Tag Archives: oral history interview

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 Previously unpublished picture.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 Previously unpublished picture.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.


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Smithsonian Oral History Interview: J.B. Blunk

Untitled, 1968. Earthenware slab with white slip.

Oral history interview with J.B. Blunk, 2002 May 16, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Blunk, J.B. (James B.), b. 1926, d. 2002, 
, Calif.

Blunk speaks about his childhood in Kansas; his studies at UCLA; classes with ceramic artist Laura Andreson; Andreson taking her students to see an exhibition of Japanese potters; Japanese influence and his desire to go to Japan; his service in the United States Army during the Korean War and being stationed in Japan at the end of the war; meeting Isamu Noguchi for the first time at a Mingei ceramic shop; meeting potter Kitaoji Rosanjin through Noguchis wife, Yoshiko; his apprenticeship with Rosanjin; wedging clay for Rosanjin; his living arrangements at Rosinjins house; his work for potter Toyo Kaneshige and traveling with him to Bizen, Japan; Blunks return to California; building a kiln; teaching pottery at a small art school near Santa Monica; meeting his wife and working with her at a childrens camp; his work on a sheep ranch and making metal jewelry; his move to Inverness and the abundance of wood there; learning how to use a chain saw while constructing a roof for Gordon Onslow-Fords home (designed by Warren Callister); the wood he sculpted for his own home; his travels in 1969 and 1970 to Mexico and Macchu Picchu; his bench, Seating Sculpture, 1968-69, in the exhibition Objects: USA; his Redwood bench sculpture in the California Design exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum; his exhibition at the Bolinas Museum; his method of making an arch sculpture out of cypress wood, including chiseling the wood with a gouge; his sculpture, Six Stones, at Stanford University; his use of shoe dye to blacken his sculptures; the personality and tactile qualities in his work; sculpting wet wood; the difficulties of sculpting with eucalyptus and his fondness for redwood; his piece at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center in Carmel Valley, Calif.; a commission from the Orientation Center for the Blind, Albany, Calif.; and the 1994 forest fire that threatened his house. Blunk also recalls Bruce Mitchell and Warren Callister.

The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with J.B. Blunk, joined by his daughter, Mariah Nielsen, on May 16, 2002. The interview took place at the artist’s home and studio in Inverness, California, and was conducted by Glenn Adamson 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.


[TRANSCRIPTION NOTE: During the interview, Mr. Blunk frequently pauses when having difficulty summoning memories.]
* * *
MR. ADAMSON: This is the oral history interview with J.B. Blunk in Inverness, California, for the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art. I’m sitting here in J.B.’s home with him and with his daughter, Mariah Nielsen, who is going to be helping us with the interview, as well.
It is March 16, 2002, on a nice spring morning, and we’re looking down over the valley behind his house. And, can you tell me where you were born?
MR. BLUNK: Kansas.
MR. ADAMSON: And when?
MR. BLUNK: August 28, 1926.
MR. ADAMSON: Good. So you grew up in Kansas, right?
MR. ADAMSON: And can you tell us anything you remember about growing up in Kansas, or about your parents?
MS. NIELSEN: What did your dad do? He was an eye doctor, right?
MR. BLUNK: No, he wasn’t an eye doctor.
MS. NIELSEN: An optometrist?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, an optometrist.
MR. ADAMSON: And you went to school in Kansas growing up?
MR. ADAMSON: So, did you like it there?
MR. BLUNK: Well, I lived with my mother and father, so-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: Do you remember, when you were a teenager, did you ever do things with your hands at all, working on cars or anything like that?
MR. ADAMSON: No? Were you a good student?
MR. BLUNK: I tried to be, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: You tried to be. And you went to college, right?
MR. BLUNK: Yes, I went to college. I graduated from UCLA.
MR. ADAMSON: So, why did you decide to go to college out in California?
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.]
MS. NIELSEN: Your parents had moved to L.A., right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. My parents had-well, my father had an opportunity to start-well, he was an optometrist. He made the lenses when they used to do that, you know. They were very different than now. [Laughs.] But he had a chance to-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: To move out to California?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I moved with them to California.
MR. ADAMSON: And you were a teenager at the time?
MS. NIELSEN: I think you were around 19 or 20, early 20s, late teens.
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.] He got this job to run this-in Los Angeles through a friend. And since my parents moved, I followed. But I don’t know the next step.
MR. ADAMSON: Right. But you wound up at UCLA, anyway.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: And if I remember right, you took classes with Laura Andreson?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you tell me about that?
MR. BLUNK: Well, she had a student. [Pause.] Oh, that’s right. She had a-Andreus, people call her. And she had a-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: Did she know somebody she knew, or did she have a student you were friends with?
MR. BLUNK: She had a student that was-who was very ardent, and he became her helper, something-
MR. ADAMSON: Her assistant, something like that.
MR. BLUNK: Her assistant, yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: Did you know him?
MR. BLUNK: Well, I met him because he had this little place in Los Angeles where he started making his first pots.
MS. NIELSEN: You met him there?
MR. BLUNK: And then she-I went to his studio that he had, to visit at night because I was interested, too. He was older. And I became, when Laura-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: Did you help also? Were you like an assistant?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I became, when, you know, he-I’ve forgotten where.
MR. ADAMSON: Well, that’s okay. The point is you were working with Laura Andreson in her pottery studio at UCLA.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, and her-and the student.
MR. ADAMSON: So, what was she like? Laura, I mean.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, she was a very interesting woman who’s very fond of making ceramics and teaching.
MR. ADAMSON: Was she a good teacher?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yes.
MR. ADAMSON: What kind of things did she have you do? Do you remember? Did you ever throw at the wheel?
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.] I guess I did. The only thing I can get, as far into that, was-okay. Laura took us, the ceramic students, to an exhibit of-[pause]-
MS. NIELSEN: Was it Japanese?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. A group of Japanese potters had an exhibit at this-[pause]-and she wanted to show the-she put this show together of Japanese potters. And she took us, and I got to go to the exhibit. And by that time, I was really fired up.
MR. ADAMSON: Did you actually graduate from UCLA with a degree?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, though I didn’t go to the-my parents were upset that I didn’t get my diploma.
MR. ADAMSON: At graduation, you mean?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I didn’t even want to have anything to do with it.
MR. ADAMSON: Why not?
MR. BLUNK: Well, when I went in the room where all those mingei potters-just seeing their work, seeing what they were doing, something just sort of flashed in my head and I said, “I’m going to go there.”
MR. ADAMSON: To Japan?
MR. BLUNK: I don’t know how, but I was going to go to Japan.
MR. ADAMSON: And you made it to Japan, right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I made it to Japan, but-it starts to get real fuzzy now. [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: I was determined to get there, get there some way, and I’m trying to say how or figure out how-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: Well, you spent some time in the navy, yeah?
MR. BLUNK: Not the navy.
MS. NIELSEN: The army.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, the army.
MR. BLUNK: Must have been the army. Yeah. And it was during the Korean War.
MR. ADAMSON: Did you actually fight in Korea?
MR. BLUNK: I didn’t do any-I didn’t do any fighting there.
MS. NIELSEN: But you were stationed.
MR. BLUNK: But I was stationed-
MS. NIELSEN: You were stationed in Japan, right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I got stationed in-but before that, I got-what do you call it?
MS. NIELSEN: Recruited?
MR. BLUNK: Yes. Yeah. I got recruited.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, so you were drafted.
MR. BLUNK: I was drafted in the first group from Southern California.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really. So you didn’t want to go, particularly.
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.]
MS. NIELSEN: This goes way back, huh?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, this goes REALLY way back, and so I can’t keep it in a line.
MS. NIELSEN: It keeps crossing over.
MR. BLUNK: There are parts-yeah, it crosses over.
MR. ADAMSON: Well, that’s okay.
MR. BLUNK: But when I got my first-I went on a ship.
MS. NIELSEN: From San Francisco, right? Weren’t you at Fort Mason for a little while?
MR. BLUNK: I was at Fort Mason when I actually, you know, got on the boat and, you know-
MS. NIELSEN: Took off.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. [Pause.] Let’s see what else I can drag up here. [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: Well, let’s skip forward to when you were stationed in Japan at the end of the war. Right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I was-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: Maybe you could tell the story about how you met Isamu [Noguchi].
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, in a mingei ceramic shop. We got our first-we got our first going on-
MR. ADAMSON: Furlough?
MR. BLUNK: Furlough, yeah. We got our first furlough. And I didn’t-you know, we had to be back at a certain time. So the fact that I was just there, was just getting there, and I had been training people in Texas.
MR. ADAMSON: In Texas?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, training people to go to-[pause]-my God. There was a group of soldiers-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: [Showing a photograph.] This is a good picture. Remember that picture?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah. That’s me.
MS. NIELSEN: You’re still wearing your uniform.
MR. BLUNK: Had to.
MR. ADAMSON: Really?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: Isamu hated that, hated the uniform.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. This is a photo-this photo of this old man is-how do I get in there?
MR. ADAMSON: Want me to take it out?
MR. BLUNK: Yes, take it out. Then you can really see.
MR. ADAMSON: So this is Isamu Noguchi on the right.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: And you on the left.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: And who’s in the middle?
MR. BLUNK: Rosanjin.
MR. ADAMSON: [Kitagi] Rosanjin, the potter.
MR. BLUNK: The potter in this place called Kamakura.
MR. ADAMSON: So you were in the mingei shop, and Isamu Noguchi just happened to be there? Is that right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, but I had to make another-I still have to make some kind of a connection for-[pause]. Isamu’s wife, Yoshiko, she liked Americans. And she was very famous as a singer for the GIs.
MR. ADAMSON: Really? So you knew about her?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I knew about her because it was on almost-this woman was so-she made movies, at least four. She liked the GIs, and they liked the way she sang. And Isamu didn’t. [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: But anyway-let’s see. [Pause.]
MR. ADAMSON: Well, I know you started to work with Rosanjin and his pottery.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I did. But there’s a step before that. I would have never been able to make a connection with him, with Rosanjin, if it hadn’t been for Yoshiko and the fact that she-[pause]-
MR. ADAMSON: The fact that she liked you? [Laughs.]
MS. NIELSEN: Yes, she did.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I got to, I guess, talking to her in that-aghhh! It just comes and goes and runs around. It’s-
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah. That’s okay. That’s okay.
MR. BLUNK: And I still had the idea of I was in Japan, I’d made it to Japan, yeah. Because I was in that first group that was sent over. And those people were-if I could just get-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: Weren’t you a lieutenant? You had special privileges.
MR. BLUNK: In Korea?
MS. NIELSEN: Yeah, when you were stationed, when you were in the army.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: You could drive off the base on the weekend.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, but that’s because I was-that’s because I had my own jeep because of my-
MS. NIELSEN: Was it your rank or something?
MR. BLUNK: Yes. Yes. That had something to do with it. Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Why did they make you a lieutenant?
MS. NIELSEN: You were good.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: I’d already been in the military before.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, I see. I see.
MS. NIELSEN: Well-behaved.
MR. BLUNK: But anyway, we’ve got to get over here another page before we-it’s just-
MS. NIELSEN: Dad, who’s that? [Referring to photograph.]
MR. BLUNK: That’s Sensei. He’s a potter that I lived-I lived with him and his family before I went south from Kita Kamakura.
MR. ADAMSON: So that’s Rosanjin?
MR. BLUNK: This is not Rosanjin. This is my teacher, Sensei.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, this is Toyo.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. He came here twice, and he brought his wife last time.
MR. ADAMSON: So this is Toyo Kaneshige.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: So, do you remember meeting Rosanjin for the first time?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah. He was drunk.
MR. ADAMSON: Really?
MR. BLUNK: Always drunk.
MR. ADAMSON: Always drunk?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, he was always drunk.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: Anyway, I had talked to Isamu a little bit in the store, but he was-he really didn’t want me to even be there. And then she liked me, and she had a lot of GIs who loved the music that they put out over all the-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: Was it actually on the radio?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah, it was on all the radios and everything. Everybody that-yeah, yeah. All the guard and everything was done with the-it made the GIs happy, yeah. And to cool them out.
MR. ADAMSON: And so was it Yoshiko that introduced you to Rosanjin, or was it Isamu?
MR. BLUNK: Yes, in a way it was. Well, I just was looking for a potter, you know, like that. I didn’t give a damn which one. And I got to talking to her and then he went to-Isamu, that evening-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: You mean you went over to somebody’s house.
MR. BLUNK: Yes. I went over there.
MS. NIELSEN: To Rosanjin’s?
MR. BLUNK: To Rosanjin’s, yeah, because Rosanjin loved having Yoshiko around.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, I see.
MR. BLUNK: I mean, he would have had her in bed, if he could. I mean he was known for it.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: Girls and everything, you know, young girls and everything.
But anyway, Yoshiko said to come up the stairs, you know, go up in the mezzanine, in the shop. And she invited me in the shop there.
MR. BLUNK: Because there was another level and it was people-
MR. BLUNK: And so she invited me to come upstairs and have some tea.
MR. ADAMSON: Right. So the next chapter is you actually being a potter’s apprentice, basically.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. And the next-that night, Isamu took me over to Rosanjin’s house because-the house belonged to Rosanjin, but Yokisho and Isamu lived in-
MS. NIELSEN: Part of it.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, lived in part of it.
MR. BLUNK: It was a fabulous little, small-so anyway, in my-being so naive, I-I’m going to turn this over. [Referring to paper.]
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.] Okay.
MR. BLUNK: So anyway, that night after supper, Isamu wanted to introduce me to Rosanjin, and he felt that I-there just happened to be a man who was a businessman of Rosanjin’s, so after supper, Isamu took me over to where Rosanjin was having a real party. Whew. Drunk as-you know. And so I got to meet Rosanjin. And I thought he was kind of a fraud.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really?
MR. BLUNK: I mean, I felt then, because I was coming really from a big jump.
MR. ADAMSON: I see. Yeah.
MR. BLUNK: Because, for instance, if-[pause].
So I was introduced to Rosanjin, and there was a businessman there who spoke English. And at that time Isamu didn’t speak any better than I did.
MR. ADAMSON: Japanese, you mean.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: And you didn’t speak very well, correct?
MR. BLUNK: Well, I worked for a while with-they put me to work right away because I was-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: You were willing.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yes, yes.
MS. NIELSEN: Yeah, very willing.
MR. BLUNK: I was willing.
MR. ADAMSON: But you didn’t speak Japanese, particularly.
MR. BLUNK: No, I didn’t speak any Japanese until I-really till I was working there. They didn’t know what to do with me, because they couldn’t talk to me and I couldn’t talk to them. [They laugh.] Isamu, who was in a place called Gifu-
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, so he left.
MR. BLUNK: -the next day he had to leave.
MR. BLUNK: And I stayed there. And I just walked in where they were working, and that’s the way-
MR. ADAMSON: So, what did they have you do? Were you sweeping the floor?
MR. BLUNK: Well, wedging the clay.
MR. ADAMSON: Wedging the clay?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. They gave me that job. They had it all stacked up and everything.
MR. ADAMSON: And you knew how to do that.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I knew how to do that. They had a little different twist to it, but-
MR. ADAMSON: How do you mean?
MR. BLUNK: Well, they had their own way of wedging and things like that.
MR. ADAMSON: I see. And did they teach you their way?
MR. BLUNK: Well, and also, Isamu went to Gifu to work on his lanterns. And he’d come back there and I’d stay there. Anyway-
MR. ADAMSON: So you became a friend of his while you were living at Rosanjin’s?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: I see. You got to know him pretty well?
MR. BLUNK: Well, I didn’t get to know-Rosanjin’s [error?].
MR. ADAMSON: Right, but I mean Isamu you got to know.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. But how I made the-she got me in the house, in other words, and Yoshiko had her own place to sleep and she did all the cooking. And they lived in this little, tiny building. It was just a jam of a-right.
MR. ADAMSON: So where did you live?
MR. BLUNK: Well, in the beginning, I lived in one part of the little house.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, you lived right in the house with them?
MR. BLUNK: Uh-huh. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Not much space, right?
MR. BLUNK: No, there wasn’t much space, but it was a tiny place and everything really worked.
But, getting back to the clay, Rosanjin didn’t know what to do with me the next morning. So I saw him-they put me to work right away wedging clay. In fact, I thought I knew how to wedge clay until I got hold, you know, with people there. Because he had a whole crew going.
MR. ADAMSON: Like 20 people, 10 people?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah. And then women cleaning up and sweeping all the time all over the place and building little fires.
MR. ADAMSON: Did you ever get to the point with Rosanjin where you were actually making pots?
MR. BLUNK: No. I never got to talk to him.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really?
MR. BLUNK: I mean, I couldn’t understand a word he said.
MR. BLUNK: And I only-
MR. ADAMSON: And vice versa.
MR. BLUNK: And vice versa, yeah. But I got into the workshop. I mean, there was some way he-the guy who was there who was the businessman, he was completely fluent. He had gone to school here. So I could talk that way.
MR. ADAMSON: But he wasn’t around during the daytime when you were working?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, no, no. He was in Tokyo.

MR. ADAMSON: And so when you-you stayed with Rosanjin for several months?
MR. BLUNK: I can’t remember how long, but that was the transition. Rosanjin wanted me to stay at his place and work.
MR. ADAMSON: You mean for good?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. And he was going to have a little-have a building put up for me so I’d have my own place.
MR. ADAMSON: So, why didn’t you want that? Or was it that you met Kaneshige?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I met Kaneshige there.
MR. ADAMSON: He had come to visit Rosanjin?
MR. BLUNK: And by then I could get a few words across, because all those peasant women that ran the place and did all the work-[pause]-
MR. ADAMSON: They would teach you Japanese words?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah. They taught me like a child, just exactly like a child.
MR. ADAMSON: So they would point at something and say-
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, or grunt or make some kind of sound or something.
MS. NIELSEN: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: They’d do something.
MR. ADAMSON: And when you met Kaneshige, did you immediately want to go and work with him instead?
MR. BLUNK: Not right at the very-not right at the very beginning. Rosanjin did a lot of things that I wouldn’t want to do.
MR. ADAMSON: You mean because the place was-
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.]
MS. NIELSEN: Like what?
MR. BLUNK: Well, I met Francis Har. Do you know that one?

MR. ADAMSON: No. Francis Hart?
MR. ADAMSON: Har. H-a-r?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: Who was that?
MR. BLUNK: He was a photographer. Brilliant, brilliant photographer.
MR. ADAMSON: And this was at Rosanjin’s place? I guess the question is how you got to Bizen, right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I decided one day that-I knew all of a sudden. I had kind of a little flash. Or I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I really liked Sensei, and I liked-I just decided to go and put myself in his hands. And that was really naive.
MR. ADAMSON: So what did you do?
MR. BLUNK: Got on the train and went to Bizen.
MR. ADAMSON: Did he know you were coming?
MR. ADAMSON: So you just showed up?
MR. BLUNK: That was the first shock.
MS. NIELSEN: Didn’t you just show up at his house and knocked on the door?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Knocked on the door. And unfortunately, his wife was outside. She was gone to buy some, whatever, food.
MR. ADAMSON: So he was home alone?
MR. BLUNK: He was home alone, yeah. He was home alone. And I knew better than to-I knew better, which is, like, when you step over the genkan [Japanese word meaning “threshold to a private space], you’re in.
MR. ADAMSON: Which is the threshold?
MR. BLUNK: You’re in or you’re out. I heard Sensei yelling. This woman was in the passage from the front to the back, and when he got-when she got back-and he was just yelling most of the time when I was there. But you don’t leave-you know, you just don’t leave things like that. You don’t leave the door open and the genkan open.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, I see.
MS. NIELSEN: So the door was open when you got there, when you arrived at his house?
MR. BLUNK: No, the door wasn’t open. It was-
MS. NIELSEN: Unlocked?
MR. BLUNK: She had just had to step out, I guess, on one of the side areas where you go up through the house.
MS. NIELSEN: His wife?
MR. BLUNK: Well, she was-I didn’t-I was going to wait until he made his move, you know.
MR. ADAMSON: So you were just waiting out front there?
MR. BLUNK: I was just waiting outside.
MR. ADAMSON: Well, how in the world did you ever get in?
MR. BLUNK: I just waited.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MS. NIELSEN: Camped out?
MR. BLUNK: I just waited, and I was lucky, because she came in.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, and she took you in?
MR. BLUNK: Yes. Yeah. And he was not nasty or anything, he was just-I had done something that-I didn’t know about dame [Japanese word for forbidden]. I don’t know if you know that word.
MR. ADAMSON: Is that like manners?
MR. BLUNK: I had broken-I mean, you don’t pass over, or whatever. But she came in, luckily, and he started berating her, Sensei, for “this guy, somebody is at the door.” Later on I got that. So that’s-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: So he took you in, too, huh?
MR. BLUNK: No. There’s something else now. He didn’t take me in. He doesn’t-you know, Sensei doesn’t get up and-if he has to yell. You know.
MR. BLUNK: So anyway, he was really upset that I had shown up without letting him know some way. And of course, hell, I didn’t know how to-I couldn’t use-what could I use, unless I found somebody that was-anyway, it was an impossible situation. So.
MS. NIELSEN: But you stayed.
MR. BLUNK: Well, when I decided to go to Kaneshige-Sensei, I had come on the train.
MR. ADAMSON: So you had no place to stay.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I didn’t have any place to stay. And I didn’t even know-you know, I didn’t even know what I was doing, which was, you know-I should have been waiting longer, even, whatever it took. You know, you just don’t-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: You don’t just show up at somebody’s door.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. So there are holes in this thing.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, that’s okay.
MS. NIELSEN: It’s coming together. You’re doing good.
MR. BLUNK: I’ve forgotten how long it was before I could use the telephone. I thought it was one of the greatest things I’d ever-you know, in a foreign place.
MS. NIELSEN: Yeah, it’s always a big step.
MR. BLUNK: Foreign place. But I can remember even-it was a big deal to be able to use the telephone.
MR. ADAMSON: So you managed to stay there with him eventually.
MR. BLUNK: Eventually, yeah. Eventually I got to stay there. They didn’t have enough space for me, so when we decided what we were going to do, he found me a place.
MR. ADAMSON: Really?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. Right in the village. And I had my own space.
MR. ADAMSON: And you worked at the pottery during the day?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. And I just devoted myself to him, and little by little we-and any time he took a trip or visited a special friend or something-
MR. ADAMSON: You would go with him?
MR. BLUNK: -he’d take me on any of the times-I lived there. He’d take me if I thought I would be interested. So I got to meet a lot of people.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you remember anybody that you met? Were they other potters?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah, it was all potters.
MR. ADAMSON: All potters.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah. There wasn’t a place in town that wasn’t a potter. [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: Some of them were better than others.
MR. ADAMSON: And was Kaneshige the most highly regarded potter in the village, do you think?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And he came to be really quite-really big. He got very important.
MR. ADAMSON: Now, you stayed with him for quite a while, as I remember.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. I stayed with him-he had a house full of children. But he found me a fabulous place he rented.
MS. NIELSEN: How long were you there for?
MR. BLUNK: You mean with him? [Pause.]
MS. NIELSEN: Can’t remember?
MR. BLUNK: Not right now. Maybe it will-
MR. ADAMSON: It was a pretty long time, though.
MR. BLUNK: Seems like-seemed like a long time, you know, at times, I guess.
MR. ADAMSON: Was it hard to be there?
MR. BLUNK: No, no. No, no. It was glorious. I mean, it was really-to get something you want.
MR. ADAMSON: So you had wanted this thing for a long time, and then when you got it, you weren’t disappointed.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, no. No. [Pause.] My father-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: He wasn’t happy about that, was he?
MR. BLUNK: [Sighs.] I don’t know how I got around it.
MR. ADAMSON: Your father?
MR. BLUNK: No, no. Not my father, no. No, I found my father in-with Kaneshige-Sensei.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, I see. He was like your father.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah. And Kaneshige-Sensei came here.
MR. ADAMSON: Right, after you moved back.
MS. NIELSEN: Yeah. He came to visit you.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, he came to visit. I have his picture somewhere.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you tell me why you left?
MR. BLUNK: Uh-huh. I left because I had this idea to build a kiln.
MS. NIELSEN: A workshop?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. No, I couldn’t use-well, the shokuba was like a workshop. I mean, I did all the work-I mean, all the heavy work and things that I learned just from being around him.
MR. ADAMSON: And you did learn a lot from him as a potter?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah, yeah. And he was very famous. He had hoped I would stay.
MR. ADAMSON: I’m surprised you didn’t stay, for good, I mean.
MR. BLUNK: Well, I had this-then I had another change.
MR. ADAMSON: Another flash?
MR. BLUNK: Another flash, another something to keep thinking-I tried to get things to, you know, to work together some way. But I guess around-yeah, I guess it must have been about three years with them.
MR. ADAMSON: And when you moved back to California, did you move straight here to Inverness?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, no. No, no, no.
MS. NIELSEN: [Inaudible.]
MR. BLUNK: My mother had died. I knew that. And my aunt, my mother’s-
MS. NIELSEN: Sister.
MR. BLUNK: -sister, yeah. I had this idea to go back to Japan and be a potter. But by that time, Sensei was really taken care of and he was very well-known, really well-known. He’d had all kinds of things from the government, all kinds of help.
MR. ADAMSON: And awards and things like that?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Living national treasure, that sort of thing?

MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: I never knew why you left, though. Why did you leave Japan?
MR. BLUNK: Oh. I had this idea to come back here and build a kiln and live in both worlds.
MS. NIELSEN: Ohhhh. You wanted to go back and forth, spend time here and spend time in Japan.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah. I thought I could do it, you see.
MR. BLUNK: I thought there was a job waiting. And I didn’t have any money to speak of.
MR. ADAMSON: There was a job waiting for you here?
MR. BLUNK: There was a job waiting for me. I didn’t know who it-I mean, I didn’t-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: You taught, right? Didn’t you teach for a living?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Well, I taught at that school. Yeah, I taught at that school.
MR. ADAMSON: Was this in California?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: With your aunt?
MS. NIELSEN: No. I think your aunt wrote to you that your mother had died, right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.

MS. NIELSEN: She was the one that told him that his mother had died, and that was one of the reasons that he came back.
MR. BLUNK: Well, yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: But the art school was in L.A.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it was down on the water.
MS. NIELSEN: It was a small school.
MR. BLUNK: Down on the-it’s in a place called-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: Was it near Santa Monica?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it was near Santa Monica, yeah. And there was a-I met some people in the Canyon in-[sighs]. [Pause.]
MS. NIELSEN: Did you teach ceramics there?
MR. BLUNK: There was someone who had built a kiln or got a kiln. I’ve forgotten exactly how that all happened. That’s when I was living up the coast.
MR. ADAMSON: And so you actually taught people pottery for a while there.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, because I had helped build the building and-
MS. NIELSEN: Be a part of that project.
MR. BLUNK: And be a part, have a place to work, and they made a little loft in this building so I could live-I mean, I could sleep there. But the guy ran out of money. It was a great idea.
MR. ADAMSON: I see. So it never got off the ground?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, never. Oh, yeah, yes, it did, but the money didn’t last long enough.
MR. ADAMSON: I see. So the school started up but then it had to close?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it had to close.
MR. ADAMSON: I see. So what did you do then?
MR. BLUNK: I moved north of there in order to-part of that, that’s where-
MS. NIELSEN: That’s where you met Nancy [Waite].
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, that’s where I met Nancy.
MR. ADAMSON: How did you meet her?
MR. BLUNK: At the school.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really? Was she a student?
MR. BLUNK: No, she was-yes, she was a student, and really an ardent student.
MS. NIELSEN: Really talented.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: Very talented musician.
MR. ADAMSON: Did she do pottery with you, too, or was she just doing-
MR. BLUNK: No, she-
MS. NIELSEN: She was music, right?
MR. BLUNK: Yes. Music was her-music and dance. I tried to get her-she got a fellowship in Europe, and I tried to convince her to go there.
MR. ADAMSON: So this was an experimental school, where you could do a lot of different things, huh? It wasn’t just a pottery school?
MR. BLUNK: I’ve forgotten the terminology. This guy who taught there became a very, very important person for me. That’s when I started getting connected to Los Angeles, down in the Canyon.
MR. ADAMSON: Now, when you moved up north, did you go with Nancy? Did she come with you?
MR. BLUNK: Oh. Yeah. We worked in the summer at the camp. Fabulous. I mean, it was a wonderful place for children.

MR. ADAMSON: You went to a sheep ranch, didn’t you?
MR. BLUNK: Well, I worked on a sheep ranch near there, yeah, and made jewelry.
MR. ADAMSON: You made jewelry then, huh?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Out of metal?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: How did you learn how to do that?
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, you had taken an art class there.
MR. BLUNK: I had a wonderful teacher.
MR. ADAMSON: In metals as well as in pottery.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, that was the two things that I sort of focused, I guess, or whatever.
MR. ADAMSON: So, at the same time, you were teaching pottery at the school and also working at the sheep ranch?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: But then the school closed.
MR. BLUNK: The sheep ranch doesn’t work-I mean, you know, you don’t have to go every morning.
MR. ADAMSON: It was seasonal, right.
MS. NIELSEN: Right. [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: [Laughs.]
MS. NIELSEN: Wasn’t a nine-to-five job! [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: It was a good place to get poison oak.

MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: That’s a terrible joke. The idea. If you haven’t had it, you don’t know.
MS. NIELSEN: [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: But when the school closed, you decided to move up north?
MR. BLUNK: I was-
MS. NIELSEN: Didn’t know what to do.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I didn’t know what to do.
MR. ADAMSON: And at this point you had Nancy with you as well?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I don’t know how long we worked at the camp. I don’t know how long that was.
MR. ADAMSON: But you moved north together.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: And where did you go?
MR. BLUNK: I’m trying to think where we actually did go.
MS. NIELSEN: Was it [Willis ?] It was somewhere north of here. Nancy’s parents were in Inverness [CA], is that right? Were her parents still living here?
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.]
MS. NIELSEN: Do you remember the connection to Inverness, how you and Nancy came to Inverness? Was it because of Gordon or because of Howard and Cecil [Nancy Waite’s mother and father]?
MR. BLUNK: No, it was the use of-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: Use of some land?
MR. BLUNK: I worked on the sheep ranch. [Pause.]

MR. ADAMSON: Do you want to take a little break and we can do more of this later? I don’t want to tire you out in the early morning.
MS. NIELSEN: In the afternoons he’s usually more relaxed. Mornings are usually harder.
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. Well, let’s take a break for a minute, okay?
MR. BLUNK: Sure.
[Audio break.]
MR. ADAMSON: Okay, we’ve had now had our lunch and we’re back recording again, same day.
And J.B., you had just come to America after living in Japan and working in Kaneshige’s place. And I thought maybe I could just ask you to tell about how you started this place here, how you came to build it and what you did and why you did it.
MR. BLUNK: Well, in the first place, I’d never built anything. So I just-there was a lot of material available, wood, especially, for the making-I mean the taking, just the taking alone.
MR. ADAMSON: And how did you come to be able to occupy the land? Because the land is owned by the government around here now, right? It’s owned by the Nature Conservancy now?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: But at the time, this land was owned by Gordon Onslow-Ford, is that right?
MR. BLUNK: And it still is.
MR. ADAMSON: And still is. What’s here.
MR. BLUNK: Still is, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: How did you get to know him?

MR. BLUNK: Well, I had to move from up the coast. I had to move, and we moved down here. And Gordon and Jacqueline had another place on a ridge that belonged to a friend of theirs, and we rented it.
MR. ADAMSON: And that’s how you got to know him, or did you know him already, before you rented the place from him?
MR. BLUNK: No, I met-or we-
MR. ADAMSON: You and Nancy?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. We-[pause].
MS. NIELSEN: Rented it?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, we rented it for $35 a month.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you remember how you got to know him?
MR. BLUNK: I got to know Gordon and Jacqueline?
MR. ADAMSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.] So that got us to have a place up on Leisure Road.
MR. ADAMSON: And then you decided that you were going to build this place here.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I’d never done it. I had never done it or tried it or even much thought of it, I guess. I don’t know what I thought, what I was going to do.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you know which-you worked on a roof for Gordon’s house, right?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: The architect that designed the house was Warren Callister?
MR. BLUNK: Warren Callister, yes. He was a good friend of-
MR. ADAMSON: But you had already started building this place when you worked on Gordon’s house, is that right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. The architect-there was a builder in this community, only one real builder, and that person was the only builder here. And Warren designed it for-he designed it for Gordon and Jacqueline since they were moving to Inverness. So there was an enormous bunch of logs just in the site that they had chosen. And it was a real job just to chain saw, just to cut that all out.

MR. ADAMSON: Did you help them with that?
MR. BLUNK: That’s how I learned to use a chain saw.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. And how did you come to work on that roof for them? Because Warren Callister had designed a roof for their house, right?
MR. ADAMSON: And they weren’t sure how they were going to get it built?
MR. BLUNK: Well, they couldn’t find anybody in this place. Nobody wanted to take it on. It was considered some sort of a freak or whatever. So Warren put some-I guess some sort of heavy paper on a fairly smooth place, and then he could draw on it, what the curves were going to be. Because you can see the curves there.
MR. BLUNK: So I got the job of doing it, because nobody else would touch it.
MR. ADAMSON: Right. And you didn’t know how you were going to do it when you started, right?
MR. BLUNK: No. But I just started, you know, scrounging wood and whatever I could do to get started. I don’t know.
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. So you were talking about building the roof. That Warren Callister was drawing the roof beams, and then you just scrounged wood and tried to build it however you could, basically?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. And we had to find-the first thing we had to do was-you know, it goes like this.

MR. BLUNK: The first thing we had to do was to get some material that was flexible enough for the curve.
MR. BLUNK: And we found that. I remember I went way down south. Not way down, but it was a huge lumber yard, gigantic lumber yard. We found some material that we’d give it a try. We had to be careful as to-they wouldn’t bend very much.
MR. ADAMSON: Because they were big, thick timbers, right?
[No response.]
[Note: The recording on this tape ends with 15 minutes of blank tape remaining on Side B, and not at a natural breaking place in the interview. Some of the interview could be missing.]
[Begin Tape 2, Side A.]
MR. ADAMSON: This is the second disc of the interview with J.B. Blunk for the Smithsonian Institution. Interviewer is Glenn Adamson, and the date is May 16, 2002.
I thought I would start by asking you about a couple of events that happened about 30 years ago, but it’s still pretty far back. One was your trip to Mexico and Machu Picchu in 1970.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you tell me what you remember about that trip? Did you go with Christine [Nielson, Blunk’s widow and mother of Mariah]?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. That was a fabulous trip.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you think it had any influence on your work?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yes. Machu Picchu did.
MR. ADAMSON: Why is that?
MR. BLUNK: It’s an awesome sight, if you ever get close. Just get off the boat and wait. I mean, it’s really awesome.

MR. ADAMSON: I’ve never been there.
MR. BLUNK: I wanted to make-what do you call it when you go to a place?
MR. ADAMSON: Pilgrimage?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, pilgrimage. Yeah. Yes, I wanted to make a pilgrimage there; and Christine, that was okay for her, she’d never been out of California. But that was the starting point.
MR. ADAMSON: It was a pretty long trip, right?
MR. BLUNK: It was a long trip.
MR. ADAMSON: Eight weeks?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, no. It was more than eight weeks. Gosh, that seems-it’s only visual.
MR. BLUNK: Unless you get there-we tried to be there when the big festivals were there, which was really-Christine was not feeling very good.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, did she get food poisoning or something?
MR. ADAMSON: She just was ill?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. She was ill in one place in particular, before Machu Picchu.
MR. ADAMSON: You were in Mexico as well as Peru, right?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: Did you see any of the Aztec works when you were in Mexico City or anything like that?
MR. BLUNK: We saw some-one place, we saw some-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: Maybe Mayan ruins?

MR. BLUNK: We got acclimated and then we could just go walking around anywhere.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you think that there were any pieces you made when you got back that were very direct responses to what you had seen?
MR. BLUNK: Exactly. Yeah, one in particular.
MR. ADAMSON: What’s that?
MR. BLUNK: The one-you know, I wanted to go to Machu Picchu, and I had been reading.
MR. ADAMSON: But you were saying there was one piece that was very influenced by what you had seen?
MR. BLUNK: It was something of the sun.
MR. BLUNK: There’s a place in-
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, was it City of the Sun, that-was it called Tenochtitlán, something like that?
MR. BLUNK: I don’t-it doesn’t-
MR. ADAMSON: It’s a big ruin in Mexico, right?
MR. BLUNK: No, no. This was farther down.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, this is in Peru.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, this is in Peru, yeah. Almost all the-well, I don’t know whether it was a lot of-we went on a bus, or buses. And it was full of young people going to a big celebration. We stopped at Panama. We took the train to-most everybody took the train to Machu Picchu. Then it became little by little-I mean, people come from all over everywhere to it. I mean, it has a-that was before-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: But that was an important trip for you, it sounds like.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yes. Yeah. We took everything with us that we’d need on the trip, carried them in big bags. That was the only way we could do it. And then I bought those-those stone things? I bought those near-
MR. ADAMSON: Are you talking about these long stone pieces here in the kitchen?

MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah. That they grind the-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: They use them for cooking?
MR. BLUNK: They break down the-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: When they’re mashing vegetables and that sort of thing?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Okay, let me ask you about a new topic.
MR. BLUNK: Okay.
MR. ADAMSON: A couple of exhibitions you were in. One was “Objects: USA” [Smithsonian Institution, 1969].
MR. BLUNK: “Objects: USA.”
MR. ADAMSON: Right, in 1969. Do you remember being in that show?
MR. BLUNK: It was in Los Angeles.
MR. ADAMSON: It traveled to a lot of places, including Los Angeles.
MR. BLUNK: Uh-huh. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: And you had a big bench in the show, right?
MR. ADAMSON: Do you remember how they found you for that show? Or do you remember when they asked you be in it?
MR. BLUNK: It was a big bench [Seating Sculpture, 1968-1969]. It was high [36 by 120 inches]. And it was this fantastic wood. It was a really exotic piece. It was a big slab that I had earlier bought. Yes. Yeah. I remember the show.
MR. ADAMSON: What did you think of it when you saw it?
MR. BLUNK: Well, I guess the best-I guess impressed with how they put it all together. And I thought the work that I had-
MR. ADAMSON: The work of yours that was included?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, that was included, I felt really good about that.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you remember another show that you were in called “California Design”? Does that ring a bell? They were down at the Pasadena Art Museum.
MR. BLUNK: I doubt that I went to Pasadena.
MR. ADAMSON: Right. [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: [Laughs] I mean, I can’t-don’t have any business in Pasadena in general.
MR. ADAMSON: I think you had a bench in it that had this round back that was sort of that shape, and there was another similar shape for the seat, made of redwood. That’s in the catalogue for it.
MR. BLUNK: It’s low.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, a low bench. You remember that piece?
MR. BLUNK: A low bench and it had a dark wood.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, exactly.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I remember that.
MR. ADAMSON: But you don’t remember the show, really, one way or the other?
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. Do you remember this show, the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum? That’s the catalogue for it. In 1979.
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.] I’ve saved a lot of these.
MR. ADAMSON: You have these catalogues?

MR. BLUNK: These catalogues, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: And that was the first time that you had a museum show of a bunch of your work together, right?
MR. BLUNK: This was the one that Isamu-
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, he wrote the foreword to it.
MR. BLUNK: Uh-huh. I thought that was, you know, really done well.
MR. ADAMSON: So you were very pleased with that.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I was. Yeah, I was very pleased with that.
MR. ADAMSON: And then just recently you had another exhibition here in Point Reyes, I think you said? Or at the Bolinas Museum?
MR. BLUNK: I had a Bolinas Museum exhibit that was really something. People showed up from God knows where. I’ve never shaken so many hands. Because I didn’t think-I wasn’t expecting any big thing, but I was trying to-once I got to the museum, I remembered there’s a big arch out there. That show really was something.
MR. ADAMSON: And that was just a couple of years ago, right?
MS. NIELSEN: Four years ago.
MR. BLUNK: Four years ago. Hmm. And a guy showed up who wanted to make a film.
MR. ADAMSON: A documentary?
MR. BLUNK: He showed up at the exhibit. I’d never seen him or heard of him, but they had at the museum. They were very, very pleased. I remember how pleased they were from that show, even though there was a lot of work to just move the things.
MR. ADAMSON: And were most of the pieces in that show from here, taken from your house, things you had held onto?
MR. BLUNK: More so than usual, probably. And then that patio there. I tried to get them to raise a little bit of money to put this piece.
MR. ADAMSON: The arch that’s in the house?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, to put the arch there.

MR. ADAMSON: Did the arch actually go to that show?
MS. NIELSEN: [Off mike.]
MR. ADAMSON: It stayed up here. So that arch has never been anywhere but right here?
MS. NIELSEN: No. It was on the label of a wine bottle.
MR. ADAMSON: Was it really?
MS. NIELSEN: Yeah. I don’t remember the kind of wine. Remember that, Papa?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, but the wine wasn’t any good.
MS. NIELSEN: I know, the wine sucked. [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: The guy was-he was a case, that guy.
MR. ADAMSON: What happened? Somebody came-
MR. BLUNK: They put this on all the bottles of their wine, but the wine didn’t last. You couldn’t keep it, almost.
MS. NIELSEN: It didn’t hold up to the image.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it didn’t-yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: That’s too bad.
MR. BLUNK: It was wonderful to meet all these people that I didn’t know.
MR. ADAMSON: But they knew about your work.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I had never shaken so many hands in a place like that.
MR. ADAMSON: You’re not a big hand shaker, huh?
MR. BLUNK: [Laughs] No.
MS. NIELSEN: I think you are.
MR. BLUNK: [Laughs.]

MR. ADAMSON: So can we talk about some of the pieces from the catalogue?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, sure.
MR. ADAMSON: Let’s start with the arch. We were talking about this a little bit outside. But this is the first arch you made ever, right? The one that’s out front here.
MR. BLUNK: Yes, that’s the first arch. I had this big piece of wood and decided to make an arch. It would be fun for everyone to walk back and forth through it.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, a big piece of redwood.
MR. BLUNK: And it was quite high, even after cutting.
MR. ADAMSON: So it’s all out of a solid piece.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it was out of a solid piece.
MR. ADAMSON: And you say there’s one piece that’s missing from the top now, or it got broken from the top and you had to fix it?
MR. BLUNK: When we were in the barn?
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, or just outside the barn.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, that was definitely the first arch. I did nothing but arches for I don’t know how many years.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really?
MR. BLUNK: It was a whole thing. It just kept on going, probably four or five arches.
MR. ADAMSON: That was your arch period.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, something like that. And some of them are-there’s some left. In fact, one of the-the very best one.
MR. ADAMSON: Is still here?
MR. BLUNK: Well, it has to be patched.

MR. ADAMSON: Did you see arches in Japan that made you think of doing this, or those gates in Japan? Are those related in your mind at all?
MR. BLUNK: No. That’s interesting what you just said. As far as I know, I didn’t see the two-the play between the two.
MR. BLUNK: Because everybody-you know, it’s like you’re born to have those shapes.
MR. ADAMSON: Sure. It’s like it comes to you naturally.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. You know, it’s all of a sudden you’ve pulled out something that, “My God, what’s this for?”
MR. BLUNK: Somebody called me for some fabulous redwood. I can’t remember-I lost his number and whatever. So there was no more of that.
MR. ADAMSON: Let’s talk about a different piece.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: This one. Another arch.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah! That’s Arch 1, I think.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, it is. It’s called Arch 1. It’s made of cypress instead of redwood.
MR. BLUNK: Cypress, yeah. I had so much cypress.
MR. ADAMSON: Why is that?
MR. BLUNK: They changed the-in Point Reyes, they had changed an area to be housing.
MS. NIELSEN: [Inaudible.]
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. People came and they asked people to-they wanted to get rid of it.
MR. ADAMSON: Because they had to cut down a lot of cypress trees?
MS. NIELSEN: Development, yeah.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. It just changed Point Reyes completely.

MR. ADAMSON: But you had plenty of wood.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: He was happy.
MR. BLUNK: I still have this piece.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really? Okay.
MR. BLUNK: That’s Arch 1.
MR. ADAMSON: How did you do the texture on it?
MR. BLUNK: Chisel.
MR. ADAMSON: Like a gouge?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, a big gouge.
MR. ADAMSON: A big gouge?
MR. BLUNK: I was given a big gouge by an older man who-the first time somebody brought him to the barn, he asked me how could I work if I didn’t have any tools.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: You know, he was really big on tools, which is fine. It’s just what you do with it.
MR. BLUNK: And I met him through-they were a couple and they had adjoining workplaces, a man and his wife. I didn’t like his sculpture, but I liked her sculpture. I met them through Noguchi, maybe. I’m not-
MR. ADAMSON: Well, that’s okay. But in any event, the fellow that knew them gave you this gouge you used to make the-

MR. BLUNK: Yeah. He said, “How can you do work if you don’t have any tools?” So he had an old-he kind of started me on my carving.
MR. BLUNK: Not standing up, but down-because I also liked to work on my knees. I’ve already paid my dues now.
MR. ADAMSON: Please explain what you mean.
MR. BLUNK: I’m pretty sure that he-
MR. ADAMSON: You like to work on your knees?
MR. BLUNK: I used to work on my knees a lot.
MR. ADAMSON: Really?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: He taught you how to stand and sculpt, versus kneeling?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: He said that’s not good?
MR. BLUNK: I don’t even remember his name, but-
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: [Laughs.] What was his name? They had these two back-to-back-[pause]. He gave me my first chisel, this man.
MR. ADAMSON: So before that, you had only worked with chain saws and grinders and that sort of thing?
MR. BLUNK: He gave me-well, I’ll be damned.

MR. ADAMSON: Let’s look at the piece again now. I notice there’s almost the shape of a head in the middle, that circle? It’s almost like there’s a body inside it?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I guess you could say. Yeah, yeah. But this is the first arch.
MR. ADAMSON: So this is even before this one, probably.
MR. BLUNK: I think so. Yeah, I really do think so, even though I was doing all those.
MR. ADAMSON: Does this have any particular significance to you, this heavy-footed one on one side?
MR. BLUNK: No. People call it a-everybody, it seemed to me then, they wanted to make it look like an elephant.
MR. ADAMSON: But you just did it as an abstract form?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah. And I really like-this wood was still damp and you could really work it.
MR. ADAMSON: It just cut right off?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, just cut with the-whatever, you could hook on to something else.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you like to work wood when it’s green like that, often? Because a lot of the wood that you use has been lying on the ground for a long time, too.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Like the driftwood. Do you prefer to work it when it’s green and wet?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, if you’re just going to use hand tools, definitely.
MR. BLUNK: Definitely. Otherwise you’re going to ruin your arms, plus-or arm. Most of us only have one arm.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: Anyway. So.
MR. ADAMSON: Let’s talk about this piece, this cypress chair from 1966, with big ears on it.
MR. BLUNK: And this was made about the same time.
MR. ADAMSON: The bench below it?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, the bench below it. This is in a park in-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: So it’s a public seating, piece of public seating.
MR. BLUNK: No, this is the public seating.
MR. ADAMSON: Right. This bench from 1966?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: I notice that you actually have joined two pieces of wood together here at one end-
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: -and then there’s another piece-
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I took it there and mounted it. It was redwood.
MR. ADAMSON: Redwood?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: This is one of the earliest pieces that you made that wasn’t just cut out of a single block of wood, right? Probably? Like these two pieces are-
MR. BLUNK: I got a commission from a woman who-this is water.
MR. ADAMSON: In the back there?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. And this was a really early piece. A friend.
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. Let’s go on to the next page. Here’s Six Stones [1993].
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. That’s at Stanford.

MR. ADAMSON: Stanford. Okay.
MR. BLUNK: They gave me the plaza, the little plaza there, and let me do what I wanted to do, because the man who was in charge, who made the decisions for what happens in different parts of the place-
MR. ADAMSON: Like the landscape architect or landscaper?
MR. BLUNK: But this was made-
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, these are two separate things, right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. These are stone.
MR. ADAMSON: Six stones?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, six stones.
MR. ADAMSON: Are the stones actually-
MR. BLUNK: They’re still there.
MR. ADAMSON: Did you carve them all, or are some of them-
MR. BLUNK: No, I worked on all of them.
MR. ADAMSON: You did. Okay. Some carving.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: What would you use to carve the stone? You were mentioning carbide grinders before?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, carbide grinders, yes.
MR. ADAMSON: So you can’t cut it, but you can sort of shape it, is that right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, you can shape it.
MR. ADAMSON: You would sometimes bring the stones to a shop and have them cut to size for you?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of that for some time.
MR. ADAMSON: When you just need it cut in half or something like that?

MR. BLUNK: Well, then you have to take it to a shop and they cut in. Then you can start doing something with it. In the last two years, I’ve done a lot of that.
MR. ADAMSON: Does this relate, in your mind, to rock gardens in Japan?
MR. BLUNK: I mean, it-I think you got a point.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs] Okay.
MR. BLUNK: I mean, you got a point there. I didn’t-
MR. ADAMSON: Not consciously.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. See, if we had had water, if they had had enough money to do it with water and some of these hunks of stone-
MR. ADAMSON: Let’s talk about this piece here, entitled The 1976. It’s sort of like the arch pieces, but it’s not an arch, it’s a sculpture, correct? I mean, there’s not enough room there for someone to walk underneath.
MR. BLUNK: No, there’s not.
MR. ADAMSON: Does this relate to the arches, in your mind?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. This is something similar, in a way, I think.
MR. ADAMSON: It’s interesting how it seems to have two arms, almost, this smaller, pointed one [on top ?].
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: It’s very anthropomorphic, you know. It’s like a person.
MR. BLUNK: It has that, too, yeah. That was a very early black piece.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really. How do you blacken them? Do you paint them?
MR. BLUNK: No. I use-have used, I’m not using right now-shoe dye.
MR. ADAMSON: Shoe dye. Okay.

MR. BLUNK: But you have to put it outside, away from-
MR. ADAMSON: Because it gives off such a-
MR. BLUNK: Oh, it will kill you, that stuff. Because I bought it in big bottles like that, and then I put it out in the woods.
MR. ADAMSON: And you just let it soak into the wood?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you put any kind of finish on top of it once you’re done dyeing it?
MR. BLUNK: Try not to. If you’re going to use that material, you’ve got to really be careful, because that stuff is really deadly. You just, you know, use the tiniest nothing, almost, in shoes.
MR. ADAMSON: Right. Do you feel like your pieces have a personality, like people do?
MR. BLUNK: Some of them do, yeah. Some of them do.
MR. ADAMSON: Especially the larger ones. They seem to have this presence to them that’s very much-it’s kind of like being in the room with a person, you know?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: Well, here’s Mr. Peanut.
MR. BLUNK: There’s Mr. Peanut, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Some people would say that this piece is sort of phallic.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. That’s okay.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: I mean, yeah, that’s okay. It’s a whimsy, you know? Rufus [Blunk, J.B.’s son] found this piece of wood and knew that I would want it, and he brought it. And then I made it.
MR. ADAMSON: The top is all pine, and the bottom is redwood, is that right?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I think so.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you say anything about the sexual imagery in some of your work? Like, you have the bench upstairs with the little set of genitals on it. You know the one I’m talking about? It’s a little bench and it has the genitalia hanging off the front?
MR. BLUNK: Hanging off the front?
MR. ADAMSON: Well, not hanging, but sort of attached to the front. Do you know what I’m talking about?
MR. BLUNK: No. No, but I’m curious.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: I mean, I’m interested in what you think about it.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Well, can you say something about your use of sexual imagery? It seems very bold in a piece like this.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Why not? I know exactly how that was made. I had a piece of wood that Rufus-now which one was it?
That’s a bronze.
MR. ADAMSON: These two pieces on the next page, yeah, are entitled-[inaudible]. How would you get these bronzes cast? Would you do a model first?
MR. BLUNK: I hardly-I have made so few bronzes because of the lack of money, or I would have-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: You’d like to make more?
MR. BLUNK: I did like to make more.
MR. ADAMSON: You were saying that Rufus maybe might try to cast the arch out in front of the house in bronze? Is that right? Or Bruno [Blunk, J.B.’s son] maybe.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yes, that’s right. You mean-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: To do the same piece and cast it in bronze.
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.]
MR. ADAMSON: When you were doing a piece like one of these two, would you make it in clay first? Or wood? Because you need to have it in some other material before you can cast it, right?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: But you don’t remember what you did it in before you cast it.
MR. BLUNK: I think-I’ve got to get my glasses.
MR. ADAMSON: It looks like it’s twisted, almost.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. [Looking at photographs.] I’ve had that one a long time, too.
MR. ADAMSON: These two pictures are of Double Presence [date?].
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: This is the one that’s stained black.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. This was the first of the stained-black things.
MR. ADAMSON: It seems like you were interested in the two sides and how the two sides would relate to each other.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Mm-hmm. That was the idea.
MR. ADAMSON: And this is more of the chisel carving. Here’s an interesting piece, as it kind of goes through itself.
MR. BLUNK: That’s the self-piercing piece.
MR. ADAMSON: Was it difficult to carve?
MR. BLUNK: Well, it’s a bit, you know, tricky around here. Yes, that’s something that you have to go little by little because of the grain.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah. And here’s a chair in cypress. It’s interesting how your chairs seem to enclose-
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: -the person sitting in them. It’s almost like you’re being embraced.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. That’s the idea. [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: You were saying up in the barn that you like people to be able to have something to touch when they sit on your furniture, too, with their hands.
MR. BLUNK: Sure.
MR. ADAMSON: Is that one of the reasons that often the two arms of the chair will be different from each other?
MR. BLUNK: Gosh, I don’t know.
MR. ADAMSON: Like, you know, the chair up in the barn has one side that’s like a ball?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Well, I thought it was more comfortable and more interesting to be like this, rather than just like-round.
MR. ADAMSON: Rather than the same-
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, just the same shape. This is the only chair I made that-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: The only chair that-
MR. BLUNK: This is the only chair that has this cut-out-
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, in the back?
MR. BLUNK: -in the back, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: I see. All the others just go down to the ground straight, pretty much?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. Here’s The Planet [1969]. And this was made from a big redwood root structure, is that right? And it’s the only picture of it?
Can you tell the story about how you-didn’t you have to finish this piece in a real hurry to get it to the Oakland Museum on time? Isn’t there a story about that?
MR. BLUNK: That’s when the-yeah. Well, this is-it looks so different.
MR. ADAMSON: The piece does?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it looks-not different for you, but for me. This is a very favorite piece, and people there, when they go in there, really touch it and have some sort of-something going on with it.
MR. ADAMSON: Like an experience?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Especially kids seem to like-
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, they go under and-yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: I notice you did a lot of different textures.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: Are most of those made with a chain saw? Are some of them chiseled?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, they’re chiseled and chain sawed.
MR. ADAMSON: These slots?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, the slots.
MR. ADAMSON: The ones that are more like little divots, was that done with a chisel?
MR. BLUNK: I don’t-it could be, you see, because if we could flatten these out-so maybe that’s something-it does animate all this other area, and then the inside-ness and all of that.
MR. ADAMSON: It’s interesting that you left a lot of the surface totally untouched.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. But it’s not abrasive on your hands and arms and whatever.
MR. ADAMSON: Did you have to smooth it out somehow, sandblast it or anything like that?
MR. BLUNK: No, I could have never sand-yeah, maybe I could have sandblasted it. But there was an enormous amount of sanding to do this. I had help with this.
MR. ADAMSON: Is that when Bruce Mitchell worked with you?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Just because there was so much of it?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Trying to get some-
[Audio break.]
[Begin Tape 2, Side B.]
MR. BLUNK: He did a lot of it. And he had the skill to do it.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you remember how you got it to the museum when you were finished with it? Because it’s so big.
MR. BLUNK: Well, it’s just money.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: To move it.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah. And I may be misremembering this, but isn’t there a story that you had to get it done very quickly because it was-
MR. BLUNK: Opening the museum.
MR. ADAMSON: Yeah, that’s right.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, that’s the truth.
MR. ADAMSON: So you were working long days.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, we were working long days when we were doing the sanding.
MR. ADAMSON: Trying to get it done.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I didn’t want it to be abrasive or bother your hands or, you know, whatever.
MR. ADAMSON: Have you seen the piece recently? Have you been down to the museum?
MR. BLUNK: I can’t remember when I was there. Because I know I haven’t been driving for some time.
MR. ADAMSON: I wonder if it would look any different to you now than when it was first done.
MR. BLUNK: Well, it seems to me that it wasn’t too long ago I went to some event there.
MR. ADAMSON: Was that the panel we did together?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah! Maybe.
MR. ADAMSON: So that was about four or five years ago.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: Well, we must have looked at it together then.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: It seems to be holding up pretty well, though.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. But the one in Santa Cruz-
MR. ADAMSON: Right, that’s here on the next page.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. We’re going to have to do something.
MR. ADAMSON: Is there something wrong with it?
MR. BLUNK: I saw this, let’s see-I was there, happened to be there in Santa Cruz. And it’s a long piece.
MR. ADAMSON: Is it still outside?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it’s definitely outside.
MR. ADAMSON: So it’s really gray and weathered?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it’s weathered, but it’s doing-it’s holding well.
MR. ADAMSON: And this is also made out of one piece of wood?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: So you actually did this one before The Planet, just before?
MR. BLUNK: This is-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: Should we go on further?
MR. BLUNK: If you want to. Okay.
MR. ADAMSON: This piece, I guess it’s pronounced Astarte [1974]?
MR. BLUNK: Astarte. Yeah. It came out of a lot of reading I did about-seemed to have some kind of relationship. I don’t know how, it just came up. I finished this all at the house, I think.
MR. ADAMSON: Is this one of the pieces that, to you, reflects an African influence, do you think?
MR. BLUNK: I never thought of this in terms of-
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. I know some of the benches upstairs, or the little stools, look almost like African stools, which is interesting. This has this big heart motif in it.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. This was all done with a chisel with this big piece, pretty good-sized piece of-
MR. ADAMSON: Of redwood?
MR. BLUNK: Of redwood, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Is redwood one of your favorite woods to work in, or is it just that it’s around here, so much of it?
MR. BLUNK: It’s easy to work, especially for some things. And this was wet, or, really, damp, when I chiseled it.
MR. ADAMSON: Like the other piece was.
MR. BLUNK: This is where you [step in the house ?]. [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: Right. Here’s an interesting piece. This is a couple of ceramic pieces. On the top is Water Garden.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: It looks like it’s put together out of coils.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, it was. It was.
MR. ADAMSON: It seems very different from a lot of your other work.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, this was a jump to something else.
This piece, I would-
MR. ADAMSON: Presence. This is eucalyptus. How is eucalyptus to work?
MR. BLUNK: Hard.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you just say something about this piece first, before you turn the page? This is the one that’s on the [postcard ?] in front?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. This one I still have, and this is really heavy.
MR. ADAMSON: Presence, you mean.
MR. BLUNK: Presence, yeah.
And this one I have. It came back home. Somebody who knew my ceramic work.
MR. ADAMSON: This piece from Bizen. So you actually have this somewhere?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I still have this piece.
MR. ADAMSON: Here’s Unknown Presence.
MR. BLUNK: Unknown Presence.
MR. ADAMSON: Here’s another good example of the two sides.
MR. BLUNK: This is [the rings ?].
MR. ADAMSON: That circular piece continuing.
MR. BLUNK: This was in a garden. It turned. You could turn it.
MR. ADAMSON: I notice in the list of collections, it says you have a piece at Tassajara Zen Center [Carmel Valley, CA]?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. It’s in a grouping. When you go there, you see it. I haven’t been there for some time.
MR. ADAMSON: [Turning pages.] Let’s see if there’s-
MR. BLUNK: This is a coffee table I made for a friend who had money. And I was just free to do it, and I made it. This was a whole, kind of, stump, or was very-it happened to be very dense. And I made the coffee table for them, a couple. I haven’t seen them for a long time.
MR. ADAMSON: It seems like this piece has a lot of rhythm to it.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. And she wanted it to be so you could sit on the floor, you could move around and eat from inside.
MR. BLUNK: It was really heavy. He had to get all his buddies who worked out in the gym all the time to handle it, even off the back of a pickup. No, not on the back of a pickup, but on the-to load it and unload it.
MR. ADAMSON: So here’s another catalogue from 1984, and this is at the Pickard Art Gallery in Oklahoma [Oklahoma City].
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Boy, that cost me.
MR. ADAMSON: Why is that?
MR. BLUNK: The guy went broke.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, really?
MR. BLUNK: He was in a terrible condition of-
MR. ADAMSON: Is this Alan Temco you’re talking about?
MR. BLUNK: Alan-
MR. ADAMSON: Is he the one that ran the gallery?
MR. BLUNK: No, no, no.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you tell me who Alan Temco is? He wrote this foreword here.
MR. BLUNK: [Pause.]
MR. ADAMSON: It’s okay. That doesn’t matter so much.
MR. BLUNK: This is Metamorphosis, the table.
MR. ADAMSON: I notice it has a little, kind of, bowl set into the top. You can sort of keep your peanuts in there, huh?
Here’s Mage. What’s interesting about this piece is that you left so much of the top natural.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: And then you finished the bottom so you can see the color inside the wood.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: I found some interesting pictures.
MS. NIELSEN: These are great.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you want to look at the-
MR. BLUNK: [Inaudible]-Orientation Center for the Blind [Albany, CA]. That was-
MR. ADAMSON: It seems like it’s an appropriate commission for you. Is that still there, do you know?
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah. It’s still there.
MS. NIELSEN: Hey, Papa, let’s look at these old pictures I just found.
MR. BLUNK: Okay. Ah, yes. There is Sensei.
MR. ADAMSON: Sensei’s at the wheel throwing?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MR. ADAMSON: And here’s you in front of the shop, huh?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. There’s the kids.
MR. ADAMSON: Those are-
MS. NIELSEN: Sensei’s children?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, they’re Sensei’s children.
MR. ADAMSON: You said he had a lot of them, right?
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: It’s a great picture.
MS. NIELSEN: This goes way back, huh?
MR. BLUNK: Yes, that’s way back. It’s way back, yeah.
MS. NIELSEN: Who’s that? [Looking at photographs.]
MR. BLUNK: That was I. That was in a-[pause].
MR. ADAMSON: A pretty handsome guy, huh?
MR. ADAMSON: Maybe we could talk about the house that we’re sitting in for a minute? Can you talk about that wall there that’s made up of all the different pieces of wood? The one back there in the corner? Do you see what I’m talking about?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Do you know when you would have put that in? Was that something you put in when you were building the house?
MR. BLUNK: That’s the way it started. It had so many changes.
MR. ADAMSON: The whole house, you mean, or just that piece?
MR. BLUNK: Just that-
MR. ADAMSON: That piece there?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. Well, I did part of it.
MR. ADAMSON: You didn’t do the whole thing?
MR. BLUNK: No, no. No, this is a new floor.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh, I see. You put the top on the house after you had built the rest of it, right? The top story? It used to be only this floor?
MR. BLUNK: [Off mike.]
MR. ADAMSON: But you built this wall out of all these pieces of [wood ?].
MR. BLUNK: Well, I had-[inaudible]-use it some way.
MR. BLUNK: And I thought, “What can I do?” And this floor is-[inaudible].
[Mr. Blunk and Mr. Adamson are away from the tape recorder, moving around the house, and can barely be heard on the tape.]
MR. ADAMSON: What about this chest here?
MR. BLUNK: I got that from Gordon [Onslow-Ford, Blunk received the chest from his wife, Jacqueline Onslow-Ford].
MR. ADAMSON: And this is a Japanese chest?
MR. BLUNK: It’s not Japanese, it’s Korean.
MR. ADAMSON: Korean? And this piece on top of it, the ceramic piece, is by you?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Why are there these slots in these-[inaudible]?
MR. BLUNK: [Inaudible].
MR. ADAMSON: Do you know there are ancient Japanese and Korean-[inaudible]-that have these same slots in them?
MR. BLUNK: Well, then I’m just one step behind.
MR. ADAMSON: [Laughs.]
MR. BLUNK: [Laughs.]
MR. ADAMSON: What about this?
MR. BLUNK: And this is a favorite piece of mine-[inaudible]. That’s why I have it here. I got this for very little money.
MR. ADAMSON: The big crystal?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, the big crystal. And this is a painting-[inaudible].
MR. ADAMSON: Nineteen ninety-two.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, 1992. Okay, now we know.
MR. ADAMSON: And this is by Christine?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. [Inaudible.]
MR. ADAMSON: What about this sculpture here? It’s an example of that black dye you were talking about.
MR. BLUNK: Oh, yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: And was all this texturing done with a chain saw?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
[Two or three minutes of inaudible conversation while they are walking and talking.]
MR. BLUNK: This is all new. It was dropped down about that far. Well, it used to be we called that the pit. We don’t call it the pit anymore.
MR. ADAMSON: Because it’s not a pit,
MR. BLUNK: It’s not a pit anymore.
MS. NIELSEN: It’s the elevator pit. [They laugh.]
MR. BLUNK: Well, it will last quite a while.
MR. ADAMSON: Here’s another sculpture here.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: It’s been very highly polished.
MR. BLUNK: This goes with the-I did a bunch of-[inaudible]. I found this piece of wood over in Gordon’s yard, and it turned out to be a burl of this. He didn’t want it. Nobody wanted it. So I just dug it out of the ground in Gordon’s yard.
MR. ADAMSON: Can I ask you a question about the way the house is built? You have these bolts holding it together.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. It holds this together.
MR. ADAMSON: Is that something that you had seen at other architectural projects?
MR. BLUNK: No. I bought these-you see the steel up there?
MR. BLUNK: That was to hold this end of the house together, and there’s a series, I think, over there.
MR. ADAMSON: And there’s the big dining table.
MR. BLUNK: Mm-hmm.
MR. ADAMSON: It’s a wonderful space in there to eat and cook and-
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Has that always just been held up on those trestles?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. I got them from somebody. I don’t know whether I made them higher or lower.
MR. ADAMSON: So to bring something to the right height?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Another thing we haven’t talked about is the fire.
MR. BLUNK: The big fire?
MR. ADAMSON: The big fire.
MR. BLUNK: The big fire. Yeah.
[They return and sit near the tape recorder again.]
MR. ADAMSON: You were both here for the fire, so maybe I can ask you both about it. This was-what year was it?
MS. NIELSEN: Ninety-four. It was six ninety-four [June 1994].
MR. ADAMSON: There was a big forest fire that came up and almost destroyed the house.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you tell me what that was like to live through?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. [Laughs.]
MS. NIELSEN: It was pretty scary, huh?
MR. BLUNK: Yes, very scary. Very scary because this is it. But the fire people were just-
MS. NIELSEN: Firefighters?
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, they were really on top of it. I didn’t believe it. In fact, I didn’t believe that there was any way, anywhere, to have a way to save it. All these people walked out with all their equipment and everything, but I-
MS. NIELSEN: What was interesting is that when the fire started, we had-they told us we had about six hours to evacuate, so we called some friends, and I remember standing in this living room with my father and looking around thinking, “What do you take?”
MS. NIELSEN: And that was really a powerful moment.
MR. BLUNK: She was just great. She knew the clothes and everything that was Christine’s.
MS. NIELSEN: Christine’s, because she wasn’t here. She was gone.
MR. BLUNK: Christine wasn’t here.
MS. NIELSEN: So I took all of Christine’s jewelry, a few of the pieces-favorite pieces of J.B.’s and some of the sculptures, little pieces they had brought back from their travels, the Japanese pottery and stuff-[inaudible]. Then my brother and his friends helped take-I don’t even remember. There were a few stools. But it was really such a challenge.
MR. BUNKER: Yeah. Rolf [sp] and-
MS. NIELSEN: Yeah, Rolf [sp] was here, Rufus.
MR. BLUNK: Rolf [sp] and Rufus.
MR. ADAMSON: Just trying to get whatever you could.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. But she knew exactly what her mother had.
MR. ADAMSON: What was it that saved the house?
MR. BLUNK: Literally it was a wall of bodies, of men, firefighters, just standing right in front of it just spraying it down.
MR. ADAMSON: Really.
MS. NIELSEN: For a bunch of hours.
MR. BLUNK: Women, too.
MS. NIELSEN: Men and women. And convicts. They recruited all these convicts from the local prison.
MS. NIELSEN: It was amazing.
MR. BLUNK: I thought-I gave it up. It was all over. There was no way that that relatively small group of people were going to-when the fire came up, you know, came right up to almost the side of the building. And then they had bombers with the-
MS. NIELSEN: Fire retardant.
MR. BLUNK: -with the fire retardant, but that was later.
MR. ADAMSON: Oh. They didn’t come in time for-
MR. BLUNK: Well, their schedule didn’t coincide with the-
MS. NIELSEN: It was so stupid. After the fire was already put out, they bombed the house with fire retardant. So everything was-
MR. BLUNK: They had to make sure.
MS. NIELSEN: Well, to make sure, but then the house was covered in bright orange. Everything. The garden, the plants, the house, the windows, orange. And that stuff is impossible to clean off. It’s just a matter of time.
MR. BLUNK: But the people were well trained, and it’s just amazing how they worked.
MR. ADAMSON: Can you tell me about the past few years since you haven’t been able to work anymore? We were looking up in the barn at the last stone piece you did, the Flying Stone [year?]. It is really an amazing piece.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah. As far as the stonework goes, it’s-I hope it finds a good home.
MR. ADAMSON: It must be nice to be able to look back and see everything you’ve accomplished all around you.
MR. BLUNK: Yeah, I’m quite-I’ve had a good life. I did do a lot of things I wanted to do and a lot of things that I don’t-that doesn’t mean much.
MR. ADAMSON: No regrets?
MR. BLUNK: That’s a hard one to answer. [Pause.]
MR. ADAMSON: Okay. Can I ask you one last question?
MR. ADAMSON: What does the J.B. stand for?
MR. BLUNK: James Blaine [sp] Blunk. My father’s name.
MR. ADAMSON: Well, thanks very much. I’m sure people will really enjoy listening to this.
MR. BLUNK: [Laughs.]
MS. NIELSEN: Yeah. It was great.
MR. ADAMSON: Anything else you want to say?
MR. BLUNK: No, I’m talked out. Thank you for all you’ve said. And it’s been a good ride.

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 J.B. Blunk, 2002 May 16, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Smithsonian Oral History Interview: Karen Karnes

Karen Karnes, circa 1950s

Oral history interview with Karen Karnes, 2005 Aug. 9-10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Karnes, Karen, b. 1925, Potter, Morgan, Vt.

An interview of Karen Karnes conducted 2005 Aug. 9-10, by Mark Shapiro, for the Archives of American Art’s Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, at the artist’s home and studio in Morgan, Vt.

Karnes discusses her childhood in Brooklyn and the Bronx as the daughter of Russian and Polish immigrants working in the garment industry; living in a cooperative housing project built especially for garment workers and their families; attending the High School of Music and Art, New York City; going on to Brooklyn College, and fortuitously landing in the class of Serge Chermayoff, who taught primarily in the Bauhaus style; meeting her first husband, David Weinrib, with whom she eventually moved to Pennsylvania; David bringing home a slab of clay for her to work with, her first experience with the material; traveling to Italy and working in a ceramics factory there; attending a summer session at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and taking a class with Josef Albers; moving to Stony Point, in Rockland County, N.Y., to start Gatehill Community; her first gallery relationship, with Bonniers, New York City; the birth of her son Abel in 1956; the first time she used a salt kiln, while at the Penland School of Arts and Crafts, Penland, NC, in 1967, and its effect on the character of her work; her relationship with the Hadler-Rodriguez Galleries, New York City; the pottery show in Demarest, New Jersey; her teaching philosophy and methods…meeting her life partner, Ann Stannard, in 1970; Ann’s home in Wales, and living there before settling in Vermont; the fire that destroyed their home and studio in 1998; the issues of privacy and isolation in an artists life; her expectations about her career, especially as a Jewish woman; and her feelings on the work of contemporary potters.

Karnes also recalls John Cage, Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Charles Olsen, Marguerite Wildenhain, Paul and Vera B. Williams, Mary Caroline Richards, Goren Holmquist, Paul J. Smith, Mikhail Zakin, Jack Lenor Larsen, Isamu Noguchi, D. Hayne Bayless, Zeb Schactel, Warren Mackenzie, Garth Clark, Joy Brown, Robbie Lobell, Paulus Berensohn, and others.


MARK SHAPIRO: I’m sitting with Karen Karnes. It is August 9, 2005, and we’re at Karen’s house in Morgan, Vermont, and we’ll begin. So you were born in 1920-
KAREN KARNES: Twenty-five.
MR. SHAPIRO: In New York?
MS. KARNES: In Brooklyn, New York.
MR. SHAPIRO: And your parents were garment workers?
MS. KARNES: Garment workers, immigrants.
MS. KARNES: Russia and Poland.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And you lived in a cooperative housing project, is that right?
MS. KARNES: Yes. After my second year, I guess, a cooperative colony in the Bronx.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that an unusual situation?
MS. KARNES: Oh, I think so. I think it was the first one. It was the only one that was made by the garment workers to make this-to design and build a house that was just the right kind of house for families of working-class people.
MR. SHAPIRO: So was that-so everybody who you were around were also-
MS. KARNES: Workers.
MR. SHAPIRO: -working together and probably immigrant?
MS. KARNES: Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know that that was a requirement.
MS. KARNES: But they just were union, working-class people.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I was thinking about that being, sort of, a kind of social experiment, which becomes, maybe, thematic for you.
MS. KARNES: Well, it really was a social experiment, because I found out years later that they made the co-ops, they called them-what was it called?
MR. SHAPIRO: Like Peter Cooper Village, kind of-was that one of them?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, but it was another level. I mean, it wasn’t really like that, because it was having to do with really working-class people.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. Because I think there was one on-when I lived in the furriers’ district, there was one on 28th and about-
MS. KARNES: But that was later. My mother lived there when she moved.
MR. SHAPIRO: But I know that was done by the ILGWA [International Ladies Garment Workers Union].
MS. KARNES: Yeah. But that was-that was many years after this one up in the Bronx.
MR. SHAPIRO: So did you have a sense of being part of something, of being different from people who were-
MS. KARNES: I think so, but that’s how the world was. I mean, children take it for granted whatever they live in is the right thing, but they had-but we had a library, and we had art classes, and the Yiddish school that I went to, a restaurant.
MR. SHAPIRO: So the Yiddish school was preschool or kindergarten or-
MS. KARNES: It was not preschool, necessarily. I think people could have kept going through all-it was in addition to the regular school.
MR. SHAPIRO: I see, so it was this idea of keeping this European culture alive?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, the culture. Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: And would you say that the general milieu there was very left wing? Kind of, everyone was communist?
MS. KARNES: Very, very left wing. Maybe everyone wasn’t communist, but there were lots of people who were. We were definitely taught that that’s the way the world was going to be or it should be, and we marched in the May Day parades, things like that.
MR. SHAPIRO: So when you went into public school, was it all kids from that project?
MS. KARNES: No, it was a mixture. Kids from there and kids from other places, but everybody mixed together. It was just a nice public school.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And I think you referred to being a kid with keys around your neck, growing up with a lot of freedom.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, because my parents both worked, so we had keys and we could get into the building and into our apartment. People were trusted, just did what we wanted.
MR. SHAPIRO: And never had any sense of danger or lack of safety?
MS. KARNES: No, but I think the times were different then.
MS. KARNES: I think there wasn’t any danger, or if there was, we didn’t know about it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And I know in the film [Lucy Phenix. From the Inside: The Work of Karen Karnes. 2005] there’s that woman who you talk about growing up with.
MS. KARNES: Sylvia [Manheim].
MR. SHAPIRO: Sylvia. Right. Was she your close or your special friend?
MS. KARNES: My friend.
MS. KARNES: She’s having her 80th birthday almost this day, very soon.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was she also living in that-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, she lived there, too, but she’s been living in California. But the difference there is that her parents were really, really left, so she grew up really left and-
MR. SHAPIRO: So they were also organizing?
MR. SHAPIRO: And so when you-there’s this famous story about you deciding to go to [the High School of] Music and Art [now LaGuardia Arts, New York, NY] all on your own. Can you tell us that story?
MS. KARNES: Well, I guess I heard about it someplace, and I went down and applied. And I took the test and got in; came home and told my mother. It was fine.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was that very different for you when you walked in there? Did you feel that it was a very different environment than you’d been-
MS. KARNES: The High School of Music and Art?
MS. KARNES: Oh, I think so. Of course, I wasn’t in high school yet. I was still in elementary school, so it wasn’t-no, I didn’t have anything to contrast it with. I didn’t go to an ordinary school first.
MR. SHAPIRO: And so tell us about Music and Art at that time, what you remember about it.
MS. KARNES: Well, I mean, I started taking art classes as well as everything else, because that’s what that course was: that you sort of took either music or art, but then you took all the other classes, too.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you have to take music as well, or you-
MS. KARNES: No. You were either a music person or an art person, but I’ll try and remember who my teacher was. [Pauses, thinking.] I won’t remember.
MR. SHAPIRO: That’s all right. That’s all right. Did you have close friendships from there, or were you traveling so far-
MS. KARNES: I was traveling so far. I mean, on the subway, we went from-I had moved to Brooklyn by then, so we children would be up in the subway and go back and forth, and I had friendships, but not really close. My friends in the Bronx, they stayed close.
Can you hear me with this terrible voice?
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, I’m going to get you some water here.
MS. KARNES: That’s not what’s wrong with me.
MS. KARNES: Maybe it’ll come back. It’s my condition.
MR. SHAPIRO: So at the time, I think you’ve said, there were no three-dimensional materials. It was very painting oriented?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, painting. Mostly painting and drawing, which was fine, but I didn’t-
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you draw a lot?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I drew and I painted. I didn’t do any clay or anything like that until later.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you like drawing?
MR. SHAPIRO: Was it fun?
MS. KARNES: It was fun.
MR. SHAPIRO: So then what was the feeling from your parents about this direction that you took?
MS. KARNES: Well, they just loved me and accepted anything I did. They figured whatever I did was the right thing. It was pretty nice to have parents like that-but I did, so they didn’t question it.
MR. SHAPIRO: And never feeling that you should be doing something more productive or-
MS. KARNES: Well, I should be trained to be a teacher, maybe. Of course, in high school you’re not training yet, so it wasn’t a danger until I got to college.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And so then you went on to-
MS. KARNES: Brooklyn College [Brooklyn, NY].
MR. SHAPIRO: Brooklyn College. When you were thinking about college, was it-I mean, it must have been City College; it must have been other colleges. What-how did you-
MS. KARNES: Brooklyn was right there and I could walk to it.
MS. KARNES: And Brooklyn was just as good as-I mean, I had no feeling that the city was better than Brooklyn.
MS. KARNES: And Brooklyn was just a block away from home. I didn’t know about [Serge] Chermayoff and the good art department that they had there. I just fell into it, luckily.
MR. SHAPIRO: What luck.
MS. KARNES: What luck.
MR. SHAPIRO: So tell me about-can you remember what it felt like when you became a student there and what it was like to meet your professor, your beloved teacher?
MS. KARNES: Well, it was just good. I mean, God, the memory is far away.
MR. SHAPIRO: So at that time, the program there was also not so much three-dimensional materials. Was it painting again or-
MS. KARNES: No, no. It was like a Bauhaus course.
MR. SHAPIRO: So, design?
MS. KARNES: Design, which was fine. I liked that very much.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were you working with real materials?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Yeah. I’m trying to think. Oh, God.
MR. SHAPIRO: That’s a long time ago.
MS. KARNES: A long time ago with a person that has no memory.
MR. SHAPIRO: Oh, you have a good memory.
MS. KARNES: It was just fun. I mean, it was moving things around. And of course, Chermayoff was an architect, so we did things sort of like on the edge of design and architecture in houses, and that was fun.
MR. SHAPIRO: I had read in that interview, him talking about having his students design a kindergarten or something like that. I don’t know. Like he gives-assigning them a project to think about. It sounded-
MS. KARNES: I wouldn’t think he didn’t, but I don’t remember.
MR. SHAPIRO: It sounded wonderful. And did you feel that he wanted you to go into architecture? Did you feel pressured or encouraged in that direction?
MS. KARNES: Encouraged. He very much wanted me to. He really would have liked me to go to Harvard or someplace like that for architecture school, but I didn’t do that, which was right not to do.
MR. SHAPIRO: I know in the previous interview with Paul Cummings you said, “I was very lucky not to go to Harvard,” and I think there are probably very few people who could say that with as much sincerity and-
MS. KARNES: Well, when I got older, I realized what being an architect is. I think much of it isn’t like he did it, playing around with form, line, and-
MS. KARNES: You have to know how to design, I think, like electricity and the water and technical things. And my real-what I should have done is what I did: work with materials. Could have been other materials, but I had-clay was the one, finally.
MR. SHAPIRO: And David [Weinrib] was there as a student at that time?
MS. KARNES: David was there. Yeah. He was-well, he was a student when we met at Brooklyn. He took me out on my first date and brought me a flower. Yeah, it was real college stuff.
MR. SHAPIRO: And he was a year older-
MS. KARNES: A year ahead.
MR. SHAPIRO: A year ahead.
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And then we did that dancing. We started dancing then. That’s probably why I liked college, because I had a boyfriend. Then he went to Alfred [University, Alfred, NY] after the first year there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Oh, I see. So he was only there for a year?
MR. SHAPIRO: And did he graduate or he just moved around?
MS. KARNES: No, he got a degree from Alfred finally.
MR. SHAPIRO: An undergraduate degree from Alfred?
MR. SHAPIRO: I see. So you were at Brooklyn first-
MS. KARNES: Well, I went through the whole course. I got-
MR. SHAPIRO: For three years?
MS. KARNES: I got my bachelor’s there.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I think after that point you got married, right?
MS. KARNES: I went to Italy.
MR. SHAPIRO: What you call “the lost years,” I think is what you called it in another interview.
MS. KARNES: Really?
MS. KARNES: Italy was lost years?
MR. SHAPIRO: No, no, no. Before when you were-
MS. KARNES: Oh, just going-
MR. SHAPIRO: Your three-year-two-year marriage or before you moved back to Pennsylvania to be with David?
MS. KARNES: Oh, in between when I finally went through college.
MS. KARNES: Well, I was younger and more dramatic then.
MR. SHAPIRO: So from Brooklyn you go to Pennsylvania?
MR. SHAPIRO: Where David is working-
MS. KARNES: He was a designer, had designed techniques for the factory there [Design Technics, Stroudsburg, Pen Argyl, PA], and he designed lamp bases and glaze treatments, things like that.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that’s where you first discovered clay?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, he brought me a great lump of clay home to work with on the deck.
MR. SHAPIRO: On the deck? Where-
MS. KARNES: We had a big, wooden deck.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you’d never touched clay before then?
MR. SHAPIRO: And what did you think? This is it?
MS. KARNES: It was wonderful.
MS. KARNES: I don’t have photographs of that period-of those things.
MR. SHAPIRO: Because you did some design work?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Well, I made lamp bases for them. They paid me $25 a design.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were they hand-modeled, or how were they made?
MS. KARNES: Well, I made them as solid bases and they made a mold.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you carved solid clay away or-
MR. SHAPIRO: -how did you know how to work with clay at that point? You just-
MS. KARNES: Just built it up.
MR. SHAPIRO: And David had experience already with clay or-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, he was there a few years, and he could throw some, and he could make glazes.
MR. SHAPIRO: So two years there or a year or-
MS. KARNES: Well, about a year and a half maybe. We went to Italy.
MR. SHAPIRO: So did you-what was it like to be working in a factory environment? I always think of that sort of Arabia model [Arabia factory, Helsinki, Finland]? Or that sort of-
MS. KARNES: Well, I didn’t work in the factory. I just learned-I guess, watched the master throw there. But I had a wheel in the apartment. We had one of those kick wheels built.
MR. SHAPIRO: You’re talking about Italy now?
MS. KARNES: What were you thinking of?
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, I just meant when you were in Pennsylvania.
MS. KARNES: Oh, I was working outside. I wasn’t in the factory.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you were doing freelance work for them?
MR. SHAPIRO: But they must have had access to the kilns and all that?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yes. Well, it was a functioning factory, but all I did was make the model, and then they made the mold and poured it and did everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you go in the factory and see how that was done and-
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was fun. That was fun.
MR. SHAPIRO: So how did the idea come up to go to Italy?
MS. KARNES: Oh, it was really David’s idea, because he wanted to travel, and we had some money from my wedding, and we met-it was a friend that we had that had worked in Italy in the Richard Ginori factory [Manifattura Ceramica Richard Ginori, Milan and Sesto Fiorentino] before the war. And he told us if we go there, we can just work at the factory, so that’s what kind of inspired us of where to go, so that’s where we went.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah. And so you just showed up and they said, “Come work here”?
MS. KARNES: No, we worked outside. I could go to the factory there, and I watched the school, the young people. They let me in there.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that’s where you saw this first person throwing?
MS. KARNES: Throwing.
MS. KARNES: But I left very quickly and made a wheel in my own house and put it there.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you were firing things at the factory?
MS. KARNES: They had some kilns. They were happy to fire.
MR. SHAPIRO: You were an exotic creature, if I might-
MS. KARNES: Exotic American young woman.
MR. SHAPIRO: I know you referred to it, you said it was a communist town [Sesto Fiorentino].
MS. KARNES: It was.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did that feel familiar in some way or-
MR. SHAPIRO: I mean, the factory.
MS. KARNES: Not necessarily, because I never considered myself political, so it didn’t really matter.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. Well, had it been a right-wing town, might not have been as sympathetic.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, that’s true.
MR. SHAPIRO: So this period-I think there were some things that were maybe published that you’d done in Italy or something. How did that happen?
MS. KARNES: In-well, I made-yeah, I don’t have those-I don’t have those photographs.
MR. SHAPIRO: I’ve seen them, though, somewhere.
MS. KARNES: It was in Domus magazine.
MR. SHAPIRO: How did that happen? Do you remember? Was that one of those things you brought back with you or-
MS. KARNES: No, it’s things I made there. I don’t know how I met him, the man who was the director for the Domus magazine, an architect [Gio Ponti, architect and editor of Domus].
MS. KARNES: You’re not going to get anything very inspired here.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, no. We’re just warming up.
MS. KARNES: Hope I warm up. I hope I warm up.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, I just want to-I want to just get all that-the steps.
MS. KARNES: Facts.
MR. SHAPIRO: The steps, just the facts.
MS. KARNES: I think the article would probably be more accurate.
MS. KARNES: Because they were near in time.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, that article goes basically to-well, I did have a question about Alfred. And you were-so you had this fellowship, which was to work with [Charles] Harder.
MS. KARNES: With Harder when we got back, right.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did that make you have a separate status from a normal student there?
MS. KARNES: Yes, because I didn’t have to do anything. I just worked.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And so you could get a degree without fulfilling any course requirements?
MS. KARNES: Right. Well, I took a glaze chemistry course.
MS. KARNES: I thought I should have that. I guess I-well, I didn’t get a degree.
MR. SHAPIRO: But originally you were on a track to get a degree.
MS. KARNES: Thought I’d get a degree, right.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And you-was it a very collegial place to be at that time for you?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yes. Good, nice people. I should remember their names. They’re all famous potters now.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I think you said that you didn’t have as much-most of your contact was with Harder, not other faculty?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, not [Daniel] Rhodes.
MR. SHAPIRO: Not Rhodes or the other students so much or-
MS. KARNES: Well, he looked at the work, but I just did the work.
MS. KARNES: I suppose even then I could work by myself.
MS. KARNES: But, you know, when you’re in a place that’s happening, you sort of see what’s going on, so in that sense I was just aware of the other students working there. And it was nice being at Alfred in our apartment. Lovely.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was it unusual to be a married student at that time?
MS. KARNES: I think it was probably unusual, but we were older than the other students.
MR. SHAPIRO: And so then you got this-you heard about this position-
MS. KARNES: We heard about Black Mountain [College, Asheville, NC].
MS. KARNES: We heard about it, because they-I guess it said in the announcements at different schools that they needed somebody.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I guess you had already gone to take a class with [Josef] Albers one summer, right?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Earlier, it was years before.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was that while you were at Brooklyn College?
MR. SHAPIRO: -Serge Chermayoff’s suggestion or-
MS. KARNES: Maybe. It could have been. Could have been.
MR. SHAPIRO: And had that experience been good?
MS. KARNES: But it was really that-the kind of course that he gave was like a course in the Bauhaus, moving materials around.
MR. SHAPIRO: So kind of a design oriented-
MS. KARNES: Like there was, say, a problem of using white materials so that you didn’t know what they were.
MR. SHAPIRO: So everything was white?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Just all kinds of abstract things like that.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was he encouraging to you, Albers, or was he-
MS. KARNES: No, I don’t think he knew I was there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Many people in the class?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, because it was a summer course.
MS. KARNES: Lots of people, but it was fun being there and nothing to do needing his approval.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were any of the characters he later met at Black Mountain College there? Was [John] Cage around or-
MR. SHAPIRO: [Robert] Rauschenberg or any of those folks?
MS. KARNES: No, no. I think it was before that.
MR. SHAPIRO: I see. So then you go down there, and it’s been described that they partly needed somebody to coordinate this workshop of [Soetsu] Yanagi and [Bernard] Leach and [Shoji] Hamada.
MS. KARNES: Was that right after that summer-no, no, because I had-
MR. SHAPIRO: No, when you went back.
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: Wasn’t that one of the reasons they needed a potter, after [Robert] Turner had left, is that right?
MR. SHAPIRO: Was because they-
MS. KARNES: Because they were going to have a workshop.
MR. SHAPIRO: Now, who had organized that workshop?
MS. KARNES: Well, I don’t think it was Turner. I think it was probably the man who was in charge of the school there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, that’s all right. We can find that out, but I was interested, because it seemed like that place was always so lacking in funds, was such a terrible issue for Black Mountain. And it was never clear to me how that all happened-who paid for Leach and Hamada and all to come to Black Mountain?
MS. KARNES: I have no idea.
MR. SHAPIRO: Interesting. When you were offered the position, did you know that the conference was scheduled, that it would be one of your responsibilities in the coming year?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: Oh, what a thrill.
MS. KARNES: But they only gave, I think, $25 a month salary.
MR. SHAPIRO: To you. Yeah.
MS. KARNES: To anybody.
MS. KARNES: And food and a place to stay. It was perfect-for the studio.
MR. SHAPIRO: And wasn’t the studio somewhat removed from-
MS. KARNES: Yes, it was in the field. It just came to me that when Lucy [Phenix] called, she needs-that’s what I was doing this morning-she needs photographs of different periods of my life, and I realized I have this book, The Arts of Black Mountain College [Mary Emma Harris. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987]. I have a copy.
MR. SHAPIRO: It’s got a very nice picture of you.
MS. KARNES: Not just me, but much of my work is in that, too.
MR. SHAPIRO: While you were there, how did you live? So you were getting $25, and you’re living with David.
MS. KARNES: Well, we sold a few pots. We were-well, we got food. We had a place to stay and food. That’s all we needed.
MR. SHAPIRO: And wasn’t the Southern Highlands Guild [Southern Highland Crafts Guild, Asheville, NC]-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, the Highlands Crafts Guild was there, and I belonged to that and sold a few things, and the other teachers got nothing. They just lived there and got their food.
MS. KARNES: But there was a fair and I was at the fair. I mean, I had things in the shop.
MR. SHAPIRO: It always struck me that Anni Albers being a weaver, and the Bauhaus background of the visual arts program there, that there was this integration of making things that you could use with fine arts. Did you feel that-when I talked to David about that, he said, “Oh, we were the peasants,” I think he said. Is that how you felt?
MS. KARNES: I think we were down in the field. Just because weaving was upper-class. That was clean.
MS. KARNES: And Albers was interested in that. We just made pots and we were fine.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was [Charles] Olsen supportive of the pottery?
MS. KARNES: Olsen loved it. The teachers all loved us, because there was so much windiness in the art-the art stuff that was going on. When they came down to the studio, they saw pots and they saw us working-it was wonderful.
I’ll just make an aside. I was reading this Marguerite Wildenhain book yesterday, and she speaks so well about what happens in the art world nowadays and the craftsmen, what they’re-so what they’re interested in-
MR. SHAPIRO: Wasn’t she along with Yanagi and Leach and-
MS. KARNES: She was-yeah, and she just sat in the back. She didn’t do anything, but she was one of them, because she had known people at Black Mountain.
MS. KARNES: But this is very nice-lots of good times.
MR. SHAPIRO: And she has a Bauhaus background, doesn’t she?
MS. KARNES: Yes. Yeah, but she was in California.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you always speak so glowingly about seeing Hamada’s work. Can you remember that feeling at all?
MS. KARNES: Well, he just sat there-right-and worked, and didn’t say anything. I mean, Leach was talking, philosophizing and everything, and Hamada just worked. He was wonderful.
MR. SHAPIRO: It was beautiful to move the clay and-
MS. KARNES: Right, right. And just be there. I think the important thing for me over the years was to not be afraid of being in front of an audience, because Hamada came to my mind. I could just sit there and do what I wanted to, and they probably would like it. It was an opportunity to see him, and he looked at my work and said nice things-you know, made a connection.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did Yanagi speak also or not?
MS. KARNES: Well, Yanagi gave lectures. I didn’t make human connection with that, but Hamada was very human. When I saw him at a show of his, years later, he remembered who I was.
MR. SHAPIRO: I remember-yes. He said something like “Oh, Ms. Weinrib.”
MS. KARNES: I mean, that was very nice.
MS. KARNES: I never went to his-I meant to go to Japan and see him at his place, but I never did. That’s part of it. I didn’t go to Peru when the Crafts Council went. I never thought I could do anything, because I didn’t have the money. And when they said, you’re just a potter, and everything you make goes into your life and your child and everything-
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, it’s so interesting, because one of the things that your life embodies so exemplarily for me is, as a person who never really had an institutional back support, and yet somebody who really made no aesthetic compromises, and really pursued a vision.
MS. KARNES: I don’t know where my aesthetics came from. Well, I guess it just came from generally looking at things and art courses. That’s one of the things you do when you go to Brooklyn College is the art history courses with slides and all that, so that you sort of begin absorbing the culture of the world subconsciously.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you used to go to museums even as a girl, right, before that? Now, that’s something that-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, [Museum of] Natural History [New York, NY] museum, Metropolitan [Museum of Art, New York, NY], all that. But when we lived in New York City, that’s a very natural thing to do.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. So Hamada was there. And I was interested in thinking about the next move that you made to Stony Point with Paul Williams, and was Vera there as well?
MR. SHAPIRO: With Vera [Baker] Williams and MC [Mary Caroline Richards] and John Cage.
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: And David. Were you kind of a group at Black Mountain before this move happened?
MS. KARNES: I think our only “groupness” was to do with MC. Yeah. Maybe Paul [Williams], but not with John Cage.
MR. SHAPIRO: And in reading about your teacher, Serge Chermayoff, I noticed that he was very involved with Buckminster Fuller, and I know that Paul Williams, the architect, was also similarly inspired.
MS. KARNES: Because he really worked at Black Mountain-I mean, did things at Black Mountain-
MR. SHAPIRO: And worked-was Buckminster Fuller around when you were there?
MS. KARNES: Well, he wasn’t there when I was there, but he built things, gave a general spiritual point to everybody.
MR. SHAPIRO: So how did you know it was time to leave Black Mountain College?
MS. KARNES: Well, we were offered something better. When they began planning this place outside of New York City, we knew that the college wouldn’t be there more than another year or two, because of no students. They had no money. It was really winding down, and a chance of going up there was just like a miracle. I think I’ve had a feeling in my life whenever I knew when a miracle happened and I got to the next stage. Not with planning it; it just happened.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were you involved-did Paul [Williams] select the land himself?
MR. SHAPIRO: Or was everybody involved in that?
MS. KARNES: I wasn’t there, because I was at Black Mountain teaching that summer, but Paul was there and John. Just a few people that was-
MR. SHAPIRO: Was MC involved in selecting the land?
MS. KARNES: Probably, probably.
MR. SHAPIRO: And your place was the first place to be built?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Well, it was-the Pot Shop was the first place, because there was a farmhouse where we all lived.
MR. SHAPIRO: I remember seeing that. Yes.
MS. KARNES: And the Pot Shop was the first place.
MR. SHAPIRO: So we’ve been talking earlier, off tape, about being within that group in the very earliest years when you were all in the farmhouse. So who was in the farmhouse?
MS. KARNES: John Cage and David Tudor and MC, and David [Weinrib] and I.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you used to go to the movies.
MS. KARNES: We went to the movies, and we played poker, and we had community meals-to eat, $25 a week, each person.
MR. SHAPIRO: And Vera and Paul Williams weren’t there?
MS. KARNES: No, because they had a family, so they rented a place-
MS. KARNES: And the next house that was built was their house, and then they moved to the land.
MS. KARNES: A year later.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that was the house-
MS. KARNES: Up on the hill.
MR. SHAPIRO: -the highest one up there?
MR. SHAPIRO: So you think of those times as, sort of, a more carefree moment in your life, those couple of years-
MS. KARNES: I think so.
MR. SHAPIRO: -this five or six of you living in that house and-
MS. KARNES: Yes, it was wonderful. I guess by the time I came up to the studio, it was already after the summer.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you were already working?
MS. KARNES: Oh, we started when I came back from Black Mountain.
MR. SHAPIRO: You could go right to work?
MS. KARNES: Pretty much.
MR. SHAPIRO: But no kiln.
MS. KARNES: Oh, we built the kiln first thing. Paul loaned us money. The big thing about the land is that there was money available.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, I know.
MS. KARNES: I think we got $3,000 to make the kiln and the showroom and everything. It was a 40-cubic-foot kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you feel that Paul was an unusual person who just brought generosity without expectation-
MS. KARNES: Yes. Yes. He was an extraordinary person.
MR. SHAPIRO: It seems very unusual for it-
MS. KARNES: He was unusual. Well, he had no desires for himself. The only luxury is that he did get himself a little MG car, although, I think, it didn’t mean anything, and he just wore the same old crummy shoes and jeans and whatever. Yeah, the money was there from his father, and he was happy to share that and use it for his friends to make this community-he wanted to make this community.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I remember when we went to the reunion, was it the 50th reunion at Stony Point? You described how members were brought in. Would you speak about that?
MS. KARNES: Well, we had meetings, and in our meetings we had to have consensus for anything to be decided. That was the basic principle, consensus, not votes, and up and down. And the way we decided to have a new member come in was that we didn’t want to have to vet them, and talk about them, judge them. A person recommended somebody, which was enough. And we didn’t have-I mean, I don’t know what we would have done if five people wanted people, but usually, it was one at a time, because we were respectful of each other, and we trusted the person who was recommending somebody would recommend the right person, who would fit in. It was a good principle.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, unusual.
MS. KARNES: John Cage was very philosophically connected to everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: So this was sort of his inclination?
MS. KARNES: Well, his and everybody else’s, but his largely, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: So there you were, with the city about an hour away?
MS. KARNES: About an hour away. We didn’t have a car, so we all drove in in Vera’s VW Beetle, five or six big people squished in, but Paul bought the car and we all used it. And for us, we just thought that’s the way it’s supposed to be and we didn’t even appreciate it.
MR. SHAPIRO: And when you started having open houses or students early, in the very beginning, or when did that-when did your shop-
MS. KARNES: Oh, the studio shop was to make money for me.
MS. KARNES: I just taught there one night a week.
MR. SHAPIRO: From the very beginning?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, pretty much, so I had probably six or seven students who came there and worked.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was Mikhail an early student, Mikhail Zakin, or was that later on?
MS. KARNES: That was a little bit later, but pretty much at the beginning, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: And how did your relation-the first gallery relationship was with Bonniers [New York, NY]. And how did that come to be?
MS. KARNES: Well, when we wanted to sell pieces, we took them in bags or boxes or suitcase, to the city. We were so primitive. God. I guess we went into Bonniers, and he liked them. I mean, it wasn’t hard to make an appointment to see somebody then. Maybe it’s not hard now. I don’t know. I haven’t done it for so many years, but we’d go in and unpack the pots, kneeling on the floor. Humiliating.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that was mostly tableware that you were making at that time?
MR. SHAPIRO: And this was-
MS. KARNES: As in jars and-
MR. SHAPIRO: Was this before the flameproof?
MS. KARNES: Flameproof came pretty quickly afterwards.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you mentioned that you were helped by a chemist with that. I don’t know that story.
MS. KARNES: No, not me. That was MC. I don’t know a chemist.
MR. SHAPIRO: But she had somehow gotten this formula?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: And MC was making pots at that time, too?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you and David and MC were all working in that studio together?
MS. KARNES: We each had separate rooms.
MR. SHAPIRO: And firing altogether?
MS. KARNES: Yes, sometimes, but there was enough work.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was MC making tableware?
MR. SHAPIRO: But David was making slab sculptures at that time?
MS. KARNES: Yes, sculpture, right.
MR. SHAPIRO: So he was sort of moving in a different professional direction?
MS. KARNES: Right from the beginning, he was, yes.
MR. SHAPIRO: So then Bonniers basically would take whatever you would make, pretty much, huh?
MS. KARNES: Well, he gave me orders.
MR. SHAPIRO: Orders?
MS. KARNES: Was happy to take them; they sold well.
MR. SHAPIRO: And would you actually have exhibitions there?
MS. KARNES: We had exhibitions, when I made a body of work, and an exhibition meant display in a window.
MR. SHAPIRO: Good spot?
MS. KARNES: Good spot.
MR. SHAPIRO: Fifty-seventh Street.
MS. KARNES: And Madison.
MR. SHAPIRO: And they paid you in a timely manner?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yes.
MR. SHAPIRO: Now, this was about-
MS. KARNES: I’m just trying to think, because somebody here in Vermont was the grandson of Mr. [Goren] Holmquist at Bonniers. I think he’s the head of the Vermont Art Council.
MR. SHAPIRO: There you go.
MS. KARNES: I mean, he told it to me twice, and I can hardly believe it. Yeah, I think it was that man.
[Audio break.]
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, here we go. So this is 1950-
MS. KARNES: Three.
MR. SHAPIRO: Three, four, five?
MR. SHAPIRO: And when is Abel born?
MS. KARNES: About six [1956].
MR. SHAPIRO: Nineteen fifty-six? And you described-well, I guess that may be a little later, but let’s see.
So what made you think you could make a living as a potter at that time-was it just something that you were confident you could do? Was it something that you saw other people doing?
MS. KARNES: No, I didn’t see other people doing it, but I knew I could.
MR. SHAPIRO: Because you’d already had some success in-
MS. KARNES: It’s what I wanted to do, so I was just going to do it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Were there other individual craftsmen selling at Bonniers?
MS. KARNES: They had mostly European people.
MR. SHAPIRO: But wasn’t it mostly, kind of, factory produced or semi-[factory produced]?
MS. KARNES: No. They had factory things, too, but they had-I mean, Hamada was selling there, and Lucie Rie, and a few other British people. There weren’t very many Americans.
MR. SHAPIRO: I didn’t realize they had that work there.
MS. KARNES: You see that third piece over?
MR. SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MS. KARNES: That’s a piece from France, a person called [Elisabeth?] Joulia, J-O-U-L-I-A, the first piece I ever bought at Bonniers.
MR. SHAPIRO: They were mixing handmade and industrially produced things?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah. The handmade were in the showroom part, and then they had books and other things. Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: So one thing that struck me was I was thinking of the Pot Shop at Black Mountain being, kind of, off in the field, and I was thinking that you had really wanted the Pot Shop at Gate Hill in Stony Point to also be kind of separate from the living pods, and-
MS. KARNES: We had a big fight then when that happened.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, tell me about that.
MS. KARNES: Well, Paul had this idea that everybody should be up the hill with their houses and everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: Their studios should be attached?
MS. KARNES: Studios should be attached. And I mean, I couldn’t have made this happen, except David was a very strong person, so he usually made it happen. We wanted to be just down below, and we wanted to be near the studio and firing kilns. And we also didn’t feel like necessarily being right next to everybody up there. We were snobs.
MR. SHAPIRO: It’s always that kiln excuse. It’s a good one.
MS. KARNES: Well, it really was true, too. I’d be running up and down, so we pushed it through.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did you feel in any way separate from the community?
MS. KARNES: Not really, it was fine. I mean I had a few really good friends.
MR. SHAPIRO: Which were your closest friends?
MS. KARNES: Johanna Vanderbeek, who was a filmmaker. And Vera [Baker Williams].
MR. SHAPIRO: And I remember you describing that there was this kind of-as children came along for everybody, there was this kind of gang of mostly boys up the hill, and that Abel was somewhat quieter and-
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: -a little bit separate?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, Abel was not one of the gang. He would have been happier if he’d been one of the gang, but it wasn’t his nature, so he’s really not had any connection from that since he left it.
MR. SHAPIRO: And he also-wasn’t there a question of school? The rest of the kids were homeschooled or something?
MS. KARNES: Well, they made their own school, which was like homeschool, but it was a school.
MR. SHAPIRO: What were your feelings about that choice?
MS. KARNES: That wasn’t what I wanted, though it was a really good school. I mean, if they didn’t learn to read, it didn’t matter, or they learned-and they did. You know, they’re fine now.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah. I met him. Yeah, great kid.
MS. KARNES: All those children have grown up and done well at all kinds of things.
MS. KARNES: So one should have more faith in one’s children, I think.
MR. SHAPIRO: So were you driving Abel to school?
MS. KARNES: No. By that time, we had our own car.
MR. SHAPIRO: And so about that time David moved. We’re talking now about 19, what, ’58 or ’60?
MS. KARNES: Something like that.
MR. SHAPIRO: David moves to New York?
MR. SHAPIRO: And when does Ann come into your life?
MS. KARNES: In ’70.
MR. SHAPIRO: So much, much later?
MR. SHAPIRO: So you’re living alone, raising Abel, and you’re responsible for providing for your child.
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I think at that time, that was probably not a thing that a lot of artists did. It’s-or maybe they did, but it’s a kind of an invisible achievement, and it’s certainly not easy to do as a woman in that time. Did you have a-
MS. KARNES: But I made works that sold, you know. I was making casseroles and bowls. All my functional things were very saleable, and people came to the studio to buy it, or I sold at Bonniers, a few other stores.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was MC still living on the land at that point?
MS. KARNES: She had just about left.
MR. SHAPIRO: Moved-gone to Pennsylvania to her farm or-
MS. KARNES: Well, first to New York, and then Pennsylvania.
MR. SHAPIRO: So your-that was probably a major shift in the studio for you, because then you were the only person-
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: -working in the studio. Did that feel fine?
MS. KARNES: Just fine.
MR. SHAPIRO: It was fine. And did you stay close with MC or-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, we were always friends, but we didn’t see each other that much. She was in the city.
MR. SHAPIRO: What was she doing in the city then?
MS. KARNES: What was she doing? She was writing and, you know.
MR. SHAPIRO: Writing. Getting ready to make her next move to Pennsylvania? When did you teach at Penland [School of Arts and Crafts, Penland, NC]? Is that much later?
MS. KARNES: This is in the early ’60s.
MR. SHAPIRO: So that’s when-
MS. KARNES: Because I worked with the salt kiln at Penland. Came back and made the kiln. I guess it was about ’67.
MR. SHAPIRO: So pretty much later than when we’re talking about now. So the whole first half of the ’60s you were selling at Bonniers, till they closed, and then you had this connection with the America House [New York, NY].
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And some other galleries.
MR. SHAPIRO: In New York?
MS. KARNES: No, around the East Coast. They’d come up, pick out pieces; I would give them lunch, and they-
MR. SHAPIRO: Does-I know you refer-you say that you do not like to ship.
MS. KARNES: I didn’t ship. I told them I wouldn’t ship. They’d come up and get them. I didn’t really ship until I had my art pieces, and that’s further away.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And Paul Smith was interested in your work also at the Craft Museum [New York, NY]?
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you have shows at the Craft Museum at that time or-
MS. KARNES: Don’t think so. No.
MR. SHAPIRO: But they had a connection with America House or-
MR. SHAPIRO: And I know that you mentioned [Isamu] Noguchi as a big influence. When did-
MS. KARNES: Well, Noguchi. Jack Lenor Larsen was a friend.
MR. SHAPIRO: Of Noguchi?
MS. KARNES: Friend of mine.
MS. KARNES: And he made a house out in East Hampton.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. That’s right.
MS. KARNES: In one of those places. And he wanted work from me, so I made garden seats.
MR. SHAPIRO: What year is that, do you think?
MS. KARNES: It was before Ann came, so it must have been in the ’60s, late ’60s. And Noguchi saw-he was at Jack’s house and he saw the seats, and then he wanted one. So then I made some, and he came to Stony Point, which must have been just the late ’60s.
MS. KARNES: And took two of them.
MR. SHAPIRO: And had you been aware of his work before?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yes.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that had always been-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, good artist. I’d seen his work in the museum.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, that must have been very validating or-I don’t know what you’d say.
MS. KARNES: It was nice.
MS. KARNES: I seem to have accepted all these things as being very normal.
MR. SHAPIRO: That’s good. So you made those fireplaces for Jack Larsen?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, started making for him and for other people. And it was at that same time, when he needed a fireplace for his house, and I had one in my house. I had made one for me first, and then he saw that, and then he wanted one.
MR. SHAPIRO: And remember when we were looking at that old Craft Horizons that [D.] Hayne [Bayless] had found, and there was this, kind of, a-planters, the slab planters? I had never really seen those before.
MS. KARNES: They weren’t slab. They were pressed planters.
MS. KARNES: Do I have that magazine? Did he give it to me?
MR. SHAPIRO: I have that magazine.
MS. KARNES: Oh. You have it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, but that was in-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, that was-I was building those before Abel was born, so I was building those in the late ’50s, and sold them at a decorator’s place in New York. Carl Mann. Yeah, those would be it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, they look great. Two different clays close to each other.
MS. KARNES: I saved two or three molds. I’d drag them around. They were here, and then they were destroyed by the fire [1998], because I always thought, well, someday I’ll press a few of them in there, because they were such good pieces.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah. Do you know if any of those pieces are around anywhere?
MS. KARNES: I think Mikhail [Zakin] has-
MR. SHAPIRO: Does Zeb [Schactel] have one?
MS. KARNES: No, Zeb doesn’t, but Mikhail Zakin has some, but you don’t keep things like that.
MS. KARNES: You sell them, get the money.
MR. SHAPIRO: Get the money.
MS. KARNES: Get the money.
MR. SHAPIRO: So Mikhail walked through the door one day into your class?
MS. KARNES: Well, I think she came by when we were building the kiln, and then she walked into the class, because she hadn’t worked with clay, but she was always an artist. She was a jeweler. And both she and her husband, Gabriel, began studying with me.
MR. SHAPIRO: Is that where the connection with Demarest [NJ] came, or was she already involved with Demarest?
MS. KARNES: No, Demarest came later, but I got connected to Demarest through her.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right, right. And so she wasn’t teaching at Sarah Lawrence [College, Bronxville, NY] at that point either?
MS. KARNES: No. No, she didn’t do that until Gabriel had his breakdown in 1970.
MS. KARNES: At first she taught at Greenwich House [a community center, New York, NY], and then she taught someplace else. And then she taught at Sarah Lawrence in the late ’70s.
MR. SHAPIRO: And when did Zeb-what’s Zeb’s full name?
MS. KARNES: Zeb Schactel.
MR. SHAPIRO: When did she come into your life?
MS. KARNES: Well, she began coming up to the studio probably in the ’60s also, because she-you know, she was a psychotherapist, and she’d go if she had some work in the area, and she’d come by and buy pots. She loved them.
MR. SHAPIRO: And so was that the first collector that you had?
MS. KARNES: Probably.
MR. SHAPIRO: First person you knew would support you in that way?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I think so.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did that have any meaning for you in a way, or did that-was there-I mean, obviously it has a meaning in terms of a certain economic security.
MS. KARNES: The thing is that since I was in Rockland County, there were a lot of people that came and bought from me, and they were all collectors, even though I didn’t call them that.
MR. SHAPIRO: Like New York people?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, and local people, Rockland County people. The pieces were sold through the showroom. That’s really how I made my living.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I read somewhere you had a price structure where you would-
MR. SHAPIRO: Tell us about that.
MS. KARNES: Well, if you came to the studio, you didn’t pay retail prices like in the big world. I guess it was about a third less, something like that.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that ever an issue with your galleries?
MS. KARNES: Didn’t ask them. I mean, it might have been an issue, but they had no choice. If they wanted my work, that was it.
MS. KARNES: So I thought that was a good system.
MS. KARNES: Made more money for me and it encouraged people to come.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you were, at that time, selling mostly teapots and cups and-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, casseroles and-
MR. SHAPIRO: Casseroles.
MS. KARNES: Bowls, candlesticks.
MS. KARNES: Sets, everything, dinnerware if people wanted it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Would you make dinnerware for 12 or 24 or-
MS. KARNES: Never 24, thank goodness. Ten or 12.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ten or 12.
MS. KARNES: I mean, if people came and ordered it, then I made it. I made anything that you wanted.
MS. KARNES: If I wanted to make it.
MR. SHAPIRO: And when you would make a simple pot, like a bowl, would you-how many would you make of a similar form at that time in your career?
MS. KARNES: Well, like 10. So the normal throwing cycle-because I never was a very fast thrower, so I wouldn’t make hundreds.
MS. KARNES: I mean, 10 felt like a lot.
MR. SHAPIRO: So Bonniers had this sense of exhibition when you’d have a large body of work.
MS. KARNES: Well, I made bird feeders and things like that that were more special.
MR. SHAPIRO: For Bonniers, for the shows?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, and then sold them.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And I guess I’m interested in when you started to have this more of an exhibition line and the casserole-
MS. KARNES: Well, I think the real change was the salt kiln. And the salt kiln-I went to Penland and came home. That must have been around ’67. And that second piece on the shelf-
MS. KARNES: -is my first salt piece.
MR. SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.
MS. KARNES: Not up on the top.
MS. KARNES: In the middle shelf.
MR. SHAPIRO: Uh-huh. [Affirmative.] Was that made at Penland?
MS. KARNES: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Just threw it in and then poured the slips over it and put it in the kiln, and it came out and I said, okay, I’ll make myself a salt kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was Paulus [Berensohn] at Penland at that time?
MS. KARNES: No, I don’t think so.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was Cynthia [Bringle]?
MS. KARNES: Cynthia was, not Paulus. Paulus was at his farm. And that’s what Paulus bought, that last one.
MR. SHAPIRO: So did you enjoy the teaching at Penland when you were there?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah. I love teaching. I taught at Haystack, too.
MR. SHAPIRO: When did the Continuum start? Was that later?
MS. KARNES: No, Ann was there, so that’s later.
MS. KARNES: But let me say something about the salt kiln, because the salt kiln was the real place where I began enlarging the kind of work that I did, because Mikhail and I made the salt kiln together.
MR. SHAPIRO: Mikhail and who?
MS. KARNES: Mikhail Zakin and I built it together.
MR. SHAPIRO: Uh-huh [affirmative], just the two of you?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And then she came up and worked in my studio and fired with me. And I think the whole idea of this new way of doing things-it freed me. I didn’t have to make something that’s really a functional thing. It was a functional thing, but something that somebody wanted.
MR. SHAPIRO: What was it about the process that felt so different?
MS. KARNES: I think suddenly the surface of the salt was so gorgeous that it just inspired me to work more. And also, at that point, the point that I sort of just freed myself from the necessity to be connected to immediate function, the bowl; the covered jar had to be of a certain kind.
MS. KARNES: Didn’t have to be a certain kind anymore. It could be any kind. Didn’t have to worry about putting my hand in or a spoon in or whatever. And then size, I began making bigger pieces there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did that have anything to do with any other things that you had seen at Penland or any-
MS. KARNES: No, I don’t think so.
MR. SHAPIRO: It was really just the kiln?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. I think just the kiln, that I could work larger and it was all right. I didn’t have to worry about, what do you need that big pot for? Like, this is a salt piece-
MS. KARNES: -of that period.
MR. SHAPIRO: Put a lot of salt in the kiln.
MS. KARNES: Yes. A lot of salt, a lot of heat, so it was a real change in my work. I still kept going with the casseroles and things in the other kiln, but all the-and the creative energy went into the salt kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you find that-at that point-that it felt different to make the casseroles? Did you take less pleasure in it, or was it more of a job at that point?
MS. KARNES: I would say it was more of a job. I mean, I needed to make them. I liked making them, but that’s not where my basic interests were. The interests were in the salt kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I know you’ve spoken about the annual rhythm that this-the fall being very busy, and then having these several months in the winter to do experimental work. Would you do the salt work-
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: -at that time?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I would never do any casseroles then. I would do big jars, vases.
MR. SHAPIRO: Would you carry that work-the big jars-through the year also, or not?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And when I was deeper in the salt work, then I did less of the other.
MS. KARNES: So I carried it straight through.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were you able to show both works side by side in your normal gallery situations?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: Or did that evolve into-
MS. KARNES: In my showroom, you mean, or just in-
MR. SHAPIRO: No, I mean, in New York.
MS. KARNES: Well, some of the shops that I sold to gave me specific orders. They wanted casseroles or wanted jars, but they were happy to include some salt pieces, too, but not this kind. I mean, that was really show work.
MR. SHAPIRO: So what was the first place you were able to show this large-scale salt glaze work? Would that be [William] Hadler- [Nicolas] Rodriguez [Galleries, New York, NY, and Houston, TX], or was that before that?
MS. KARNES: Maybe that would be-yeah, maybe I didn’t show it. Maybe I just kept making them. I mean, there is no place-my normal sales places were not interested in this expensive work, larger work.
MR. SHAPIRO: But maybe collectors were buying it at your studio or-
MS. KARNES: A little bit, but not much. No, I think they were just kicking around. This piece was actually shipped to Ann. And I guess that was already in the ’70s-every time I had a kiln, I would ship her two or three pieces, so that went to England, and then it came back when we moved back.
MR. SHAPIRO: So when did the relationship with Hadler and Rodriguez start?
MS. KARNES: They used to come up to the studio to buy casseroles and things, just-
MR. SHAPIRO: For themselves?
MR. SHAPIRO: Not to resell?
MS. KARNES: No, for themselves.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did they have a gallery at that time?
MS. KARNES: No, because they only made the gallery in about ’70, ’69, ’70.
MS. KARNES: It was late.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were you part of the gallery from the very beginning?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Yeah. Before they moved uptown, they had a big loft on maybe 20th Street, where they lived and where they showed work; we were friends, so we’d go in there. I’d just be there. And then they said they were going to make a gallery, and I said, “Gallery? You’re children; you can’t make a gallery.” I mean, Warren Hadler, especially, was a dancer, and he looked about 16. Nicolas was more sophisticated and older, but they didn’t look as if they were people who had a gallery, but they did. And I guess their first show was not in the gallery, but on 20th Street, wherever it was. It was my salt work.
MR. SHAPIRO: That was the first show?
MR. SHAPIRO: And they sold it?
MS. KARNES: They sold a lot. Didn’t cost very much and they sold. And then from there, they decided to open up the gallery on 57th Street, so I was part of that gallery immediately.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were they-they were showing fine art as well, right? They were not just showing craft.
MS. KARNES: I don’t think they were showing paintings.
MS. KARNES: I think it was just craft, just ceramics. Well, they might have had some textiles and things, too.
MR. SHAPIRO: Who-what other potters were they showing, or do you remember? But you would have a show there every-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, year or two.
MR. SHAPIRO: -year and a half?
MS. KARNES: Year. But I think they died about-would have been about two years, and then they died.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you had maybe three shows?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And then they also went down to Texas. Houston, I guess, and opened another branch of the gallery there. And I had a show there once, and I drove down-
MR. SHAPIRO: You drove?
MS. KARNES: Because I didn’t want to ship.
MR. SHAPIRO: How did that one go?
MS. KARNES: I think it was okay. Don’t remember.
MR. SHAPIRO: So about this time Demarest must have been starting-’70. When did Demarest start?
MS. KARNES: Little later. Maybe ’72, ’73.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did the pottery show come after the art school [The Art School at Old Church, Demarest, NJ] was founded, or was it simultaneous?
MS. KARNES: No, the art school was founded, and maybe a year or two later they made the pottery show.
MR. SHAPIRO: And Mikhail asked you to-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, well, we talked about it. It was something that I hoped would be a good thing to do. And I set it up exactly the way it should be set up.
MR. SHAPIRO: What were some of your concerns, because I know you had some.
MS. KARNES: Well, my concerns were, first of all, the potters have to be paid immediately. We even-the first year, the first year or two, we drove up into the Northampton [MA] area and picked the pieces up, because I felt the pieces should be taken and given back. And we should just treat them-treat them properly, which Mikhail was all for. I mean, we went to get them, feed them, house them. I mean, we’d just do everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you send them into Manhattan in those early years?
MS. KARNES: No. The potters?
MR. SHAPIRO: Encouraged them to go and look at shows and-
MS. KARNES: Oh, yes, but, I mean, they didn’t need encouragement. But the first few years we-I only asked people in the area. I didn’t go way out to Minnesota and places like that.
MS. KARNES: You have to sort of feel that you have the market-
MS. KARNES: -when you bring them from so far away. But you see that Green Meadow [Waldorf School, Spring Valley, NY] had a show around then, so we kind of fashioned it after that, but that failed soon after that.
MR. SHAPIRO: I remember that, yeah.
MS. KARNES: Did you ever go to it?
MS. KARNES: As a potter?
MR. SHAPIRO: I had a couple of good years.
MS. KARNES: Well, he died. The man who organized the show died and that sort of killed the show.
MR. SHAPIRO: So Mikhail was head of the pottery-
MS. KARNES: Head of the school.
MR. SHAPIRO: Head of the whole school at that time.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, and teaching pottery. Well, that was fun, those early years. It’s still fun.
MR. SHAPIRO: It is fun.
MS. KARNES: It’s nice to make a show that really-everybody is so happy to be at.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you were always having that dinner at Mikhail’s house.
MS. KARNES: That I cooked.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was Malcolm [Davis] there from the beginning?
MS. KARNES: Not from the very beginning, no.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, who were some of the earliest? Do you remember?
MS. KARNES: Well, they must have been more local people.
MS. KARNES: Like, Angela [Fina] probably and-
MR. SHAPIRO: Were the Cohens [Michael and Harriet] around at that time?
MS. KARNES: Cohens. Yeah.
[Audio break, tape change.]
MR. SHAPIRO: This is disc two with Karen Karnes, interview with Mark Shapiro on August 9, 2005.
So there was this idea that you would be in for a year and then out for-in for three years and then out for one-you said that was sort of a way to make it more flexible.
MS. KARNES: So should I say that?
MR. SHAPIRO: I think so, yeah, because that’s interesting. We were just saying that that show has become such a model for shows like Northern Clay [American Pottery Festival,, Minneapolis, MN] and for the St. Croix River Tour, for 16 Hands [16 Hands Studio Tour, Floyd, VA], for Worcester [Worcester Center for Crafts, Worcester, MA], Vermont Clay Center [Vermont Clay Studio, Waterbury, VT], we tried to do that and-
MS. KARNES: It didn’t work. That’s because they closed.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. I mean, at one point, did you see this as a thing that could kind of expand outward?
MS. KARNES: Well, as it began expanding, I thought it must be. It was expanding. I’m always wary about it-you can’t just expand it. It has to be the right conditions. New Jersey was so different, because we were right near New York City. I think the main thing is, that I always have emphasized to the people who would want to make such shows, is that we started so modestly. If we made $1,000, we thought that was a lot. I mean, now everybody thinks, “Oh, look. They made $100,000. We should make $100,000, too.”
MS. KARNES: And they don’t give it the time to mature up to that point, but in Minnesota they do, because the conditions are right. They already have such a powerful buying public there. It’s maybe the only place like that in the country. I mean, New Jersey isn’t like that. We’ve had to work hard to get where we are, but that’s the whole thing.
MR. SHAPIRO: Plus, though, I think at Demarest there’s such an incredible support from the volunteers who use the facility.
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: Really. People like Joyce [Halpert, Demarest board member], who buy a lot of work, who also take classes, who volunteer in such a powerful-
MS. KARNES: Don’t the other shows have that?
MR. SHAPIRO: Not on that level.
MS. KARNES: Because the Minnesota show is a pretty powerful place. But they’re mostly around-
MR. SHAPIRO: Warren [MacKenzie].
MS. KARNES: I mean, when I see the thing that Warren-if you want to buy one of his pots, you draw a note and then-
MR. SHAPIRO: But then it’s only 30 bucks-
MS. KARNES: The pieces are inexpensive?
MR. SHAPIRO: I was there this spring, and there were cups for $6.50.
MS. KARNES: From Warren?
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah. So-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, it makes a big difference in the level of money you can sell things for. But were all the things in Minnesota that cheap?
MR. SHAPIRO: Just Warren’s. But things are a little bit less than they would be-than they are on the East Coast. So I was asking whether you felt comfortable in that role.
MS. KARNES: Yes. I have no problems with that role, because Mikhail gave me the full authority. Right from the beginning I said, “I’m the one who chooses. Don’t anybody else do anything else.” So they had to come to me, and then I could refuse, instead of coming to Mikhail and nudging her or anybody else.
MS. KARNES: So it’s really made it easier for me to have that total authority. I’m not sure all the shows are like that. But it’s the consistent quality of the work that makes it happen. People come to the show, and if they don’t see good work, then they sort of say, well, that’s not so good.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did you always feel that there should be spaces for people starting out?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yes, but it has to be good.
MS. KARNES: But the people starting out are wonderful. I only find the work in the magazine or something, because I don’t go to the shows. In the early years I went to the craft shows to find people. I don’t do that anymore.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you go with Mikhail?
MS. KARNES: No, I went myself. So now I ask my friends-my potter friends-to break them in, the people, and I trust them. And then people show me slides and things like that. But still, they have to be good people. You can’t fool the public.
MS. KARNES: We have a very sophisticated public in New Jersey, too. They’ve been coming for so many years-
MS. KARNES: -that they really understand about clay. And that’s the nice thing for the potters, because they have an audience that really looks and cares about them.
MR. SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MR. SHAPIRO: So how did Ann come into the picture?
MS. KARNES: MC went to England to teach, I guess. Then she went to a workshop, in which Ann was firing kilns, and she really enjoyed that so much that she wrote to Paulus at the farm and invited Ann-and she had a friend Helen who knew how to build kilns-with her to come and work there. And I was one of the teachers in that course, so we met.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was she building wood-was that where the Bourry box kiln came from?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Yeah, it was. And that’s-I guess it was in ’69 when she came to the farm. She built sawdust kilns and wood-fired kilns and everything. And she definitely had a mad time. And the people who came to build, work with her, potters, were friends who we’d invited, so that was a wonderful experience for everybody. And then the next year-I guess in ’70-she invited me to go to England and teach a course that she had arranged there.
MS. KARNES: In England. And then-
MR. SHAPIRO: That must be 19-
MS. KARNES: Seventy. Either ’69 or ’70-’69, because ’70 she came to work with me, so that’s how it happened.
MR. SHAPIRO: And is this about the time your Continuum thing was established?
MS. KARNES: Continuum happened about a year or two later, after they invited me to teach. And then I just worked out this new way of teaching.
MR. SHAPIRO: So tell me about that, the way that it happened.
MS. KARNES: Well, it was just a group of potters, maybe 20.
MR. SHAPIRO: And this was not through any institution, right? This was just-
MS. KARNES: No, it was in a center, but it had nothing to do with them. We just used the facilities.
Well, the kind of teaching that I was prepared to do then was really working with form. And the pattern of the day was that I gave a problem and they all worked on my problem, and then we stopped and looked at the work and talked about it, so it had that kind of continuous feedback.
And then we worked on another problem, you know, so it was all people really listening to me and trying to do the kinds of forms of work that I was pressing them into, so they did all kinds of really interesting things.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I think you described the space-the studio space that you created.
MS. KARNES: Yes, we set the wheels up in a circle so that everybody could look at everybody working, and the whole idea, too, is that I gave them permission to look at everybody’s work and get inspiration from it, so that you weren’t just all by yourself in a studio thinking, what am I going to make now? You were doing-could look at your neighbor and say, well, that’s a good idea. I’ll do that. So we kept on developing it like that.
So then at the end when we-when they’d made all their work and they wanted to fire it, I said, that’s okay. We’ll fire it, we’ll make-we’ll all make one glaze. Everybody had to use one glaze.
MR. SHAPIRO: All the same glaze?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Wesleyan white, we called it. We made up one of the whites for the glaze, and you couldn’t do anything artistic on it, decorative. You dumped it in, dumped it out, and put it on the shelf, and that was such a revelation for everybody, because it was very exciting. You know, everybody had these white pots instead of all the other things. That was the conclusion of the firing and seeing the pieces, the white pieces. And then at the end of that workshop, people wanted to work together again, so they formed themselves into this thing called the Continuum. And I guess I must have worked with them the second year.
And then we needed to have another teacher another year, so we talked it over and invited Mick Cassin.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that because you felt that-
MS. KARNES: I didn’t want to keep-they needed another person. Not me.
MR. SHAPIRO: You felt that you had given what you could-
MS. KARNES: Yeah. So the person that was chosen was Mick Cassin from England. So I said, the only way you can get him is to give him a big salary, because every potter needs money. He won’t come to America if you just offer him a small salary. And that’s what they did, and they brought him here. And then they set up that workshop at somebody’s barn. I think they found other places, venues with studios.
[Audio break.]
And then the other theory that I have is that everybody should teach twice, so that a student can-first of all, the teacher gets to know the student, and the students can really get to know the teacher, so I think there’s a much more profound learning when you work with the same teacher twice instead of just once. So we did that. And then maybe I did that again, I don’t remember.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did any of those people become your friends?
MS. KARNES: They were friends then, and they were acquaintances. They didn’t stay friends, because I guess we moved to Vermont-it’s hard to keep up friendships with people. So much of the past now, I don’t even remember it.
MR. SHAPIRO: So were you going to-was it at that time, were you thinking about-were you spending any time in Wales, or did that come later?
MS. KARNES: Oh, what was that time? Oh, God. Well, Ann had this house and a studio that she’d made in Wales-North Wales. We had an idea that we would live there and live in the States, part-time.
MR. SHAPIRO: This was still at Stony Point?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I guess it was Stony Point. And then we realized that that’s not practical. Just too hard to keep up the place in Wales and take care of it, and fix the roof when it breaks and all of that, so we had to really sell it. We did ultimately sell it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you make work in Wales?
MS. KARNES: Never. I mean, the studio was there. We bought the bricks for the kiln [but had them shipped back here in the end] and never-we never brought [built] the kiln, and had a wood kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: When you moved to Ron and Sandy Bauer’s did you begin right off to work with wood firing?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Yeah, it would be his wood kiln to start with.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that was a very rugged situation. It had no electricity or-
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: I don’t remember if you said that walking in or-
MS. KARNES: Walking in with the snow in the winter, and cars were parked away about a mile away from the house.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was that the way it was always going to be, or that was-
MS. KARNES: Well, who knows? Maybe not always, but it was quite a ways then. And we had a tiny little apartment and a tiny studio.
MR. SHAPIRO: On the site?
MS. KARNES: Well, as an extension of his studio, bigger area.
[Audio break.]
MS. KARNES: We [had] made friends with Ron Bauer and his wife, Sandy. We began visiting them in [West Danville] Vermont. I mean, a big piece was this work in a wood kiln, which I couldn’t do in Stony Point.
MS. KARNES: And then-and Ann was not happy at Stony Point with the closed-in terrain and everything. It just seemed like a good time. If I was ever going to move, I had to move fast, because if you wait too long, you’re too old.
MR. SHAPIRO: And so that lasted about two years, three years?
MS. KARNES: Three years.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you built the kiln with a group of people?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, we came up there and we had this-as soon as we came there to plan the building of the kiln, so we got a group of potters. I mean, the Continuum was basic to that, but a few other people came up and to have a workshop and build a kiln.
And what happened then was as soon as they came up there, Ron [Bauer] and his wife, Sylvia, [Bauer] saw each other and fell in love, and Ron was married and had a child, so it was a very sticky situation. So after the workshop, she almost immediately stayed on and the wife moved out-Sandy-and we were very judgmental, which maybe I wouldn’t be now. Maybe I would be, but we couldn’t leave there, because we had no place else to go to. It was just-this was our home, so we stayed on with a lot of tension.
MR. SHAPIRO: And the conditions were also very-
MS. KARNES: Primitive.
MR. SHAPIRO: -primitive.
MS. KARNES: That would have been all right if the other parts hadn’t gone wrong, so I guess we stayed there about two years. I really enjoyed it. I mean, we did all these primitive things, like carrying the groceries in and doing all that.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you-that was when you started making this larger work that you were showing.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, well, we had the great big kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that when your relationship with Hadler-Rodriguez started?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, just then. They came in. It’s a wonderful story. They came in in the winter pulling a sled to pack the pieces and take them up, because they had to leave their car beyond, and they were just overwhelmed. The two city ladies had moved to such a primitive place.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you own the kiln, or was it a cooperative venture?
MS. KARNES: No, cooperative kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: You had paid for the bricks together?
MS. KARNES: No, I think it was Ron’s kiln. We got a lot of secondhand bricks, and we got secondhand shelves and all kinds of things like that. I mean, when the time came for us to leave, they were going to leave, too. And then they said we should take the bricks because they were not interested in my kiln. If they’d wanted it, it would have been theirs, really.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you took all those bricks and put them on pallets.
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Well, we got potter friends to come and take it down and put them on a pallet.
MR. SHAPIRO: How did you decide on Morgan, on this place?
MS. KARNES: Well, we’d been looking all over, but it’s hard to find a place, because we wanted enough acreage, and we wanted to not be on a dirt road so we didn’t have the same situation as with Ron. And then we just were lucky. Through a friend we found this place that had the old farmhouse, and it seemed to be just fine. So then we moved all our stuff and bricks and everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: When did-I know you had this relationship with your kiln-the fireman. What was his name? Ann, what’s the name of the man who helps Karen fire?
ANN STANNARD: Ken [Whitehill].
MR. SHAPIRO: Ken. So when did Ken come into the picture? How did that come to be?
MS. KARNES: Well, Ken was the one-Ken was a dowser and he got connected. And Ken is the one who actually found the property. I mean, he was just a friend right from the beginning.
MR. SHAPIRO: But is he from here?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah, he’s a local. The farm next door was his parents’ farm, and he’d grown up there.
Then that next summer, planned to build the kiln back again. And our friend Jeffrey, from England, came. See, the kiln that this great big group put up, he and I put it up again.
MR. SHAPIRO: A lot of work.
MS. KARNES: Whoa. I was younger and stronger then-a lot of work.
MR. SHAPIRO: That’s a fairly complicated kiln with the throat arches and-
MS. KARNES: The throat arch-yeah. We were duplicating exactly what we’d done there. And the door-yeah, we had a beautiful door and a metal frame and everything. We just moved everything and duplicated everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: So the metalwork existed-
MS. KARNES: The metalwork was there already, the interior door and everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: Who had done the metalwork originally for the kiln?
MS. KARNES: One of the people locally. Yeah. So we put the kiln up quickly.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did Ken always-did Ken help you fire in Danville?
MS. KARNES: No. He fired here, because there we had-no, we didn’t have to have help. Ron was part of the firing. But we carried our separation for a number of years, Ron and I, because we were going back to England-to Wales-in the summer or at some point. And then a number of years later we were at a craft fair together, and we just looked at each other and it was okay.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, that’s good.
MS. KARNES: We didn’t go over it. No, because most human things are really delicate aren’t they?
MR. SHAPIRO: And things happen.
MS. KARNES: They certainly do.
MR. SHAPIRO: Certainly happened at Stony Point. Plenty of others from that period.
MS. KARNES: Everybody was separating then. Yeah. And Abel was grown. So he wasn’t with me anymore. He was going to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA]. But we started working, started working in our studio there.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did you have a salt kiln also, a gas burner?
MS. KARNES: Not right away. Just the wood kiln. And then in-when I went to Penland, ’70-or it was before Ann, so it was like ’68, went down there and decided that was fine that I didn’t have a kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: But did you have a salt kiln also up here ever?
MS. KARNES: That was the salt kiln that we built. After being in-
MR. SHAPIRO: Penland?
MS. KARNES: In Penland. And I built it with-
MR. SHAPIRO: But when you moved to Morgan, you only had the wood kiln or-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, yeah. It didn’t matter, salt or-
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, salt kiln.
MS. KARNES: Didn’t need a salt kiln. The wood kiln was gorgeous.
MR. SHAPIRO: And no reduction kiln, just-
MS. KARNES: No, we fired everything with a wood kiln, but I think that’s why Ron lost a lot of his work, because he should have flame-proofed a kiln like that.
MR. SHAPIRO: I see. So did the landscape affect your work?
MS. KARNES: Well, it must, because I’m looking at the mountain. It took 10 years to affect it.
MR. SHAPIRO: But I’m noticing this-I think at that point the scale of the work really jumped.
MS. KARNES: Well, it jumped because I had a big kiln. Guess you should make your work to fit your kiln, or you should make some kilns to fit your work.
MR. SHAPIRO: You were saying you got how many casseroles in your kiln?
MS. KARNES: Oh, I don’t know. Ann’s got about 40, probably more up in the big kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: Forty casseroles and then some exhibition pieces and-
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: And how often would you fire that kiln?
MS. KARNES: About every two months, two and a half months.
MS. KARNES: And Ann was doing some work, too, platters and planters and things.
MR. SHAPIRO: So four firings a year or something like that?
MR. SHAPIRO: And who-how would you-who would get the wood ready? Would Ken be responsible for that or-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, Ken was the wood expert. That’s what his work was; he was a woodsman. So he would sell us the wood and cut it and stack it.
MR. SHAPIRO: And get it just right?
MS. KARNES: Get all the wood-
MR. SHAPIRO: So that’s about ’83 or ’84?
MS. KARNES: Well, yeah, that’s when we moved here, in ’83. I mean, I would have stayed in the wood kiln for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t have needed salt or anything, because the wood had so much variety and it was so wonderful.
MR. SHAPIRO: And at that time did you begin spraying color on?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: Had you done that before?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, sprayed glaze on.
MR. SHAPIRO: You have had-at Stony Point you had a sprayer?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. It was just the wood-
MR. SHAPIRO: And was that because of the scale of the work?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I needed-and it was not an Anagama kiln, so it didn’t give you any very rich woods; ash, a little bit. It was much bigger. I mean, when you look at the pieces, you know that that kind of made a difference.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. And did you do a lot of testing at that time or-
MS. KARNES: Not very much. No, I’m lazy. Angela Fina gave me the glaze.
MR. SHAPIRO: So the things that are sprayed on are very thin glazes?
MS. KARNES: Medium things. Yeah. Like the purples and green, blue green.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you always mixed your own clay?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. But it’s the same clay. Been doing it for years.
MS. KARNES: It really was the fire that put the end to that period.
MR. SHAPIRO: You feel you would have continued?
MS. KARNES: I think so.
MR. SHAPIRO: So within that period there-
MS. KARNES: Many different forms.
MR. SHAPIRO: Four different, maybe, distinct bodies of work?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. The way I think about my forms is I sort of get an idea, and I begin making them. And then I make them, and make them with all these variations-bigger and wider and narrower-until I’m tired of that form. Then I stop it-but by the time I’m tired, I’ve already had ideas for the next series of forms, so I would just start doing the next. And I never go back to a form that I’d made before.
MR. SHAPIRO: So maybe the longest form that you made, or the two longest forms, may be the casserole-
MS. KARNES: Oh, yes. Casserole-
MR. SHAPIRO: -and the lidded-jar form?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. The lidded jars and casseroles and bowls, I mean, they’re just production. Things-I didn’t think of them in the same way.
MR. SHAPIRO: But you made those very large-scale lidded forms?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And those were really functional pieces.
MS. KARNES: They were just big pieces. But-and that’s a real feeling I have about form, is when I’m finished with the phase by taking a year or two years, I just go on to the next one.
MR. SHAPIRO: So how did the slitted pieces start, do you remember?
MS. KARNES: Oh, they were way back in my salt kiln. The lids would be cut wider.
MR. SHAPIRO: No, no. The slitted-
MS. KARNES: Oh, slit.
MR. SHAPIRO: The slitted ones and the-
MS. KARNES: Slit. I don’t know.
MR. SHAPIRO: Or the wings.
MS. KARNES: Wings. I don’t really have a brain that tells me change to this or change to that. Life does it, so I just do it. I don’t have any thoughts about why I change it.
MR. SHAPIRO: I notice there are a lot of images of rocks and landscape.
MS. KARNES: On my wall.
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah, I love those. I think all potters love those-I think there’s a good story that I tell in the film about when we went-and all those pieces I started making with the openings. And then I went to Hawaii and went up on top of the crater and looked down into the volcano, and they were just like that. And in the interior of the volcano they had these beautiful mounds with openings that were like that. I just said to Ann, “It’s lucky I hadn’t seen it before, because I couldn’t have done the piece.” I mean, it’s very clear to me not to ever imitate anything or copy anything; if there is too strong an influence, then it stops that kind of form.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you moved from the lidded-very large, lidded forms, cut-lidded forms, to the slit forms.
MS. KARNES: I think I did, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: And then to the winged forms.
MS. KARNES: Maybe.
MR. SHAPIRO: Or maybe at the same time. And also, you’re making these tulip vases.
MS. KARNES: But not at the same time. Each moved-I mean, when I started making winged pieces, I was no longer doing something else.
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And then the tulip things were just really instigated by Garth [Clark], because he wanted those things, so I did quite a few different variations of those. And then the openings, I get a lot of pieces there. I don’t have so many out, not just enormous ones, but the small ones with holes going on. Of course, I really like things that are mysterious and have holes going in or slits going through.
MR. SHAPIRO: People always said that you’ve always made closed forms, whether covered or-
MS. KARNES: Earlier I have, but not when I started working in the wood kiln. I stopped making covers, because I don’t-
MR. SHAPIRO: But I mean, enclosed.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, but not necessarily.
MR. SHAPIRO: There were bowls, too, weren’t there?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah. I made lots of bowls.
MR. SHAPIRO: I mean, exhibition piece bowls, that sort of-
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting. When I see all the pieces together, I don’t remember how I went from one form to another form, but, I mean, I have a lot of black and white in slides and I’ve got of a way of looking at things, because I had-for Lucy [Phenix, filmmaker], I had to make a collection of slides of forms; slides for her for the film. I did that before you came, and I don’t have the batch.
MR. SHAPIRO: You mean, of work that-
MS. KARNES: Earlier work.
MR. SHAPIRO: That we don’t see here?
MS. KARNES: No, because I don’t have them anymore.
MR. SHAPIRO: Like whole bodies of work?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Especially since every time I made a batch, I only worked for a year; I worked slowly. I might have only made 20 or something.
MS. KARNES: There aren’t that many around. But you can’t-you can’t have a body if you don’t have work, so you can’t just use photographs.
MR. SHAPIRO: So then after the fire happened in-
MS. KARNES: Ninety-eight.
MR. SHAPIRO: And I know it’s a hard thing to talk about. Can you talk about the fire a little bit?
MS. KARNES: Well, the thing about the fire is it took, like, over a year to rebuild. Like a year and a quarter or something. So that made a big difference, because I wasn’t working-well, I built the salt kiln, but I wasn’t really working in clay. I was doing things, but it was different.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you didn’t work for a year and a half?
MS. KARNES: More than a year, yeah. And then the decision to take down the kiln, I think, was the right one, because it was too big and it pressed me to a certain kind of work. But now I’d like to have it, but I wouldn’t build a big kiln like that again. Joy Brown invited me to put things in her kiln, too.
MR. SHAPIRO: Joy Brown.
MS. KARNES: So it’s not that I put that many, but at least I have another place, but it was a hard time for me, probably still.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you go to New York during that period?
MS. KARNES: No. No, I stayed here.
MR. SHAPIRO: And where did you stay?
MS. KARNES: In the guest house.
MS. KARNES: A little treehouse. On the porch I had a little oven and a hot plate, and we’d do our meals there, even in the winter. We bought a refrigerator that we put to use finally and put it into that porch. It was a good time. I really enjoyed being squished into that little house.
MR. SHAPIRO: And there was a tremendous feeling also of the potters’ community coming together to support you.
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah. They’re wonderful. Well, they spent a lot of-we had a sale. I won’t remember the place-Pennsylvania-that potters donated work.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was it at the Clay-at the Works Gallery or the Clay Studio [The Clay Place, Shadysville, PA]? Chester Springs. No?
MS. KARNES: Just a person. Both of them had this gallery. It was an interesting time.
MR. SHAPIRO: Is that the longest you’ve ever gone without working?
MS. KARNES: Ever-ever. And when I came back to working, it was very hard.
MR. SHAPIRO: I’ll bet.
MS. KARNES: Very hard.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you started with-
MS. KARNES: I made those little pieces.
MR. SHAPIRO: -with tall skinny pieces?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, and I’d never really made skinny things before. And then I made a very nice body that Garth showed-black pieces with color on a section of it. And when I sprayed the glaze on, I got color on it, but the white is on the black. And I don’t have any of those.
MR. SHAPIRO: And did your association with Garth-was it different than having been with Hadler-Rodriguez in the sense of-
MS. KARNES: Well, when Warren-when Hadler and Rodriguez died and Garth invited me to his gallery, and he wouldn’t even try before, because, like I said, Nicolas and Warren would-I mean, it wasn’t the same really loving relationship that I had with them, but it was very nice. He was always very nice to me and gave me periodic shows. I feel very fortunate to be in his gallery in New York.
MR. SHAPIRO: Through that period were there other significant collectors who supported you besides them, supported your work?
MS. KARNES: Well, I have other galleries, Hand and the Spirit [Scottsdale, AZ] and a few others. Yeah, there were some good galleries. And then they closed. Okun/Thomas Galleries [St. Louis, MO]; another one had just entered my head-it’s not there now.
MR. SHAPIRO: What about in terms of individual collectors?
MS. KARNES: No, I haven’t had individual collectors. I’ve had good relationships with galleries and they’ve always been very nice to me-gave me enough shows. I had enough shows for my work-I couldn’t make that much work.
MR. SHAPIRO: So when you worked, you usually had music going, I think you said; you listen to radio or-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I listen to the radio. Public radio.
MR. SHAPIRO: And do you listen to classical music-
MR. SHAPIRO: -or news or mixed?
MS. KARNES: It was classical or news. Not all the time. I’ve always had a habit of that, because it cuts out all the other sounds. I’m just trying to remember what happened in the year that I had to stop working. I guess this disease that I have was starting then, because I was working straight along.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right through Demarest?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. But then when I stopped working, it was very hard to get started.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah, I think it’s hard for us all, when we take time off, to get back into it.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, but I feel ready now. Well, I think that Joy is helping me by encouraging me to make some pieces for her, and then Leslie [Ferrin] gave me the exhibition now. And looking at all the work together, I mean, I think I’m going to start.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, that’s great.
MS. KARNES: And I think when I wasn’t doing it, I wasn’t very well. Of course, my doctor says, you’re older.

[Audio break, tape change.]
Like Beatrice Wood. She was, I guess, 100 or something. It’s just more work. I guess you have to be physically well to have that ability.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, or to work more slowly.
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And fewer hours. Yeah, I’ve got to work.
MR. SHAPIRO: So how do you feel about the surfaces that are coming out of Joy Brown’s kiln?
MS. KARNES: I’m very pleased with it.
MR. SHAPIRO: What is it about them that really feels right?
MS. KARNES: Well, the richness of the surface and the places where she leaves-where there’s no ash-very beautiful. I’m going to make some landscapes.
MR. SHAPIRO: Have you ever made really horizontal work before?
MS. KARNES: Not really. And you said something about slicing it in half. I may do that. We’ll see. And there was a very interesting thought that I said on the film-she [Lucy Phenix] was asking me these same questions. And then I said maybe I would have come to this in passing anyway, even if I didn’t have a fire. Maybe I was at some point, to really make a change in my life. When something happens and then you blame it on the happening, who knows if that was really the reason or not, so we’ll see. That’s what I say. We’ll see.
MR. SHAPIRO: But clearly, as you said, that kiln would have been a bear to fill, just too much.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, but that’s okay, because I couldn’t put casseroles in there. It demanded large pieces, and I was happy to fill that demand earlier; of course, now I can’t even carry those big pieces, so I couldn’t make the same ones. Have to make thinner ones. I really appreciated that kiln when I was firing-Joy’s kiln. Your kiln isn’t that hot, is it?
MR. SHAPIRO: It’s a lot of work to fire it. Not as much as Joy’s, because it’s 20 hours, but-
MS. KARNES: But you had people working with you.
MR. SHAPIRO: Five people.
MS. KARNES: But the main thing that I realized that-I hadn’t known it, but I’d forgotten, is that the Bourry box kiln is a down draft, so when you open up the door to put wood in, the heat doesn’t jump out at you. It pulls down.
MS. KARNES: The box for the wood is here and the ash pit is down there, so it’s a really hot fire, and then the flame goes through and on up into the kiln, whereas Joy’s kiln, like all the others, you open it up and you’re right at the firebox with heat coming out. It’s terrible. I didn’t even put wood in [until] the last moment, till the last day.
MS. KARNES: The best. Very innovative. I think I would have gotten an asbestos suit or something, but you didn’t need them for my kiln.
MS. KARNES: It’s not hot. It’s warm, but you could-you didn’t have to rush to put the wood in. That Bourry box is a good kiln. It doesn’t give the ash like the other one.
MR. SHAPIRO: Linda Christianson has a kiln like that. She fires it entirely herself.
MS. KARNES: An Anagama kiln?
MR. SHAPIRO: No, a Bourry box.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I could have done it myself, but she takes on challenges that are excessive.
MR. SHAPIRO: Karen, I know we talked earlier about this sort of polarity that maybe all artists face about privacy in community, and it seems like your life really-those themes are very present.
MS. KARNES: Well, privacy is really, really important. You see, when I-when I first had the studio, it was MC and David and me. But we had separate rooms, and then we had a sink that was part of it, and then there was a room where we made up our glazes, a public room. I felt very-maybe that’s when I began playing my radio very low to just make my own space quietly. But we didn’t intrude on the other’s space. We were really very private. And then we came to fire together; if it was appropriate, we did it together or we didn’t. We got along very well in a separate way. And then when I was alone, that was fine, too. When David left, and MC left. And then when Ann came, she had a room.
MR. SHAPIRO: So how did you feel when there were students-when you had your students in your studio?
MS. KARNES: Oh, I didn’t work myself. My students were just on, like, Monday evenings or something, so I was just a teacher.
MR. SHAPIRO: Would you have to move the space around?
MS. KARNES: I had to clean it up. Yeah, I did, but I figured that’s what the work was about. They would give me money, and you had to do it.
MS. KARNES: I had to straighten up and move things, but in the actual teaching it was all right. It was just them coming into the studio and working once a week. They were not working with me. I’ve never really had to-well, when I had Robbie [Lobell] here for a month, she was working with me, but she was working in a different place. I’ve had periods when I’ve had somebody working for a bit, somebody that I cared about, but-
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you ever work with Mikhail, in a shared studio with Mikhail anywhere?
MS. KARNES: We did. Yeah, she worked in my studio.
MR. SHAPIRO: Here or in Stony Point?
MS. KARNES: No, no, Stony Point.
MR. SHAPIRO: Side by side or-
MS. KARNES: No, no. Just a room here, like the studio had all these rooms, so she could have her own room. I never had people working side by side or even-their psyches didn’t come to my head. Of course, the community which you have after you’re working that would-I mean, and I could see when I was with Joy and we were firing-but firing is a different activity, too.
MS. KARNES: I mean, when Joy works herself, I don’t think she has anybody in the studio. It’s kind of a concentration you get by yourself, but lots of people probably liked working-I mean, people worked in workshops together, and they worked in places like Penland in the same room. But that’s just temporary. It’s different, you go someplace for a week or two.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right. We were talking about fun when I first arrived, and seems like maybe fun is something that you associate with a kind of communal experience.
MS. KARNES: Yes, more people, because you don’t have fun all by yourself in your studio. Fun is kind of a group thing. But when you suggest teaching two weeks at Haystack, that seems like fun.
MR. SHAPIRO: Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. I mean, I don’t dance because I’m past my dancing years, but-
MR. SHAPIRO: What kind of dancing would you do then? Was it ballroom?
MS. KARNES: It was ballroom and folk dancing and everything.
MR. SHAPIRO: And you’d do it at dance halls or bars?
MS. KARNES: Well, we used to do it in barns. Barn dances.
The barn dance and also did folk dances. It touched me. We were around Stony Point a little bit, but then we separated. Too bad. Wasn’t strong enough to keep us together.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did you feel that other people in the communities that you’ve been associated with, like Stony Point or Black Mountain, had a different idea about privacy and personal work?
MS. KARNES: Well, not really, because I have always been able to set up a really big zone of privacy. I mean, I was at Stony Point for many years, 25 years. And I had-some of the people were good friends, but nobody ever came and asked me for coffee or visited; they knew that was my time. I made it very clear; that’s my time, just like if I went to the factory, like my mother went to the factory. I never had problems with that. That’s why when somebody came to work here, I’d have to be very clear about it. I can do it. I’ve done it all my life. I can do it again.
MS. KARNES: You have problems with privacy?
MR. SHAPIRO: I have a semi-separate space.
MS. KARNES: Yeah. That’s how you have to set it up, so that it isn’t public space-
MR. SHAPIRO: Though I did work with Michael Kline for years in the same space.
MS. KARNES: If you’re really sympathetic, you can do it.
MR. SHAPIRO: It’s not without its struggles, but in the end it’s a time I remember with great pleasure, but there were moments where it wasn’t easy.
I’m wondering whether artists are particularly seeking these communities because they need to be so private to do their work.
MS. KARNES: Maybe.
MR. SHAPIRO: I mean, most people, they go to the office and they have a sociable experience, right?
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: We go to work all alone.
MS. KARNES: But you don’t really live in a community. It’s your family and the rest of the people.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right, but there’s always the impulse and the-you see these at Stony Point or Black Mountain College or even some of those 19th-century American communities-Brook Farm [West Roxbury, MA]-and so it’s kind of an impulse to do creative work, but live-
MS. KARNES: I think that’s why you-a good analysis is that the working time is very private, but then you like to have the other.
Yes, I was very happy to be in Stony Point. I wouldn’t-my life would have been very different if I’d just been in a little farmhouse studio by myself, especially when David left. It’d be awful. I couldn’t really leave, couldn’t go around. Yeah. And raising a child in that community was wonderful, because, like, I had my sister-in-law; David’s sister lived there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Oh, she did?
MS. KARNES: Had family. So I could go away on a Friday, and the children would-my son would sleep with her children, and another night they came to me. It was a lot of exchange like that, which was my connection to the work.
MR. SHAPIRO: I wonder if this idea could be connected to any of this sort of European socialist idealism, your kibbutz movement.
MS. KARNES: Might be.
MR. SHAPIRO: Somehow the idea that there’s something fundamentally good about being together in some way.
MS. KARNES: But helping each other, because so many times someone needs help. It’s good to have help rather than being all by yourself.
MS. KARNES: I mean, here Ann and I are a community of the two of us, but we have friends and there are people who-I mean, if I needed help, I could get it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was it hard to integrate into this community? It’s such a different-
MS. KARNES: Well, it just happened slowly, because we bought the land from Kenneth’s family. That was the first thing. And then, by the way, we had to get somebody building for us, so we had a wonderful-because it’s an old farmhouse that needed a lot of work, so I don’t know how we got into it; I guess Ken was to come and look. And at the same time, somebody else got somebody else to come look about the farm, see the kind of building we needed to have done. And this other person, he looked around and he said, “Burn it down,” so we knew he was not for us. Wesley [Farrow] said, “Sure,” so he was for us, and he was wonderful. He was for us for many years after this. He was always helpful, always ready to come.
One time my eyeglasses dropped down the toilet. We called Wes and he came and fixed it. And now that he’s no longer alive, Brenda, the woman who lived with him for years, she’s our person. Anything that goes wrong in the house, “Brenda!” and she comes and helps.
Gradually we have made a real community. Not that it’s different. It’s not our social community. We don’t have dinners together. Well, sometimes with Wes we did, because we really cared about him. But, I mean, it’s not this kind of community that you-they’re not friends like friends are. There are deeper ways; they’re better than friends. But you must have a support group of people like that around you?
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, right now it’s all about kids, so it revolves around that, but-
MS. KARNES: That’s true. The years that you have children last-that’s what your life is, and you become friends with other people with children.
MR. SHAPIRO: But some of those friendships are quite good.
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah, but it’ll all change. It’ll change when the children go away to school, when you’re alone.
MS. KARNES: And then you do other things. But it’s true. The children-when you have the children-I mean, I wouldn’t have not had a child for anything.
MR. SHAPIRO: Are there any regrets, anything that you would have thought of doing differently? It’s kind of a ridiculous question in some ways but-
MS. KARNES: It has felt to me always that my life has followed this path. I went here, and then I needed to move back there, and I-it was just was very organic and always one thing led to another, so I don’t think I have regrets in a large sense.
MR. SHAPIRO: And one other-
MS. KARNES: I mean, I’m glad I came up here. I wouldn’t want to be in Stony Point now, in Rockland County.
MR. SHAPIRO: In the hollow.
MS. KARNES: Just driving around there-we were back there last year, or two years ago.
MS. KARNES: And New York City. I’ve never had regrets if I would have stayed there. I never stayed there. I was just there growing up. I never lived there as an adult, even though Mikhail Zakin has friends that live there and Zeb, so I’m there sometimes. I couldn’t live there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Can’t do your work there.
So the other thing that I had been thinking about you is that I feel like in some way you’re kind of this insider/outsider, in the sense that you never had the academic credentials or that sort of track, and you made your own way, which was very independent, and you can be absolutely outspoken in a way that really holds to what you believe, regardless of where the cards fall and the chips fall. And yet you’ve been so celebrated in the community, whether it’s the American Craft Council or being artist laureate of Vermont. I mean, a couple of different things.
MR. SHAPIRO: You’ve been really-you know, your NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] grant. You’ve been nationally very celebrated. Do you ever feel like an outsider in any way? Are you thinking partly being a Jew culturally, being a woman, being outside the academy, do you ever feel in any way like you were not part of some center of the clay world that was-
MS. KARNES: I would say that I never have, because I’ve always been very modest and I have no expectations. When I started working, I thought, well, I’m a potter. I want to make pots. I’m making pots. And then when I moved from doing that to more sculptured things, it wasn’t a planned thing. It just happened in a natural way.
And I never thought I would be famous, which I am now. I had no thoughts about that. It wasn’t what I was about. And maybe because I have such modest expectations, I was just living in the moment what I’m doing. And as a woman, I’ve never had any feeling that I’ve-that anything was not going as well for me because I’m a woman. I’m lucky-I haven’t had any of that.
MR. SHAPIRO: And do you think that that’s also part of the historical moment in which your life unfolded?
MS. KARNES: Yes, I think a lot of it is that. Yeah, that I was interested in becoming a potter just as pottery was starting. And I often say this to students when I am teaching, my life is so-I can’t even imagine being a potter nowadays with the competition. We didn’t have competition. There was so few of us, there was no competition. We just had people that you admired, like Robert Turner or Toshiko [Takaezu]. They were people that were more iconic than I.
MR. SHAPIRO: Were they more established?
MS. KARNES: A little bit more, but not really. But I think they were both teachers and potters, and it was a simple thing, but I had all the fame that I needed. I mean, Craft Horizons, and my work was always accepted, praised, so it was fine. But I suppose the main thing is I have no expectations really.
MR. SHAPIRO: But somehow you had an expectation you could make a living?
MS. KARNES: Assuredness of that. But I think those are the days when you could do it. Well, maybe you can do it. Look at all the young people who are doing it nowadays. That’s not true if they are doing it now.
MR. SHAPIRO: But maybe they’re doing it in-partly through these other networks that evolved, other expectations. One of the ways you can do it is by being well connected, by doing a little teaching, but doing a little-I mean, the younger people I meet, they’re doing a little teaching, they’re doing a little-traveling to certain shows. It’s more using the whole network.
MS. KARNES: Right. And I feel so lucky that I didn’t need to do that. Didn’t really have a network, just-but I guess the biggest miracle was going to Black Mountain, meeting MC. We probably would have got along without it, too, but that really made all the steps very reasonable, good. And selling in New York.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was MC the connecting force there with the [Paul and Vera B.] Williamses and-
MS. KARNES: Yes, because MC was a beginning potter. She wasn’t really a potter, so when she was building the community, she needed us to help her make a kiln and all the rest, which was fine. We were teaching at Black Mountain, and she was very much a student.
MR. SHAPIRO: But wasn’t she a professor also?
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah, but not a potter.
MR. SHAPIRO: I see. And did she have a particular dynamism and charisma and-
MS. KARNES: Well, she was very strong-a very special person. But you never knew her.
MR. SHAPIRO: I never knew her, no. No.
One person who we haven’t spoken about at all is Paulus, and you said you didn’t meet him at Penland, that you must have met him through MC?
MS. KARNES: Through MC. Yeah. He came to the studio. And he had the farm, you see. She was living in a farm with him, and they had the workshop for Ann, so it was just when I met Ann.
MR. SHAPIRO: On Ann’s initial trip?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: You know, when I saw Paulus at Penland a couple of years ago, we were talking about Garth’s catalogue, and he had said, “Garth made one error. I am not Karen Karnes’s guru.”
MS. KARNES: Did he say that?
MR. SHAPIRO: He said that.
MS. KARNES: Oh, that’s true. He was not my guru.
MR. SHAPIRO: He said, “I want to make it absolutely clear.”
MS. KARNES: No. But he writes-I mean, we write to each other. I think as we get older, we get more sentimental.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, he had that very nice thing that Haystack published [Paulus Berensohn. Whatever We Touch Is Touching Us: Craft Art and a Deeper Sense of Ecology]. That was-
MS. KARNES: Lovely.
MR. SHAPIRO: Reprinted in Studio Potter-
MS. KARNES: Yes. I bought a few of them and sent them out to people. I haven’t really seen him for a long time. So I went-the ACC was giving me honors and he was there, but-
MR. SHAPIRO: I saw him in the spring when he gave us this panel on MC.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, we were connected then because of the show we made for MC just before she died [“Imagine Inventing Yellow: The Life and Work of MC Richards.” Worcester Craft Center, 1999.]
MR. SHAPIRO: At Worcester [Worcester Craft Center, Worcester, MA]?
MS. KARNES: At Worcester, yeah. Yeah, you would have enjoyed that.
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah. Sorry I missed it.
MS. KARNES: It ran for two weeks.
MR. SHAPIRO: That was probably in the midst of having our babies then.
MS. KARNES: But she didn’t-when we had the thing at Worcester, she was no longer alive. She had just died, but that was very moving, very beautiful, because so many friends spoke for her, and she had meant so much to so many people. But she was a teacher as well as a poet and everything else.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right, a very powerful voice for a lot of people, I had the impression. So did she ever really become a potter, or not really?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. She thought of herself as that, sculptor, a potter. She loved making functional things. She worked in clay. But she did a lot of other things, too.
MR. SHAPIRO: So when you look at all that work, we just looked at-
MS. KARNES: More than 100 pieces.
MR. SHAPIRO: More than 100 pieces for over 35 years, 40 years.
MS. KARNES: Well, I’ve done a lot of other pieces that I don’t have anymore-I mean, my best pieces, really, aren’t here.
[Audio break, tape change.]
Because I always sold the better ones, and took them to shows.
MR. SHAPIRO: This is disc three of the interview with Karen Karnes and Mark Shapiro on August 10, in Morgan, Vermont.
MS. KARNES: I think the thing, when we see the work together or having the showroom, going in and out and seeing it, what I find really interesting is that I’ve really made so many different periods of work over the years. The casserole was-that same casserole for 40 years. But all the other things that I’ve made, I just-and it was a self-limiting thing that I had. I worked and I was finished with it, strangely, when I went on to something else.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, it’s interesting, because it seems like, especially in craft, when you do the same work, it’s called production, but when you do the same work in fine art, it’s called mature work.
MS. KARNES: Mature work. That’s good.
MR. SHAPIRO: There’s this idea that, sort of, the person finally moves to finding their voice.
MS. KARNES: Their own voice.
MR. SHAPIRO: And once they’re there-
MS. KARNES: Then they stay there.
MR. SHAPIRO: -they sort of play in that space.
MS. KARNES: Right.
MR. SHAPIRO: But I think that-you know what, it maybe connects somewhat to the Bauhaus idea that in some ways you’re working as a designer, and you sort of run through the possibilities of a design, and then you have another design that you play in.
MS. KARNES: Maybe.
MR. SHAPIRO: Maybe it goes back to Serge Chermayoff. I don’t know.
MS. KARNES: On the other hand, I very much admire-I was reading this Marguerite Wildenhain, who just stayed right there and kept on going and going and going with the same kind of work. And I admire the Japanese people who produce and produce and produce. I wouldn’t mind being one of those, except I would have to go to Japan and have a different life. I don’t put that down, that kind of work. I love it. I guess in our contemporary terms, it’s funny.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, maybe you had a little bit of both worlds, because you did have the casseroles.
MR. SHAPIRO: Which have that kind of consistency.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: And then you also had this other-
MS. KARNES: And bowls and jars. All my production pieces were just-I felt I made a good thing. I didn’t have to change, because it was good as it was. But I suppose, I mean, when I look through the magazines and see the work that people are doing in clay, I think “Oy.” So much of it is “Oy.” I’d rather they were just doing lovely things.
MR. SHAPIRO: Because they’re trying too hard or because-
MS. KARNES: Yeah, trying too hard. Yeah, so hard.
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, I always like to think that it’s hard-it’s easy to forget how many bad pots I had to make. Maybe they just took pictures too soon.
MS. KARNES: Well, the magazines are giving the most important work people are doing right now. The other thing is that one realizes it really doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of mediocre junk in the world, why not in the clay field? It’s everyplace else. I think next time they have one of those conferences of functional ware down someplace, I think I might go to that.
MR. SHAPIRO: That would be nice. At Arrowmont [School of Arts and Crafts, Gatlinburg, TN]?
MS. KARNES: Yeah, Arrowmont. The one conference I went to, I was driven by an urge to come, was that wood fire one in Iowa.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ninety-one.
MS. KARNES: Yeah, I liked that. It was fun.
MR. SHAPIRO: It was.
MS. KARNES: I should do things-did you go, too?
MR. SHAPIRO: I was there in ’91, I think, and also there was a second one.
MS. KARNES: I didn’t go to the second one. I think I went to-
MR. SHAPIRO: Well, it’s difficult at NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts] because it’s-
MS. KARNES: Oh, NCECA-I missed it. I mean, I should have gone 30 years ago.
[Ann Stannard calls from another room.]
Oh, do you have lunch ready?
MS. STANNARD: It’s getting there. When you’re ready. Are you ready to stop?
MS. KARNES: Yeah. And then I’ll come and make the tuna fish.
MR. SHAPIRO: All right.

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 Karen Karnes, 2005 Aug. 9-10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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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.


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