You know they stand for that vast. They’re right. And that’s the way I think what we do should be. These are examples. They stand. They’re valid. You know, in Mexico — I don’t know if you’ve seen the pyramids — but they have these heavy stones, they never connected them but, just by laying them down, they’ve been there thousands of years. You knew this?

DS: No, I didn’t see them.

LN: Well, these slabs have stayed there thousands and thousands of years and they somehow have the dimensions of gravity and of weight, you know, and they are magnificant, palatial buildings with these great carvings. I mean, anyone who might say, “that’s a primitve race,” really makes me laugh because they were so highly developed. From what they’ve left for us to see, you recognize the high development and their high art. And so that is the kind of thing that I would like to be aware of in my being and live with, and that gives me kind of a well-being, the awareness of things. I only gave these examples. There are many. It might be sometimes an inch piece of jade that might have that, or even a piece of wood you’d find on the street. It doesn’t matter. But that awareness gives you the order of your life, gives you the structure. Otherwise one would lose their reason. Reason has to be hinged to something in order for our sanity and for our well-being and for our beliefs. Of course, I said I was an optimist. I don’t stand on the premise that everything is chaotic and why are we were and all this. There are some things I don’t want to answer. All I want to answer is for my life and how I live my life.

DS: That’s very interesting and profound. Well, it seems like an anti-climax to add anything else here, but I suppose I still should round out a few more of the events of the 50s. After you began to work on the boxes, were they exhibited after a year?

LN: You see, it’s hard for me to really talk about these things because I like to talk but my concept at present of the world in a transitory period, a world, the world. Consequently, it’s hard for me to say many things because naturally there was a battle for recognition too. And yet, as my world becomes more fulfilled, the other world is taking on another tone. And so, as I said, it’s a little bit transitory. It’s no problem to me; but my values, my feelings, naturally are changing about myself, my work, the world and its work. You see? So it isn’t quite as static as it appears. Nor did the chain come about as it appears. I have never questioned my ability nor would I about creation. There is no problem there and there is no fight within me because I just lived with it and knew that there it was. I wasn’t the one to judge whether it was a b c; my problem was that I recognized it and wanted to be one with it. I am one with it to the best of my ability; and somehow I suppose the sparks begin to fly. How it happened one doesn’t know, but i never new it didn’t happen. As far as I was concerned, it was always there.

DS: It was always there, yes, I see what you mean. I suppose, as far as the documentation of the particular shows you had or critics that discovered you and so on, that must be in publications.

LN: That’s right. And kept in scrapbooks.

DS: So perhaps it’s not important to belabor that too much on the tape.

LN: Not only that, but we have them upstairs nad also my gallery has quite a lot of documentary things. I’m sure that whatever you will wish they will be more than happy to cooperate with you. And there’s really more than meets the eye because naturally it was building up and building up. In America I always got beautiful reviews and I was recognized and so on and so forth, but it was really the Europeans that began to really feel this creativity and originality. And so America got me by reflection, you see.

DS: Where did they see your work?

LN: Well, for instance, Mathieu and Soulage began coming to America and they began calling me and coming down, and going back to their own country and talking about it. Then, when Americans and museum people began coming to see their work and would see something of mine and would hear these fine artists talk about it, they took notice, you see.

DS: Umhmm. You mentioned once rather a difficult time when Marcel duChamp came down. However, that was not quite the same thing. But . . .

LN: I have never doubted that what I had to do wasn’t where it should be. I never doubted it because, somewhere in my inner being, I’m a builder. A builder doesn’t necessarily mean to build a house. There is something about the builder — it has to be right and it seems to be right. I think that would say it better to you.

DS: Think of your last show an example.

LN: Now, you see, when we speak of the three-dimensional world, there is one language, but when we speak of another world there is another language. To give you an example: I was having dinner very recently in the house here and there was a guest and we discussed an old acquaintance of mine of, say, 25 or 30 years ago, and this person having dinner with me said, “Oh, you know so and so, she said you had a grandiose complex thirty years ago,” and I looked into her eyes and I said, “And is there anyone on earth that had a reason to have one any more than I did?” Naturally, I had these dreams, if you want to call them dreams, of fulfillment. All of the things that I conceived of are being fulfilled. Now, three-dimensionally you can say “grandiose” but if you have a grandiose concept and if you can work with it, I don’t see why not. All the things that you want to travel to see on earth were these things. So why shouldn’t we have them? Man is the heir to them. Man should have the courage to have these concepts and make them come true. They are true. But make them visual. And I think we have every reason on earth to conceive of them and fulfill them. Without that I can’t conceive of wanting to stay on this earth because I don’t know what is meant by this world. I know a world that I contributed to because it’s my world; and that’s the world I want to see.

DS: There is such a striking continuity — almost from the time you were a child, it was as if you had found the real experience and meaning, in certain ways, of thinking about work in a kind of visual way. You know, even Dr. Stuart told me about when you were three or four years old, being brought from Russia and you saw these candy sticks. Well, I mean here was a form. Later, of course, it would be too facile to say and now you’re working with sticks and boxes and so on. That kind of statement I wouldn’t make. But still, here was form that took hold of your imagination in a very striking way even as a child, and you seem to have found your location and security in life in relationship to forms that were strikingly apprehended in some way originally, and grew organically from one stage to another.

LN: Is it saying too much to say that some of us were ready-made when we came here? And we brought our tools to fulfill our needs on earth?

DS: Those are nice words. I like the idea.

LN: If there have been complications in my life, the work was not the complication; the complication was the world and its blindness. And, if I may say so, it’s stupidity, not the creative quality in man and not the visions that man has. Naturally, when you’re young, you may not have the courage of your convictions and they can be broken down; but somehow nature gives you many chances. You pick yourself up. So you tumble down, you pick yourself up and go on. And I often think that nature has a way of veiling some of us too; it was the fool that found the Holy Grail, it wasn’t King Arthur. And I think nature made it that way so you wouldn’t be too obvious until you established what you had to say and do.

DS: You had that long gestation period in New York without being crowded by people publicizing you and so on. Do you feel that, for the generation that doesn’t have that — as many of the young artists now do not — do not have that privacy, will that possibly be destructive, do you think?

LN: No, because I figure that the whole approach is going to be different and I don’t think that it’s a healthy thing to go too long. You see, for everything in nature, there’s a timing, and if it goes too long, it can go sour, or something can happen. I think that the whole approach to art is certainly going to be from a different point of view. They’re not going to go back to the other things. Man as a whole has become aware of creation. I don’t think there are many young people in schools that aren’t interested today in the visual arts, most of the world is aware of it and interested, so our whole approach is going to be entirely from a different point of view.

DS: It would be marvelous if we were on the verge of some kind of a birth into a real individual response and understanding that we never had before.

LN: I mentioned the extra-sensory perception — regardless of appearances, their world of consciousness is going ahead and it’s going ahead at such a pace that it’s remarkable that man is living fuller. There’s more awareness on any level, on any level. There was an article I read today in the New York Times or the Post, an article on commerce, that everyday people going into the stores are asking for quality, their taste is rising. Well, if you think that that taste is rising, and you parallel that with the consciousness that’s creating that, you see they’re charging ahead. Now, on the other hand, I don’t think that in my life I have met five people I think have real grand taste. I don’t think so. Or consistently grand taste. Because to really have that is not jusst style, it is something deeper; it is a structure, a structure of taste, a structure of style, and that can be a world and very few people have it.

DS: And you feel that people will come to have culture?

LN: Yes, I suppose so. They’re more aware. There are still people who will go into a home and never see a thing; they never learned to look around or anything. But people are becoming aware more and more and more. And it’s important, it isn’t only what they’re seeing but that the mind is active, that’s where reason enters. [END OF SIDE 1] [BEGIN SIDE 2]

LN: That’s where satisfaction enters, that’s where man becomes more total, more magnificent, that’s where greater heritage comes in. And, therefore, you can see that every second can be vital and important. I’m not using words like happiness and gladness and all that; it can be a tragedy too. But why not have a grand tragedy if there’s going to be one, or have it in this grand concept?

DS: In the art of the younger people, we’ve been talking about, like whoever it was that, you know, we were discussing this big apple projecting from the canvas, do you foresee a period in which there will perhaps be fewer masterpieces but many fresh, spontaneous statements of ideas as if, in a way, the audience almost completed the image in themselves rather than having it presented with a complete, finally worked out masterpiece of the grand style?

LN: I conceive of people coming to higher heights, greater heights, and they will always do so-called masterpieces. There will always be some people on the creative level, all levels, that will rise above the norm, and will bring to us these things. I belive there will always be the great discoverers, there will always be the great leaders. No, I think that there will always be that.

DS: Perhaps one reason that unconsciously I phrased it that way was that I recently heard a discussion in which one of our brighter young woman artists said that we may possibly be entering a period when the role of the artist will be not to make something complete but almost like walking around with someone in the audience and saying: “look there.” Like walking around with a sort of finder, a frame-like device, and saying, “look here.”

LN: Well, you’re talking about Ateacha.

DS: She is one of the supposedly very avant-garde younger artists whose work is very much talked about right now, but, from her point of view, the artist’s role is less one of producing something finished than it is just sort of making a statement, conveying an attitude in the quickest and most economical way.

LN: That could be quick and economical but I think you have to also do something about it. That wouldn’t be enough. No, I think there will always be great leaders. There will always be great gifted people. Now, for instance, take an example: In the present time, there are some people that are born beautiful, some born ugly, they’re not all going to be born the same. There are some that are going to be highly gifted, highly intelligent, and there’s no such thing as leveling these things, no. And when a great leader comes along, he will lead, and when a great gifted person comes, they are going to express that and give it back to the masses. No, I can’t believe that.

DS: Well, possibly one — I don’t know that she said this — but one of the things that happens to works of art today is that, instead of just someone taking it home and putting it in a great mansion where princes might see it, it’s immediately reproduced and circulated and thousands of people see it quickly. In other words, they just look enough to get a kind of impression, of — well, you know, it’s that kind of thing, or this is an attitude, and it isn’t a matter of lingering and contemplating and admiring and relishing. It’s more a matter of recognizing and thinking, now I know that, now I see why.

LN: Well, I don’t think we are going to be too concerned about these things at this moment. Maybe there is something of that that is in our time, and it may be there is in our whole attitude of life that kind of approach, but that too is only present time and something else will have to take its place, because that won’t satisfy people. That is the wonder of it — that people will naturally never be satisfied; and rightly so. So this may be a moment, but I don’t think it’s going to be satisfying to the total being. I can see that what you’re saying and I can understand it and naturally we are throwing off a lot of things even to see. Take, for example, some time ago the romantic way of discussion between an engaged couple or something of that nature, where there was always holding hands, or this and that. Today I never see two people kiss each other like a bride and groom. They fall into some pattern and you never see these things. Maybe it’s just as well, I don’t know; I’m not setting myself up as a critic of it. That doesn’t mean there are less children being born. I mean their attitude looking at these things may be different. Nevertheless, that, as I said a moment ago, is not going to stay that way forever either. Maybe at this moment mankind doesn’t need more, but it won’t be satisfying forever.

DS: I think what you said is a very good comparison, but then of course it particularly reminded me of something. I have been in contact with young people recently, seeing that same kind of abbreviation of the relationship and maybe it is related to the abbreviation of our appreciation of our art — it’s there but it’s in a different form, it’s more condensed.

LN: Well, for example, I went to a party where they were dancing, let’s say, the twist. This boy and this girl danced beautifully; they didn’t speak, they didn’t touch each other as they were dancing. And I thought it had more power by negation — not touch, not talk, than anything I had ever seen because it was like white heat, it was like two beings who practically could eat each other up. And I thought it was fascinating and it seemed so right for the moment in our time.

DS: Beautiful. Louise, I think I’m almost at the end.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles and Interviews, Featured Artists, Videos/Photos/Slides

Ceramics & James Melchert: Smithsonian oral history interview, Part 1

Documentary photo of James Melchert’s Changes, performed in Amsterdam in 1972. Photo by Mieke H. Hille

Oral history interview with James Melchert, 2002 Sept. 18-Oct. 19

Melchert, Jim, b. 1930 
Sculptor, Art teacher, Ceramicist
 Oakland, Calif.

Oral history interview with James Melchert, 2002 Sept. 18-Oct. 19, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission.


Melchert speaks of his decision to pursue painting instead of educational psychology; his introduction to ceramics while learning to teach it at a small college in Illinois; taking a summer course with Pete Voulkos; moving to California and working as Voulkos studio assistant at the University of California, Berkeley; his friendship with John Mason, another potter; the difference between the philosophies of Mason and Voulkos; teaching at the Art Institute in San Francisco; and the book Exercises in Style [Raymond Queneau], upon which he based his series of (3z(Ba(3y(Bs.

Melchert also discusses several of the group exhibitions he has been involved with; John Cage and the influence of Silence; his interest in photography; the similarities and differences between his early work and more recent work; working with tiles; his teaching techniques and how he engaged his students; the is craft art question; the Milwaukee Art Museum; and the function of pottery. He also recalls Steve DeStaebler, Manuel Neri, Nate Olivera, Joan Brown, Henry Takemoto, Michael Frimkiss, Richard Koshalek, Bob Irwin, Bob Arneson, Bruce Nauman, Russell Lynes, Garth Clark, Suzanne Foley, Richard Shaw, Marilyn Levine, Theresa Cha, Jim Pomeroy, and others.


MR. PRITIKIN: This is Renny Pritikin interviewing Jim Melchert at his studio in Oakland, California, on September 18, 2002, for the Archives of American Art for the Smithsonian Institution.
So, Jim, let’s start not with the strict order of biographical stuff, but more obliquely. What are the most powerful influences in your career? And that includes people, art movements, technology.
MR. MELCHERT: Okay. It was in the late ’50s when I came back from Japan, ready to go to graduate school. And the last minute, I decided that I wouldn’t get my master’s in educational psychology, which one – my two brothers are in clinical psychology, and I thought, well, they’re enjoying careers in that, so maybe I would, too. But I’d already been accepted at the University of Chicago and realized that I’d rather be painting. And I got permission to change my area of concentration.
MR. PRITIKIN: One of your interviews that I’ve read, you credited a brother with helping you make that –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh! That’s true. That’s true. It made a big difference, I mean, a huge difference. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: So an influence – I thought of that – I was very moved by that incredible generosity of him to –
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. He seemed to understand that I needed permission to do something, to even conceive of it. And I owe him a lot for that.
Well, anyway, at the time, abstract expressionism was the great movement in painting. And the instructor –
MR. PRITIKIN: I’m sorry, Jim. What was the brother’s name? Because –
MR. MELCHERT: My brother’s name was John.
MR. PRITIKIN: Is he still living?
MR. MELCHERT: No, he died about five years ago of emphysema, which is a nasty, nasty way to go.
But anyway, abstract expressionism was the big thing, and yet in – the instruction that I was getting in painting really didn’t take into account what was happening at the time. But –
MR. PRITIKIN: This was ’50 –
MR. MELCHERT: This was ’50 – let’s see, ’59, ’50 – no, excuse me, ’57 – ’57, ’58.
MR. PRITIKIN: So – and it was already an established –
MR. MELCHERT: Fifty-seven. It was ’57. Yes. Okay, 1957. But anyway –
MR. PRITIKIN: It wasn’t the new thing on the block. It was already – it had won the war.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. But, I was out of the country –
MR. MELCHERT: – from ’52 to ’56 –
MR. MELCHERT: – and so I wasn’t aware of what was going on. And I didn’t know anybody who was close to the movement. I don’t know artists, really.
But – so it’s January of ’57 that I started at the University of Chicago. And I think it was during the third quarter, which would have been the summer term, that I ran into a graduate student in art history named Max Kozloff. And he was very much aware of what was happening in painting. And the Chicago Art Institute had just acquired two paintings, one a Kenzo Okada, and a [Mark] Rothko, it seems to me. And I didn’t know how to read them. And so Max –
MR. PRITIKIN: Could you spell Kenzo’s name?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. K-E-N-Z-O, I believe it is. Okada, I know, is correct.
Anyway, I liked Max very much, and I had several conversations with him. And he and I were going to go to the Chicago Art Institute to look at these paintings, and unfortunately couldn’t because of some conflict he had.
But Roland Ginzel was teaching printmaking at Chicago occasionally, at the university. And Roland took me under his wing, and one Saturday had me meet him in the northern part of the city, where there were a lot of artists living. And I met Ellen Lanyon, his wife, and I met Richard Hunt, the sculptor, and a number of people who were doing this wonderful work, new work, unlike anything that I had seen.
MR. PRITIKIN: They were doing abstract –
MR. MELCHERT: It was definitely nonobjective, nonrepresentational; I’ll put it that way – nonrepresentational work. Well, that for me was a beginning. It was a little bit like having somebody open a door a crack. But when I –
MR. PRITIKIN: You were doing ceramics –
MR. MELCHERT: I was painting. No, no, I was a painter.
MR. PRITIKIN: No, you were just painting.
MR. MELCHERT: So I got my MFA in painting.
MR. PRITIKIN: And what kind of painting was it?
MR. MELCHERT: Representational. I was painting still lifes, and for my thesis I did a triptych that was rather – oh, I would say, that owed a lot to German expressionism. Actually, I think I did still lifes better than anything. [Laughs.] I liked them – well, in any event –
MR. PRITIKIN: Sorry. So now you’re exposed to these slightly older people?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. And I painted for a year while I was teaching at some small college in Illinois.
MR. MELCHERT: And I was the only art instructor. I just had to teach ceramics, because it was one of the courses listed. Well, I’d had a few classes in it – so I could easily keep ahead of the students, but I would work at it at night, and I’d find that I was getting a bigger kick out of the clay than I was my painting. And that’s when I decided to go where I could work in clay for a summer. And that eventually led to going to Montana and working with Pete Voulkos, taking his summer course. He’d come up from L.A.
And he showed a lot of slides of work, not only ceramic work, but also he was very interested in Miró’s ceramics and Picasso’s ceramics. And the world just opened up. I mean, as I said, the door had been opened to contemporary work, only now it was much, much bigger.
MR. PRITIKIN: Did you start painting nonrepresentationally, or –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. After I left the graduate program, I took what – some ideas that I had gotten from Roland Ginzel and pursued them. He would make a collage just out of colors of – he would tear up ads in magazines that had a lot of color, and he would use that to put together a small collage. And then he would base a painting on the collage, and so that’s how I was working.
But I also took some painting classes then, in Missoula, while I was there that summer of ’58. And instead of using oil paint, we were using cans of interior house paint, so that you, you know, were drying immediately – it means that it must have been latex; it could dry right away, and you could use a big brush and you’d do large paintings. Well, all of these things had a positive effect on my joining a larger community of – I should say a larger sphere of activity than I had known before.
But Pete Voulkos was the one who really changed everything for me – the way in which he believed in doing things larger than you’re used to doing, so that you become physically involved. You know, I’d go home at night and I’d just be physically exhausted, and I’d sleep wonderfully well. And it was energizing. I loved –
MR. PRITIKIN: But even though abstract expressionism – that was one of their ideas, that the whole body be involved in painting. You didn’t really get it until Voulkos had you doing that with ceramics.
MR. MELCHERT: And I think I got it through Voulkos –
MR. MELCHERT: – because he was the one who was looking at Rothko, and [Franz] Kline particularly, and [Willem] de Kooning, and others. And I found myself going beyond anything I had imagined I’d ever be doing – and how my world expanded that summer. As a result, I taught one more year in this little college and then moved to California, expecting to start graduate school a second time at the Otis Art Institute [Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles], only to find that Pete had lost his job there and had been hired at Cal Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley]. So we came here instead. And so for two years I worked closely for Pete as his assistant.
MR. PRITIKIN: As his assistant teaching or –
MR. MELCHERT: Not – no.
MR. PRITIKIN: – his studio assistant?
MR. MELCHERT: No, it was studio assistant. I mixed the clay and swept the floors and fired the kilns.
MR. PRITIKIN: What was the age difference?
MR. MELCHERT: Pete was probably seven years – I think seven years older than I.
MR. PRITIKIN: So it wasn’t vast. It was –
MR. MELCHERT: No. Also, I mean, I had been out of college at that point about seven years, so I was older than the other students around me. There were graduate students in the art department who also were a little older; some of them had been in the army. Steve DeStaebler, for example, was – I knew him in college. He was a couple of years behind me. And he was there, having just come from the army, I believe.
But since Pete was returning to the Bay Area, he knew a lot of artists here already; he had gone to CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts] as a graduate student. And one of the first artists I met was Manuel Neri. Another was Nate Olivera. And through Manuel I met Joan Brown. And that sort of expanded my territory to include San Francisco. And in time, Pete saw to it that I would go with him to Los Angeles for a weekend, where I met John Mason and Henry Takemoto and Mike Frimkess and a lot of those artists he had known when he was living and teaching there.
MR. PRITIKIN: They were ceramicists in –
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. They – John had been a studiomate of Pete’s, who was working as a designer with some ceramics firm. But it seems that he also worked at Otis, because Pete always brought people in as auditors if they weren’t enrolled. And I want to talk a little bit about John because we became –
MR. PRITIKIN: That would be John Mason?
MR. MELCHERT: John Mason. We became good friends. And in time, John came to have an influence on me that I – how shall I say it? – that I feel quite good about. That is, that he was questioning what he called the tyranny of the wheel. Now, Pete used the wheel as a way of making hollow forms that he could use as an understructure in building these tall ceramic sculptures.
John, on the other hand, who could throw quite well, and who, in fact, made some wonderful work on the wheel – he could throw a good bowl, for example, which is a hard thing to do. I mean, throwing a bowl is one of the easiest things you can do, but throwing a good bowl is one of the hardest things. So anyway, John could do that. But he was trying to get away from the wheel because it determined to such an extent what you could do and what you could not do. So he – in time – he was making walls, for instance, huge, very thick clay walls that he would then slice into a grid. And I’m talking about walls that must have been eight or nine feet tall and 15 feet long. It took an enormous amount of physical strength and energy to do that.
MR. PRITIKIN: This is late ’50s?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, this was late ’50s, early ’60s.
MR. PRITIKIN: People must not have known what to make of him.
MR. MELCHERT: No, that’s right. But he was with the Ferus Gallery [Los Angeles, CA], and Irving Blum was quite good at moving work – you know, placing work. And so John got some good commissions and was selling work and doing very well.
But what I liked about John’s work was that he kept finding new ways of building a structure – for example, something as simple as attaching a two-by-two to a rafter overhead in his studio and then using that as the armature, around which he would build a clay form that needed support until it began to dry. And at that – once the clay could support itself, John would simply pull it out, because there was still room overhead. And little things like that impressed me, that –
MR. PRITIKIN: And was that an unheard-of –
MR. MELCHERT: Well, no, I don’t know anybody who was doing that. And he kept thinking of these things, so that how you did it had an immediate connection with the form that you got. And he got new forms by inventing new ways of putting a structure together.
Well, one of the things he was questioning also was manipulating a form that – or manipulating clay. The hand is a big thing in craft work, and it’s true that a great deal is communicated by the hand. But it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to handle the clay, wet clay, in order to use it as a means of communication.
One of the things that John – one of the first things John did that made me see how you could use clay without manipulating it – I mean, handling of the wet clay – was when he had the – in the ’70s, the mid-’70s, he began building brick pieces, and he had a big show at the Pasadena Museum out of brick. And then Richard Koshalek, who was at the Hudson River School Museum – Hudson River Museum – Richard Koshalek gave him a show that toured the country. And John found that an advantage with working with brick is that you could rent it, build a huge piece, depending on how much space you had available with you – for you – and then at the end of the show you could return the brick, go to the next city, assess the space that you have, and build new pieces by renting brick again. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: So there was no –
MR. MELCHERT: No shipping.
MR. PRITIKIN: But there’s no additional work; it was just the bricks that he was showing?
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right.
MR. PRITIKIN: So this is a huge conceptual leap –
MR. PRITIKIN: – into found – I mean, nobody was doing that in –
MR. MELCHERT: Nobody was doing that.
MR. PRITIKIN: – in any field, let alone craft.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. But John has not really been given the credit he deserves for all of that. I mean, he was working with a computer, figuring out how to do things. He would – he was working with paper, for instance, little cardboard things this big, folding them almost like origami, as a way of rapidly going through a lot of forms and always watching it to see. And when he saw something happening, then he would pursue it.
And the work he’s doing now, for example, is he makes all these slabs and constructs them in ways where he ends up with a fire-glazed ceramic sculpture made out of slabs, where – you even might think of working with wood panels that way, but not with clay. So –
MR. PRITIKIN: So you’ve continued your relationship over the years.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, yes, yes. I admire John’s work so much, and I think that by getting into tile – my enthusiasm for tile comes partly from his experience with brick and my experience of seeing it.
MR. PRITIKIN: Okay, so we’ve got – you’re – how old were you in –
MR. MELCHERT: I’m – I’ll be 72 in a couple months.
MR. PRITIKIN: No, no. No, no, in –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, at the time?
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah. In ’58 –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, okay. I would have been 28.
MR. PRITIKIN: So you’re in your late ’20s. You’ve been through a lot of school. You come across Voulkos, the body energy, kind of manic excess –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, yes. Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and Mason, almost the opposite: conceptual, innovative, new forms. Two kind of key figures –
MR. MELCHERT: Two key figures. But going from one to the other didn’t happen overnight.
One thing that Voulkos – I must say – this is a confession – when I realized that I needed to get out from under his influence, I felt a certain guilt in doing that. And I remember there was some show called “American Studio Potters” – I’ll put it that way – at the Victoria and Albert in London. I’ve often thought about this. I made a little wall piece, a funny little thing. It looked like it was, maybe, leather. It had a little zipper on it and so on. And it reminded – I mean, I think it stemmed from my having seen a little wall vase that my grandmother had. But at any rate, I made this thing, and it amused me.
And they asked for this show, and I thought, well, I’m going to put this piece in with some of the plates that I sent – a follow-up plate. And the director of the department at the Victoria and Albert – who was involved with education, where they had asked for this show and then they traveled it throughout the United Kingdom – he was intrigued by this piece, and he asked me if he, if – for permission to use a picture of it in an article he was writing. And when I realized that it would be published, it occurred to me Pete might see this, and what would he say? And I refused to give him permission.
MR. PRITIKIN: Because it was different than Voulkos?
MR. MELCHERT: It was so different – and I knew he wouldn’t approve. And you know, it’s interesting; I always wanted his approval, but as time went by, I made less of an effort to keep him informed of what I was doing. I didn’t want that interference and –
MR. PRITIKIN: Like we were talking about earlier, I mean, there’s an Oedipal –
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. That’s right.
MR. PRITIKIN: Don’t you think that there are breakthrough artists – you were talking about – or I was reading about your quoting from somebody, I can’t remember, about the different kinds of artists, the innovators and the pioneers.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, that was – yeah, that was Bob Irwin.
MR. PRITIKIN: Irwin, yeah. And there – I’ve always thought a similar thing, that there are breakthrough artists who everyone acknowledges as seminal and geniuses, if you want to use that word.
MR. PRITIKIN: But very often they have no followers or no influence because they’ve done it, and you can’t –
MR. PRITIKIN: – like Allen Ginsberg. You know, he stands alone, basically.
MR. MELCHERT: Pete used to say that –
MR. PRITIKIN: And I think Voulkos, in some ways –
MR. MELCHERT: Voulkos, in some way. That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that.
Pete used to say that he didn’t – he couldn’t see where a person could go after de Kooning. In other words, he felt that Kline opened up ways for him, certainly, but he didn’t feel that you could go anywhere, that somehow de Kooning – that a path that couldn’t be taken elsewhere. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but –
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, I think when we say that, we’re talking about ourselves and –
MR. MELCHERT: With ourselves. That’s true. That’s true.
MR. PRITIKIN: I remember I had a roommate in college who was a composer, and he said at some point he realized there’s nothing left to write.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, nothing. [Laughs.] Oh, dear. Yeah. Well –
MR. PRITIKIN: We’re prisoners of our times.
MR. MELCHERT: See, every time I think that you can’t go somewhere, I have to remind myself of a statement I quoted in that article, that essay, a statement of Pete’s that I quoted: “Never underestimate the power of the artist, because one will come along who will do it.”
But that notion of Bob Irwin’s, you know, the – he categorized four kinds of artists. Actually, the replicator is his addition, the artist who simply replicates. It turns out – and I need to find this material because I want to read it – it’s not original to Bob Irwin. It turns out that it’s part of some Eastern thought – “Eastern” being from, probably, Hindu – that there were, like, three, shall I say, deities; I’ll call them deities. And one is the destroyer, one is the creator, and the other is the keeper of the flame. And the ideal is to be all three.
MR. PRITIKIN: I think it’s Shiva who just embodies all three at the same time.
MR. MELCHERT: Is that what it is? Okay, that’s good. And I think that’s where Irwin got his notion, although he may well be the first to have declared it in America for artists.
MR. PRITIKIN: Or translated it into the artist –
MR. MELCHERT: Translated it – exactly – into artists. But you see, it leaves out the person who just simply replicates, and that’s a lot of artists. And I’m sorry to say it’s also a large part of the craft community. I mean, right now, for instance, wood-burning – I mean, wood-fired kilns are really very popular, and what is coming out of it – a lot of American replications of Japanese antique pottery. And who wants to be making antiques, you know, especially if, I mean, it doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t add anything to what we already know?
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, isn’t that a value, though? I mean, that –
MR. MELCHERT: Well, it’s –
MR. PRITIKIN: Obviously, you and I come from the same tradition, but, you know, this phenomenon that we’re talking about, this late ’50s, early ’60s, where everybody was trying to get away from the tyranny of X, whether it’s the wheel or the –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. Oh, yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – the rectangle and the photograph, or –
MR. PRITIKIN: – and trying new forms. I always think of the phrase “the opening of the field” – do you know that phrase, from Robert Duncan, the poet?
MR. MELCHERT: No, I don’t.
MR. PRITIKIN: Robert Duncan, the great San Francisco poet, had –
MR. PRITIKIN: – his first book was The Opening of the Field, saying that in poetry now, we don’t have to be limited to this esoteric language; we can talk about sex, and we can talk about politics, and we can use vernacular –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, yes, yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and we can lie, and we can – you know, the field’s open.
MR. PRITIKIN: And I think that what you’re talking about in ceramics was the same thing.
MR. PRITIKIN: Everything was burgeoning. And one of the values was to make it new, the, you know –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. That’s true.
MR. PRITIKIN: And so we carried that – [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah. Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: But maybe – you know, as we get older, maybe young people don’t care about that. I don’t know. I mean, there is – what about all the people who just do it because they love it and they’re good at it and they make a living?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Well, I just don’t consider them honest.
MR. PRITIKIN: Uh-huh. What are they?
MR. MELCHERT: I think the best term for them is, like, journeyman potters, journeyman painters, that sort of thing.
MR. PRITIKIN: Mm-hmm. So an artist is an innovator?
MR. MELCHERT: Well, if we go back to Shiva – [laughs] – I mean, there’s the creative aspect to the work and –
MR. PRITIKIN: So what’s – what does “academic” mean to you – academic art?
MR. MELCHERT: I think of rules. For example, I – at the University of Chicago I studied with a painter who was German but had really been trained in the French academy. He did portrait painting – portraits, primarily. And he once explained to me some of the rules of painting that he had learned to follow. And they were largely based on things [Diego] Velázquez did but later codified and, you know, part of your training – made part of your training.
Well, for example, you don’t put your darkest dark next to your lightest light, and you have a transition between them. And transitions are very important – transitions between them. That is a Greek notion, actually, the transitions. I mean, you’re – how you get from a vertical to a horizontal in sculpture would require transitional passages in Greek sculpture, as it would in the academy.
Another is that edges require very careful attention that you go from a sharp edge to, like, a slightly fuzzy edge, and you may lose it, and then you get it back again and so on. And if you follow good academic painting, as you can in, say, even in eighteenth century English portraiture that you’ll see at the Legion [California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco], look at the edges, and they’re really wonderfully done.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Well, at any rate, rules of that sort I consider academic.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. So is it – rules, and learning what the rules are, and then recreating what you’ve learned is academic. And making your own rules or throwing out the rules is art, or innovative art, or art that we’re interested in?
MR. MELCHERT: Okay, it seems to me that what you have to do after you have gone through an academic program is shed a lot of what you’ve learned that doesn’t belong to you – in other words, other people’s ideas. And the nice thing about learning rules is that you have something to question. And you can learn a lot by starting out with your academic training and then gradually dissembling it. And you find that some of it works for you and some of it doesn’t.
But the first few years out of college, if you – for example, if you’re an artist trained in a college or university, the first few years are terribly important, because you have such serious work to do in – with regard to what you have learned and what you’ve got to unlearn, which is why, when I was with the arts endowment [National Endowment of the Art], we put such stress on providing small fellowships for artists who were recently out of graduate school. We called them “emerging artists” because often there could be a woman who had been trained in art, but because of raising a family she had to put it off, and she might be 35 years old before she started in again.
MR. PRITIKIN: Mm-hmm. Right.
MR. MELCHERT: And we certainly wanted to include people who had to – or whose work had been interrupted.
Nevertheless, it’s very hard for a young artist, because that’s the point – I mean, when you’ve just gotten out of graduate school, you’ve got a lot of debts, you’ve got to find a job, your parents aren’t supporting you anymore. And that’s when you need time, and that’s when you have the least amount of time. I certainly found that to be true.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. So – we’re straying. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Get me back.
MR. PRITIKIN: Actually, the whole Mason conversation was a tangent to the Voulkos conversation –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes, because we were talking about some major influences.
MR. PRITIKIN: So you said that Voulkos had taken you down and introduced you to all these folks in L.A., but your life was up here –
MR. PRITIKIN: – teaching at the art institute [Otis College of Art and Design], then at Berkeley.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Now, let’s get to this matter of – I don’t know what you call a community, but –
MR. PRITIKIN: What the –
MR. MELCHERT: I was very interested in knowing where I was, in that, yes, I was teaching at the art institute in San Francisco and I had a – I mean, I enjoyed my colleagues there very much, but I found there were people I wanted to get to know, and some of them – Bill Wiley was a recent graduate student, Bob Hudson was a recent graduate student, and I was very curious about their work, the work they were doing, because it was so different from what I had been exposed to up to that point.
And I don’t know why, but I find it very necessary to get to know people, and I think very often, as part of getting to know them, I would empathize with them so closely that it would affect my work. And when I think back on the work that I did from, let’s say, 1960 to 1975 – well, 1970, put it – take it that far, from 1960 to 1970, for 10 years I was essentially making up for the fact that I hadn’t gone to art school. And all the courses that I didn’t have I was having to teach myself, in a way, by choosing people to pay attention to.
And there was a point at which I know that the figurative activity at the art institute in San Francisco, and particularly – I mean, Manuel Neri, Nate Olivera, and, let’s see, Wiley – Wiley to a lesser extent, but nevertheless – I did a series of what I called ghost boxes. And it was, for me, liberating, because it was so far a field from Pete that I was on my own now. And I found that you could take an idea like the – an idea, a theme, like the Lindbergh kidnapping, and think of the various competing forces at that time, and actually end up with a box that had to do with people vying for power.
And it’s interesting to me that when – before Bob Arneson died, he was asked to name five works that he admired. And it was in some magazine – some catalogue for a show. I was in the same show, but I didn’t know until after the catalogue came out and after Bob had died that one of the pieces that he showed was something of mine. And it was, in fact, this jar with a – like the ghost with the competing theme, the theme of competition. And these ghosts were blind; I always made them blind. But I gave them teeth, and I tried to seal their lips with a little mark in them. But how interesting that – I mean, Bob saw the death mask in that piece, and I can’t say how all he interpreted it, but it really touched him. And that was very interesting. Well, I did that during that period, you know, when I was sort of –
MR. PRITIKIN: So are you melding the abstract expression –
MR. MELCHERT: No, that was gone.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, yeah, but I mean, I’m thinking the Bay Area figurative abstractions –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I see what you mean.
MR. PRITIKIN: – filtered through ceramic.
MR. MELCHERT: I was certainly drawing on it, the way you would if you were taking formal classes – you get this instructor, that instructor – only since I hadn’t had it, I used the ’60s to make up for it. And consequently –
MR. PRITIKIN: Was it your major – undergraduate was –
MR. MELCHERT: Art history.
MR. PRITIKIN: It was art history. So, not studio?
MR. MELCHERT: No. I did a lot of drawing then, you know; I’d take extracurricular classes in figure sculpture and drawing – figure drawing.
But one thing I learned is that you shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t be, as it were, all over the place as I was in the ’60s. And I remember one time Alex Katz sort of challenged me, because I had no signature, he said. And I didn’t know what he meant. I had to find out. But it’s one of those things where people sort of – dealers and collectors back off from somebody who doesn’t have a signature.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, yes and no. It sounds like you’re still taking that to heart 40 years later. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: No, some of these things I’ve never heard of –
MR. PRITIKIN: I mean, [Bruce] Nauman doesn’t have a signature right?
MR. MELCHERT: That’s quite true. That’s quite true. But on the other hand –
MR. PRITIKIN: But Alex Katz has too much of a signature. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. That’s right. But you see, you’ve got to have – if you don’t have a signature, you’ve got to have a big enough reputation to cover it.
MR. PRITIKIN: Chutzpa.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Really, that’s sort of – [laughs]. But in any event –
MR. PRITIKIN: You were all over the place in the ’60s.
MR. MELCHERT: I was all over the place. And I did some very good work and I did some very bad work. I’m sorry that I stayed with the games as long as I did, because it was an interesting idea when I first got into the games, an interesting idea, but it could have been done so much more easily than the way I was going at it. But the funny thing is, a few of the best pieces I did in that decade, two of them were games, but the others – I mean, I could have spent my time much more profitably doing something else.
But, now, you mentioned Nauman. Bruce and I got acquainted while he was a graduate student at Davis, and I used to – well, we used to visit each other. We’d go out to his place. He lived in the Wileys’ house in Mill Valley. The Wileys were in Italy, I think, for a year, or something like that. And since we both read, we always had a lot to talk about in our reading.
And somewhere along in this time, since I am gregarious and I go out of my way to meet people, I’d met Emmett Williams, the “concrete poet.” He – Jimmy Suzuki knew him, and Jimmy was somebody who was interested in my work. Jimmy’s a painter who’s been teaching at Sac State [California State University, Sacramento] for many years; is retired now. But I met Emmett, and I read a lot of concrete poetry. I was very interested in it. And Emmett edited the Something Else Press books, and I remember Daniel Spoerri did a terrific little book that was all about the contents of a drawer in his dresser. He pulled out the drawer, and then he took item by item and talked about it, as well as wrote about it. And there were things of this sort that – Bruce was attracted to it. I was also quite taken with it.
Another thing. We were both reading [Alain] Robbe-Grillet at the time. And I have a friend named Bertrand Augst – A-U-G-S-T – who taught –
MR. PRITIKIN: I know Bertrand.
MR. MELCHERT: You know Bertrand.
MR. PRITIKIN: Through Connie Penley.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. Well, he was teaching French and Film Theory at Cal. And Bertrand and I were good friends, and he would be enthusiastic about certain movies and would always tell me, and I’d go see them. There was a lot of film talk with Bertrand. But also – oh, yes, someone – Raymond Roussel. And I based a whole series of pieces, the “a’s”, on a Raymond Roussel book. But who is the one who wrote Adventures in Africa [Impressions of Africa]? This was somebody else.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yes, I know who you –

MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, another Raymond – Queneau. No, Raymond Queneau and – okay, now I’ve got it straight. Raymond Queneau wrote the Exercises in Style, on which I based my series of “a’s”.
MR. PRITIKIN: Okay. Roussel was the one who did Adventures in Africa [Impressions of Africa].
MR. MELCHERT: Roussel, that’s right. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: How do you spell Queneau?
MR. PRITIKIN: Oh, okay.
MR. MELCHERT: All of this was going on in the ’60s. The Queneau book came just after the games, so ’69, ’70, ’71 was when I was involved with the “a’s”. And that, to me, was a wonderfully productive period.
MR. PRITIKIN: Let me stop you. We’ve spent 55 minutes on the first question – [laughs] – the most powerful influences. You’re now in mid-career by ’70.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right.

Interview continued on Monday

Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles and Interviews, Featured Artists, Resources, Videos/Photos/Slides

Smithsonian Oral History Interview: Warren MacKenzie

Vase by Warren MacKenzie. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Oral history interview with Warren MacKenzie, b. 1924 
 Stillwater, Minn.

An interview of Warren MacKenzie conducted 2002 Oct. 29, by Robert Silberman for the Archives of American Art’s Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, in Stillwater, Minn.

MacKenzie speaks of his early childhood and eagerness to become a painter; being drafted in 1943; returning from active duty in the Army to find all the painting classes full and registering for a ceramic class; the significance of Bernard Leach’s A Potters Book to his early ceramic education, and fellow classmates; his studies at the Chicago Art Institute; museums in Chicago; his first wife, potter, Alix MacKenzie; traveling to England to receive further training from Leach, first being rejected and then returning a year later to work 2 years at Leach Pottery at St. Ives; contacts such as Shoji Hamada, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, and others; his lack of interest in sculptural ceramics; the good remnants of Leach pottery pots in his pottery today; Korean and Japanese influences; the International Potters and Weavers Conference in 1952 and returning to the U.S.; Alix’s role in arranging Hamada’s tour of the U.S. and exhibition in St. Paul; building their first pottery; exhibitions at the Walker Arts Center; purchasing the best Hamada pot at the St. Paul exhibit;

teaching at the University of Minnesota; his experiences at craft schools; his involvement with NCECA [National Council on Education in Ceramic Art] and the Minnesota Craft Council; his travels; the self-service showroom on his property; changes in the field of ceramics; the 1968 fire that destroyed his barn studio; his working process; his experience with a salt kiln; experimenting in each firing; and his monthly work schedule. MacKenzie also recalls Kathleen Blackshear, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Soetsu Yanagi, Jerry Liebling, Allen Downs, Walter Quirt, Phil Morton, Curt Heuer, Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, Josef Albers, Kenneth Ferguson, Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, David Lewis, Michael Cardew, and others.


Warren, why don’t we begin at the beginning? Could you describe your childhood and your family background?

WARREN MACKENZIE: Childhood. Well, I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and I do know from what my parents tell me that I was always interested in art, although not very good at it. At that time, of course, if you were involved in art, it was going to be drawing and painting, because that’s the only thing that was taught in the schools. So I thought, oh, I’m going to be a painter. And eventually my family had moved near Chicago, and when I graduated from high school, I went to the Chicago Art Institute, and it was there that I thought, well, now I’m going to be a painter. And the Chicago Art Institute did have the best –
[Audio break.]

MR. MACKENZIE: So I went to the Chicago Art Institute, which was the best painting school in the area at that time. And I took painting classes – basic elementary painting classes and drawing classes of all sorts.
In the middle of my second year at school, in 1943, I got drafted into the army, was gone for three years, and when I came back, I tried to get into the painting classes which I wanted, but because of all the returned GIs [the GI Bill], everyone was in school and the classes were all full. So I looked at the catalogue and found that there was a ceramic class offered and that there was space in that. I registered for a ceramic class and some drawing classes, et cetera, et cetera.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the ceramic class was not really a very good class. This was many years ago and should not reflect on the conditions at the Art Institute of Chicago to this day, but we didn’t know anything and we started to learn about how to work with clay.
About halfway through the year, one of the students discovered a book by Bernard Leach called A Potters Book [London: Faber & Faber, 1940] and came into the class very excited. And we all rushed out and bought this book, because Leach talked about establishing his pottery in England, his training in Japan, and the way a pottery can be run. He said such things as, “Any person should be able to make 50 pots easily in a day’s time,” and, “Any person should be able to throw a 15-inch-tall cylinder.” Well, we couldn’t do any of those things.

And so on alternate days, when the instructor was not there, we would sneak into the ceramics studio and try to do what Leach said we should do. Needless to say, we didn’t succeed very well, and in addition we angered the instructor, because instead of having just a few pots around the studio with the classes that she had, there were hundreds of very bad pots sitting around the studio, and she, needless to say, didn’t appreciate that very much.

We did manage to finish our training at the Chicago Art Institute. When I say “we,” I’m speaking of my first wife, Alix [Alixandra Kolesky MacKenzie], who also had been a painter and switched to ceramics because she was working with a Mexican settlement house on the west side of Chicago and felt that the young Mexicans would react better to working with clay than they did to working with a paintbrush and paper.

So we both got into ceramics, you might say, by the back door. Looking back on it, I think this was a very good thing. In fact, I believe to a certain extent a person today who starts with just clay, with no drawing and no painting and no figure drawing, still-life drawing, various things, they miss a great deal. First of all, because in working on a drawing or a painting, one can rework and rework and rework and change ideas until you get it the way you think is right at that time. With clay that’s not possible. You either succeed the first time, or you should wad it up and start over again, because you can’t mess around with the clay and still have it fresh.

So that was our training. And when we finished that, we came to St. Paul, because St. Paul was the first place where we got a job offer and we needed some sort of a job to earn some money in order to set up our own studio. It’s rather ironic that this job offer came originally through the Walker Art Center [Minneapolis, Minnesota], because at that time the Walker Art Center published a magazine called the Everyday Art Quarterly, and it was the baby of Hilda Reiss, a woman from Germany who had trained in the original Bauhaus.
[Break for phone call.]

MR. MACKENZIE: Hilda Reiss was the head of the Everyday Art Gallery. Hilda Reiss came from Germany, had trained at the original Bauhaus in Germany, and her training inspired her to think of anything that she liked as art. The Walker Art Center at that time had a permanent exhibition on ceramics – all sorts of ceramics — explaining to people who knew nothing about it what ceramics could be, from ancient prehistoric things up to modern mass-produced work.

Anyway, we had written to Hilda and told her what we wanted to do, that we wanted to start a pottery similar to the – the Leach pottery, which we had read about. And she asked us to come and talk with her. We spent two days up here in Minnesota, and at the end of that time she said, well, we do not have a job for you, but we’ll find you a job.

MR. SILBERMAN: What year was this, Warren?

MR. MACKENZIE: This would have been 1948, the year when I graduated from art school.

She did find us a job at the old St. Paul Gallery and School of Art. They were just opening their school after being closed during the Second World War, and they decided that instead of opening a general purpose art school they were going to open a school centered on the crafts, and so we were hired to help set up and direct that school.

After we moved up here and started to teach, we very quickly found out we were not equipped either to teach or to run our own pottery, and so we decided that we had to have further training. And in searching for this further training we turned to England and Bernard Leach. We thought since we had responded to his book so strongly that this would be the sort of training that we would like to have. We saved money, during the summer went to Europe, and the first stop was to go to England, visit the Leach Pottery and ask Leach if he would take us on as apprentices.

MR. SILBERMAN: Before you make that great leap, can I go back for a bit and just ask you a little bit more about how you came to ceramics? That is, what kind of painter were you when you were a painter?

MR. MACKENZIE: I was a very hard-edged geometric painter, strongly influenced by [Piet] Mondrian and [Theo] van Doesburg and that sort of thing. Alix was a looser, more linear painter, dealing with amoebic forms, let’s say, close to [Joan] Miró as opposed to my more static exploration of space.

So, it turned out – I thought I was going to be able to use my painting ideas as decoration on pottery, but my painting did not translate into decoration on pottery. I thought it was going to, and in fact I made, while still in school, a plate with one of my paintings on it, and that’s exactly what it was, it was a plate with a painting on it. It was not a decorated plate; it was just a painting superimposed over a three-dimensional ceramic form.

Alix, on the other hand, found that her painting would translate much more readily into decoration, and she could play with the spacing and the intensity of imagery on the form in a way which I could not. So that when we established our pottery, I was most unhappy with my decoration. And finally if I had a pot that needed decoration, I would hand it to Alix and I would say, “Can you do something with this?” And she’d look at it for a while and then proceed with a brush to embellish the form and enhance the form, and it was wonderful. She could bring the pot to life, whereas if I did it, it was a disaster. So I very quickly stopped almost all decoration. I was interested in the three-dimensional form of the pots, but my decoration was nonexistent.

MR. SILBERMAN: When you were first picking up pottery but still a painter at the Art Institute, were you also thinking about other media and working in other media?

MR. MACKENZIE: We had to take a very wide-ranging program. I took a number of graphic courses, lithography and etching and wood engraving. We had to take a tremendous amount of life drawing, which was the one class that we just hated. And particularly as I got more and more into ceramics, I thought, life drawing doesn’t have anything to do with ceramics. I found out later on that was not true, that life drawing tells you a great deal about rhythm, about the structure of a human being or any animate object, and this could be directly translated into thinking about proportion and accent, rhythm in a pot form.

Leach was the one who taught us that, because he, too, had started out as a painter and an etcher and had only gotten into ceramics by chance when he was in Japan trying to teach the Japanese how to do etching, which, as he said, they were not ready for yet. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: Was the Bauhaus influence strong at the Art Institute or the new Bauhaus influence in Chicago?

MR. MACKENZIE: No. There was a school in Chicago called the School of Design. This was started by [Laszló] Moholy-Nagy, and it was a wonderful school, but we didn’t go to that school. We did have friends who went to that school and we would visit there often, and I’m sure it pushed me in my painting direction very strongly just by association. But we stayed on at the Institute because that was – I don’t know, you start at one place and you stay there, I guess. Inertia takes over.

MR. SILBERMAN: But you were doing silk screen and some commercial – you were doing fabric design?

MR. MACKENZIE: I started to do silk-screen in the early days of my painting training, due to a woman who taught art history at the institute, Kathleen Blackshear. She was interested in silk screen and taught a class that I took. Then I got drafted into the army and by pure chance was pushed into a silk-screen shop at this camp where I was, because they could not get training posters fast enough out of a central source in Washington, D.C. So they set up their own shop to print training posters: how to dismantle a machine gun, et cetera., et cetera.

MR. SILBERMAN: High art.

MR. MACKENZIE: All sorts of dumb things, but it did teach me a lot about the silk-screen process. And so that carried over when I returned from the Army and took more graphic classes at the Institute. And Alix and I actually began to produce a line of textiles, which had silk-screen patterns on them.

You know, when you’re young, you think you can do anything, and we thought, oh, we’ll be potters, we’ll be painters, we’ll be textile designers, we’ll be jewelers, we’ll be a little this, a little of that. We were going to be the renaissance people. Well, it doesn’t work out that way, as you probably know, and eventually both of us gave up the drawing and painting, gave up the silk-screening, gave up the textile design, and concentrated on ceramic work, because that was where we felt our true interest lay.

MR. SILBERMAN: Before we go to England, one more question about Chicago, which is, what were you looking at there? It sounds as if you were almost self-taught as ceramicists, with some aid, technical aid, but what were you looking at in terms of ceramics and other art when you were in Chicago?

MR. MACKENZIE: Chicago is a wonderful area because it’s blessed with a tremendous number of museums of various sorts, not only the Art Institute of Chicago but the Field Museum of Natural History, the Oriental Museum on the south side. There were galleries of great variety showing paintings and ceramics.

Our main inspiration, I think, came from the Field Museum of Natural History, because they had pieces which were selected not for art content but for their relationship to the anthropological history of mankind. And so we could see very simple, primitive, hand-built pottery from Babylonia and ancient Egypt and so forth, Greece. We could see the most sophisticated things that came out of the Orient – Japan, Korea, and China – some few pieces of European porcelain, majolica [tin glazed earthenware], and that sort of thing. But they had a marvelous collection.

And the other thing about it which inspired us was that in a group of pots you wouldn’t see a single example of this kind of pot. You would perhaps see a case with 20 different examples. So you realize that these pots could be repeated again and again, and each time there would be minor variations in them.

In looking at these pots at the Field Museum, Alix and I both came to a conclusion individually but also collectively that the pots that really interested us were the pots that people had used in their everyday life, and we began to think – I mean, whether it was ancient Greece or Africa or Europe or wherever, the pots that people had used in their homes were the ones that excited us. And so we thought, if those are the kinds of pots from every culture that interest us, why would we think that it should be any different in mid-North America 20th century? And we decided then that our work would center around that sort of utilitarian pottery, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.

And I’m not sorry. I don’t find it at all limiting. In fact, I find it really enriching to make pots which people are using and which they come in contact with, not only visually in their homes but tactilely — when they pick them up, when they wash them after dinner, and so on and so forth. And this is something which I think I have been able to communicate to both people I have taught and people that have purchased our work since that time, that they all say, it’s so nice to have these pots with us all the time and to eat out of them and be in direct contact with them in our homes.

MR. SILBERMAN: I am one and I agree. [Laughter.] I can say that.

MR. MACKENZIE: Thank you, Robert.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you get to handle the pots in the collections ever? Did you ever actually get to do more than see them at that point?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, not at all, no. Remember, this is back in the ‘40s, and the idea of a museum being a place where interested people could come in direct contact with works hadn’t arrived on the scene yet. That, I think, I first ran into at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., where a man named Marty [Martin] Amt decided that he really felt his job – part of his job, as an assistant [to the] director was to make the collection available to interested people. And if you requested a visit, he would take you down in the stacks and he’s say, “What do you want to see?” and you could request to look at anything that they owned, and he would bring it out and put it on a padded table, and you could actually pick these things up and handle them and experience them directly, at least as directly almost as the people who used them in their original lives.

MR. SILBERMAN: But at that time, when you were a student at the Art Institute school, you weren’t getting to handle pots in the Art Institute collection?

MR. MACKENZIE: Not at all. Not at all.

MR. SILBERMAN: How was your taste being shaped, apart from that basic concern with functional pottery, by teachers like Blackshear? Were you being pointed in one direction or another? Were you developing toward one continent, or were you just loving pots in all directions?

MR. MACKENZIE: Not really. The two teachers that I had in the Art Institute who affected me the most were Kathleen Blackshear and Robert von Neumann; Kathleen Blackshear because she taught a class called design – I can’t remember, design something, and in this class – it met once a week – we would do work centered around some theme, word or subject or technique or whatever, and bring it in for a three-hour discussion. And Kathleen was able, in watching and looking at our work, to direct us to all kinds of things which might relate to what we were trying to do, but she never attempted to tell us what to do. She just said, “Have you thought of looking at this?” and so on and so on and so on. And it was a discussion group where everyone had a say, and it was a tremendous learning experience.

Robert von Neumann taught painting, and when I finally got into a painting class of his, he reacted in much the same way. It was a figure painting class, where you had a model, and he would wander around and he’d come up behind someone and say, “Well, what are you trying to do?” And if you told him what you were trying to do, he would then proceed to discuss this with you and suggest things that you might look at and ways in which you could improve what you were attempting to do, et cetera – never worked on your painting, never touched your painting but talked extensively about what you were trying to do. If you didn’t know what you were trying to do, he wouldn’t say a word. He would just turn and walk away. So you very quickly learned to think that you’d better be attempting to do something in that painting class.

And those two teachers were just fantastic, I thought. They never directed you in a single direction, but they just encouraged you to think for yourself.

MR. SILBERMAN: A good model for a future teacher.


MR. SILBERMAN: Well, now let’s make the great leap and take you to England. Tell me what happened when you got there — you and Alix got there.

MR. MACKENZIE: We had decided we needed further training, and certainly Leach was the one we turned to. So we went to England this summer and we took examples of our work along with us and showed them to Bernard Leach and told him what we were trying to do. And of course he took one look at our work and he said – very quickly he said, “I’m sorry, we’re full up,” and this was his way of politely saying, you just don’t make the cut.

So we said, “Well, now, look, we’re here for two weeks.” We had a reservation at a bed and breakfast place, and in England since everyone gets a two-week holiday, everyone goes somewhere for that two weeks and you get a reservation for two weeks at a bed and breakfast or a hotel or whatever. We had a reservation. We said, “Do you mind if we stay around, visit the pottery every day, and learn as much as we can in this two weeks that we are going to be here?” And he said that was “quite all right.”
And so every day we’d trudge up the hill – it was a three-quarter-mile walk up this steep hill to the Leach Pottery, and we would take our lunch with us and generally, I guess, make a nuisance of ourselves. I mean, we asked a lot of questions and we watched everyone who was working in the studio. And we had an opportunity to sit in on discussions, aesthetic discussions at the pottery, which took place generally over tea breaks in the morning and afternoon. So we learned a lot just from being around there.

At the end of that two weeks Bernard asked us if we would like to sit with him tending the kiln, the big oil-fired kiln that they had. He was still sitting what we call a kiln watch at that time, and he wondered if we would like to sit the watch with him and talk. So naturally this was our last opportunity to talk with him, so we said yes. We didn’t realize Bernard’s kiln watch was from 1:00 in the morning until 4:00 AM. We went back to the bed and breakfast and caught a few hours sleep and then woke up at midnight, walked up the hill, and we sat talking with Bernard through the night until about 8:00 in the morning. And none of us went to sleep; we just talked and talked.

And the interesting thing was we never talked about pottery. Bernard talked about social issues; he talked about the world political situation, he talked about the economy, he talked about all kinds of things. He talked about painting, but we never talked about ceramics in that evening. But at the end of the evening he said to us, “Well,” he said, “I’ve changed my mind, and if you want, you can come back a year from now and apprentice in the workshop.”

And so we went back to St. Paul, worked for a year – again, I guess I would have to admit now, doing a rather shaky job of teaching people — but at the end of that year we returned to England and worked in the Leach Pottery for two and a half years.

We were more fortunate than most, because Leach had been in America on a lecture tour in 1950, and we made arrangements to travel from America back to England with him on the same boat. It was a very slow boat. I think it took us about seven days to cross the Atlantic.

MR. SILBERMAN: It wouldn’t be that way now on a plane. [Laughs.]

MR. MACKENZIE: No, but we had a wonderful trip, a seven-day trip, talking and sitting in the sun and so forth. And as we were approaching England, Leach said, “Do you have a place to live?” And we said, “No, we didn’t.” We hadn’t worried about that. We figured we’d find a room in town, and it shouldn’t be difficult because St. Ives is a tourist town and there are lots of bed and breakfast places and that sort of thing. But Bernard had just separated from his second wife, which we had not realized, and Bernard was a person who could not stand to live alone. So he said, “Would you like to share my house with me?” Naturally we said yes, and it was a wonderful opportunity. And so for two and a half years we lived with Leach.

And when we worked at the pottery, we did learn to make pots, that is, the physical act of making the pot. We learned to control clay, to put it where you want it and not just wherever it wanted to go, and that was valuable. At the end of about six months, though, I think if that was all we had, we may have been inclined to leave because the workshop did not challenge us so much as living with Leach did. Living with Leach, who thought about pottery 24 hours a day, was a fantastic experience, and we really began to get inside his mind and understand what had motivated him to work all his life as a potter. Eventually we even got to the point where we could disagree with him. I mean, when we first went there, gee, I mean, this was a man who had written a book. He was, in a sense, God, and we for the first couple of weeks called him Mr. Leach. Eventually everyone said, “You know, you’ve got to stop that. Call him Bernard or call him B.L.,” which was what most of the people in the pottery called him.

And so we became more familiar with him, and with this familiarity came, I wouldn’t say contempt, but certainly an awareness that everything that he said was not necessarily what we were thinking. That doesn’t mean it was wrong, but Leach was a person out of a different generation. In fact, he was several generations removed from us. At that time we were there, I think Alix and I were 26 and 28, and Leach was about 63, and we thought he was a very old man. I used to always want to help him up the stairs in the house for fear he’d fall. Actually, he was in excellent condition and lived to be much, much older than we ever expected.

But we did respect him, although we also were willing to challenge ideas and at least put forth our feelings about the way the pottery was run, about things that were done, about the pots we were making, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and we would get into sometimes some very fierce arguments. We’d be shouting at one another because of disagreements.

MR. SILBERMAN: For example, what would be a big issue that you would disagree over?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, when Bernard wrote his book, he wrote about the fact that even when pots are made in a series, there is a personality to each pot and that the person who made it reflects their personality into the clay. In working in the pottery we found that this was not the case, and instead we were working from very exact models and dimensions and weights of clay to make these pots which had been designed some 10 or 12 years previous to our arriving there. And we, being, I guess you would say young, arrogant Americans, thought that we ought to be able to somehow express ourselves a little bit more in the daily work of the pottery.

Looking back on it now, I understand why that was not possible, because the pottery employed a dozen people, not all of whom are making pots. There was a bookkeeper and a woman secretary in charge of the showroom. There was a man who did nothing but mix clay and pack pots for shipping. There was another young guy who helped mix clay and glazed all the work that we made so it could go into the kiln. And these people had families, children, and they had to have a wage that would allow them to raise their family and they had to get a paycheck every Friday afternoon. So if we had not made pots that would sell it, would not have been possible for these people to be employed.

And for that reason there was a great deal of restriction on the making of the pots in the pottery. We could make our own pots on the weekends and in the evenings, and we used to do that, and these would be fired in the big kiln, along with all the standard ware that we were producing, but this wasn’t quite what we had expected when we read The Potters Book.
I do remember that when we left after two and a half years, we went home on a boat again – this was before air travel became really easy – and Alix turned to me and she said, “You know, that was a great two years of training, but that’s not the way we’re going to run our pottery.” And we never did. That is, we never had a catalogue; we never said we were going to duplicate these pots this year and next year and the year after that and so forth. We did make many pots which were repeated, but we allowed them to change and to grow as we changed and grew, and I think that was the big difference. And that’s all right; we were working for ourselves. We didn’t have anybody we had to pay.

And in addition, I taught. Alix had stopped teaching because we had a child and she stayed home to take care of the baby, and I taught. Eventually I gave up teaching at the St. Paul Gallery because of disagreements with the philosophy of that museum, and I got a job at the University of Minnesota, which was very fortunate because it was a part-time job and that gave us a great deal of time in our studio to work together and to make the pots we wanted to make.

MR. SILBERMAN: Before we go forward on what happened on your return, can we go back to England for a few more minutes?

MR. MACKENZIE: Back to England.

MR. SILBERMAN: You obviously gained great proficiency technically working there. How did you develop your ideas and your forms and the kinds of pots you were making when you weren’t making Leach pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: Several ways. First of all, we were living with Bernard in his home. He had a fantastic collection of early English and Japanese and Chinese and Korean pots and German pots, contemporary English work as well. And we had access to this collection. In fact, when Bernard would be called away to go up to London for something and we’d be living alone for a couple of days, we would dig into the storage areas in the house and we’d get out all the pots that we might not see in the course of our daily life, because we weren’t using them in the house on a steady basis. But we found some fantastic pots in there tucked away, and we could look at them and examine them and handle them.

And it was there that we really first came in contact with the work of Shoji Hamada, who was Bernard’s best friend from Japan, who had come from Japan back to England with Leach when Leach was establishing his pottery. Bernard had acquired many Hamada works. Some of them, it was interesting – first of all, Hamada worked in St. Ives for about four years before returning to Japan to start his own pottery. He had exhibitions in London, and if these exhibitions didn’t sell out, the galleries were instructed to send the remaining work down to the Leach Pottery, where they would go into the showroom for sale. If Bernard saw one that hadn’t sold that he really admired, then he would take it (he would buy it), and it would go into the house. It was in that way that we really came to understand the differences between what Hamada made and what Leach was making, or what we were making in the Leach Pottery.

Bernard was, as I said earlier, trained as a painter and an etcher. He was an incredible draftsman, and at the end of breakfast time, for instance, he would push his plate back, and he’d pull an old scrap of paper out of his pocket and a little stub of a pencil, and he’d begin to make small drawings, about an inch and a half, two inches tall, of pots that he wanted to make. And they were beautiful drawings. I really wish I’d stolen some of those scraps of paper, because those drawings were exquisite explorations of his ideas of form and volume in a ceramic piece.

If he didn’t like the drawing, he’d X it out and do another one and change the form a little bit. And when he was all done, he would stuff these pieces of paper in his pocket and go off to the pottery, and when he wanted to make pots, he would then take these out and he’d begin to produce the pot that he had designed on paper in front of us.

This was a difference between Leach and Hamada. Hamada seldom drew an exact drawing of a pot that he was going to make. I used to think Hamada never drew, until there was a book by Bernard published about his work [Hamada: Potter, Tokyo; New York: Harper & Row, 1975] and at the rear of the book were a number of wonderful little sketches, but they were not drawings like Bernard made. Bernard’s drawings delineated every little accent on the pot, every subtle curve and change of angle and proportion and all. Hamada’s were little one-line notations of something he wanted to remember about a pot or a piece of furniture or a landscape or something like that, and they were just done very quickly and they had, he thought, no artistic quality. They’re not great drawings, but they served to remind him of something he had in his mind, so that when he then went to the studio, that would stick in his mind and he could explore the making of the pot with the clay on the wheel. Bernard was making pots which were duplicates of his drawing, and that was a difference of approach, which I think is quite critical to these two men.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you? Who have you followed in that – [inaudible]?

MR. MACKENZIE: I followed Hamada, because I guess Alix and I, we both saw the danger that lay in planning things out on paper and then simply executing them. And with Hamada there was a much more direct sense that the piece had happened in the process of making on the wheel, and that was what we wanted to do with our work. We weren’t always able to do it, though.
I say we wanted to do this as though we were able to. I think back to some of the pots we made when we first started our pottery, and they were pretty awful pots. We thought at the time they were good; they were the best we could make, but our thinking was so elemental that the pots had that quality also, and so they don’t have a richness about them which I look for in my work today. Whether I achieve it all the time, that’s another question, because I don’t think a person can produce at top level 100 percent of the time.

I mean, I make a lot of pots in a year’s time and some of them are good and some of them are mediocre and some of them are bad. If they’re really bad and I’d be ashamed of them, I throw them out, but if they’re mediocre and they’ll serve the purpose for which they’re designed, that is, a mixing bowl or a soup bowl or a plate or whatever, I sell them. And this income from the sale of these pots permits me to go on and make other pots. It’s even more important now that I’ve quit teaching, because I do not have a teacher’s salary to fall back on.

MR. SILBERMAN: But your thinking about what kinds of pots you would like to make really started shifting dramatically when you were there, and by the time you got back, you had an agenda, or a mission.

MR. MACKENZIE: That’s right.

MR. SILBERMAN: What was it like being in St. Ives then? Because there are a lot of artists, I mean, now, known for that period.

MR. MACKENZIE: First of all, we benefited from living with Leach, because suddenly all of his friends became our acquaintances. Bernard knew Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Johnny Wells. I can think of a number of people that we met there just because we were living with Bernard. Some of them became our friends, particularly the younger artists, but we were privileged to at least meet and talk with the older artists also. And they would come to dinner, and we would simply be included in the conversation, which was quite fascinating.

There were a lot of artists in St. Ives. In fact, since the time of Whistler, St. Ives has been noted as an artist colony. They have all sorts of legends about the quality of light and everything like that, which I guess Whistler maybe talked about, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s a wonderful place to live. It’s a small fishing town and one can live there inexpensively. There’s a sympathetic population of other artists, where you can exchange ideas, and it’s quite rich in artistic thought.
MR. SILBERMAN: What about the other British potters? Were they coming to visit or were you going to travel and meet them?

MR. MACKENZIE: Both. Friends of Bernard’s came to visit, and when we went to London, we were given introductions to people like Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Richard Batram. All these people were, let’s say, made available to us by a friendship with Leach. In addition there was a potter’s group – what was it called? I think it was called the Cornish Potters Society, but I’m not sure of that. Anyway, they had meetings and we would go with Leach to these meetings and meet other potters, and they would have programs where they would discuss pottery and people would interchange ideas.
And so we got a great benefit from our contact with those people and met people that we wouldn’t have probably met if we had simply worked at the pottery.

I don’t know, it’s very difficult if you’re in a strange country to just barge in and say, “Hello, I’m Warren MacKenzie, and aren’t you happy to have me as a guest,” you know? But they did accept us and we remained friends for many, many years, many of them as long as they lived; like Lucie Rie and Hans Coper were very good friends, and it was wonderful.
Their work was nothing like the work we were doing at the Leach Pottery, and in fact, if you take Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, their work didn’t even relate to what we were trying to do, because they were moving in a different direction, both of them coming out of Europe and the Viennese school of design, which Lucie came from, and Coper learning from Lucie and then springing off on his own when she encouraged him to explore more widely. So he created his own work instead of just working for her and doing her forms. So that was a wonderful thing.

MR. SILBERMAN: The people and the work you saw was more just an affirmation of the artist’s life or the potter’s life than giving you specific ideas or specific influences?

MR. MACKENZIE: At that time, yes, although subsequently – I mean, I’ve been influenced by someone or their work. I mentioned Hans Coper as an example. About five years ago I was working on some forms which were vase forms with a fairly narrow base, and it was after Coper had died that I saw an exhibition of his, a catalogue from an exhibition, and he was showing some forms which were made by cutting and joining a lot of different parts together to create what he called a spade form, which you can imagine looks a little bit like a shovel upside down. These narrow-footed forms I was making, I thought, gosh, I could push those further, not to construct them the way Coper did but to work in my own manner but push it more toward that form. And I learned to do that and enjoyed it for a number of years. They’re not like Coper’s at all, but the idea came from seeing this catalogue of his work, although at the time we knew Hans, his work was nothing like that.

MR. SILBERMAN: You read Leach’s book, then you lived with him and worked in the pottery, and you talked about how that affected your idea about how to run a pottery or how to do work, but did it reaffirm your belief in functional pottery? Were you tempted to do sculptural work at that time, or try it?

MR. MACKENZIE: No. I never have been. That is not quite true. I shouldn’t say never have been; when I was in school in the Art Institute, we had several problems during the course of the time we were taking ceramic classes where we had to do a sculptural piece. And when I say a sculptural piece, it’s nothing like what we conceive of now as a sculptural piece. Remember, this is back in the 1940s, and it was sculpture which probably – in my instance probably came out of the European influence, [Alexander] Archipenko and things of that sort, [Jacques] Lipchitz to a certain extent, and I was influenced by those things and attempted to do work that emulated their style.

But it didn’t stick with me. I never felt I wanted to go on with that. And as far as I know about Alix’s work, I don’t believe she ever did any sculptural work at all. It was always pottery.

MR. SILBERMAN: What about the wheel versus slab building or molds?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, again, in school we did all sorts of things, molds, slab building. We were not very proficient on the wheel because the woman who taught was not proficient on the wheel. And so we learned from her assistant who had learned from her assistant the year before and so on, and that was not very good training.

But in the Leach Pottery we did most of our work on the wheel. Leach did a little work in the studio, which was press-molded forms, plastic clay pressed into plaster forms to make small rectangular boxes and some vase forms, which he liked to make. These were molds which had been made to an original that he had modeled in solid clay, and during our work there, sometimes I would be pressing these forms as a means of production.
But if you press-mold a pot or if you slab-build a pot, the work has got to take much, much, much longer than if you work on the wheel. And I to this day have the ideal that I want my work to be not too expensive, so that if people buy it and break it, it’s not going to be the end of the world. I’m not interested in having things in museums, although some of our work has ended up there, but that’s not what I’m striving for. I’m striving to make things which are the most exciting things I can make that will fit in people’s homes. And in that respect, working on the wheel is economically about the only answer I know, because one can, as Leach said, make 50 pots in a day. You can make 100 pots in a day. A really good potter can make 400 pots in a day.

So since your time is your main involvement here – I mean, the clay doesn’t cost very much. Even the glaze and the firing doesn’t cost a great deal. But your time is the cost, and if you can keep your time to a minimum and still come out with the results you want, that means the pots can be sold for an economic price.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you like working on the wheel, too.

MR. MACKENZIE: And I do. It is true – for a number of reasons. First of all, because of the directness of it; that is, things happen very quickly and they have to happen quickly in order to have vitality, which I think is essentially part of a good pot. But in addition it means that you can explore an idea and change it and then change it and then change it; I don’t mean by changing the one pot, but you make one pot then you make another that’s related to that; you make another – you can make 50 pots in a day and none of them are going to be carbon copies of any other, but they’ll all be related because there’s something going through your mind about the form on that particular day.

And so there is this ability to explore ideas, but with minute changes, and then look at the results. Often you get so excited about what you’re doing that you think, “Oh, wow, this is just great.” And you look at it a week later and you realize you’d been excited by the act of creation, but what you’ve created is not really exciting when you look at it in cold blood. And so that, to me, is a valuable lesson also.

Every pot is not going to be a masterpiece. In Japan I learned something. We visited Japan and went to Hamada’s pottery, and behind his kiln was the biggest scrap heap I’ve ever seen in my life. And in talking with him, he said that he destroyed about two-thirds of his production – destroyed it, I mean, just shattered, broken, because it didn’t come up to the standard that he had set for himself. I don’t do that because I’m not trying to make the super pots the way he did, but it’s an important thing to realize that even a person with the talent that Hamada had was not able to make every pot a really fine piece. There was a lot of scrap.

MR. SILBERMAN: But when you were at St. Ives, you started getting the technical proficiency as a foundation for the expressive possibilities.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, yes, yes, but we were not really allowed the expression in our daily work there. In the evenings, yes. Saturday and Sunday – we only worked half day Saturday for the pottery, and then when we worked on our own stuff in the evenings. Bernard would come in and – in fact, he’d come in while we were working, and we’d discuss what we were doing. And that was really nice because he was then discussing what we were doing, not whether we were making a good Leach Pottery pot. And we got the benefit of his observations.

I would at this point say I think that Leach was perhaps one of the most articulate, perceptive people about ceramic work of anyone I’ve ever known. He had biases. He had certain shortsighted qualities that we had to learn to put up with, but he could look at a piece and say, “You know, if you’d change this a little bit, I think it would make it a much better pot.” And so you’d try one and you’d change it a little, explore ways of changing that part that he talked about, and it would be a better pot, because he had a keen eye and could communicate to you about it.

That’s another interesting difference between he and Hamada – that Bernard did analyze, he did theorize, he did try to find ways of expressing himself about pot forms. Hamada seldom talked about it in the same way. When Leach and Hamada were together, they may have discussed these things – I don’t know; we weren’t privy to that – but Hamada, in terms of control of his thinking, never articulated in the same manner that Leach did. And it wasn’t because he couldn’t speak English; he spoke very good English. It was just that he chose not to. I think it had something to – trying to avoid being too intellectual about what was done.

Leach wrote in his book about the Koreans, who Hamada admired as potters – as craftspeople, I should say. The potters, the weavers, the woodworkers, the metalworkers in Korea, all had an approach which was very loose, and Leach spoke about it as they seldom – I must never say never, I guess, but they seldom talked about a pot as being a good pot or a bad pot. They just talked about it as being a pot. He said they had a term, and I think it was the word M-U – mu, I guess — and this had neither positive nor negative connotations about it. And I think Hamada, admiring the Koreans as he did, tried to put himself into that sort of a situation. So you would think – and yet, no, I’m saying this and just thinking about that great scrap pile behind his kiln. He did decide that some of his pots were not good pots, but he didn’t talk about it too much.

MR. SILBERMAN: What were your pots like when you left Leach?

MR. MACKENZIE: They were very much like Leach Pottery pots. [Laughs.] They were –

MR. SILBERMAN: And how long did that take before you got perspective on that?

MR. MACKENZIE: Oh, I guess there are still remnants of Leach Pottery sense to my pots.

MR. SILBERMAN: What are the good remnants of the Leach Pottery pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: An articulation of form, which Bernard was always talking about, an interaction of structural and – what do I want to say, fleshlike, or enhancement of the structure.

Bernard used to constantly talk about the relationship of the pot to the human body, and this is what I go back to – I said that we had to take a great many life drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I thought afterwards, you know, these will never be any good to me because I’m going to be a potter. But they are good, because in those life drawing classes you learn to look at the structure of a human being and to think about the skeleton, which supports the structure, and think about the flesh, which enhances the skeleton, and Leach was constantly harping on the structure of the pot beneath the form, that there must be a sensed structure. Otherwise, the pot would just be all soft and flabby, without articulation. But if it was too stiff and too angular, it would perhaps be unpleasant, because there was no warmth or humanity to it, and the relationship of the structure to that warmth or humanity was something that Leach was always harping on and something which I’ve tried to keep foremost in my own work.

Many times – it’s embarrassing to say — I make a bunch of pots, and while I’m making them, I have something in my mind. And then if those pots hang around the studio for two or three weeks while I’m accumulating the work for a firing, I’ll sometimes look at a finished pot, unglazed but let’s say the form is finished, and I look at it and I can’t for the life of me think what I was thinking about when I made that pot, because I don’t see any qualities which I admire. Those pots are the kind that I usually chuck out, because they don’t hold up to a more objective view when one gets away from the actual process of making them. But this was something which Bernard talked about a great deal, not only about the pots we made at the Leach Pottery but his own work as well and the work that he wrote about.

An instance happened while we were there which taught me a great deal. Bernard worked in a part of the shop that was away from the rest of us. He had a separate studio upstairs, and so we didn’t actually see him making pots so much. But when he wanted to decorate his ware, it had to come down to the glazing room, where the pigments and slips and so forth were for decorating. And one day he brought down about three boards full of pots, 20 pots, let’s say, and then he got called away to the phone, and we, of course, all went into the glazing room to see what he had brought down, and we were able to pick up and handle his work. And there was a man who worked in the pottery, Bill Marshall, and Bill was technically the best thrower in the pottery. He could work with more clay; he could shape it quickly and easily and throw very well. And Bill looked at all these pots and picked them up and handled them and so on. And he finally said something which shocked us, but I guess I would have to have agreed with it. He said, “Bernard can’t throw worth a damn.” And we all thought, oh, well. And then Bill finished his statement; he said, “But he makes better pots than any of us.”

And that’s, I think, a truth also, that his pots had a life to them which had something way beyond the technical making, and that’s the kind of thing which – well, it woke me up. And Hamada has said similar things. Hamada said once, “I’m not a good thrower. There are many better throwers than I in Japan.” But, of course, he was selected as a national treasure, his work was collected and sought after, and he was certainly one of the best-known potters in Japan and around the world when he was alive.

So it’s not the technical side of it that matters; it’s something beyond that, and that’s something which I think I’ve always tried to keep in my mind, whether successfully or not, I’m not sure. And once in a while I’m kind of horrified. I just had an experience the other day. I had thrown some small covered jars, and I was so intent on the shape of the jars that I somehow ignored the structure. And I took these off the wheel and dried them and put them into the electric kiln for the first firing, for the bisque firing, and two of these jars blew up in the bisque firing, not because they weren’t dry but because they were so thick at the bottom. I had neglected to think about the structure of the pot, I was so concentrating on the form of the pot.

Now, if they hadn’t blown up, I probably would have kept them. If I was excited by the shape, I think the weight I would be inclined to ignore. And that’s just a personal thing. You can agree or disagree with its validity, but that’s the way I work.

MR. SILBERMAN: It sounds like by the time you left the Leach Pottery, you had your Hamada side and your Leach side in pretty clear perspective, even though you had to get your work developed to where it would totally satisfy you.


MR. SILBERMAN: When you were there looking at this great collection and talking pots 25 hours a day, what were the things you really loved that you didn’t know about before, I mean in terms of the different ceramic traditions, and how did you begin to sort out where you might fit between Asia and old English pots at that point?

MR. MACKENZIE: I think we found something within ourselves, which I still believe, I guess. People ask me – let me try and put it this way – people ask me why I am so influenced by Asian pots: Chinese, Japanese, Korean. I’m not so much influenced by Chinese pots, but Japanese and Korean, yes. And if I look for an answer to that, I usually answer by saying, I think that the people in Asia, in contrast to the people in any other country or continent, have paid attention to the things which the contemporary potter in America is likely to pay attention to and worry about.

In that respect I would go to the quality of clay as a beginning. Now, I’m not saying that every Japanese potter or Korean potter was very selective about their quality of clay. In fact, in the old days they were much more likely to have simply used the clay that they were given because it was the local clay of the area. But being given a particular kind of clay, they then looked at it and learned to exploit it, learned to get the most out of it, so that the clay became a very important aspect of the finished product. It wasn’t just a kind of a shapeless paste with no quality whatsoever; it had a texture and it had a color and it had a pliability or a structural quality to it which they could find out about and exploit.
They also studied and exploited the many ways in which clay can be formed, from simple coil building, through the wheel, press molds, slabs, all kinds of things, and got the most out of the technique that they were using to fabricate the piece. And then the quality of the glazes, not just the glaze to make the thing waterproof and shiny but a glaze which had a character in it of itself and a decoration, or lack of decoration, the firing process, all these things.

And these things, in our time today, are very, very much studied by American potters. And so I turned back, and Alix also, to this civilization which had thought about these things before we did and exploited them, and I think we learned a great deal, particularly from having that direct physical contact with these things at Bernard’s home. Since then we’ve built the collection that I have now. This is something you only find out by actually living with and working with a particular pot form.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you like clay from the start, working with clay as opposed to paint and easel and canvas?

MR. MACKENZIE: Oh yeah, yeah. Even in that bad class I did love clay. I think I went to painting because that was what you did at that time if you thought you were going to be an artist, but I never really got involved in the juiciness of paint and the possibilities that exist in that respect, and the excitement of the way paint can be exploited and used in a variety of ways. I never got excited about it. I was always thinking of a visual image and just trying to get that visual image on the canvas, and I think that’s not what being a painter is all about.

And if you reverse the situation, I think that there are potters who are just concerned with a visual image, and they do anything necessary to make that visual image. But their work may just be awful; it may be dead, because they’ve created the image, but they haven’t got any spirit in it. They don’t really love making those pots.

MR. SILBERMAN: You like being hands-on with it, getting your hands on the materials?


MR. SILBERMAN: At what point did you start thinking in terms of the relationship between your hands and the hands of the user, and that communication?

MR. MACKENZIE: I guess from the time we worked at the Leach Pottery, because that was constantly stressed. Even though I disagreed with much of the kind of pottery we were making – it was too formal; it came out of an English lifestyle – but still, the way one’s hands fit on the handle of a mug was constantly being studied and talked about and all, and we tried different kinds of handles and so on. And it was just always uppermost in our mind, was how people related to these things tactically and visually, even though, as I say, it was very much a British expression and not something that I warmed up to much.
In fact, I just remembered – you know, when you’re working in a studio like that five and a half days a week, and you’re making someone else’s work, you do get a little bit fed up. And we had an old motorcycle, and when we got really just tired of making the Leach Pottery pots, we’d take a day or two off and we’d go out and we’d visit other potters and visit shops.
[Audio break.]

MR. SILBERMAN: We are rolling, and you were telling about getting on the motorcycle after a bad day at the pottery and going out to see other potters.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. We would get on our motorbike, and we’d take off a couple days and go visit other potteries and go to shops and galleries and museums and so on. And having been fed up with the repetition and the things that we were doing, we’d come back to the studio, and you would say, you know, in spite of how irritated we get doing this repetition and all, when you come back and look at the Leach Pottery pots, I think they were the best ones at that time being made in England for a production pottery, a pottery that was turning out a fair amount of work and employed people to help in that process.
You lose sight of it if you’re buried in it all the time. You just get kind of fed up with it. And it was that, problem, I think that prompted Alix to say, “You know, it was a great experience, but that’s not the way we want to run our pottery.” But it was a different situation, too, because of employees, because of the fact of having to produce a ware that was going to be satisfactory to people who ordered it out of a photograph in a catalogue, and it couldn’t be just something that somebody wanted to toss off sometime, which I can do now. And if it’s something a little wild, I can put it in the showroom until somebody sees it and loves it. But they couldn’t in England, because they were selling it daily in shops and catalogues.

MR. SILBERMAN: I once wrote, “In overhead begins responsibilities,” which is business and employees. [Laughs.]

Well, let’s bring you back to America. You had your two and a half years and your training and your conversations and arguments with Bernard. What did you think you were going to do, most want to do, and what did you do?
MR. MACKENZIE: Before we come back to America, our last thing that we did in England, we had quit work at the Leach Pottery and completed our work, and we had gone off to Wales to do some volunteer labor, but Bernard had asked us to come to this International Potters and Weavers Conference, which he and another woman organized at Dartington Hall. This was in 1952. Leach had invited Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, the leader of the folk craft movement, to come to that conference, and it was the first time that Hamada had been in England, I think Bernard said, since 1935.

The other funny thing is Bernard, who was Hamada’s closest friend and Hamada’s – Bernard is his closest friend, Bernard would write constantly to Hamada in the intervening years. Hamada never wrote back until suddenly Bernard wrote and invited him to attend this conference, and Hamada wrote and he says, “Yanagi and I will come,” and they came.

So that was where we first met Hamada, at that conference, and it was really a wonderful experience. There were people from all over the world and potters from Africa, from Germany, from France, from Scandinavian countries, from Japan, not only Hamada but another potter, and it was a great experience. We lived together for, I guess, about 10 days, and they had demonstrations and they had papers and all, so we learned a great deal.
At the end of that time Leach decided he was going to go back to Japan with Hamada and Yanagi, but they also, discussing it, decided that instead of going the usual way from England, which is to go through Europe and India and on to Japan, they would continue West and go to America, where Leach had been but Hamada had not been, and Yanagi had not been there for many years.

So Alix had this brilliant idea. She was a great one for ideas, and she said, “Look, if you’re going to travel through America, why not do a series of workshops while you’re crossing America?” So Hamada thought for a while, said, “All right.” He said, “If you will arrange it, we’ll do it.” And so then Alix naturally arranged to have them stop one of the stops in St. Paul (we taught at St. Paul). The first one was at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The second one was in St. Paul. The third was at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, and the fourth one was in California at the Chouinard Institute, I think it was, where Susan Peterson was teaching.
And then Alix, with a great deal of nerve, said, “Well, as long as you’re coming to St. Paul, could you send an exhibition over?” And so Hamada said, “Well, I can’t do it, but I’ll call my son and have him send a show.” And so he called his son and his son, Shinsaku, selected an exhibition of Hamada’s work and about 20 pots of Kanjiro Kaiwai also, which came to St. Paul, and we had what I believe is the first exhibition of Hamada’s work in America, the first major exhibition of Hamada’s work at a museum, in America.

But unfortunately it never got the attention it should have, but it was a remarkable thing to see that collection of his new pieces that he had just made before he left for England, and they were sent to the gallery in St. Paul.

So that was a wonderful thing to have happen. But that all happened sometime after we had returned. We came back in, I guess, July or so, and we went back to work at the St. Paul Art Center, but that didn’t last too long because we were growing somewhat unhappy with the direction the Art Center was taking. They were doing too much compromising, in our estimation. And so I tried to get another job. And the University of Minnesota was unhappy with their person who had been teaching ceramics and they were letting her go, and so the director of the art department, Harvey Arnason said, “All right, we’ll give you a chance.” But, he said, “If at any time there is any problem with a drop in enrollment or budget problems, ceramics is going to be closed down.” And fortunately there wasn’t – [laughs] – and I was able to stay on there from then on. I guess I first got that job in 1953, in the spring of the year, and ceramics went on successfully.

But meanwhile we had found a place, this place where Nancy and I are living now, in the country. It was an old defunct farm. The man had sold off so much acreage that no farmer wanted to buy it because they couldn’t earn a living on the little remaining land. It was within our price range, which was just absolutely dead cheap. And the other thing, they had just put in a new furnace in this house and they had drilled a new well, so we knew that the heat and the water supply were going to be taken care of; we didn’t have to put any money into that. And we looked at the house, we said we could live in it, we didn’t have to put any money in the house, and we put all our money into starting the pottery, which we did in the basement of the old barn just to the west of us here.

We got friends to help shovel out the manure, and we tried to insulate a portion of the lower section of the barn as much as we could. We built a concrete block wall around a section of that lower part of the barn, which we could heat, and work in in the winter.

Meanwhile we built the kiln. I spent the summer building the kiln, and the kiln that I built was a kiln patterned after the one at the Leach Pottery, because it was the only large kiln that I’d ever seen built. We had rebuilt it while we were there. I didn’t mention that, but it was one of the activities – the kiln had been built in 1923 or ‘4 and it had lasted until 1950, but it was in pretty bad shape, and so they decided to rebuild, and I did see and participate in the rebuilding of that kiln. And then we built our kiln here patterned after that one. So it was oil-fired. Ours was a two-chamber kiln instead of a three-chamber kiln, which was at the Leach Pottery. And it worked all right – not well, but all right. [Laughs.]
We finally began to love it, because it was the only kiln we had had our own control over. Gradually the pottery changed a little bit, and we had a little display area outside the working space, which was – the display area was not heated; the working space was heated. We mixed our own clay. I designed a pug mill and had it done by a local welding shop. And we mixed our clay in that pug mill and then stored it in plastic barrels and wedged it up by hand to prepare it for use.

A lot of things we did in that pottery were patterned after the Leach Pottery. We built a clay storage cupboard which had concrete shelves where we could pug out this clay in long columns and then stack it on these shelves, and you could store it for two or three months and it wouldn’t dry out. We had potters’ wheels, which we had brought back from England with us, because those were the wheels we had worked on at the Leach Pottery and we were used to them and we liked them. And I still work on that kind of a wheel, although not the original ones, because in 1968 I managed to burn down the pottery and we lost those wheels, but that happened later.
We were given exhibitions at the Walker Arts Center, which was still supportive of the crafts, although the director of that art center left, oh, it would be in the early ’60s, I guess, and shortly thereafter the Walker stopped showing craft work, for all intents and purposes. Before that time, they had given us several exhibitions, and the last show, just before Alix died, was in 1962, and it was a really, I think – I think it was a good exhibition for our work at that time. It wasn’t a great exhibition if I look back on it now. At that time it was the best we could do, I’d say.

MR. SILBERMAN: What was your work at that time like? What problems, formal or otherwise, were you trying to work through, and what do you like about that time now and what do you think maybe you realize was just of that time?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, we did make all utilitarian ware. That is ware for use in a home. I don’t have any examples of it because we didn’t believe in saving our work; we thought you mustn’t save your work or you tend to live in the past. And so we had a rule that each one of us could save one pot at any given time, and if we found another pot that we wanted to save for our personal collection, we had to take the one we had been saving and put it out for sale.

I think it was a good idea. I think it was an excellent idea, because it did keep us from living in the past. We had to always go forward. It worked to my disadvantage because Alix died rather suddenly and I only had one pot of hers at that time in my possession. It is a great pot. I still have it. But it means a lot of things that she did I don’t have. Fortunately, there are friends who have them and once in a while some of them will send me one and say, “I think you really ought to have this because it’s important to you.” So I’ve got a few that we put together, including some of her paintings, which she did when she could no longer make pots – really interesting things.

MR. SILBERMAN: I’ve seen some of those pots and they’re fine, and the decoration is remarkable. She did all the decoration?
[Audio break.]

MR. MACKENZIE: At that time I found out if I picked up a brush, I ended up doing what I can only call cheap Japanese brushwork, and it was very unsatisfactory. So I finally found ways to decorate pots which kept a brush out of my hand. This is why I concentrate even today on the form of the pots, and when I do decoration, it is usually something, if possible, which is not brush decoration. Instead I’ll do beaten patterns on the surface of the clay, or I’ve learned to adopt one of the techniques I used to use in painting to decorating pottery, but it’s not a brush technique. It’s a type of monoprint, where I would charge – I was working very geometrically and I would charge a straight edge of some sort, a piece of wood or cardboard, with paint and then press it down against the canvas and print a line. The printed line had a quality of nervousness about it which I really liked. It wasn’t a drawn line. And I’ve tried this and continue to use it now on ceramic work. I print with pigment on the wet glaze, and it fires in and becomes decoration. But I did learn to get rid of the brush, because with a brush I’m not very good.

MR. SILBERMAN: When you were working with Alix and presumably continuing the tradition of nonstop talking about the pots — apart from the family that you started to have, you had daughters — what kinds of pots were you making? I mean, you didn’t have the production ware versus the individual ware of the Leach Pottery, but were you making cups, dishes, bowls?


MR. SILBERMAN: How did you decide what to make, and were you discussing the designs of the pots, and then you would make them and she would decorate them? Or was she throwing as well?

MR. MACKENZIE: She was throwing as well, yes. And we’d take the kids down to the pottery and put them in a playpen on the floor of the pottery while we worked on the wheels. Alix threw as well as I did, but she did all the decorating at that time. It was only after her death that I began to really push new techniques that would allow me to decorate without doing brushwork.

There are a few of our joint pieces in existence today in some museums. There are a couple in the Weisman Museum [The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis], and there are more in the Minnesota Museum of American Art, in which Alix decorated all my work.
When I’d get stuck with a pot that didn’t quite come off – you know, you have the pot and then you’d look at it after it’s dry and has gone through the bisque firing and you say, “You know, it isn’t really quite right.” And I’d say, “Well, now can you solve this?” And I’d hand it to her and her solution was, “yes.” She’d look at it and size up the form that I’d made and then begin to just draw on it with a paintbrush and iron oxide, and she was always able to relate her painting to decoration, to the form of the pot, which was something I was never able to do.

So she improved a lot of my work at that time. Where it was an unsatisfactory pot, she would make it a satisfactory pot. I mean, a pot can be complete in form, or it can be incomplete in form and need decoration to embellish it, and that was often the case with my work at that time.
I think that a lot of them perhaps would have been – maybe all of them would have been improved by some embellishment, because my form sense at that time was relatively unresolved and not as rich as I would like to think it was. There was not the interaction of ideas and forms, and the technique of making was probably a little stiff because I was not as relaxed and as sure of myself as I am today.

MR. SILBERMAN: Were you looking at different things when you came back or looking at the same things in different ways?

MR. MACKENZIE: We were looking at the same things in different ways, because we still — in our museum visits and all we gravitated to the utilitarian objects, but we did look at them in much different ways, because – I think because of the exposure to Bernard and to Hamada. We were looking for a personal expression, which could occur either in the concept of the pot or in the physical making of the pot.

Leach was more likely to have a personal expression in the concept of the pot, not so much in the making. Hamada was more likely to have this personal expression in the making, in the physical making of the pot.
And we were very lucky, we were able to acquire some of Hamada’s work at that time. When he had the exhibition in St. Paul, he asked me about pricing the work, and at that time I was really into very low prices. I thought, you know, a $2 pot was getting up there. [Laughs.] But we didn’t have the pots in front of us; we only had a bill of lading. And Hamada would describe the work to me, and I would think about it and I’d say, “Well, if I made this, it would cost so much,” but then, this is a famous potter from Japan and therefore I’d multiply that by five or seven and I’d say, “Well, does $11 sound all right to you?” And Hamada never batted an eye; he just wrote down $11 and that was the price those pots sold for.
So when we had this exhibition in St. Paul, these pots were available to people at very modest prices. Hamada at that time was, of course, selling for much more money in Japan, but it meant that we were able to buy a set of small desert plates out of that exhibition.

We had to have a lottery, because many people were wanting to buy a lot of work, and we said no, each person could only buy one piece or one set. So we had a lottery and Alix drew number two, and with her number we did pick a set of desert plates which I still have. And I drew number 96, which is almost the end of the line, and we began to despair, you know, we’d say, “Now, if nobody takes that pot, we’ll take that one with 96.” Well, then somebody would select that pot and it was gone. So when 96 came, we were wandering around in there and we picked up this one pot, but we didn’t make our decision right away. We picked it up and we were looking at it and looking around and finally went to the secretary and told her we wanted to purchase this pot. And it was only after we did that that Yanagi came up to us and he said, “You’ve just bought the best pot in the entire exhibition.”

Now, this meant that 95 other people had selected pots out of that exhibition prior to us, and I’m not sure that we got the best. I don’t think there is a best pot. I think there are many best pots – there are better pots. But I know that that particular pot, which is a very simple piece, continues to excite me every time we use it. Every time I pick it up and look at, it I see something I’ve never seen before, and I think that is a sign of a really great pot, that it is not going to be something you understand with one use, one look. It’s going to come and continue to renew itself with you throughout your life. And that pot of Hamada’s is, I think, one of the best ones that we own. We own a number of his now, have acquired them in various exhibitions and so on, but that’s a really great one.

MR. SILBERMAN: That’s a great story, too.

MR. MACKENZIE: And 95 people passed it over. That’s the wonderful thing. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: Warren, how were you selling your pots back then? Would they sell at the Walker?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, the Walker Art Center had a book corner which also sold ceramics, and so they had our work for sale there, as well as other people’s work.

We sold them at our pottery. We had a mailing list and whenever we’d have a firing, we would just hand-address postcards and send the students out to people, saying, we’ve fired again and if you want to see new pots, come out and look at them. And gradually people began to know about our work.

We also, I would say, at that time, did everything possible to tell people why we were making pots and how we were making pots, in order to get them interested, I guess. I mean, we would do art fairs and sit there day after day talking to people and not selling very much. We did demonstrations for groups. If they would come out to our studio, we would entertain them in the studio and do demonstrations for the groups. We’d give lectures wherever it was asked.

And in addition, I was teaching at the university, and to a certain extent you have to say you’ve got a captive audience, you know? I was talking about what I thought was important about ceramics, and some of them were convinced and they would come out and buy a pot because they could do so for not too much money. And that was the way we began to sell. And gradually you built – someone would tell someone else about it and you got more people coming, but it was very slow at first, very slow.

MR. SILBERMAN: The ’50s.

MR. MACKENZIE: Fortunately, we didn’t make that many pots either, you know. We were not very fast potters at that time.

MR. SILBERMAN: In spite of your experience at Leach.

MR. MACKENZIE: I’m still not a good thrower. I’m not a fast potter. But I’m a lot better potter now technically than I was then and – I don’t know. But we made – I suppose we fired our big kiln – the big kiln held about 400 pots and we fired it about six times a year, I guess. And now I’ve got a kiln that holds 600 pots, and working alone I fire it about 12 times a year, so that explains the difference in making.

MR. SILBERMAN: Maybe we can turn to the university in a moment, but when you first came here, were there many other potters in the area?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, there weren’t. One woman I remember was Martha Cutkomp [ph], who is a potter, and she was the only other person that I remember as a working potter in this area. Gradually, potters have moved in. First of all, some of the people who took classes at the university stayed on and became potters when they graduated from school, or they went somewhere for graduate work and then came back here because they liked the atmosphere in this area.

There is something about living in Minnesota, or living in the Midwest, I think I’d say. My pots are really most at home in the Midwest, and I think there’s a number of potters who have gravitated to this area because they find it sympathetic to hand pottery. And it doesn’t have to be fancy hand pottery, such as you’re likely to find in the big galleries in New York or San Francisco and so on, the latest thing. They want pots they can use in their home. And there are a lot of potters around here now who are making that kind of work and are earning a living as potters. Also we’ve got the development of the Northern Clay Center, which is a studio and a classroom situation for people, and many more of the schools around have got strong programs in ceramics. Not only the colleges and universities but the high schools have now got major programs in ceramics, which is wonderful. Instead of your having students at the university who are starting from scratch and have never seen clay, now you’re getting students who have had two years of it in high school maybe, and if they had good training, it’s wonderful.

MR. SILBERMAN: You had a long career at the university — and I should say for the record that you retired as a university professor, regent’s professor, which is the highest honorary rank the university can award — but what was it like when you started teaching that way? You taught at the Minnesota Museum, but to teach at the university, I mean, in an art department?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, in the art department, which was much smaller than it is now. The director of the department had been hired to bring together a group of art offerings, which had been under different areas, and they said, let’s get an art department. Now, he was an art historian, but he really knew enough to hire – this sounds very self-serving – excellent people. [Laughs.] I can’t remember all their names, but Kyle Morris, a painter, and there was a woman who taught sculpture.

MR. SILBERMAN: He hired Jerry Liebling, photography and film.

MR. MACKENZIE: Jerry Liebling, teaching photography, and Allen Downs and Walter Quirt in painting, and Phil Morton taught jewelry. Malcolm Myers taught printmaking. Malcolm Myers taught printmaking right up through the time that I retired from the university, and he was a marvelous printmaker, studied under Lasansky.

There was a woman teaching weaving. When she retired, they hired a weaver, Ginny Nagle, who kind of took, not a moribund section of the art department, but one where it had been pretty safely taught, and she just got those students so excited that everyone was truly amazed that the weaving department began to expand. Although when she retired, the person who took her place was not very good, and so we lost the weaving department. The man who was the director of the department, Harvey Arnason, said, “As long as you teach and things go well, I won’t be saying anything to you; it’s up to you. But if things don’t go well, then we’re going to have to get together and talk about why.” And when the weaving department fell on bad times, he said, “They’re not teaching weaving as an art form; they’re just teaching weaving,” and so he got rid of it.
And Phil Morton, who taught jewelry and was an excellent jeweler, lost interest in jewelry and wanted to become a sculptor, and so the jewelry department disappeared.

MR. SILBERMAN: But initially there was a strong presence of craft materials?

MR. MACKENZIE: Correct, correct.

MR. SILBERMAN: And ceramics continues to flourish.

MR. MACKENZIE: Ceramics grew and we became a very strong area in the department.

MR. SILBERMAN: How did the relationship between functional and nonfunctional play out? Was that an issue for you in terms of teaching functional ceramics as opposed to art or sculptural ceramics?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, no, but the thing is that my work is functional. I am not a sculptor, and I felt really unable to teach sculpture as a ceramic expression. Fortunately, there was one of the sculptors who was willing to let them do ceramic sculpture if they so desired. But when we got an additional position added to the ceramic area, the one thing I knew was that we wanted someone who was not going to be a functional potter, and so Curt Hoard was hired, and Curt was much more interested in a sculptural expression. He also was interested in glass, and that was another thing which was added at that time, and Curt started the glass department. Although when he lost interest in that, then we had to find another person to take over the glass department.

And by that time Arnason had moved on. He went to New York as an executive in one of the big foundations, and a different art historian took his place. And we began to have some friction between the studio section and the art history section of the department. And that got worse and worse and eventually the two were split into two departments, as you know. I think our first – I think our first chair that we selected was Malcolm Myers, who was one of the senior instructors and we felt could run the department.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you at first, as the ceramic teacher, taught everything? You had to teach the chemistry as well as the art.


MR. SILBERMAN: How did you develop your method of teaching? You’ve said – you talked about what it was like being at the Art Institute. You had many, many students and many, many students who went on to be professional potters.

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, I guess I realized that one of the basic things you need if you wanted to understand pottery was the ability to physically make a pot, and that was the basis for my beginning instruction, that you had to learn to make a pot either by hand or on the wheel, and actually we studied both methods. Although I was not a hand builder, I could teach the elements of it. Secondly, we looked at a lot of pots, both at the museums around here and I brought pots in from our collection, which was growing constantly, so that people were able to look at and handle and discuss work by potters from other countries, potters from other cultures.

This also expanded at the University Museum, as it was then called, what has subsequently become the Weisman Museum. It was the University Gallery, I should say, because they did not have much of a museum collection. But the woman who was the director at that time used to talk the president of the university out of some of his excess money at the end of the year, and she was very interested in ceramic work. Ceramic work was not too expensive, so she would take that extra money and go out and buy a pot, and that was the way they acquired work by Marguerite Wildenhain and by Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach, from an exhibition that came over during the war, sent by the British consul, and eventually mounted exhibitions in the gallery by very well-known potters. And this was, I think, a great thing for the students, because they could – it wasn’t just a case of looking at my work or even thinking about things the way I thought about them, but thinking about them in a variety of ways from the work that came in from outside.

And the university gallery collection — because the woman who was in charge of it knew that we would take care of it, she allowed me to bring students over and to set up a study area in the gallery for a class period. And the students could select pots they wanted to talk about and bring them out and look at them and handle them and talk about them and argue about them in class. So that was a wonderful experience, too, a hands-on experience, which I think is critical to any real learning about ceramics.
MR. SILBERMAN: You’ve done a lot of workshops as well and taught at other craft centers and schools.


MR. SILBERMAN: What had been your experience there? Which craft centers have you been at, for example, among Penland [Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina] or Haystack [Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine] or the Archie Bray [Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana]? What have the experiences been like when you’ve gone to places like that as opposed to teaching in the university?

MR. MACKENZIE: Very exciting. The people who came to those centers came because they wanted to study with a particular person probably. I mean, these centers would have a changing faculty and you would go for a summer session because you wanted to work with one of the people who was going to be teaching there. This is an advantage that those centers have over a school, in that they can have a faculty which varies from year to year, and varies as – I hate to say it, but there are fashions in ceramics.

MR. SILBERMAN: I’m shocked.

MR. MACKENZIE: [Laughs.] And as these fashions change, why, they change their faculty, you see. At a university we can’t do that. We try to cope with it by talking about these things, but you don’t always have an instructor who’s intimately involved in a particular way of work.
The disadvantage of those summer sessions is that you have to come into contact with these people very quickly. It’s a one-shot affair. You meet them, you work for two weeks usually, and then they disappear, you disappear, and that’s the end of it, unless you go back and teach at the same school, or you teach at another school and a student may come because they want to hear something more about what you’re doing.

But it is a short-term exposure. The disadvantage is that you never get to really know your students well in that short period of time. You’re expressing your ideas, but it’s very difficult to get in contact with the students’ desires and the students’ background, what they do, whereas at the university, you meet students, you get to know them for two, three, sometimes even as much as four years, and you can watch their development and you know what they’re working toward and therefore can talk, hopefully, about what they’re interested in doing.

Obviously you are limited by your own interests and background. I used to say to the students that I could not talk intelligently about ceramic sculpture to them. Curt Hoard could. And I always used to think that Curt’s teaching of pottery was limited because that was not his expression, and so we would try to steer people into a class where they would have a sympathetic instructor.

MR. SILBERMAN: You, of course, said earlier you went to the Art Institute and then turned to pottery, and in some ways that was a good idea to come to ceramics after having been a painter. Looking at the scene now, what do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of going through a university art program versus a craft school or summer program or learning through an apprenticeship, as in a way you did when you got to Leach, in some commercial – or individual potter or company?

MR. MACKENZIE: I think it depends on the school, of course, what sort of a program they’ve set up. At the University of Minnesota, in their good sense, they say all students must take a class in the drawing and painting area, all students must take art history, all art students must take a class in each of the major areas that the department offers, ceramics, printmaking, photography, and so on, and these are required of all art majors.

In our program at the Chicago Art Institute, we didn’t have that breadth of instruction demanded of us. You’d get painters there and they thought anything except painting was just mud, you know, and I don’t mean mud in terms of ceramics. They thought photography was terrible. They thought anything that wasn’t splashing some paint on a canvas was just unexpressive; that’s all there was to it. And I think that very often you get a student in Minnesota and they might start out, as I did, thinking they were going to be a painter, but if you get them into a ceramic class or into a photography class, they would find that this was what they really wanted to do and they would respond to it much more strongly.

In these summer programs, as opposed to a university, you are divided. You just take a one-shot deal with metalwork or woodworking or ceramics or whatever. And most of those – I’m not sure I can say this with any degree of authority, but most of the schools that I’ve taught at in the summer, those summer programs only are dealing with the crafts. They don’t have – they didn’t used to have a painting component, although now I think some of them are adding that to their programs so that you do have painting offered as well.

I think painting is, to me, an essential thing, drawing or painting or drawing and painting, because this is a case of, particularly if you’re drawing, you’re often observing and putting down your interpretation of an observation, and it teaches a student to really look very sharply. And that’s the reason I think that it’s better to have a variety of classes, because in each class you have to look at your material in a different manner, and that may influence – the way a student looks at a photograph may influence what they see if they look at a pot and vice versa.

MR. SILBERMAN: And if you had come to ceramics from sculpture?

MR. MACKENZIE: I might do much different work.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you do sculpture at the Art Institute? Was that one of your requirements?

MR. MACKENZIE: No. No. We did not have requirements of that sort. As I said, you could be a painter and never do anything except drawing and painting.

MR. SILBERMAN: When you did the summer craft schools, did you do any one in particular regularly or –


MR. SILBERMAN: You were here many summers, so you would go out and do one workshop at one place and then the next summer or several summers later go somewhere else?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. I made it a point never to teach summer school at the university, first of all because I was very jealous of the time and wanted to work here at the studio, and secondly, I thought if they want to have a summer program, it’s better they bring in a visiting artist from some other place. And so that worked out well for me.

But I have taught at Penland and Haystack and Anderson Ranch [Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Snowmass Village, Colorado] and Archie Bray and so on. They’re all exciting in a different way. It depends on – it really depends on who comes to your class, you know, whether you truly hit it off or not.

MR. SILBERMAN: And I feel compelled to ask, for the record, you’ve also taught at Black Mountain [Black Mountain College, Asheville, North Carolina] one summer? The most famous of all avant-garde art centers?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, but that was – just it was by accident. When Hamada and Leach and Yanagi went to Black Mountain as the first stop on their American tour, I was sent down as an observer from our school, and the St. Paul Gallery, because the St. Paul Gallery anticipated – having been aware that Alix had arranged these four stops, they anticipated maybe publishing something about the four different workshops that these men gave. And I was sent as an observer to Black Mountain. It was there I first met Karen Karnes and David Weinrib, who were the potters in charge of the program down there.

I guess because when they wanted to do a summer program the year after that, in 1953, my name was still in their mind, and they asked me to come down and teach a session. And so we went down there and stayed for, I guess it was three weeks or a month; I can’t remember. It was very exciting because there were such people as Merce Cunningham and John Cage and David Tudor, and so you met a great variety of people that you wouldn’t have ordinarily rubbed shoulders with. And that was fun.

But I don’t think it was as good an experience as most of the other summer programs I’ve taught in, and the reason was at that period of time Black Mountain was really running through a lot of problems. Josef Albers, who had been the head of the school, had quit and moved on, and a man named [Charles] Olson, a poet, had taken over as the director of the school. And Olson was, I think, somewhat – how can I put it politely? – he had this strong ego and he really didn’t sympathize with anyone who was outside his range. And so there was not a lot of support for the ceramic area at that time. And it’s, I think, typical that within several years, Black Mountain folded, because Olson was preaching anarchy and the students were destroying the school. They loved it, but they were destroying the school.
MR. SILBERMAN: The ’60s before the ’60s.

Warren, you’ve touched in passing on figures like Michael Cardew and now Karen Karnes. There was the Leach group, and then you came back, you were sort of part of a generation of American ceramicists, including Karen Karnes and others, who were widely scattered in some ways, but how did you establish contact with those people, or friendships with people like Karen Karnes and Ken Ferguson, Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos? What did that mean at the time in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, let’s say, when you’re at the U?

MR. MACKENZIE: At that time NCECA, the National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts, was just building its organization, and we used to go to these yearly meetings, and it was there that I met many of these people for the first time and became friends with them. Pete Voulkos was, just in the early ’50s, changing his approach to ceramics from one of producing a lot of narrow-necked bottles, with wonderful decoration on them but not very exciting form, to the sculptural expression, which he was moving into. He was at the Archie Bray Foundation and then eventually out to California.
Pete was certainly one of the, if not the most, important American potter that I can look at, because he had such an influence, and the interesting thing to me was that he influenced many people who went in – not in his direction but in other directions — which have become important in American ceramics, I mean, people like Paul Soldner and others, who learned from Pete, but not working the way he did, and that I think is the sign of a great teacher.

Pete had a personality, too, which just affected everyone that he met, because he was full of energy and a certain irreverence, which young people do respond to, and they flocked around it. I think he was a really great, great ceramicist. I wouldn’t call him a potter, because what he did is not pottery, generally speaking, but expressive use of clay in a manner that nobody else had thought of up until that time and now it’s a fairly common way to work, with the freedom that Pete brought to that field.

There was a time when if you didn’t tear the hell out of a piece of clay, why, you just weren’t much of anything, and functional ceramics really went downhill for a long time. Now I think people are realizing that there are ways of working which are sculptural; there are ways of working which are moving toward a painterly expression; there are ways of working which are conceptual; and there are ways of working which are pottery. So there’s more of an understanding of the validity of each one of these ways, whereas at one time pots really almost went off the board.

MR. SILBERMAN: In the early days of NCECA was that an issue, or only later when you were active?


MR. SILBERMAN: You were the president, yes.
MR. MACKENZIE: It was only later on. Yes, I was the president. That doesn’t mean much. It means you’ve been around a while and, you know, they need somebody who will run the organization and be responsible for it, but that doesn’t mean that they’re accepting your viewpoint of ceramics or anything like that.
MR. SILBERMAN: It’s a democracy, an artistic democracy.
MR. MACKENZIE: That’s right. [Laughter.]
MR. SILBERMAN: Or an anarchy. [Inaudible] – Anarchists. Authoritarian as president.
What about locally? Around the same time the Minnesota Craft Council was going –
MR. MACKENZIE: Well, yes.

MR. SILBERMAN: – or starting. What was your role there, Warren?

MR. MACKENZIE: I was involved with them when they started out, and then I kind of – living out in the country like this, you know, you’re removed from a lot of activities that take place in the Twin Cities, and so I lost touch with the Craft Council. And there was one person who was elected as president and his whole desire was to close down the Craft Council, and for a few years it did close down. It had been an active, productive group dealing with exhibitions and meetings of various sorts and so on, and then it suddenly disappeared, because this man wouldn’t do anything to keep it going. And when your president won’t do anything to keep it going, it just fails.

Then after a hiatus, Peter Leach came along, and he remembered the old Craft Council and he thought it was worthwhile starting again. It centered mostly around ceramics at that time because there were more potters than other craftspeople in the area. And when it started again, Peter started it as a ceramic group, which has grown, and I was involved in that. I met with them – I was the very cautious member in that renewal. I remember they wanted to rent a big building and have a place where they could have studios and have exhibitions and all, and I said, “No, you can’t do that, you know, we have no money.” Fortunately, no one listened to me, and they did rent a building and they got a director who was very good, and it grew and grew. And then that director moved on and they elected another person and another person, and now they have Emily Galusha, who is an incredible livewire, and under her direction this has grown astronomically.

They now own their own building, and it has drawn money from local and national foundations for projects that they have instituted, and it’s one of the major forces, I think, in this area for clay work. They have a gallery, which brings in wonderful exhibitions; they organize exhibitions and then take traveling shows as well. They have studios where students can work, where professional potters can work, and they have classes that they give. It’s just expanding every day. And I think it’s one of the strongest elements in ceramics, around this area anyway. People know about it from a distance and come because of it.

MR. SILBERMAN: I agree. And there are major workshops featuring visiting people, so it brings in outsiders to help the community –

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, that’s great. Yes, yes.

MR. SILBERMAN: – by exposing them to work and ideas.

MR. MACKENZIE: And they set up a series of lectures and awards. They got support from –


MR. MACKENZIE: The Regis Masters series from a man named Kunin, who, interesting enough, runs the Regis hair salons, but, I mean, this is a big corporation, and the Kunins are very interested in art and he has supported the series of lectures and visiting artists and exhibitions, which they bring with them. That’s gone on now for about four, maybe five, years, maybe longer than that. And then they, in a sense, felt that they hadn’t exhausted all the American artists, but they wanted to expand their view, and they brought in a Japanese artist, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, who is a national treasure in Japan, and he sent an exhibition over here with pots priced extremely high. I mean, you’re talking about thousands of dollars, and to the amazement of everyone, all the pots which were available for sale sold here in Minneapolis-St. Paul. So that’s, I think, a sign of how important clay work has become in this Midwest community.

MR. SILBERMAN: I agree, they were great pots.

MR. MACKENZIE: They were great pots.

MR. SILBERMAN: They were worth it.

MR. MACKENZIE: But, you know, $20,000 for a pot is a lot of money to put out. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: The prices have gone up a bit since the time when Hamada’s pots were on sale.

And I should mention here again for the record that of course you were one of the people honored as a Regis Master, along with many of your great contemporaries like Peter Voulkos and Karen Karnes.
[Audio break.]

MR. SILBERMAN: Well, let me ask you about some of your travels. When you were in Japan for the first time, you were in the army, and that was your experience of Japan. Did you go out and see pottery?

MR. MACKENZIE: That was my first exposure to Japan, and I didn’t know anything about ceramics and wasn’t interested in ceramics, although I did buy a couple of pieces of ceramic work while there, none of which I now own. We had a cat that broke one and that sort of thing. But it did stick in my mind, and after becoming a potter, a group of us went to Japan to visit – I think it was in 1974.

[Audio break.]
MR. SILBERMAN: So we’re going to ask about the second trip to Japan, in 1974.
MR. MACKENZIE: No, we’re going to ask about the first trip to Japan because –
MR. SILBERMAN: Okay, tell me about the first time you were in Japan, just to be sure.

MR. MACKENZIE: The first time I went to Japan was I was sent there by the U.S. Army. During the Second World War, I was in the States all the time because my eyes were so bad I was not suitable to be a soldier, a combatant. And then after the war was over, the army sent all of us who had been in the States overseas to relieve the people who had been fighting so they could come home, and I was sent to Japan.

The army also had the stupid idea that you had to be placed in the same job that you’d had in the States, and I happened to have been working in a printing plant printing charts about how to dismantle a machine gun or things like that, so they said, “You’re an artist, you have to be an artist,” and there was no work for an artist in Japan until I found a mapmaking outfit that had an opening for, I think, five artists or something. So they requisitioned me and I worked for this mapmaking outfit.

This outfit ran a printing plant in Yokohama, but they only officially ran it. The actual manual work was done by the Japanese printers, who were superb craftsmen and could run all the machines and did wonderful printing.
But those of us who were in the army, we were told we had to look busy, and so several of us said, “Well, let us paint the activities of the army here in Japan and also the scenery around Yokohama and Tokyo,” and so they said that was all right and we did that. But we did the painting in the morning, and then in the afternoon, why, we’d go to galleries and we’d do things like that, and it was in one of these galleries that this other young guy and I met a painter named [Shigeo] Miyata, an elderly man who had studied with George Rouault in France. He was a medical doctor but a part-time painter. And we got to talking, and he persuaded the gallery owner to give the two of us an exhibition, which was how I got my first professional exhibition in Japan [Nichida Gallery, Tokyo], of paintings which were not very good, but that was it.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did people come and did they sell?

MR. MACKENZIE: People came and a few of them sold, yes. We were a curiosity I guess you would say. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: And were you aware of Japanese crafts, and especially ceramics, then?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, no. I was not aware of Japanese ceramics – I was aware of it but not interested in it, although I did buy a few pieces while there, and I bought some weaving and things like that. But no, I thought I was going to be a painter, and so I couldn’t wait to get back to art school and get back to painting classes.

But that was my first exposure to Japan. It didn’t stick in my mind when, in 1974, one of the fellows around here heard about some space on a charter flight, that we could get to Japan very cheaply, and we got that space, about seven of us, seven potters, and we went to Japan for two weeks. And our idea while there was to visit all the old traditional kiln sites that we could in the two-week time and see what was being done and so forth. And we were on such a short schedule that we traveled at night and went and toured around during the day and then traveled at night and toured around during the day, but we did see a lot of different places. We went to Mashiko, of course, and met Hamada again and Shimaoka, his best apprentice, who had set up a studio right near Hamada’s, and we went back to Tokyo and Kyoto, up to Shigiraki and Tamba, down to Kurashiki, up to Hagi, down to Onda, and eventually back home.

We were exhausted at the end of the two-week time, needless to say, but it was a wonderful exposure to the traditional world of Japanese ceramics, and I think it did affect my work, again quite strongly, just by coming into contact with these people who were making pots and earning a living making pots and succeeding very well in an economy that was not going great guns at that time.

MR. SILBERMAN: What surprised you when you actually saw Hamada’s place of work as opposed to having met him and seeing the pots? When you actually got there or to some of these other sites, what surprised you most or what fascinated you or interested you the most?

MR. MACKENZIE: Keep in mind, he had been declared a national treasure in, I think 1955, and he was incredibly wealthy. His compound consisted of about eight different buildings. Nearly all of them, perhaps all of them, had been old buildings which he had bought, had dismantled, moved to Mashiko, and then reconstructed. His main house was a gigantic farmhouse, a big old farmhouse that he’d bought. Perhaps the workshop proper was a building that had been built just from scratch, but it was an amazing compound of activity.

Unfortunately, when we were there, it was the middle of summer, August – not the middle of summer; it was the end of summer – and it was so hot that he had told half of his workers to take time off and go to the sea to have a vacation, and so things were pretty well shut down. But he was so generous with his time and he spent a lot of time with us showing us around the studio, and then up on the front porch of his so-called treasure house, where he had all of his collection stored, he said, “I’m sorry, you can’t come in the treasure house because it’s chaotic.” And he brought pots out in their boxes, and he’d open them up and show us these pots that he thought we’d be interested in. And if we said the right thing, then he’d go in and get another one. And they were wonderful pots. They were pots from all over the world that he had collected and which eventually, of course, went into a museum.

But he also gave us introductions to potters in other parts of Japan, which allowed us to have access to potteries in Shigiraki, for instance, that we would never have seen if we’d not known Hamada and had his introduction to tell them that they should be nice to us. So that was a wonderful experience.

We also met Shimaoka, his best apprentice, who at that time had left him and started his own pottery practically next door. He was the personal friend of this friend of ours, Taeko Tanaka, who was traveling with us. This is a woman who was born in Japan and knew Shimaoka before she came to America. And so she introduced us to Shimaoka and he very kindly showed us around his place, a completely different situation than Hamada’s, and then we went on to these other traditional villages, where we saw all kinds of ceramics being made.

But it was fascinating because it was also coming to grips with the day-to-day operation of a ceramic village. I mean, the village of Onda, where practically every family was a pottery family, there were these big water-driven clay crushers, which kept thumping up and down all day long and all night long, driven by the water from a small stream, and the people there made pots as a living. They also farmed a bit, but essentially they were potters, and that was a fascinating thing to see.

MR. SILBERMAN: And did you spend time in Tokyo? Did you see a lot of museum and masterpiece pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: We went to the museums in Tokyo, yes, but we didn’t meet any potters there. But we did go to the museums and saw their collections, which were incredible and really an eye-opener about Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pots, because what we had seen in this country was just the tip of the iceberg, as you can imagine, and there they had these fantastic collections, which went on room after room after room. We spent a lot of time in Tokyo looking at that.

MR. SILBERMAN: Any specific changes when you got back, or just general inspiration?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, it’s just – I guess it was a reinforcement of the direction that Alix and I had started out in and that it was – it just said, it’s really a pretty nice life being a potter. [Laughs.] And I think that today, too.

MR. SILBERMAN: You’ve gone back since, Warren, to Japan.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. When Fritz [Walter] Mondale was Ambassador to Japan, he and his wife, Joan, lived there, and I had known them before he became ambassador. Joan is a potter and a pottery devotee. While she was there, she asked me for some slides, and she and a friend of hers, Amy Kato, went around and they finally found a gallery that was interested in having an exhibition of my work. So that was the first time that I went to Japan to exhibit ceramic work. And this man was a very interesting man. He owned a gallery in Tokyo, but we had corresponded considerably before the show was set, and I, in letters, talked to him about my feeling about pricing pots, and I was concerned that they not become too expensive for the ordinary people to buy, and he went along with that.

I don’t think he made much money on that exhibition. I mean, it sold out, but even so he could have only made a few thousand dollars on that show of quite a few pots. But he has continued to show my work, and also recently the shows have been dual shows with my wife Nancy [Nancy Spitzer MacKenzie], who is a fiber artist, and he has shown both of our work a number of times now. He keeps wanting to have a show almost every other year, and, frankly, it’s expensive to go to Japan, and even though he allows us to stay in his home with his wife and himself, and it’s a situation which is quite wonderful for us, but even so, I’m coming to the point where I’m ready to say, I’ll send an exhibition, or we’ll send an exhibition, but maybe we won’t come over this time.

I mean, it’s foolish to think that we have to be there – although this is very Japanese. Apparently, Shimaoka, who is now a national treasure, when he has an exhibition in Japan, it is expected that he will be at this exhibition all through the running of the show in order to talk to people and explain his work to be kind of a host. Fortunately, an exhibition in Japan traditionally only runs for about a week and then they change. But Shimaoka will be in a gallery. Even if there is no one else there, he will be waiting for people who might come to visit his show and talk with him. It’s not in our makeup to do that, and particularly since we don’t speak Japanese. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: We should mention that Japanese television sent a crew over to make a documentary about you, and David Lewis’s fine book on you and your work was published by a Japanese publisher, Kodansha [Warren Mackenzie: an American Potter. Tokyo; New York, 1991].
When you’ve gone back the last few times, have you been able to explore other areas of the country or other aspects of culture and art?


MR. SILBERMAN: What have you seen that you brought back with you?

MR. MACKENZIE: The first time that we went over, when Joan arranged that first exhibition, we did travel around quite a bit. And since Nancy had never been there before, she was interested in seeing many parts of Japan. Subsequently, we’ve tried to visit a different part of Japan each time. But if you’re only there a week or two, you don’t get very far. There’s so much to see. But we have been fortunate to meet potters and fiber artists and to see areas that I had not seen before, and to meet potters that Leach knew when he was a young man in Japan. They’re now all very old, naturally; you can understand this. But we’ve done that and enjoyed that a great deal.
MR. SILBERMAN: And you spoke at the Folk Craft Museum, the Mingei Museum.
MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. I’ve given several talks at the Mingei Craft Museum, trying to explain American crafts to the Japanese public. And I believe they’ve been well received, although they were always, of course, having to be translated into Japanese, and that means that you don’t have much time to explain yourself. But with slides and so forth there is a communication, and I think people have liked what they saw.

The first time I talked mostly about American ceramics, and then the last time I talked, I talked about American work in the crafts, in all crafts – metal, wood, weaving, basketry, and so forth – which had been influenced by what they call mingei, which is traditional or people’s art, things which are made to be used in an ordinary home. And they went well.

MR. SILBERMAN: You’ve also done workshops in other parts of the world, in South America and in Europe. What have those experiences been like — the people you’ve met and the work you’ve seen and what you’ve been able to do as a teacher?

MR. MACKENZIE: I’m not sure what you’re able to do as a teacher. Again, you’re talking about short-term workshops, you know, a couple of weeks, similar to the summer programs that we spoke of earlier in America. But there has been an interest in the kind of work that I’m doing, that is, the kind of work which I would say belongs in people’s homes. Even though many of the potters who live in these other countries are more oriented towards a gallery existence, I mean, they’re making art which is shown in galleries, and once it’s purchased it’s probably put on a pedestal in someone’s home rather than being used in the kitchen. But there is a communication about this, and generally I think there’s been an acceptance of what I am trying to do.

We were recently in Denmark, and that was for me very interesting, because most of the Danish potters I met were, well, I’d say they were trying as much as possible to make their handmade work look like industrial, machine-produced work. And I don’t know whether this is a characteristic of all Danish ceramics. No, I know it isn’t, because I’ve seen some that is not that way. But there is certainly a strong carryover from what we used to call Danish modern design, which found most of its expression in furniture probably, but it had an effect on the ceramics as well. It’s a little disturbing, though, to find a young potter sitting down at a table with a piece of paper and a ruler and a protractor and drawing designs on this paper which are thought of as being ceramic designs. I mean, it just doesn’t enter my world.

MR. SILBERMAN: Not your style.


MR. SILBERMAN: You did a workshop in Venezuela. Was that closer to a folk tradition or utilitarian tradition or more –

MR. MACKENZIE: No, because, again, most of the people there who attended the workshop, they considered themselves artist potters. I did meet one young man there, Guillermo Cuellar, and he has since come to the United States a number of times and has actually worked with me in my pottery, because he’s married to a woman from Iowa and so they come to visit her family. He also is faced with a situation where he needs to buy materials from the United States and there’s no way of getting dollars out of Venezuela because of the economy down there, and so he makes the pots up here and we sell them, and he has a dollar account where he can purchase ceramic materials. But he’s a very good potter, and I would say he is convinced that there is a possibility of earning a living in Venezuela as a functional, utilitarian potter also, and his work is closely related to mine.

MR. SILBERMAN: Great. Functional pottery lives for a particular time.
Well, you’ve touched on it before, but let me ask you directly about your relationship with dealers and galleries. How have you viewed that over the years?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, frankly, I do sell in galleries in other parts of the United States, and I sell in a gallery showing in Japan, but essentially it’s not something that I feel very close to, because a gallery is a commercial business, and depending on where it is, it has to earn a living for the gallery owner who has, of course, many expenses of publicity and photography and openings and all that sort of thing as well as rent and lights and electricity, and so these people have to push the price of my pots quite high.

Maybe I’m not being realistic about it when I say anyone who comes to the studio here buys the work at wholesale price. In other words, I cannot discount my prices for a gallery and earn a living at it. At the same time, Nancy and I are blessed with living at the end of a dead-end road, and everybody – most people who come here are looking for pottery, and for that reason we can have a self-service showroom where people take care of themselves. I don’t have to stop work to wait on customers. I mean, you can’t very well run a showroom and stop work if you’re trying to sell a $5 or a $10 pot, but on the other hand, if people wander in and buy a $5, $10 pot, okay, that’s $5 or $10 which is sold, and that’s the way we’re able to work our showroom.

And Nancy’s work – now I’m married again, and Nancy is a fiber artist – she has fiber work for sale in the showroom as well and it works well enough. It works better than hiring someone to do it and it works better than selling through galleries on a regular basis.

But I do understand the galleries’ problems, but on the other hand it moves against what I’m trying to do and so I tend to try to avoid that.
MR. SILBERMAN: And is the work of other individuals besides you and Nancy in the shop?

MR. MACKENZIE: That’s correct, yes, because –

MR. SILBERMAN: Other potters?

MR. MACKENZIE: – there are a lot of potters in this area, in this general area, who do not have a studio or a showroom near the metro area. We are fortunate. We’re within 15 miles of Minneapolis and probably 12 miles from St. Paul, and people think nothing of driving out here on an afternoon or evening and buying pots. These other people live maybe a hundred miles away from the city, and that’s a trip that people don’t undertake lightly. So we’ve asked some of these people if they want to show in our showroom, and they have to accept the fact that there will probably be some losses from dishonest people. There’s breakage that occurs, some of which is paid for, some of which is not, but everyone is happy to participate under those conditions.

MR. SILBERMAN: It has been difficult for you because of your well-deserved reputation to stop certain people from coming in and buying too many pots.

MR. MACKENZIE: That’s true. I’ve had to – well, I didn’t have to, but I put a limit on how many pots a person could buy out of any given firing, and it has meant that the pots get spread around among more people. But again, it’s a showroom run on the honor system, so I don’t know whether it’s held to or not. I can’t say that. It’s an attempt to try to say, “Look, you’re not building a collection; just buy pots that you want to use in your house and treat them that way.”

MR. SILBERMAN: And I would say, just as an interested observer who’s in the shop occasionally, that you do get people from, sort of, down the road and in the community who are buying pots for that purpose or perhaps as a special gift and people from the cities coming out to use them in the way you wish and also as gifts, and so it works as well as it can under the circumstances.

Overall, Warren, how do you think the market for American craft has changed during your lifetime, what you’ve seen, your career as a professional?

MR. MACKENZIE: I think, first of all, the education in schools has improved tremendously. I mean, most colleges and universities have a strong ceramic program. Many high schools have a strong ceramic program. Those people who take ceramics, whether they become potters or not, have certainly become educated about what it is to be a potter and what the possibilities are and what they should be looking for, and they may not become potters, but they may be more inclined to purchase handmade work for use in their homes. So that much has changed.

When Alix and I started our pottery out here, we used to send out postcards and we’d say there was going to be a sale on Saturday starting at 9:00, and 9:00 would come and no one would be here, and we’d sit looking down the road and wonder whether anyone was going to come on that Saturday. And this was nerve-wracking. And we never sold all of our work at that time, but we had a little display area so we could leave it there for later.

But nowadays many potters in this area, either singly or in groups, have sales at their studios, and those sales are extremely well attended. There is a group of potters in this area, and these are – I would have to say these are all potters; they’re not ceramic sculptors; they’re all potters. There may be eight or ten in this group, stretched for a distance of 30 miles up along the St. Croix River, and they have started a group sale, which is well publicized. And in that group sale, in one day’s time, those people will sell between $50,000 and $70,000 worth of pottery, and that’s, I think, a very good situation.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you’ve been the model. You’re the firstest with the mostest.

MR. MACKENZIE: We didn’t set out to be a model for anything, because many potters are very happy to deal through galleries and exhibitions and earn their living that way, and that’s just another approach, that’s all.

MR. SILBERMAN: Have you ever done commissioned work, Warren?

MR. MACKENZIE: When we first started our pottery, we did. We thought about the Leach Pottery, and the Leach Pottery used to sell work which had been commissioned. Bernard would take on commissions to do specific pieces. When we started out, we said, “Well, we’ll accept orders for up to one-half of a kiln load,” which at that time was about 400 pots in a kiln load, but we did reserve the idea that for half the pots, they would be pots that were not ordered, for the simple reason that an order always meant that somebody had seen something of our work somewhere and they were asking you to do the same sort of thing. That meant you’re repeating yourself. And I repeat myself all the time, but I want to do it on my terms.

And also, nearly always a person ordering a pot has something in mind, and there are so many things that can happen in the course of making a pot, firing the pots, glazing the pots, all these things. Some of them you can control; some of them you can’t. And whether your idea of what you’re going to make is the same as the person who orders it, that’s a big question. And they walk in and you more or less can tell by the look in their face that this is not quite what they expected, and we always tried to say that this is not a firm order; we’ll make something and if you like it you can buy it; if it’s not what you want, forget it; we’ll sell it to someone else.
But still we felt it was not going well and gradually cut down the orders – cut down the orders. And then when Alix died, I took that opportunity to simply write everyone who had ordered anything and saying, “I’m sorry, I’m wiping all the orders off the book.” And since then I’ve not taken orders and I’m much happier and I hope that the people who buy the work are happier, because now they see a finished pot in the showroom and they either like it or they don’t like it. If they don’t like it, they walk out of the showroom; if they like it, they can buy it.

MR. SILBERMAN: Simple enough. Maybe you could describe the environment now as opposed to when you and Alix were in the basement of the barn, your working environment. And we mentioned the salesroom, which is very nice and in a separate spot, but what about your studio and where you work?
MR. MACKENZIE: Well, in 1968 I did have this disastrous fire. This was after Alix had died, but I was firing the kiln and evidently broke an oil line or something like that, and the barn was completely destroyed. Fortunately I had a friend who was an architect who came to dinner the following evening, and he said, “Well, don’t sit around on your butt and worry about it; let’s design a pottery.” And that evening, with a pad of typing paper and a pencil between the two of us, we designed a three-unit building, which was going to be the new pottery.

The kiln was not damaged, although the burners and the air blower and the oil pump and so forth were destroyed. The kiln brickwork was not damaged, and so we started building around that, a building which is completely concrete, including a concrete roof so that it can’t burn down again, and then a studio off to the side, connected to the kiln room, of course, in which I wanted to have tall ceilings, because working in the basement of that barn, the ceiling was about a foot over my head and that leads to a kind of a depressing feeling. And so we made a two-story room there where I could work, and clay mixing room attached. And it was interesting, because it did change my work. I found that the pots, somehow they opened up a bit. They maybe increased in scale somewhat, but they also had a better feeling to them than the ones I made in the basement of the barn.

Eventually I added another room to that complex, always with the idea – at that time I was still teaching – I had the idea that if I wanted to quit teaching, I might like to have an apprentice or two to work together, because I had always worked with someone in the studio, with Alix. And so I built a fairly good-sized studio which could accommodate several apprentices. Subsequently I’ve learned that I really can’t bear to work with another person in the studio for a long period of time. Sometimes for a short period I can do it, but I can’t do it on a steady basis. It’s just my shortcoming; I can’t help that. I’m quite happy working alone, and in the summertime when Nancy is working on her dyeing of silks (she works in the loft above the throwing room), and so we do communicate. There is another warm body there to exchange ideas and pleasantries with, but I don’t work with apprentices.

And then the last building, which we added relatively recently – well, come to think of it, it’s not relatively recently; it’s about 20 years ago, I guess – is a new showroom, and it’s a separate building nearby. It’s an unheated building with good southern exposure, and on a warm sunny day, even in the middle of winter, it’s pleasant in there, and people come and look at the work and purchase it if they so desire.

MR. SILBERMAN: Great. I’d like to ask more about the work, but I want to ask a footnote, which is about technology. Has technology changed in any way that affects your work or affects your ability to do the work at the wheel?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, when you say technology, I’m not sure whether you’re talking about machinery that I use – I still work on a treadle wheel because that’s the wheel I’m comfortable on. At one time I had a stiff knee and I thought I was not going to be able to treadle that wheel anymore, so I bought an electric wheel, thinking I could go on potting on an electric wheel. I then found out that I really can’t work on electrical. I’m just so imbued with the connection between my foot and my hand that I can’t work on an electric wheel, and so the wheel sits silent and I’ll probably sell it. I’ve decided now, I guess, that when I can’t treadle the wheel around anymore, I’ll give up potting or make smaller pots or something else.

There was a time, however, when my wrists and elbows were giving out from wedging clay. I mixed the clay in an old dough mixer and then stored it in plastic barrels, but before working on the wheel every bit of clay had to be hand kneaded to make it homogeneous, to get the particles of clay laid up together so that it would work right on the wheel. I use about 12 tons of clay a year. It takes about a ton of clay to fill my kiln, and I fire 12 times a year. Now, hand wedging 12 tons of clay is just a job that I can’t do anymore. And when my wrists and my elbows were failing, I bought a pug mill, a de-airing pug mill, and it’s a wonderful machine and has permitted me to go forward and continue to make pots. I’m sure if I did not have the pug mill, which does most of the kneading for me, then I probably would have quit potting some time ago. I’m just not able to do it.

But other than that, technically – I mean, essentially, I guess pottery doesn’t change that much, and I’m still mixing my own glazes and using the same chemicals and so forth that I’ve always used, so it hasn’t changed that much.

MR. SILBERMAN: What about the working process? Have you changed that much in terms of the working, what you decide to make or how you go about it? You talk about the sort of the discipline you learned from Leach, the ability to make work in a series, but has that changed in terms of how you go during the day, in terms of choosing what to make and how you go about making it? You’re not doing drawings, as you said.

MR. MACKENZIE: No, but I do repeat ideas for pots, even though the individual pot may vary from one to the next. People need something to eat out of.

One thing, now you ask, I realize I used to make dinner plates simply because people wanted dinner plates. I dislike making dinner plates. I find them limited as far as form goes, and since form is my main concern, they’re not very satisfactory to make. They can be made, but they’re not interesting. And I feel they really need some treatment, some decoration on them in order to become a complete unit. So I don’t make dinner plates. There are other potters who sell their work here in our studio who do make dinner plates, and that’s wonderful, so I don’t have to. But I make a lot of eating utensils, mugs, drinking vessels of various sorts, bowls to eat soup or cereal out of, bowls for serving, bowls for mixing, bowls for all sorts of purposes.

I think I’ve moved somewhat into, I shouldn’t say a concentration on, but certainly I’m making many more vase forms than I used to when we started out. A vase is a wonderful thing to play with because anything with a hole in the top of it you can say is a vase, so you can make anything you want. You’re absolutely unlimited. And at the same time, with that freedom you have to relate the vase to whatever is going to go into it and to your relationship with forms that you’re involved with at that given time in your life.

And sometimes I’ve made vases which pursue an idea I have, and I try to push it as far as it will go and see what the limits are. Often when I get involved in something like that – I just discovered this last week – I mean, it’s very recent for me to be saying this. Very often when I am pushing an idea that way, I’m more interested in pushing the idea than I am aware of what I’m creating, and I’ve decided this is not a good thing to do because I end up making bad pots. When I look back on them, they’re bad pots, I think. I think now that’s what I believe. Now, I’m not saying I’ll never do that again, but right now I’m not.

MR. SILBERMAN: Even when you’re making a lot of something, for example, vases, are you still making other kinds of pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: Oh, yes. When we worked at the Leach Pottery, they had a system which was designed to utilize the work of the people in the studio and accommodate orders which they had on their books for pots that people had ordered, demands from shops that they sold through for certain other pots, and also to fill the kiln economically. And that kiln took about 1,500 pots to fill. It was a three-chamber kiln, and the first two chambers were full of glaze ware, about 750 pieces to each chamber, and the third chamber was with a tighter packing because the ware was unglazed; it could be stacked. It held the 1,500 pots for the next firing in the glaze chambers. And this bisque firing was a free firing by overflow heat on its way to the chimney.

So we had a making list at the Leach Pottery, and each person, depending on their abilities and demands of the pottery, was assigned so many pots to make for the next firing. And I’ve retained that idea: to make up a list of things that I want to make, and I know it’s going to take me about 600, 650 pieces to fill the kiln. And that’s everything from small wine cups to large vases or big serving bowls and so on. And so I make a list of 20 of this and 50 of this and 10 of this and so on and so on to come up with what I think is going to be needed to fill the kiln. The only difference between what I do and what the Leach Pottery did is I don’t feel stuck with that making list. If I’m bored, I just stop making whatever I have on the list and go to something different, or I may just scratch some things because I don’t want to make them that month, that firing.

But it’s a good beginning, and instead of going down to the studio in the morning and sitting there and twiddling my thumbs and looking out the window and wondering, now what am I going to do, why, all I have to do is look on the making list and pick anything off it and at least I can work. I can start making something. I may lose interest in it and stop, but it gets me working in the morning.

MR. SILBERMAN: And then there’s always what happens in the kiln to the work.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, that’s true. Sometimes the kiln is a vehicle for expression which produces work that’s better than what you put in the kiln. I mean, something can happen in the firing that you never expected; you put in a very ordinary pot and it comes out just fantastic, and you had nothing to do with it; it’s just chance. Sometimes you have a wonderful idea of the way this pot is going to come out, and it doesn’t come out that way at all; it comes out a real disaster. But that’s part of what’s exciting about making pots. I mean, you never – well, you can. I’m sure there are potters who can control everything that they do, and if they do that, I feel sorry for them, because they lose that possibility of the discovery of wonderful things or of the shock of finding a disaster in their hands.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you have a salt kiln here at one point?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, yes, at one time we built a salt kiln and it interested me for about three years. I thought – this has happened several times in my life — I thought, okay, I’m going to learn about salt firing, and so I thought the best way to do this was to really concentrate on salt firing. And I stopped doing glazed ware for a bit and did a lot of salt ware, and then I lost interest in salt.

The same thing happened – I was doing some porcelain and I thought, oh, well, I can go ahead with porcelain and stoneware at the same time because they’re both fired at the same temperatures, use the same kinds of glazes, roughly, and I can mix them up and have a great time. I found out I couldn’t, because I started to make porcelain and all I was doing was making white stoneware pots, and the feeling of them was of a stoneware pot. I didn’t know what my feeling about porcelain would be. It didn’t want to be thin, translucent, perfectly formed, but it didn’t want to be just a gob of clay thrown on the wheel either. And so I quit doing stoneware for three years and did nothing but porcelain, but then I got bored with that and so I went back, and now I’ve decided I’m a stoneware potter; I’m not a porcelain potter.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you have your old favorite glazes.


MR. SILBERMAN: And you also are always experimenting with some new things on the side.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. I try to have a few glaze experiments in each firing, but the ideas you have for experiments, the percentage that work out as being worthwhile is very small. When we worked at the Leach Pottery, Bernard put me in charge of the experimental aspect of the pottery, and he dreamed up all kinds of things he wanted to test, you know. So my job was to weigh these out and make tests of them and put them in the firing. And I remember the year I did this – it was the second year of our being there – I must have made 120, 150 different glaze tests, and out of those only one came out to be a glaze which we wanted to use in the studio and which would repeat itself satisfactorily. And that’s just the percentage you get. Sometimes you’re lucky and you get more, but if you get one out of 100, I think that’s pretty good.

MR. SILBERMAN: But you keep trying.


MR. SILBERMAN: Warren, just a few more things. I’m not going to ask you as a writer about writing and craft writing, but I would like to ask you just what role the craft periodicals, American Craft or the ceramics periodicals like American Ceramics and the Studio Potter, played for you in your development as an artist or your role as a teacher?

MR. MACKENZIE: As a teacher they were good, because they kept me aware of what was happening in other parts of the country and of, I hate to say it, but the trends in the ceramic world.

When I quit teaching, I have to confess that I simply dropped most of my subscriptions to magazines. I found that they interfered with my thinking rather than helping it. And so I muddle along on my own now. At one time I had an idea of writing a book, and I started to collect some photographs about utilitarian pots, and then I sat and when I got a few photographs together I thought, well, you’d better start and see whether you can write or not. But then I very quickly found out I can’t; I’m not a writer. And so I returned the photographs to the people and that was the end of that.
Leach was a great writer. He thought in complete units. I visited Bernard just before he died – I mean, not a month before he died.

He was practically blind. He couldn’t hear very well. And I lived with him in his apartment for two weeks. He dismissed his housekeeper and secretary and we just lived there together. And in that time he had a request for an article about something; I can’t remember what it was. He had a tape recorder, so he thought about this for a while and he sat down and turned on the tape recorder and he spoke this article, which ended up to be about a page and a half long in printed form. And when he was done, I took the tape and took it to the woman who had worked for him as a secretary, and she transcribed it and put it in typescript, and I read it back to Bernard when it was typed, and he only had to change about one word in that entire thing. There were no “uhs” or badly constructed sentences or ideas that did not follow in the correct order for the article. It was a fantastic experience, so as anyone who hears this tape will know, you hesitate, you change, you “um,”“ah,”“er” and it doesn’t always follow in a proper sequence.

MR. SILBERMAN: Well, that’s a rare gift to have Bernard Leach’s ability as a writer.

MR. MACKENZIE: It was. It was a wonderful gift, yes.

MR. SILBERMAN: Since we’ve gone back to England, I want to ask you one more question about coming back to America. When you came back to America after being with Leach in England, did you have a different sense of historical American pottery and older American pottery, or did you have that before you left? Because he taught you to look at old English pottery.

MR. MACKENZIE: True, but also Bernard antagonized a number of American potters when he came through America lecturing and giving demonstrations, which he did not only in 1952 with Hamada and Yanagi but in 1950, when he did a whole circle tour of the United States. And Bernard antagonized so many American potters by saying that we had no history; we had – as he put it, we had no taproot, which means a history that goes back 500 years or something like that and on which you build and it narrows down and narrows down, narrows down. He thought that was a tremendous loss and that we were deprived because of this. I think that American potters, they don’t have a taproot; they have a dozen taproots, because America is a country where people have come from other countries where they have traditions, and they bring these traditions with them and build upon them.

And so today we’re an amalgam of a lot of different countries, and we don’t absorb it all, but we certainly absorb a great deal of it. And, of course, things have changed since Bernard was young, also, because publishing has increased and travel has increased and people not only can read and absorb ideas from other countries, they can travel to other countries and have other people come to this country to bring their ideas to this country, and you explore those and benefit from them.

So I don’t think we changed our view. In fact, Alix and I, even before we had any money, we had started to put together a collection of pots, pots from all over the world, because we usually bought them in junk shops or antique shops. And it was amazing what we found, I mean, Early American pieces, yes, but also pots that people had brought with them from Europe, pots that people had imported from the Orient, and pots that came from the American Indian culture, all of these things, which were available in shops. And if you picked the right shop, you could sometimes get something for a few dollars that was an extremely important pot, not in a museum sense but an important pot in that it meant something to you and became part of your life. And so I don’t think that the lack of a taproot is any big problem.

MR. SILBERMAN: Does the international travel and the availability of, sort of, being in touch with things going on change what’s going on from what you can see in terms of American ceramics? And it sort of rolls it – is everything becoming more internationalized?

MR. MACKENZIE: I’m not sure. I’m not sure.

MR. SILBERMAN: Let me rephrase. I mean, how do you see your Americanness coming out in your pots? You’re regarded as in part under the influence of Hamada and the Asian, Japanese tradition, Korean, and part Leach, but where does the Americanness come out, just as a model of one American potter as opposed to all American potters?

MR. MACKENZIE: First of all, I don’t think I can make anything but American pots. And I would go back to something that happened to us in England. When we were working at the Leach Pottery, there was a theater group that wanted to produce an American play. They wanted to produce Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And they asked us, as Americans, to come down and tell them how to act like Americans. Of course, we went down and we said, “Well, the only thing you have to do is lose your English accent,” which is not what they wanted to hear. They never did produce Our Town. They couldn’t get enough people who could do it, but they did produce a play with several American characters in it, and so we did work with them.

But the thing that amazed me was that the director of this play tried to point out to the people acting like Americans, that look – and Alix and I were both involved in this; we were just down there trying to talk with them – and this director suddenly said, “Well, look at the way they’re standing. No English person could stand that way. They just don’t do it.” And I think that there’s probably something about the way our bodies move and the way we tend to gesture which is different than an English person or a French person or Italian or a Japanese or anything else, and so we can’t help but make American pots.

I know I’ve been accused of making pots which are very Japanese. They’re influenced by Japanese qualities, but they’re certainly not Japanese pots. In fact, I think Japanese would find – the Japanese, let me say, are unusually chauvinistic about pottery, and they believe, and perhaps rightly so, that Japan is a very important ceramic nation. But they are also jealous of the fact that people, in a sense, imitate Japanese pottery. I don’t imitate Japanese pottery, and the Japanese people who I’ve known are well aware of this fact. They say, “Oh no, your pots are American pots; they’re not Japanese pots,” even with a strong influence.
Now, why it happens, I don’t know, but I think it’s something to do with the fact that I just live in America. I’ve said before, and I’ve repeated, that I think my pots are Midwestern pots. I’m most comfortable in the Midwest. I’m not comfortable on the East Coast or the West Coast, and that may be a very narrow view, but it’s the way I am and so I like it here.

MR. SILBERMAN: We’re glad you’re here. As another Midwesterner, I’m glad you’re here.

One last question, since we want to end with the work. As a practical matter or a specific example, could you describe what you made today and what ideas you might have been thinking about as you made the pots today? What was behind your thinking in terms of what was interesting?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, I can’t because I wasn’t making pots today. Today, I was glazing pots this morning. I mean, my month sequence runs through about ten to 12 days of making of pots, and as they dry, they’re being fired off for the first firing in an electric kiln, and then when all the pots are made and bisqued, I start to glaze. And that’s what I’ve just completed, was glazing pots today, and then tomorrow I’ll start packing the kiln. It takes a couple days to pack it, and then it is fired.

But I don’t know what I think about any given day in making pots. The making of the pots is the part I like the best, but you may know that. Michael Cardew has said, “There are people who are glaze people, there are people who are fire people, and there are people who are mud people,” and I guess I’m a mud person, because it’s the making of the pots and the manipulating the clay in a variety of ways which I enjoy the most. But, no, I can’t describe a sequence.

MR. SILBERMAN: That’s a perfect statement to end on. Thank you very much.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles and Interviews, Featured Artists, Videos/Photos/Slides

Smithsonian Oral History Interview: David Shaner

I will be running a Smithsonian interview the first of each month, covering ceramists and sculptors. The interviews are long, very long, so, I hope you read them when you have time and, even then, little by little, over coffee or tea… Here are links to ones posted previously: Rudy Autio and Paul Soldner. When I think of David Shaner, I can’t help but remember all of the Shaner’s Red I’ve used! Through family, schooling and interest, I am very connected to Montana.



Shaner speaks of his childhood in Pennsylvania and his parents background as pre-Revolutionary German-Swiss immigrants; his love of gardening; travels to the southwest United States, as well as Mexico and Peru; the appeal of the teapot; the spiritual aspect of making a bowl; how American craft has changed during his lifetime; his work at the Archie Bray Foundation; his education and his own teaching experiences; his Saturday job with Robert Turner; periodicals and their impact on the American craft movement; the calming effect of classical music while he worked; the construction of his studio space and equipment; the enthusiasm his family has for pottery and the arts in general; his involvement in the environmental movement and membership to the Sierra Club; his political views; the simplicity of his work; his opinion of writing in the field of pottery; his views on technology, especially within the field of pottery; his first one-man show; his opinion of other artists, especially those who are not being diagnosed with Lou Gehrigs disease and its impact upon him; and the last few pieces he did before closing his studio. Shaner also recalls Kenneth Ferguson, Daniel Rhodes, John Wood, Peter Voulkos, Val Cushing, Ted Randall, Charles Harder and others.

Interview Transcript

The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with David Shaner on June 18, 2001. The interview took place at the artist’s home in Bigfork, Montana, and was conducted by Gerry Williams for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview is part of the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America.
David Shaner and Gerry Williams have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

GERRY WILLIAMS: This is Gerry Williams, interviewing David Shaner, at the Shaner’s home in Bigfork, Montana, on June 18, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. David, I’ll ask you some questions, and you’ll just follow with an answer. Let’s start with the first question. When and where were you born?

DAVID SHANER: I was born on November 11, 1934, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which is about 40 miles west of Philadelphia.

MR. WILLIAMS: And your parents?

MR. SHANER: My parents were basically pre-Revolutionary German-Swiss immigrants, the Pennsylvania German, and a very industrious background on both my parents’ sides.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you feel you’ve gotten a good deal of the genes from your illustrious past?

MR. SHANER: I think maybe I was overdone on the industry part.

MR. WILLIAMS: Tell me a little bit about your childhood and your family background.

MR. SHANER: Well, my childhood was fairly typical, I guess, looking back. However, we all had our chores, and I took an early interest in gardening and growing things. I remember I was given the responsibility for caring for the gardening at an early age. We were not what we would call poor people, but we were not affluent people either, and hard work was part of our everyday existence. And when I was 12, my father took me out and bought me a new coat and told me that from then on I would be buying my own clothes. They lived through the Depression, and they were very proud of the fact that they didn’t have to take relief from the government, but they were sure that the depression was going to arrive sometime soon, and we all had to prepare for it.

I was one of five children, and I was the youngest one. I suppose it was easier being the youngest one, and for some reason or another, I always had my eyes set on going to college. I saw what was happening with my brothers and sisters-they quit school in order to work-in one case to go to war-and so I decided I wanted to go to college and go in a different direction.

MR. WILLIAMS: Before we get to your education, were your parents religious in their orientation?

MR. SHANER: Yes and no. We went to church. We were not fanatics, you know, we were Brethren, and religion was part of my youth.

MR. WILLIAMS: Tell me then, about your early education.

MR. SHANER: Well, I went to public schools, and I always was able to get good grades in school. I enjoyed school. I was a very serious student, I guess, and beside my interest in the school, I had other interests like astronomy and gardening and things of that sort, too.

MR. WILLIAMS: What motivated your interest in clay in particular?

MR. SHANER: Well, I really didn’t get involved in clay until I went to college. However, looking back, I remember if we had to bury any dead birds in the garden, if we dug down more than 18 inches we hit clay. And I’m not going to tell you that I made pots with that clay, but I do remember modeling little animals and birds and stuff out of the clay that we would find in our own yard. Clay always felt good to me. Whenever I would start a project with a painting or a blank sheet of paper, there was always a certain fear about what am I going to do. But with a piece of clay, it just seemed like it was automatic. You just started working and it was a wonderful thing. I sensed that early on.

MR. WILLIAMS: But you did explore other media such as painting and drawing?


MR. WILLIAMS: But not extensively, or have you always kept up with it?

MR. SHANER: Well, no, after I got involved with the clay work, I saw that it was all time-consuming. I did a lot of work in the theater in my undergraduate studies, simply because the one professor who was also the pottery teacher taught the theater arts. He’s also the man who sent me, told me to go to Alfred [Alfred University, Alfred, NY] when I graduated. I enjoyed other materials, but I soon realized that I couldn’t be good at everything. I always enjoyed woodworking, though, and I always thought that someday I’ll probably have a pot shop and a wood shop. After you realize what all is involved in the pottery, you soon forget all the other things that are necessary with the other disciplines.

MR. WILLIAMS: Let me ask you a question about traveling. Have you done much extensive traveling abroad, or have you mostly traveled here in this country?

MR. SHANER: I’ve done very little traveling. My overseas traveling has been to Mexico and Peru, and I did a lot of traveling in the Southwest, did a lot of hiking in the southern canyons of Utah and Arizona. And although I always enjoyed art history, and I suppose if I really wanted to go to Europe, I would have gotten there, but somehow I wasn’t ready; I wasn’t interested in taking on the Renaissance or the church and the patronage and all the hierarchy of the Western art scene. My interest was more in the Native American studies and I particularly liked going to Peru and following the culture of the Incas and so forth.

MR. WILLIAMS: What impact do you think that had on your work?

MR. SHANER: Well, certainly when you see the volumes of work they produced, you can’t help but be impressed with the sheer numbers, and the closeness to the land. I remember as a kid I always admired Native Americans. If I went to the movies, I was always the kid who was rooting for the Indians and not for the cowboys. And I remember actually trying to make arrowheads out of stone as best I could. And so I always had an interest in native people, and it just sort of stuck with me.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you feel any sympathetic impact from their mythology or their sense of design in relation to-

MR. SHANER: Well, I always admired their sense of design. Looking at all that geometric, I was not a disciplined enough person to be able to do that on my pots, but I liked the idea of the closeness of the nature and the clay, and the symbolism of some of their designs.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think that because of your travels in South America and Mexico, you feel yourself to be part of the international tradition, or more particularly one of the American?

MR. SHANER: I think definitely American. Again, I could have gone to Japan if I’d really wanted to, but I noticed early on that with a potter goes to Japan, two things seem to happen: either he makes Japanese pots after that, or he quits making pots at all. And so I was always in tune to nature and simple things, and subtleties, and I thought, if I go to Japan I’m going to get more of that, and so I never really put it on top of my list to go to Japan like I did to Peru.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why American, then? What do you find in the American tradition that is so important for you?

MR. SHANER: Why American? Because I am an American, and I guess I left the East Coast purposely wanting to leave all that tradition behind, and as Thoreau said, I went into the woods to see what life had to teach, not come to die and realize I hadn’t lived. And so I wanted to come out here and sense all of this, and get away from all that tradition and that approach to art, I guess. I mean, I love the Renaissance paintings, and when I go to cities I love going to art museums, but I began to look at that sort of thing as being kind of dead, and I was more interested in an art form which would be more personal to me and the time in which I lived.

MR. WILLIAMS: Have you picked up a sense of the intellect from other cultures and people that is sympathetic to your own intellect? Do you like the ideas as much as the object design?

MR. SHANER: Well, I like the ideas. I like the idea of creating a level playing field in our society rather than the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and I think in primitive people, that’s very evident.

MR. WILLIAMS: Have you written a lot?

MR. SHANER: No, other than occasionally for Studio Potter.

MR. WILLIAMS: And very well I might say. In that perspective, you don’t really have to explain your work intellectually to other people.

MR. SHANER: I suppose not. I think when I gave workshops I tried to be as direct and as honest as possible. For a long time I was fearful because I thought, this is not the thing that people want to hear, but I soon sensed that was the very thing they were interested in seeing and hearing. And I guess I wanted to do my thing, and I wanted to be good at it, and then I wanted to share what knowledge I had. And I don’t know whether the intellectualism was there, but I think the honesty and the integrity I tried to reflect in what I chose to make and how I chose to do it, and where I chose to live. Early on, I remember reading – [Shoji] Hamada said something about the kind of life we live each day is reflected in every piece of pottery we make, and we sort of thought, oh, that’s romantic, and we sort of laughed about it. But as you become older you realize that this is true, you know. Not that only good people make good pots, and bad people make bad pots, but everything reflects what you do, and I think that very thing is a very beautiful thing, that it can affect your work in that way.

MR. WILLIAMS: What is the essence of being American?

MR. SHANER: Well, some people would say it has to be gaudy, it has to be loud, it has to be obnoxious. And we live in a very diverse country, and you can be anything you want to be. And I think subtleties and naturalness is as American as New Orleans jazz is. It’s a matter of finding what you want to latch on to and pursue.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is America connected with newness and exploration rather than tradition and-

MR. SHANER: I think it’s-sure I think it’s a certain newness and experimentation, but I think again that can fit in your overall scheme of things. It doesn’t have to be something that’s divorced from your whole approach to things.

MR. WILLIAMS: If you had to be someone from a foreign country, what country would you choose to be from?

MR. SHANER: If I had to identify myself I’m sure I’d be – I’d want to come from the United States.

MR. WILLIAMS: But another country. Choose one that you admire.

MR. SHANER: Maybe New Zealand, or-


MR. SHANER: Again, because it’s a very beautiful place, and there’s not a lot of hubbub there. I just think I’ve always enjoyed the people I’ve met from New Zealand.

MR. WILLIAMS: They are similar to Americans in many ways.

MR. SHANER: I’ve never been there, I don’t know.

MR. WILLIAMS: A lot like Montana.

MR. SHANER: I have an affinity for people in the North, I think. As I travel around the country, the Northern people seem to be very special to me. Other parts that may be – although I love the Southwest and other places too, but there’s a certain kinship without a little bit of struggle in life.

MR. WILLIAMS: You believe in living on the hard edge of survival?

MR. SHANER: I suppose you could say that.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is survival a necessary ingredient for being a potter?

MR. SHANER: I think to a certain extent it is, yes, because if you’re too comfortable, maybe you’re selling your soul and not doing the things that you want to do. I think uncertainty is good.

MR. WILLIAMS: Struggle is an important element in developing who you are as an artist.

MR. SHANER: Yes. I think if you don’t give it 100 percent, you’re not fulfilling your whole duty as an artist. And I used to get concerned when I’d give workshops. It would seem like each one was like the first workshop that I gave, until I understood that Rudolph Serkin felt the same way when he would to out and give a concert. Unless you felt you were really pouring yourself out each time, you weren’t struggling, you weren’t doing it.

MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s talk about function for a little while. There’s a great dichotomy in American ceramics between function and art. Does that enter into your thinking at all?

MR. SHANER: I suppose it really doesn’t. As a matter of fact, I don’t even make a distinction between art and craft anymore. I mean, I was functional potter for years, and most of my work was functional, but-

MR. WILLIAMS: It doesn’t put you on one side of the-

MR. SHANER: I would hope not, no. I mean, a teapot can be a beautiful sculpture, and I would be more concerned whether it was a good teapot or whether it is a bad sculpture than I am which is which.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is there any of the Japanese Mingei philosophy in your background?

MR. SHANER: No, I was always told I sold my pots too inexpensively; that’s part of that movement. Again, I had to sell my pots to survive, and I had to be sure they were selling. But as years went on, my prices came up commensurate with where I was in my career, I guess.

MR. WILLIAMS: But how do you regard the seeming split between those who believe in functional ceramics and those who believe ceramics should be an art form. Does that bother you, or is it something that you’ve taken in stride?

MR. SHANER: Who was it? I’m trying to think of the potter in Seattle [Howard Kottler] who said either you’re making palace ware or you’re making peasant ware. I suppose I was more on the peasant ware side because I was making basically pots to use rather than things to be put on shelves. I think that’s why, again, the European art was always kind of a tour de force, and I was more interested in the materials and the process and the earthiness of someone using my work rather than putting it on a pedestal somewhere.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you still like to make teapots?

MR. SHANER: I did, yes.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why did the teapot appeal to you? I notice you have made many of them in the past.

MR. SHANER: Well, it was at the time when we were first introduced to it, I was told the teapot was the most difficult thing to make. And so I thought, well, okay, I’ll get with it, and I found it wasn’t the most difficult thing to make.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why was it considered difficult?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think because you had all these parts that you had to assemble, and it was kind of an organization problem, and we were still trying to get things to work together, not like trying to make things be distracted, and oversized and not working.

MR. WILLIAMS: What is the essence of the bowl?

MR. SHANER: The bowl? Well, the bowl is the act of containing something. It can be as simple as cupped hands. I never said this to anybody, but I always thought of my mother when I made a bowl.


MR. SHANER: Because she was kind of special, and she was round, and – I don’t know, I just when I made round bowls, I always thought of my mother.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you let her know?

MR. SHANER: Can’t say that on the tape. No, she died when I was 24.

MR. WILLIAMS: In that respect, then, the people on the bowl have some special quality, that puts them aside from, let’s say, a piece of sculpture, or-


MR. WILLIAMS: So what do you think that special thing is?

MR. SHANER: And you know, there’s a certain spirit about it that I – I mean, I’m not in for making religious things, but a bowl and teapot was a spiritual endeavor for me when I was making them.

MR. WILLIAMS: Spiritual in your own personal sense, not so much in an organized belief system.

MR. SHANER: Right. I mean, I think all works of art if they’re good are spiritual. I mean, it’s the spirit of the maker.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is that a sense that you have brought to your work from your family’s past, or is it something you brought into your work through your own interests?

MR. SHANER: I’m not sure I understand that question.

MR. WILLIAMS: You said your parents were Brethren, and they came from a traditional European background. Did that leave sort of a path for you to follow and explore in individual ways and not organized religious ways, your art?

MR. SHANER: I don’t know that there’s anything – any relationship between established religion and what I do in art, no. If there’s anything spiritual, I think it comes out just naturally. It doesn’t have anything to do with praying or anything like that. I mean, naturally I’ve always-my mother was wonderful, and I always felt close, and that warmth, and the same thing that was reflected in the bowls that I made. They were round and full and it had to do with food, and-

MR. WILLIAMS: Along with the question of religion, there is the question of gender and race and ethnicity. How does that relate to your work? Let’s take gender in particular. You spoke of your mother being in your mind when you thought of a bowl. Is there a masculinity that you use in some of your work?

MR. SHANER: Well, I guess generally you can say anything angular is masculine and anything curved is female. But I don’t think it was as prevalent or as obvious to me, as the bowl was to my mother.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did your father relate in any way to any forms?


MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think of your father in any of the forms that you have made? The rock forms or whatever-


MR. WILLIAMS: Is there any special character that is brought to your work by your white, Anglo-Saxon background as against, if you were, say, an African-American?

MR. SHANER: Well, it’s kind of hard to answer that because I’ve always been white. But I had some limited experience with the Civil Rights, and one thing I wish now that I had done more was to-if I could have done more with the Civil Rights movement.

MR. WILLIAMS: In what way?

MR. SHANER: Well, I’ve often-when I give workshops if there would be a Negro in the workshop, I always found myself giving them special attention or trying to help them along, because I think it was my way of paying back a debt that a Negro family did for me.

MR. WILLIAMS: So it was a matter of feeling sorry for them or being guilty about your own heritage.

MR. SHANER: Well, certainly not feeling guilty, but I, even to this day, I’m glad to see, when I see a Negro person getting ahead. I mean, I think Tiger Woods is wonderful.

MR. WILLIAMS: Please can you relate that episode that you just referred to about that family?

MR. SHANER: Well, I worked at Ocean City, New Jersey, and I had to earn enough money to get back to school each year, and I remember going in this restaurant, this fancy restaurant, and asked the owner for a job. And he told me he had this job and it was busboy and it paid, I don’t know. And I said, I thanked him, and I said that I needed more money than that. So I was leaving and he called me back and he said that he had another job. And he said, are you prejudiced? And I said, no, I didn’t think so, and it turned out that the whole kitchen was black – I was the only white person that worked in the kitchen. And I was a little scared when I went in there the first day and they were all standing around with butcher knives, chopping on stuff, and I asked – I became close friends with some of them, and I asked them later on, and they said, oh, no, we knew you were scared, too. They would invite me to their parties. At that time they were on the other side of the tracks, and it was just about the time when the desegregation was taking place in the south, and I remember asking one of the guys I worked with to go to the movies with me one night, and he couldn’t thank me enough. He kept looking around because here was a black person with a white guy in the movies.

And I was just – job was to take – I was a swing boy; took people’s job on their day off. So one day I would be in charge of making all the beverages, and one day I would be in charge of the storeroom and so forth. And besides earning my tuition, I wanted to buy a new suit. And I didn’t quite have enough money. And they took up the collection, and I couldn’t thank them. And the one woman said, well, you can in your own way someday, because she knew what was ahead because this was ’54, ’55. And so that experience did help me out when I was teaching in public schools, the fact that I could understand some of the problems that the average white person did not understand.

MR. WILLIAMS: Beautiful story. Are you bothered at all by the lily-white context of American crafts?

MR. SHANER: I never really thought of it, I guess.

MR. WILLIAMS: For the most part, that is.

MR. SHANER: I’d have to give that some-

MR. WILLIAMS: But I think one might say there are more black ceramic artists than there used to be.

MR. SHANER: Certainly. Right.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why do you think there aren’t more?

MR. SHANER: Well, I’ve always wondered why, when you go in the national parks, you don’t see more black people in national parks hiking on the trails, either. Is it because they do not have the money to travel to the parks, or why it is, but I’ve always had kind of a mission to-if I could put in a good word or do something for an Asian or a black or a Native American, I always felt good about it.

MR. WILLIAMS: Dave, how has the market for American craft changed in your lifetime, as you’ve seen it?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think it certainly has improved, you know. In the beginning we almost had to put jam in the jam pots and wine in the wine jugs to sell them, and I think the market for American crafts is very healthy. I think the reason for this is because I think the excitement going on in the crafts supercedes anything that’s taken place in painting and sculpture in the last decade or so.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why do you think that is?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think there are more people interested in the crafts, and I think that it is something that you can pour yourself into and work with almost in a more intimate way than a big slab of concrete or canvas, you know. It’s something you hold in your hand.

MR. WILLIAMS: You don’t subscribe to the conventional theory, hierarchical theory that painting and sculpture are way up here and crafts are way down here.

MR. SHANER: No. I think painting is very difficult, probably more difficult than making pots, but then again, there’s degrees of everything, you know.

MR. WILLIAMS: Has the public become more aware of craft and its context than it had before?

MR. SHANER: Yes, and I think the technical revolution has increased the interest in crafts. We were led to believe that things would be so industrialized that there wouldn’t be anything-a need for anything handmade, and instead, the people are hungry for something handmade. And you know, my son works for HP [Hewlett Packard], but he comes home and wants to work in wood, do other things. My other son wants to play the piano. So I think the distinction between the two is there, and I think it’s been healthy.

MR. WILLIAMS: In that relationship has the market expanded through galleries in particular, as in difference to the galleries or kinds of things that were first being done when you started? Look at America House, for instance. Do you remember America House? Did you ever sell there?

MR. SHANER: I never did, no. It was always the top green, you know, to sell at America House, but I never really sold a lot in New York, other than a show, maybe.

MR. WILLIAMS: But why has the gallery concept risen in the last 25 years? Why is Garth Clark so successful?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think people have discovered it’s an investment; they have discovered that you can buy a pot and in ten years or so it’s double or triple-museums are now public collections. They see more crafts on display, and so I think it’s become the in-thing, and important in people’s lives.

MR. WILLIAMS: What else besides investment has contributed to that?

MR. SHANER: I think an expression of a love a doing something. I mean, I think that no matter what you do, if you’re enthused about what you’re doing, it’s going to show, and I think this comes through particularly in the crafts. If you’re a good teacher and you love to teach, it’s obvious. If you love clay, and you love working in clay, I think it’s reflected in what you do, and I think people are more keen to understand this than sense this, and people want the best. Maybe they were just satisfied with something that would hold water, but now they’re-I think the average American’s aesthetics have improved, and we’re seeing more visual things and relating them to everything, you know, whether it’s film or sculpture or gardening or what have you, you know.

MR. WILLIAMS: What role has the university played in this new consciousness?

MR. SHANER: I think an important one. I’ve never regretted the time I spent in the university. I wouldn’t be a potter if I hadn’t been to the university. I think if nothing else it gives you time to think and to see, and develop some of the things that you might not have time to develop.

MR. WILLIAMS: Has it developed a buying public, too?

MR. SHANER: Yes, I think so.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you have a dealer to whom your work was sold when you were-

MR. SHANER: Not a dealer. I had galleries, but I never had someone who had an exclusive right to my work. I felt I couldn’t afford that because I had to keep an income coming in, and I didn’t want someone telling me I couldn’t sell anything on the whole east coast other than through them. I just couldn’t take that risk. Some people did, and it worked out very well for them.

MR. WILLIAMS: What were some of the galleries that you worked with?

MR. SHANER: Well, oddly enough I was thinking most of them were no longer in existence. They were good galleries, though, I mean, I always enjoyed my experiences in Scottsdale [AZ] with the Hand and the Spirit, and the Northwest Craft Center in Seattle [WA], and Foster White. You know, a lot of people say, how do you get galleries? Oddly enough, I think the most difficult thing is for a gallery to find good work. When I was teaching in Illinois, I sent pots to a show, and I’d forgotten who the guy’s name is anymore, but he was at the Des Moines Arts Center [Des Moines, IA] and he wrote me a letter and said, you know, can’t we have some of your work for the museum shop. And so that’s how I got a lot of my galleries, just by being in shows and people seeing them, and they would approach you. And I always tried to send the best work I could to all these people.

MR. WILLIAMS: What were the conditions under which they sold your work?

MR. SHANER: In most cases, it was consignment.

MR. WILLIAMS: And they took what percentage?

MR. SHANER: Well, it started as a third, then it went up to 40 percent, then it went to 50 percent. After it gets to 50 percent, you have to raise your prices considerable. But I don’t feel like you have to particularly sell your soul to the marketplace either. I mean, we live in a diverse country, and you can find a market for almost anything you want-you want to make, and I think the important thing is doing the quality of the work.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you tend to work for yourself, or for a market?

MR. SHANER: I think I always worked for myself.

MR. WILLIAMS: You didn’t make 14 blue jars because Des Moines wanted them?

MR. SHANER: No. I had an aversion to doing things like that, and even when I succumbed occasionally to do something like that, I always screwed them up, and it never worked out.

MR. WILLIAMS: Were the dealers upset when you came up with a whole new genre of work different from what you did last year because they were selling that work from last year very well?

MR. SHANER: Yes and no. The good gallery people knew that that was the way it worked, you know. Artists change, and good galleries were encouraging change. I mean, I had a glaze that was kind of like a turquoise stone, and I could put that glaze on a pot and I could sell every pot. I put that glaze on and I finally reached a point where I said, I’m not going to do any more of those, and that was the end of that glaze.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you have an apprentice or apprentices?

MR. SHANER: I was never an apprentice or did I have an apprentice.


MR. SHANER: Well, for one thing, my shop was never big enough to accommodate more than one person, and at Archie Bray [Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, MT] there were always people around working, you know. But I didn’t want to make someone else’s pot, and I didn’t want them to make my pot, either.

MR. WILLIAMS: You had been through the university by this time, anyway. What do you think of apprenticeship as a mode for learning?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think it’s good if there’s a freedom between the master and the apprentice, you know. I remember Stephanie Alexander telling me her parents had a pottery in Switzerland, and she was saying that they had all these apprentices, and they could make her father go around and say, flare this out more and make this narrow here, and they could do whatever they wanted, and then on their lunch hour, or whenever – -off-hours-they could make their own pots, and they made the most god-awful ugly pots because there was no carry-over between what they were doing for him and what they were doing for themselves. I think each person must develop their own sensibility, and if that’s lost in the apprenticeship program, then it’s not a good program.

MR. WILLIAMS: What would a good apprenticeship be, then?

MR. SHANER: Well, I never felt that-I mean, I always enjoyed everything about the pottery. There were times I didn’t feel like throwing, and I enjoyed mixing clay. And if I had all my clay mixed for me, it wouldn’t have been the same for me. So I always thought to really have an apprentice, you needed someone who could work on your car, or do some carpentry, or do something other than work on your pots.

MR. WILLIAMS: Have you had any involvement in some of the well-known schools around: Penland, Haystack, Arrowmont, Pilchuck [Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, WA]? The Archie Bray-where is that?

MR. SHANER: That’s that remote place out there in that brickyard in the wild west of Montana.

MR. WILLIAMS: Tell me how you first became-

MR. SHANER: Well, I’ve given workshops-not at Pilchuck, but I’ve given workshops at all the places, the Penland, Haystack, and you name it, and over the years I’ve been there at one point or another. But I spent seven years at Archie Bray; I was the director for six years, and it was a very crucial time, and got them through some tough times.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why did you go there in retrospect?

MR. SHANER: I went there because I was 28. I began to look at all the old professors who were kind of tired of what they were doing, and weren’t necessarily doing anything vital, and I asked myself do I want to be this way when I get to be that age? And so I thought I’d go out and test the waters, and be an artist, and then get back into teaching someday. And Ken Ferguson was at Archie Bray, and I met him at Alfred University, and he convinced me that I should do this, and I was tired of the university politics so I quit my job, moved my family-in that case it was three children-to Montana, and we had a good experience there.

MR. WILLIAMS: If you could describe your experience at the Archie Bray in a couple of sentences, how would you describe it?

MR. SHANER: Well, I was totally on my own. At that time the foundation was really not a foundation. I had full responsibility for everything. It was a tremendous amount of work, but it was a tremendous self-satisfaction when you’re able to do it. I was able to produce a lot of work at my own pace, and at my own sensibility, and I could sense I was growing, I was becoming at ease with the material, and so it was a unique experience. I wish now I had those seven years ahead of me that I could produce, but-

MR. WILLIAMS: So it was both a working and a teaching environment for you.

MR. SHANER: Well, it was teaching in the fact that you taught yourself, which maybe is the only way of teaching anyway.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you mold the Archie Bray into your own interests, or were you bringing someone else’s philosophy and making it their fruit?

MR. SHANER: Well, having read this book [A Ceramic Continuum: Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence, University of Washington Press, 2001]now that they’ve published, Kurt Weiser said that Ken did the Alfred thing and so did Shaner, and looking back I suppose we did, but we did it differently. And in essence, when I was there, it was the Shaner Foundation, and when Weiser was there it was the Weiser foundation. So we molded it almost however we wanted it to go.

MR. WILLIAMS: But it has had enormous influence on many people. Why has it had such an influence on so many people?

MR. SHANER: Because you had to make it on your own, and the people there were successful-the ones who were successful were the ones who made it on their own, and people gravitated to find out, to work there, had the desire to go there. It was a place where you could go and make a lot of mistakes and no one was looking over your shoulder. You weren’t working for any-you weren’t working for grades-

MR. WILLIAMS: Was it difficult working under conditions where money was tight and everything was a challenge because you didn’t have enough resources?

MR. SHANER: Sure it was, but somehow you always managed. We never really felt that we were starving.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you have an uncle to write a check at the end of the month if it was not doing well?


MR. WILLIAMS: So you really had to make it on your own.


MR. WILLIAMS: Is it uniquely American?

MR. SHANER: The Archie Bray Foundation? Well, I think initially when it was set up there was supposed to be this subsidy from the brickyard, and that was-that’s not American, and I think when I was there the board left me alone, but it never occurred to them that they should be raising money for me or helping me in any way. And I guess that they approved of what I was doing, you know. They never really told me, I guess.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you save it from disappearing into the ether?

MR. SHANER: Well, there was no question it was on the auction block, and some of the people who were very intensely interested in the beginning, their interest had waned-don’t ask me to give you names here. So in essence, I kindled the idea of what it was all about, that it wasn’t just a group of Helena locals, that it had wider impact and those are the attributes that we should build on.

MR. WILLIAMS: So you started to bring people into the-

MR. SHANER: I tried to bring people into the-

MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s talk a little bit about your university experience. What universities were you trained in, first?

MR. SHANER: I went to, well it’s now Kutztown University [Kutztown, PA], but it used to be Kutztown State Teacher’s College for four years. And I got a Bachelor of Science in Art Education. Then I taught one year in public school and then started at Alfred.

MR. WILLIAMS: Alfred University?

MR. SHANER: New York College of Ceramics.

MR. WILLIAMS: Who were some of your instructors at Alfred?

MR. SHANER: Well, the Chairman the first year was Charles Harder, which was his last year of teaching. And then my instructors were Daniel Rhodes, Ted Randall, Val Cushing, and my last year Bob Turner, John Wood, who was a photographer/ printmaker. It was a wonderful group of people and they were all intently involved in what they were doing. They believed in what they were doing and that excitement just filled the whole school.

MR. WILLIAMS: It was sort of the Athens of America wasn’t it?

MR. SHANER: I suppose, yes.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you consider yourself lucky that you were there during that incredible time?

MR. SHANER: Certainly. I had no way of knowing how long it would continue, but Ken Ferguson was there, Norm Schulman, Bob Winokur was there. It was a very-when I applied I didn’t even have slides. I approached Harder and he said, “Well, come and do a summer session and we’ll tell you at the end of the summer.” So, that’s what we did.

MR. WILLIAMS: What was the most rewarding experience from the Alfred years?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think my-I don’t want to use the term apprenticeship, but my Saturday job with Bob Turner was very important to me.

MR. WILLIAMS: What was that?

MR. SHANER: Well, I was his-I would just go over into his shop and did his clay mixing and glazing and helped him, you know, with chores around there. And it sort of put in perspective what the University was doing versus someone on his own was doing.

MR. WILLIAMS: Was Turner a uniquely seminal figure in your life?

MR. SHANER: Mm-hmm.

MR. WILLIAMS: In what way?

MR. SHANER: Well, he has always kind of been the god of clay to me. Voulkos is king clay and Bob Turner is the god of clay. And, I just had a lot of respect for him as a person. I remember taking-Ferguson said, “Why don’t you take this-take some pots over and show Bob Turner,” and I look back and I think I put them all in a peach basket and went over there and had him critique the pots. I thought, gee, that was kind of brash, but that’s the way you do things-he did things.

MR. WILLIAMS: What was the nature of his spiritual radiance that you liked?

MR. SHANER: Well, everything he did was done with such simplicity and integrity, and he was so honest in his approach to clay and his approach to human beings. He was just a gentle, kind person, and he still is. A lot of people don’t understand, you know, when he maybe gives a lecture because he loses a lot of people. But there’s so much there, you know, you just keep going back and realizing the depth of the information that he has. Why he wasn’t on that Ceramics Monthly popularity sheet, I don’t know.

MR. WILLIAMS: So, what do you see as the place of the university in the American craft movement, especially for artists working in clay?

MR. SHANER: A chance to experiment, a chance to develop their sense of seeing, thinking, exposing themselves to other people, other working habits.

MR. WILLIAMS: Does it make them, however, become more interested in their ego than their art?

MR. SHANER: I think it does. I think the period we’re going through right now is very ego-oriented, and I think maybe our technicalities have gotten ahead of our sensibilities. We have so much, so many techniques, so many materials, so many tools that we don’t have enough time to sort it all through.

MR. WILLIAMS: So ego is not synonymous with art?


MR. WILLIAMS: How would you improve the university teaching if you had a-if you could become czar?

MR. SHANER: Well, when I was teaching I always said that they should throw them all out after seven years and make them work on their own for a year, and struggle on their own and they’d come back and become better teachers.

MR. WILLIAMS: Are you against the, what is the term?

MR. SHANER: Tenure?


MR. SHANER: No, but I think it’s terribly abused.

MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Tell me some of the leading university departments in clay that you’d like to mention. Would Alfred be at the top of the list?

MR. SHANER: Yes and no. I haven’t been to Alfred for a long time. It’s certainly high on the list, whether it’s the best any more, I’m not sure. It was for me at the time.

MR. WILLIAMS: What are a few others that you have recognized?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think more than the school, it’s who is teaching at the school at the time, and this fluctuates. You know, one time you have a red-hot department and everything is falling into place. The salaries may not be the greatest, but it’s a good place to be. And then again, you can have a school that has every thing stainless steel and brand new, and nothing is taking place, so-

MR. WILLIAMS: Who are some of the good teachers that you’ve admired and come across?

MR. SHANER: Well, Daniel Rhodes is certainly a good teacher, Ken Ferguson was a good teacher, [Peter] Voulkos certainly was a good teacher in his own way.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is the younger generation capable of carrying on the high quality of teaching that you have spoken about?

MR. SHANER: I think it is, but maybe we need more time to sort it all through.

MR. WILLIAMS: What do you mean by that?

MR. SHANER: Well, we’re not aware where all of this good teaching is taking place currently.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is there some hope for the few?

MR. SHANER: Well, certainly.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is there a community that has been important to your development as an artist?

MR. SHANER: I don’t know whether it has been a community. I think the state of Montana has been important to me.

MR. WILLIAMS: In what way?

MR. SHANER: Well, it gives me sustenance to be able to live in such a vast place. I feel the humility of where you fit in in the whole scheme of nature. And the people here have been basically supportive of me.

MR. WILLIAMS: Question, where does American craft rank on an international scale in your mind?

MR. SHANER: I think it’s probably the top right now as far as diversity, visual interest.

MR. WILLIAMS: As compared to, say Japan or England?

MR. SHANER: Well, we always thought the best ceramic work was always coming from Japan, but I’ve noticed now that most-not most of them, but a lot of Japanese potters want to get out of the country so they can do some other things. And so I’m a firm believer that there is an American craft and it’s nothing that we have to feel ashamed of or feel-take a second seat to anybody.

MR. WILLIAMS: How would you characterize this American quality? What is it?

MR. SHANER: It’s a visual vitality.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you mean color, do you mean design?

MR. SHANER: Design, color.

MR. WILLIAMS: What about form?

MR. SHANER: Form. I think we’ve gotten it all together.

MR. WILLIAMS: This is the second tape-side one-a conversation with David Shaner, June the 18th, 2001, at his home in Bigfork, Montana.
David, tell me a little about your working environment; your studio space where you worked, how it was laid out and what was done there.

MR. SHANER: Well, I’m a firm believer that a craftsman should have the best working space he can possibly have, because I figured I’d be spending 12 hours a day, in some cases, there, and the more pleasant you can make it, the better off. So I tried to-when I built my studio I had lots of light, and listen to good music, hang things on the wall that I was interested in seeing.

MR. WILLIAMS: What do you mean by good music? What kind of music did you listen to?

MR. SHANER: Well, I tend towards the classical music, and I have quite an extensive collection of CDs, and prior to that it was LPs and then open-reel tapes.

MR. WILLIAMS: What I meant is, who is your favorite composer?

MR. SHANER: Probably Mahler, Schubert.

MR. WILLIAMS: Pretty deep, dark stuff.

MR. SHANER: I suppose so, yeah.

MR. WILLIAMS: You were continuing to talk about your studio space.

MR. SHANER: So I think, you know, as far as equipment, I think you should get the best equipment you can have or afford. You know, a lot of people will build something simply because it’s cheap, and they can make it cheaper than they can buy it but it’s not as good. And I’ve always felt that you should buy the best mixer, the best wheel, because, in my case, they’ve lasted me my whole life. And so why put up with a piece of junk? So I’ve always tried to have good equipment and whatever I needed. I did this for the long haul, so when I bought something I bought it to last. I mean, it’s in my philosophy with building a house, or whatever it is, you know.
So my studio was about 30′ by 40′ deep, and I had high ceilings because I didn’t want claustrophobia-I mean, I didn’t want eight-foot ceilings, I wanted more generous, you know, and the lighting was always good. And of course I kept it warm in there and so it was cozy because I was going to be spending so much of my time there.

MR. WILLIAMS: What kind of wheel do you use?

MR. SHANER: I was taught on a Randall wheel, and so that’s essentially what I use. However, I built a kick-wheel modeled after the one at Archie Bray. I also had a Soldner wheel-depending on what pots I was making as far as which wheel I would use.

MR. WILLIAMS: And your kilns?

MR. SHANER: My kilns I built myself, and they were-my reduction kilns were soft brick kilns-sprung arch, downdraft-no experience with updraft kilns, essentially. And my wood kiln, of course, was a hard brick kiln.

MR. WILLIAMS: What does having a studio in the middle of the beautiful Montana mountains do to your aesthetics?

MR. SHANER: Well, I can look out the window and watch the hawks circling over the mountains or the birds coming to my bird feeder. Seeing is so much important, and I think you can learn as much looking at birds as you can looking at other things, you know. You develop a certain sense of that listening and seeing, and it applies to everything in life.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you work alone always?

MR. SHANER: With the exception of Archie Bray, other than when Ann would assist me in the shop. But yes, I worked alone.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did the children help in the studio at all?

MR. SHANER: They helped with little jobs, but not to any great degree. I mean, they would-when we’re getting ready for sales they would help clean and do things of that sort; help with the sales.

MR. WILLIAMS: They didn’t tell you you’re using the wrong glaze, you’re using-

MR. SHANER: Oh yeah, sure. And at one point, they all made pots, but not to any great extent, you know, other than, the cat needs a bowl, I think I’ll go out and make a bowl for the cat, and that sort of thing.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had this class in Helena, and these women were struggling for years throwing pots, and Cedric was about five and so he was into throwing pots, so he was out there one time and I said, Cedric, why don’t you throw a pot for them? And they were really put down, you know, to see this five-year-old could sit there and throw a pot.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you give him a permanent job on the spot?

MR. SHANER: But they all loved pottery and they all were enthused about pots. And they still go to pottery shows and they’re interested in the pots that I’ve made, and other people’s pots, the same as they’re interested in hiking and looking around at what’s growing on the forest floor, you know.

MR. WILLIAMS: Describe a little bit for me your working process and how it has changed over time.

MR. SHANER: Well, I always had the kind of hours because-I mean set hours, particularly when Ann was teaching school, because I would try to go to the shop when she left for school and then try to have most of my work done so that at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon I would be ready to take a break when the kids were coming home. Then I’d go out in the evenings, depending on what I had to do. I didn’t like to throw at night. I always thought that I couldn’t see as well. I mean, when you’re sitting in front of a wheel and having all this light coming in, and then you’re under a light bulb. But I did most of my kiln stacking at night and my decorating and things of that sort. But I worked every day. I had to. And I had a cycle of-about a two-week cycle. I figured I had to fire my kiln twice a month.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is this both the wood kiln and the-

MR. SHANER: No, this is just my reduction kiln.

MR. WILLIAMS: How did you get involved in wood firing?

MR. SHANER: Well, I sensed a need to do something other than what my reduction work was all about. I wanted something I could maybe play around with. I was not intrigued with Raku in any sequence. And the salt always-the pollution aspect of the salt always bothered me. And I just liked what the wood would do to the pots. So I, again, feel fortunate to have started right when the whole resurrection of the wood firing was taking place; learned a lot and built a pretty successful wood kiln early on.

MR. WILLIAMS: What was the essence of your wood firing aesthetic? What did you want to see from the pots?

MR. SHANER: I wanted to see a history of the fire take place on the surface. It wasn’t necessary that they’d all be covered with ash, but I liked the kind of-the patterns and the flashing and so forth. As a matter of fact, some of the Anagama pots are a little too burnt out for my tastes.

MR. WILLIAMS: We might talk a little bit about other powerful influences in your career-people, art movements, the environment, technological developments. What sorts of things have had an influence on your work?

MR. SHANER: Well, I joined the Sierra Club in, what, about 1960, because I always had an interest in the land and the conversation and the environment, and I went on many hikes with them. And I think that the whole ethics of taking care of the Earth has been important to me.

MR. WILLIAMS: Are you an active member in the movement now?

MR. SHANER: Mm-hmm. Well, I keep paying my dues. I mean, I’m certainly not hiking with them, but at one point I was writing a lot of letters to save the Grand Canyon from damming, and save the Redwoods, and doing this and doing that.

MR. WILLIAMS: What do you think of the death penalty?

MR. SHANER: Well, when I was in high school I was always the one that was arguing against the death penalty. Now you’re going to ask me about Timothy McVeigh. I suppose there are exceptions, but basically I think every human being can be rehabilitated in some way. So basically I’m against it, I guess.

MR. WILLIAMS: We’ve spoken about the Mingei movement and its effect on American pottery. Has that had any impact on your work?

MR. SHANER: I like the spontaneity, you know, the idea of making pots quickly and spontaneous-simply, and that certainly has had an effect. But I never went to street fairs with a pick-up load of pots and sold them off the tailgate and things like that. That never appealed to me, yet that’s part of the Mingei movement.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you escape the abstract expressions of contemporary potters or not?

MR. SHANER: Well, I got into a little bit of that in Illinois because I was more exposed there to contemporary painting. As a matter of fact, one of the pieces in the Bray collection you’ll see has more of that quality to it.

MR. WILLIAMS: One of your paintings?

MR. SHANER: No, one of my clay pieces.

MR. WILLIAMS: Oh. And generally have you eschewed movements and styles in favor of your own inner compulsions?

MR. SHANER: I don’t know where I got all the simplicity from; whether that had anything to do with Minimalism or what. The first time I went to the Noguchi Garden Museum [Long Island City, NY] I thought, my heavens, this guy is copying me.

MR. WILLIAMS: What did his work look like that coincided with your own?

MR. SHANER: Just kind of the massiveness and the simplicity and the sheer. He was using a black stone and I was using a black glaze, and just the softness of a lot of the forms.

MR. WILLIAMS: Are there other sculptors or ceramic artists that you’ve liked that you felt sympathetic to?

MR. SHANER: I’ve always like Daniel Rhodes’s work. I’ve always liked the earthy quality he was able to impart in his work. I’ve always liked Peter Voulkos’s work-not that I would want to do it, but I always liked the explosive power and the freedom to do whatever you wanted to do, whatever it chose to do.

MR. WILLIAMS: But you’ve not been especially seduced by the technological interests in our field?

MR. SHANER: Well, I’ve always figured out what I had to know to do whatever I had to do. I never wanted to computerize my glaze calculation or anything like that.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think there’s some hope for American ceramics in the 21st century?

MR. SHANER: Sure, why not?

MR. WILLIAMS: Okay, let’s talk about how your work has been received by your public. Did you always “spring fully honored from the head of Jove” and make pots that everyone immediately liked and wanted to buy, or did it come up a long, arduous path?

MR. SHANER: Well, my pots generally had a pretty good market.

MR. WILLIAMS: Who was buying your work?

MR. SHANER: Who was buying it? Housewives liked my pots.

MR. WILLIAMS: To use or to set on the mantelpiece?

MR. SHANER: Probably to use. I began showing in craft shows very early, and somehow your reputation gets around and they begin to associate a certain pot with you, and maybe they look for that pot later.

MR. WILLIAMS: Have you liked any special writer in the ceramics field in America-perhaps descriptive writing, perhaps criticism?

MR. SHANER: One of the things I felt, we did not have enough critics in the ceramic writing. It seems to be a few people who seem to monopolize the whole field, and that disturbs me.


MR. SHANER: Well, because I think we need more diverse opinions.

MR. WILLIAMS: Who are the writers that you pay attention to?

MR. SHANER: This is a difficult question for me, you know, when I was reading them. I guess I really look to the makers more than the writers. I had more respect for the person who was doing something himself and maybe writing about it versus the person who was sitting in an office somewhere, trying to intellectualize about why he did this and why did that, and knew nothing about the process.

MR. WILLIAMS: In that context, which of the ceramic texts have you liked in particular, either older texts or newer texts?

MR. SHANER: Well, the [Daniel] Rhodes books have always been important to me. Henry Varnum Poor’s book, From Mud to Immortality [A Book of Pottery; From Mud into Immortality, 1958] was important to me. I never really had a lot of how-to-do-it books because I always thought it was a poor way to learn how to throw, by a book. I look at a lot of historic books, you know, historic pottery.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did [Bernard] Leach have any effect on you?

MR. SHANER: I’m sure he must have, but he was not a strong effect.

MR. WILLIAMS: Were you at Alfred when he came to visit?


MR. WILLIAMS: What about some of the new texts, Susan Peterson’s text, for instance?

MR. SHANER: I used to go out and buy every book I could that came on the market. In the last 10 to 20 years I find I don’t do that anymore, so a lot of them I really am not aware of-who is doing what anymore.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is that because you’ve internalized your own direction and don’t need anyone else to tell you what’s going on?

MR. SHANER: I would hope that would be the case, yes.

MR. WILLIAMS: So why don’t you write about that direction and inspire other people to do it?

MR. SHANER: Because I don’t consider myself a writer. Writing is difficult.

MR. WILLIAMS: You speak well.
And what critics can you identify as having anything proper to say?

MR. SHANER: I guess I’ll stay away from that one. I’m a little annoyed if a critic owns a gallery and then talks about only the people that are in his gallery. I think a critic should be someone who is totally impartial.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is that ever conceivable?

MR. SHANER: Who was the guy from England that wrote a book on ceramics-Rawson?

MR. WILLIAMS: Philip Rawson.

MR. SHANER: Philip Rawson. I thought he did a good job.

MR. WILLIAMS: Fortunately, he wasn’t a potter.

What periodicals in the craft field have you read or liked?

MR. SHANER: Well, I’ve always gotten Craft Horizons or American Craft, and Studio Potter and Ceramics Monthly. I only get one anymore, though; it’s Studio Potter.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why is that?

MR. SHANER: Well, because I felt that it deals with the subject in depth. I get annoyed with all the flashy advertisement for all the fancy shows in some of them. And it seems like there’s so much ego in the writing in some of the others, and in many cases the writing is down to zilch and it’s all PR and advertising.

MR. WILLIAMS: Does that say a lot for our field?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think the fact that they’re all surviving says a lot, you know. Or maybe none of them are that well. I don’t know what the inside of the publishing field is.

MR. WILLIAMS: Are you sympathetic to the importance of archival preservation of the writings of individual potters and craft artists to be preserved?

MR. SHANER: I suppose I’d have to say yes to that, otherwise I wouldn’t be making this tape.

MR. WILLIAMS: Have you and your wife, Ann, archived your own papers?


MR. WILLIAMS: If not, why not?

MR. SHANER: Well, some things you just never get around to doing. I mean, it’s hard for me to even keep my resume up to date let alone save every gallery or every show announcement and all of that.

MR. WILLIAMS: Let me switch slightly from that subject to an interesting question. Can you discuss your views on the importance of clay as a means of expression, or of the strengths and limitations of that medium?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think it’s probably the most responsive material available to man. You can’t touch a piece of wood or a piece of metal or a piece of plastic or glass-the nature of just touching a piece of clay you leave a thumbprint, and I think it’s so responsive. In some cases it’s too responsive and then you-people try to do anything with it. It’s been thought of in the past, lots of times, as being kind of a mundane material. A sculptor works in clay before he can afford to do bronze or something else, but to me it is a material in itself. In most cases it has to be fired, although in some cultures it wasn’t even fired and it was important. A whole history of the world is in clay.

MR. WILLIAMS: What is the conflict between that and technology in our society?

MR. SHANER: I guess I’m anti-technology. What was that word you were looking up, Ann, in the crossword puzzle the other day?

ANN SHANER: I don’t remember what you’re referring to.

MR. SHANER: Cedric tiled his floor with Mexican tile. And he sent us a picture and in one of the tiles is a dog print. And he thought-he was so proud that he bought those tiles, and there was one of them a dog had walked on. So, by gosh, he was putting that on his floor. That was important to him.

MR. WILLIAMS: And will you just tell me what your son does for a living?

MR. SHANER: What’s his title, Ann?

ANNE SHANER: He’s in marketing technology.

MR. SHANER: For Hewlett-Packard.

MR. WILLIAMS: So, would that be an example of the need for the human or visual touch in our lives in a world-

MR. SHANER: I think so, and clay is such a universal thing; it’s abundant. Something that was very important to me-and I think it was Rhodes pointed out in his book when he gave an analysis of the substances in the Earth and then the analysis of clay, and it was just about the same. And I began to realize how universal this material is that we call clay.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think the Bush administration would be more effective if it had a class in clay at the White House for its staff?

MR. SHANER: The way Joan Mondale supposedly-


MR. SHANER: It’s hard for me to say too many kind things about the Bush administration other than I’m hoping I can outlive it, but I don’t know. I have something like 1,235 more days to go.

MR. WILLIAMS: Oh, you’ll outlive it, I’m sure.

MR. SHANER: I was glad to see when one of your fellow Vermonters said he was first annoyed when Reagan said that the government has no business in the arts, and that must have been over 20 years ago. And I should mention that the National Endowment-because I think it is important; I think particularly with shows-a lot of things I never would have seen if it hadn’t been for things that they’ve funded that happened to come through Seattle or, you know-and it was nice for everybody to get a grant. Not everybody got a grant, but they support and continue to support so many fine projects.

MR. WILLIAMS: You yourself initiated the endowment grant at the Archie Bray Foundation.

MR. SHANER: The Archie Bray was the first organization to get a craft grant, and this was a big controversy. While I was applying for the grant, one of my board members was writing to the endowment saying, don’t fund this. And they were smart enough to realize what was taking place and funded it anyway.

MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s talk about commissioned work. Have you had many commissioned pieces in your career? Or if not, tell me about pieces that are in certain collections.

MR. SHANER: I don’t think I’ve had that. I can’t remember a major commission that I’ve ever had. I think the pot that stands out in my mind as being one of my most successful pieces is the one that’s in the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York. And it’s one of those things where I had hiked down in the Escalante Canyon; I came back and made this piece, fired the kiln and packed the piece hot, shipped it off and never saw it again. And maybe if I saw it again, I mean other than a picture, I would change my mind. But that was a major successful endeavor, I thought, because I felt I captured my feelings in that particular piece. But I have work now showing in five continents.

MR. WILLIAMS: Are they in collections abroad as well?

MR. SHANER: Not too many collections abroad other than Canada, but I’ve had tours through the various crafts shows. There was one that went to Poland and Moscow about 20 years ago that was the first American crafts that were shown there. And I had pots shown in South America and Australia and Japan.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you feel you’ve been successful, on the whole, to get your pieces in important collections and have it shown?

MR. SHANER: Yes, I think so. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve never been the type of person that pushed and pushed myself for my work. I have always felt that good work should find its own depth. And it’s always reassuring to have one of your pieces in a collection.

MR. WILLIAMS: Side four of the tapes with David Shaner, June 18, 2001, in Bigfork, Montana.

David, I want to ask you the similarities and differences between your early work and your late work. Can you describe that?

MR. SHANER: Well, I like to feel that there’s a thread about all my work; that one person made it. I’m not of the opinion that one’s work has to change with every whim and every shift of the art movement. I was always interested in simplicity. My early work was basically thrown, and my later work was basically hand-built. But simplicity of form carry through, I think, in both of them. And, like I said, I like it to be very obvious that one person made that whole body of work. Although I never felt I developed a style or anything, I just felt that by working you become so comfortable with what you’re doing that it becomes kind of a practiced grace and permeates whatever you do.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you have a special place within you where these things came from?

MR. SHANER: I don’t know that I do.

MR. WILLIAMS: Where do they come from?

MR. SHANER: Well, I think they come from hikes in the canyons and seeing simplistic forms. Although I can’t make pots [Mr. Shaner stopped working in clay in 1997 due to his illness], I still think about pots, I still dream about pots, I’m still making pots in my dreams. And I like to feel they just have grown and developed in my whole body, and that I was just a vehicle to bring them about.

MR. WILLIAMS: When you see one of your early pots, do you recognize something in that that you then had in your later pots as well-some quality, some essence?

MR. SHANER: Sometimes I’ll see an early pot. I remember going to a workshop and this person said, “Oh, I happen to have a pot. Do you want me to bring it in?” And I kept saying-you know, I just kept putting it off, putting it off. So finally the last day they brought the pot in, and it was a beauty.

MR. WILLIAMS: Why did you like it?

MR. SHANER: There just was something about-that I captured, whatever, the whole essence of it. So that pot is somewhere in Philadelphia.

MR. WILLIAMS: So you had it early on as well as later on. It was there. You were born with it, were you?

MR. SHANER: I don’t whether I was born with it, but I knew I had special talents with clay and I always knew I wanted to be an artist. And I was able to spend a whole lifetime developing what I wanted to do, and that was a joy as well as a sacrifice. Some people hate their job. I enjoyed my job.

MR. WILLIAMS: Can you describe the first exhibition you had? What was in it, where was it?

MR. SHANER: You mean one-man show?

MR. WILLIAMS: One-man show.

MR. SHANER: Well, I was involved in many group shows. The first one-man show that I can remember was maybe one in Bozeman [Montana State University] in the library about 1964 or ’65.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you ask for it or did they invite you?

MR. SHANER: They invited me.

MR. WILLIAMS: What did you have in it?

MR. SHANER: Just a variety of what were the things I was-I never made things for shows. I just always exhibited whatever I was making. I always tried to make sure that I was doing exciting things to me, as I worked, and so that’s what I wanted to show.
MR. WILLIAMS: And did you do that all the way through your professional career, making things that you liked to do rather than for the exhibition?

MR. SHANER: Right. I made very few sketches of pots because I found I couldn’t make the things I sketched and I couldn’t necessarily sketch the things I made. So much took place as I was working.

MR. WILLIAMS: Not in your mind but in your hands.

MR. SHANER: Right.

MR. WILLIAMS: And did one pot, then, lead to the next one?

MR. SHANER: Right.

MR. WILLIAMS: You tried something-

MR. SHANER: And the advantage that the potter has over the painter is the painter does not have to deal with that curse, the kiln. But yet, that kiln can be a wonderful friend, and all sorts of things take place in that kiln that you couldn’t possibly conceive. But if you’re careful and can watch what’s doing it, you can make it part of your working vocabulary. And I think looking at the pots is very important.

MR. WILLIAMS: In that respect, you’ve done a lot of workshops and demonstrations. How has that helped you develop your professional skills in life?

MR. SHANER: Well, it made me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it, because those were the questions they wanted to ask me. It made me crystallize my thinking, I guess. I not only had to demonstrate, but I had to verbalize. It helped my confidence to have people appreciate what I was doing, and command an audience and command respect. And I’ve had people that have taken my workshop three or four times, so they must get something out of it.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you have a philosophy of teaching?

MR. SHANER: I suppose it was doing rather than talking.

MR. WILLIAMS: But then you had to decide what to do in order to show them what they were looking at. How did you decide that?

MR. SHANER: Well, I tried to-Even the things that I would do again and again, I would try to make myself feel that it was the first time I was doing it, even though it might be something that I did a hundred times before, to try to maintain a certain freshness about what I was doing. I mean, it must be like someone playing Bach on a piano. It’s been written down for centuries, but yet somebody can come along and play Bach in a different way, and sense a certain richness about. And I think that’s the idea of pottery; the forms are so universal and yet they’re timeless. The throwing could be almost like a dance in that respect.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you get interested at all in political or social commentary in your work?
MR. SHANER: Mm-hmm.

MR. WILLIAMS: Tell me how.

MR. SHANER: Well, I did a lot of natural things with brushwork. And I made one series, The Last of the Wilderness, I remember, where I had-most everything was black and just showing one little section of the natural world.
In essence, I was trying to create beautiful things. I didn’t think beauty had to be something that was looked down upon. And the world was beautiful, and I just thought: produce beautiful art to make a statement to show how beautiful things can be. I wasn’t trying to necessarily destroy anything the way some artists do, you have to destroy something in order to make something.

MR. WILLIAMS: By social commentary I mean George Bush, or I mean a black hanging in Georgia. Do those kinds of things enter your work at all, even if-

MR. SHANER: I don’t think they’ve entered my work, as such, but they might have prevented me from working. I mean, I could hear something that would so upset me that I wouldn’t be able to work. But I don’t think it went out and made me produce a specific protest piece.

MR. WILLIAMS: What do you think of social protest in ceramic art? Is it valid?

MR. SHANER: I guess everything is valid, depending on who’s doing it.

MR. WILLIAMS: Is it passé in terms of high art?

MR. SHANER: I think it’s something that’s probably made for the spur of the moment. And in some cases it’s very short-lived, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you like Robert Arneson’s work?

MR. SHANER: Mm-hmm, very much so. That’s why clay is so wonderful. There’s so many ways of-directions to go. And I’m accepting of any way of working, provided you’re good at it, you’re enthused about it, and it reflects what you’re all about. Now, if you put swastika on everything-I’d question it.

MR. WILLIAMS: What involvement do you have with national craft organizations like NCECA [National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts], American Craft Council, and so forth?

MR. SHANER: Well, I’ve always-I’m a member of NCECA and I’m a member of the American Craft Council. I always thought paying my dues to the American Craft Council was like paying union dues. I didn’t necessarily agree with what they were doing, but I thought someone had to speak for us.

I couldn’t afford to go to the NCECA’s every year, you know; for me to quit work and, you know, it usually cost $1,000. And it was usually in March, and March was always our leanest month as far as sales were concerned. I enjoyed my times when I went to all the NCECA conferences, but I’m not a-you know, I was not an NCECA junkie that had to go every year to get my fix, I guess.

MR. WILLIAMS: In that relationship, have you had any meaningful contacts with curators in museums that have been useful to your professional career?

MR. SHANER: I guess not. I’ve had a better relationship, I think, with curators than I have with so-called arts bureaucrats that run art centers, and people of that sort. With the real professional curators I’ve had no difficulty with and have enjoyed any association I’ve had with them.

MR. WILLIAMS: What museums in particular have you worked with?

MR. SHANER: Well, I can’t say I’ve worked with them, but I’ve always enjoyed the Seattle Art Museum.

MR. WILLIAMS: Who is there as curator?

MR. SHANER: Well the person-what was-Mike’s wife was the curator. I think she was David Levengood’s wife?

ANN SHANER: I can’t help you.

MR. WILLIAMS: Any in Montana here?

MR. SHANER: Not really because most of the museums are kind of fairly recent. A good friend of mine is Peter Held at the Holter Museum [Holter Museum of Art, Helena, MT]. I have a good rapport with him.

MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think they play a role in the public’s perception of American ceramics?

MR. SHANER: Yes, I think so, if they’re doing their job. Peter goes out and searches out, you know, evocative shows and presents them, and it’s not just showing the same thing again and again.

MR. WILLIAMS: What impact, if anything, has technology had on your work? We’ve discussed this, but can you identify any aspect of it?

MR. SHANER: I guess technology has not had a great effect on my work.

MR. WILLIAMS: By that do you mean computer technology?

MR. SHANER: I depend on my wife to do all my cyber-

MR. WILLIAMS: So one can get along without visual ceramics, perhaps?

MR. SHANER: One could get along without visual?

MR. WILLIAMS: Can one get along without virtual ceramics?


MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think we’ll eventually just make pots on the Internet and exchange them around the world?

MR. SHANER: I find that hard to fathom. But they rave about this music on the Internet. When I hear anything-music on the Internet, if it would be on the radio, I’d turn it off, you know, as far as quality and everything else.
I’m grinning here because I’m thinking some of my remarks they used to say about Mike Mansfield, they always had to compile a list that was twice as long as everybody else because so many of the questions were a yes and a no. [Laughs.] And if he didn’t have anything to say he didn’t say it.

MR. WILLIAMS: Who was Mike Mansfield?

MR. SHANER: Mike Mansfield was a majority leader from-longer than any other senator-from Montana.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did you know him personally?

MR. SHANER: I knew an aide of his personally. I felt as if I knew him personally. I mean, you could write him letters. He’s still living.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did he play a role in the Bray Foundation at all?

MR. SHANER: Mm-hmm.

MR. WILLIAMS: What was that?

MR. SHANER: Well, we wrote to him to try to help us in any way that he possibly could. He was aware of the Bray. They had a show at the Smithsonian of Bray work. And he was the one that, after everything fell through, decided that we should ask the Endowment [National Endowment for the Arts] for money because he thought that they owed us something. And perhaps they felt that it would be good if they could fund something that Mansfield was interested in funding because he was he most powerful man in the U.S. Senate for 30 years, I think. He’s sort of like the Bob Turner of the politicians, I guess.

MR. WILLIAMS: What do your senators now think about the arts?

MR. SHANER: Well, I’d put Conrad Burns in there with George Bush. Max Baucus’s wife-not wife, his mother [Jean]-was in my pottery class in Helena. And at one point, he bought some mugs for his office. I wanted to give them to him but he said no, he couldn’t do that; he’d have to pay for them.

MR. WILLIAMS: That was your brush with immortality.
Do you know Joan Mondale at all?

MR. SHANER: Met her in the elevator at NCECA in Philadelphia. Asked her if she’d consider asking her husband to run again. I don’t know who was running that year, but-

MR. WILLIAMS: What did she say?

MR. SHANER: Oh, no, no. Then she looked to see what my name was.

MR. WILLIAMS: David, tell me a little about your immediate family members, and who they are and what they do.

MR. SHANER: Well, I’ve been fortunate to be married to a wonderful woman for 44 years. We have four children, two girls and two boys. My sons are both involved in technology-computer companies-Celestica and HP. And my two daughters, one is a physical therapist and the other is a speech pathologist. And although they’re not involved in the arts, they have a wonderful appreciation of the arts. And the arts are very important in their lives, both music-wise and visually.

MR. WILLIAMS: Tell me what your wife, Ann, does.

MR. SHANER: My wife is a teacher. However, she did not go back to teaching after we were married until our youngest daughter, Coille, was in kindergarten, so that she was a stay-home mother for the years when the kids really needed her-you know, preschool. And of course my work was always at home so I was always close by as well, which is one of the rewards of being self-employed and being able to work at home.

MR. WILLIAMS: Did she help you with some of the big projects that you were involved in?

MR. SHANER: My wife always-Ann always did the book work for me, the paperwork. I answered the mail but she did the typing and now does the computer work. And later on she’d help me in the shop with some of the clay work when I was physically not able to do it. And she enjoyed doing it too, so she would help.

MR. WILLIAMS: You have a beautiful and spectacular garden outside your house. Tell me a little about your interest in flowers.

MR. SHANER: Well, growing things was always important to me, and I still plant things. As a boy I-as a child I had a garden, and everywhere I went I planted gardens. One of the things we were anxious to finally find a piece of ground where we would build a garden and live there for a while rather than leave our gardens behind.

And the garden, again, was a family endeavor. At one time it was a source of most of our food, but now it augments, you know, with fresh greens and fresh, organically grown food for the summer. To me it’s a spiritual thing. And it also, I think, has affected my work, too, because, you know, you can’t be mad if you’re working in a garden. And I think you have to feel good about the things growing and about your work. And I think a lot of my decoration has to do with plant vegetation and the environment, and I always thought this was kind of nice.

MR. WILLIAMS: Has the color of the garden affected your aesthetics in clay at all?

MR. SHANER: I don’t know if the color has, no, or not obvious-

MR. WILLIAMS: Shaner’s Red did not come from calla lily, perhaps?

MR. SHANER: No, although I would find myself using certain colors at various times of the year, like every fall it seemed I would start to use a little of my yellow glaze when the leaves were turning yellow. This is not meaning that I used white glaze all winter long or three-quarters of my glazes would be white. But I like to feel I was affected by everything around me.

MR. WILLIAMS: And you live in the middle of a fantastic environment, which is near what park?

MR. SHANER: It’s near Glacier Park [Montana], and we chose to live here because of the natural beauty, and we liked the people here. When we came to Montana, we were made to feel welcome and we were-it was our home, I guess. And we were just accepted as, you’re the local potter, you know, the same as you had the local horseshoer, or what have you.

MR. WILLIAMS: Now, I’d like to talk with you a little bit about the dramatic affliction that you’ve become involved in. Tell me a little bit about how it began, what you have and how it affected your professional life.

MR. SHANER: Well, in 1995, I was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And it came on very slowly, that I wasn’t really aware of what was taking place, but I noticed that I was losing strength in my arms. And I naturally thought, well, it’s just overworking and aging and so forth. And Lou Gehrig’s Disease is something that is not easily diagnosed. And I was using a glaze for, oh, close to 20 years that had a 30 percent manganese. And so I assumed that maybe I was getting a concentration of heavy metal in my system, but the medical profession, unless it has concrete evidence, they didn’t seem to pay too much attention to it. And so finally, when I insisted on having my body chelated, I found that I had five times the amount of manganese in my system. And whether or not that brought on the disease, or whether it triggered that, or whether I’m prone to-one of these people who is prone to have this disease. But it came on very slowly and gradually.

I’ve now had it for about seven years, and I stopped working in-I think my last show was 1997. And my last pots were all hand-built because I could not throw. And I always came up with ways of adapting. My hand-built pieces were different than my earlier hand-built pieces. I was using ropes and things of that sort within the clay to make my designs, and more use of forms to support the clay. And that’s where Ann really helped me because she was able to help me lift forms into the kiln and actually fabricate the forms. But I was able to work until 1997, and I like to feel that some of the last work was among my best pieces.

MR. WILLIAMS: What were some of the pieces you did at the end?

MR. SHANER: Well, the last pieces were very much in tune with the environment, and very much the landscape. And I like to feel they were sensuous. I knew they were coming about for a long time, and it seems like the last few years were very intense. I didn’t get them all made.

MR. WILLIAMS: What are some of the names of them?

MR. SHANER: Well, I call them Cirques because a cirque is where a mountain range forms into a lake, so many of them resemble mountains and valleys. Some of them are called – well, one I called Shaner’s Canyon, one I called, A River Runs Through It, one I called, Cenote, one I called, Two Medicine. But their names were just titles that I put on the works themselves.
I never had any particular mountain range in mind; I just had all the mountains in mind when I made them. And I was able to feel that the clay was speaking to me as I worked, and this was very important.

MR. WILLIAMS: And were the gods of the mountains with you in those last pots, do you think?

MR. SHANER: I would hope that was true, yes.

MR. WILLIAMS: Even though now you no longer work in the studio-and the studio is closed, I assume.

MR. SHANER: I’ve given away all my equipment.

MR. WILLIAMS: Yet your life continues in relation to friends, contacts around the country, and you seem to continue in a very rich relationship with many people and many institutions. Tell me a little about that.

MR. SHANER: Well, these are my friends, and I gave my whole life to pursuing this.

MR. WILLIAMS: You’ve had strong relationships with Alfred University, your alma mater.


MR. WILLIAMS: And some of your pots are there now?

MR. SHANER: A few. I chose to-I’m in the process of giving a lot of pots, a lot of other people’s pots to Alfred now. I feel as if they were the ones who really helped me and I would like to share those pieces with other students. I never collected anything for any monetary value, but just because I wanted to look at it and see it and enjoy it and use it. And the pots were not-some of them, not major pieces, but they were pots that appealed to potters and I would like potters to see them and learn from them as well.

MR. WILLIAMS: And at this very moment you have an exhibition at the Archie Bray Foundation?

MR. SHANER: It’s a small exhibition of just a sampling of my work. And it’s held in conjunction with the 50-year anniversary-


This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with David Shaner, 2001 June 17, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Articles and Interviews