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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: Ralph Bacerra

Ralph Bacerra and Vivika Heino at Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles, 1958. Ralph Bacerra papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Bacerra, Ralph C., b. 1938 d. 2008 
 Los Angeles, Calif. Oral history interview with Ralph Bacerra, 2004 Apr. 7-19, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Bacerra speaks of his family background; his high school art teachers; attending Chouinard Art Institute and his friendship with his ceramics instructor Vivika Heino and her husband Otto; the interaction among ceramicists in Los Angeles around 1960; attending a workshop taught by Shoji Hamada; teaching at Chouinard Art Institute; building a studio; teaching a workshop at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts; traveling to Japan and Taiwan and the influence of Asian ceramics on his artwork. Bacerra also speaks of his daily work routine; the importance of glaze technology; changes in ceramic education and the market for ceramics in the last 50 years; exhibiting works at American Hand, Garth Clark Galleries, and Frank Lloyd Gallery; taking part in pivotal exhibitions including “Objects: USA”; attending National Council for the Education of Ceramic Arts conferences and the current sense of community among early ceramic artists; the importance of craft publications and critical writing; commissions completed throughout his career; attending museums for ideas and inspiration; teaching and the careers of his former students; and how reviews impact his work. Bacerra recalls Susan Peterson, Peter Voulkos, Susan Peterson, Bernard Kester, Laura Andreson, Sam Maloof, Elsa Rady, Adrian Saxe, and others.


The interview took place in Eagle Rock, California, and was conducted by Frank Lloyd 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.


MR. LLOYD: This is Frank Lloyd interviewing Ralph Bacerra at the Frank Lloyd residence in Eagle Rock, California, on April 12, 2004, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and this is disc number one.

To begin with, Ralph, could you tell me when and where you were born?

RALPH BACERRA: Garden Grove, California, 1938. California – did I say California?

MR. LLOYD: Yeah, you did.

MR. BACERRA: All right.

MR. LLOYD: And can you describe your childhood and family background, if you would like?

MR. BACERRA: Family background? My mother from Montana, father from the Philippines. How my father got to the Philippines I’ll never know. [Laughs.] What was he doing in Montana in 1938 all the way from the Philippines? But anyway, he was there, met my mother, they were married. Had five children, moved to California probably early ‘30s – late ‘30s, I guess. I was born in California so –

MR. LLOYD: And this is in Garden Grove?

MR. BACERRA: This was in Garden Grove, yeah.

MR. LLOYD: And your father ran a farm there, is that true or –

MR. BACERRA: Yeah, we were farmers.

MR. LLOYD: So that’s where you got an early interest in growing plants and –


MR. LLOYD: Maybe. Maybe. In previous conversations we talked about your early education and your career choice, and you told me that in high school you had a very influential art teacher and also a ceramics teacher.

MR. BACERRA: There were two teachers in high school. I was an art major in high school. The main teacher was Art Nelson, who had graduated from, I believe, Long Beach State [California State University, Long Beach], and then I had a ceramics teacher named Priscilla Baker. Ceramics was sort of an elective course that you took once a week, and I was always sort of interested in that class, and she was very influential too. She encouraged me to do different things. But never really gave it any kind of major thought this is where I wanted to be. I just enjoyed it.

MR. LLOYD: Yeah, and I think you told me that there was a ceramic bowl in Mr. Art Nelson’s classroom –

MR. BACERRA: In our art classroom there was a footed compote that was done by Dr. Ward Youry, who was then teaching at Long Beach State College, and I just – I still have visions of the bowl. I can remember it was stoneware with a matte glaze, and it had carvings or scraffito on it, and I still remember it.

MR. LLOYD: And was – was there any contact then in your high school years with the art school that you eventually attended, Chouinard [Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles, California]?

MR. BACERRA: No, after high school I went to a junior college called Orange Coast Junior College in Costa Mesa, California. Close to home. And there I was a commercial art major, but I did take some ceramics courses with Bill Payne, who had graduated from Claremont and he was – his main focus was just throwing and glazing and didn’t know too much about glazes. But everybody was experimenting and doing different things. But I really didn’t say this is – this is the field I wanted to go into. I just took some courses there.

MR. LLOYD: So it wasn’t until you got to Chouinard, and then – did you say that you took an elective course –

MR. BACERRA: Yeah, I scouted around Los Angeles for different art schools. I went to Otis [Otis College of Art and Design], I went to Art Center, and then I went to Chouinard Art Institute, which were the three main art schools in Los Angeles at that time, and decided that Chouinard was the right atmosphere for me. Art Center was a little too sterile. Otis was brand new. They had just opened their new building. My god, it’s not even an art school anymore, but at that time it was – it seemed a little sterile, and Chouinard was entrenched, and there was all kinds of activity. People were painting outside in the patios, and I enjoyed that atmosphere. So I decided to – on Chouinard.

MR. LLOYD: And did you enter with anything specifically in mind, that you were going to be a painter –

MR. BACERRA: At that time it was called commercial art. I wanted to go into graphic design and illustration, that kind of thing.

MR. LLOYD: Right.

MR. BACERRA: And the first semester – well, you take a whole range of courses: drawing, painting, design, color and design, composition. Chouinard stressed drawing as their main focal point and in all of the disciplines. And you could take one elective. I think I took the elective the second semester at – in ceramics with Vivika Heino. And once she started to talk, demonstrate, and the environment in the classroom, and I started to get more serious of working with the wheel and the clay and the glazes. I said this is for me. This is where I want to be, and I dropped everything and switched my major to ceramics.

MR. LLOYD: And you’ve never turned back.

MR. BACERRA: I never – and I never went back.

MR. LLOYD: So was Vivika the only ceramics instructor there?

MR. BACERRA: Well, Otto, her husband was around all the time, but Vivika was the only ceramics instructor. It was a very small department, probably eight or nine people.

MR. LLOYD: And we talked about this before too, that that was your first inspirational ceramics experience in the art school, but there were other art schools active at the same time that had ceramics programs, for instance, Susan Peterson –

MR. BACERRA: Yeah, well – well, there was Susan Peterson at University of Southern California, and then there was Peter Voulkos at the Otis Art Institute. Otis was about three blocks away, across the park in downtown Los Angeles. So we would go – our class would go visit Pete at his class, and Pete would bring his class to our studio, and everybody saw what everybody was doing.

MR. LLOYD: So, and you saw what the students were doing, you saw what the faculty members were doing –

MR. BACERRA: Well, Pete mainly worked in the studio at Otis.

MR. LLOYD: Yeah.

MR. BACERRA: That was his main teaching sort of focus looking back –

MR. LLOYD: Right.

MR. BACERRA: – that he worked right along with the students, and whatever he was doing, they would sort of mimic, or they would –

MR. LLOYD: Would you say that Vivika’s influences were different or teaching methods were different?

MR. BACERRA: Well, her background and her teaching methods were probably quite different because she was very structured.

MR. LLOYD: Right.

MR. BACERRA: She was the second person to get a master’s degree from Alfred [New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, Alfred, New York], which is the ceramics college in Alfred, New York, and her background was in teaching.

MR. LLOYD: And then she was also emphasizing glaze technology and –

MR. BACERRA: Clay technology, glaze technology, all kinds of skills in making objects.

MR. LLOYD: Right.

MR. BACERRA: From – it didn’t mean necessarily throwing on the wheel. We did plaster molds, slip casting, some slab work, but her main focus was on technique and information.

MR. LLOYD: Right.

MR. BACERRA: Glazes, how they fit clays; different temperatures, from low temperature to high temperature.

MR. LLOYD: Right. Now, were – was she interacting with Susan Peterson about that kind of information?

MR. BACERRA: Well, they – at that time in the late ‘50s the American Ceramics Society, which was a division of the – the design division of the American Ceramics Society, was a division of the American Ceramics Society that was nationwide. And everybody belonged, everybody that did ceramics or talked ceramics. And once a month there were meetings, and Susan was maybe president one year and Vivika the next or Bernie Kester from UCLA or Laura Andreson and Peter Voulkos. So they all got together, and there was a nice communal atmosphere.
And that’s how I met all these people, is through these meetings and visiting their campuses and their studios.

MR. LLOYD: And was F. Carlton Ball active in that organization?

MR. BACERRA: Susan started the – well, Susan was at SC because Glen Lukens left, and Lukens was an old time ceramics person in Los Angeles, and then she, I believe, brought Carlton Ball in, who was her – I believe her instructor at Mills College [Oakland, California].

MR. LLOYD: Right.

MR. BACERRA: So both – then that department started to grow, and then Carlton Ball and Susan Peterson ran the department.
MR. LLOYD: Right. Then, during that period of time that you were at Chouinard, was that when Shoji Hamada made his second trip to the United States?
MR. BACERRA: It was – it was after I had graduated. I maybe had just graduated. It was the summer after I graduated that Hamada was giving a month workshop – month or – I think it was a month, it seemed about that long – at USC. And so I took the course, which was sort of an exciting course because he – here was this funny Japanese man – I didn’t know too much about him, Shoji Hamada.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: He was the sort of instigator of the mingei, the folk art tradition of Japanese ceramics, and he was friends with Bernard Leach from England. And there was another Japanese potter, I can’t remember his name –
MR. LLOYD: Was that Yanagi?
MR. BACERRA: Yanagi, right. Well, anyway, Hamada was at SC, and so I took the course or the workshop, and it was a great experience. There were about 20 people and he – you watched him come in and work. He came in with his kimonos, and he sat cross-legged on this table and used a stick to turn his wheel, but it all worked for him, and he worked very quietly. He said he didn’t speak English, but I think he did because he had his son there interpreting for him – but his son washed all of his clay.
And so he made his pots, and then he – he’d trim them, and then he’d put spouts on them, and he did the whole process. And they were all bisque. And then we saw him glaze and do his paintings. And afterwards we went – I think there was several kiln loads, and he would talk about each one with his son interpreting. And I was only, what, twenty at the time, 19, 20, and, you know, at that time – what is he talking about? [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: I mean, the essence of the pot and the – how the pot lives, and I didn’t really quite understand at that time, but I do now. And at the end of the session he gave everybody a nice tea bowl, which I thought was very nice.
MR. LLOYD: And was Susan responsible for bringing him to that?
MR. BACERRA: I believe so because she was very friendly with him, and later on she wrote a nice book on Hamada, probably 20, 30 years later.
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: And she had stayed with him in Mashiko.
MR. LLOYD: Mashiko.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah. Can you remember any of the other people who were there besides you, Susan –
MR. BACERRA: In the class?
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: Ed Traynor. Do you remember Ed Traynor?
MR. LLOYD: I don’t know him.
MR. BACERRA: He was a professor at Pasadena City College, and then he later went on to teach at UCLA before Adrian, and then he left when Adrian came in. I can’t really remember who else was in the class.
MR. LLOYD: Would Laura Andreson have been there, do you think or –
MR. BACERRA: I think everybody stopped by to visit with Hamada.
MR. LLOYD: I see, yeah.
MR. BACERRA: That was in the area. So – because he was – he was a big thing. Stoneware at that time was – or high-temperature firing was becoming very popular in all of the universities. And all the schools were building stoneware kilns or buying – [Paul] Soldner built his own at Claremont, and then Susan would have West Coast Kiln build them for her at SC, and it was – stoneware was a big thing, so everybody wanted to see what he was doing.
MR. LLOYD: And then following on from your experience at Chouinard and these early experiences in this workshop and other contacts with people, you did have two years of military service, right?
MR. BACERRA: Two years in the Army. That was at – they had – they still had the draft at that time, so I knew I was going to be drafted, and so right after that Hamada workshop I think I went off to Fort Ord, California.
MR. LLOYD: Right, but when you returned, you were able to pick up a teaching job. You taught with someone, John Fassbinder?
MR. BACERRA: After I left the Army, or was released, I – Vivika was still teaching at Chouinard, and she offered me a summer job teaching ceramics in the summer session, which I accepted, of course. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: Sure.
MR. BACERRA: And then she got an offer to go – to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, and she left that following semester. And I and John Fassbinder were running the ceramics department at Chouinard. And I think he was there for a year or maybe two, and then he left, and then I became head of the ceramics department.
MR. LLOYD: And during that time is when you established your own studio, around that time?
MR. BACERRA: And – and then I had started a studio in Eagle Rock, where we are now, and that would have been in 1962, ’63. So –
MR. LLOYD: So you’ve been in the same studio for –
MR. BACERRA: – so in the same studio for over 40 years.
MR. LLOYD: Forty years.
MR. BACERRA: [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: That’s amazing.
MR. BACERRA: It’s small but it works.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah. Do you think – from your experience, you were in an art school in a ceramics department. Do you think there’s any difference between a university-trained artist and one who has learned his or her craft outside academia?
MR. BACERRA: Not having been in academia – I don’t consider the art schools – but maybe they are today – academia because the main stress was on your creativity and not on your math or your sciences or your English skills or writing skills, which are all important but they didn’t stress them. You had liberal studies, which were maybe one or two hours in the morning, and the rest of the time you spent in studio. So that still happened at Otis until the very end, and then it started to get into more theory and concepts.
MR. LLOYD: Right, and in your early education there at Chouinard were you motivated to engage in any other type of craft media like weaving, glassmaking, woodworking, et cetera?
MR. BACERRA: We didn’t have any at Chouinard, but there was a time when Sam Maloof came through, who was a friend of Vivika, and he was looking for an apprentice, and I thought, well, maybe I should try the working with wood. And I briefly gave it a thought about apprenticing with Sam Maloof, but I never did. I just said no, I’m going to stay with clay. Who knows what – maybe I would have been a good woodworker too.
MR. LLOYD: [Laughs.] But that was probably your most rewarding educational experience there at Chouinard, with Vivika Heino?
MR. BACERRA: Yes, yeah.
MR. LLOYD: Definitely. All right.
MR. BACERRA: Even though it was brief. It was like three years, but Vivika and I were – Vivika and I and Otto were very close. She sort of took me under her wing and –
MR. LLOYD: So, in line with that would you say that you apprenticed with Vivika Heino?
MR. BACERRA: It wasn’t really an apprenticeship. It was more of a –
MR. LLOYD: Could you describe that relationship in some way? It was teacher-mentor –
MR. BACERRA: Teacher-mentor mainly, yeah.
MR. LLOYD: You also did travel with Vivika, is that correct?
MR. BACERRA: One summer, I believe it was about – I was – I wasn’t even – my god, I hadn’t been in the Army. It was right after I had – maybe the year before. She and Otto had a house in New Hampshire, where she was from or Otto was from, and she had a studio there, and every summer they would go back. And since Otto had the studio – a working studio in Los Angeles, he couldn’t go that summer, so she invited me to drive with her across country. I think we took 14 days to get from Los Angeles to New Hampshire, but it was a very, very educational experience. We stopped at all of the museums, the ceramics people that she knew across the country, up and down, different states. It was not a direct shot to New Hampshire.
Quite exciting experience. It was the first time I had been out of – out of California, I think, and seeing the Grand Canyon – I’m sort of visualizing the trip now – the Grand Canyon and then on to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and we would just spend one day, and we spent four because it was such an exciting place, completely different than it is today. I mean, all the art galleries and the big hotels and all of the hype. At that time it was just the Indians in the square. And visiting Maria Martinez out in her pueblo and then on to Colorado, and she knew somebody at Boulder and – do you want to go through the rest of the trip? Or –
MR. LLOYD: Well, let’s pause for a moment here.
Okay, so in line with that relationship that you had with Vivika Heino and your travels across the United States, did you ever have any involvement with the Penland School of Crafts [Penland, North Carolina], the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts [Deer Isle, Maine], the Arrowroot School of –
MR. BACERRA: Arrowmont [Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Gatlinburg, Tennessee].
MR. LLOYD: Arrowmont, correct.
MR. BACERRA: Penland – Penland I visited. In 1964, ’65, I drove across country and had heard about Penland, so I stopped in. Couldn’t find the place, finally I got to Asheville, North Carolina, and they said, “Penland, Penland, it’s up in the mountains.” So they directed us up to this windy road that went up to Penland in the mountains. It was a very small sort of craft area. They did ceramics, they did some wood, and I think they were doing some weaving and dyeing of wool and that kind of thing. But it wasn’t – it wasn’t such a big place, and it’s a very active thriving craft school now.
Haystack, that came later. That was, I think, in the ’60s, ‘70s. I never – I’ve never been there. Arrowmont in Gatlinburg, North Carolina – or Tennessee, not North Carolina, I did a month workshop –
MR. LLOYD: When was that?
MR. BACERRA: – at Arrowmont. My god, I don’t remember. Anyway, it was during the summer and it was hot and humid – [laughs] – but I had a nice time. The students were very responsive, and Ray Pierotti was director of Arrowmont at that time. He used to be the assistant to – who was director of the American Crafts Museum out of New York?
MR. LLOYD: Monroe? Michael Monroe?
MR. BACERRA: No, before – anyway, he was his assistant, and then he became director of Arrowmont, and Sandra Blain was his assistant, I believe, at that time. And then he left, and she became in charge of the Arrowmont School. But it was a nice time. I enjoyed the students. We had a good time.
MR. LLOYD: And when you do a workshop like that, do you have a set kind of thing that you do, a demonstration or anything?
MR. BACERRA: Well, most – most of the – I haven’t done that many workshops, but that particular one I wanted the students to work, and they were there to do something. So I set the agenda that they do what they do, and then at a certain period of time we have a criticism; we talk about what they’re doing. And they were very responsive to that because they normally said the person that does the workshop does all the talking, does all the working. And they enjoyed the conversation and the criticism of their work and not just the person doing the workshop.
MR. LLOYD: Right. But in the workshop format you don’t have enough time to really devote to clay technology –
MR. BACERRA: Well, I – I told them that maybe they wouldn’t be able to fire something, and they were very upset about that, so we – it was like a two or three-week workshop, but we finally got one kiln going for them. But it was just the experience of talking to the students, getting their ideas and my ideas going and working one on one, which is the way I teach – or taught; I don’t teach right now.
MR. LLOYD: You retired from teaching after your – your tenure at Otis. Is that correct?
MR. BACERRA: I retired from Otis in 1996, I believe, so it’s been like seven years.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And when did you start at Otis?
MR. BACERRA: In ’82. So I was there for about 15 years, and before that there was a 10-year period where I worked in the studio in Eagle Rock doing my own work and then also doing glazes for commercial tile companies.
MR. LLOYD: And you also worked on –
MR. BACERRA: And also for an industrial stove company, Induction Heating, where they have an induction stove that you cook with no flame or no electrical element. It’s all done through magnetics. And I worked out a whole series of clays and glazes for the tile, stove tile. But before that I was at Chouinard for 12, 13 years so –
MR. LLOYD: So that’s ’64 through –
MR. BACERRA: Seventy-two.
MR. LLOYD: Seventy-two.
MR. BACERRA: And then I didn’t teach for – until ’82. So 10 years of – then at that time I did a lot of traveling as well through Asia, Europe.
MR. LLOYD: And let’s talk a little bit more about your travels. You’re very influenced by Asian ceramics, Japanese and Chinese. Did you travel to Japan and China?
MR. BACERRA: Japan and Taiwan, not a lot in China. But Japan was a big influence, mainly the work that came out of the Arita factories, which is called Imari because Imari was the port from which it was all shipped from. So they – they coined the name Imari as this type of ware, but it was actually done in Arita, Japan. And then the Chinese, always sort of a mystery as to how they did their – their multicolored pieces because the foundation was white, and then there was a cobalt design applied, then a glaze over, and then there were multicolors of enamels that went on and then the silver and the gold. It had always been such a mystery to me that I just decided, well, let’s see how they did it.
So I did some – I knew how to do the blue and white, and then I had to purchase some – some China paints of the over-glaze enamel, and I worked for several months just copying the Imari and trying to get their color and their – you know, that nice sort of rusty red and the greens and the blues – I mean, the browns and the yellows and – finally I said, well, this is not so hard. So the mystery sort of disappeared, and from there I just took it and went my way with it because I think you can probably see some of my over-glaze work maybe some influence of the Chinese and the Japanese, but it’s done in – in my – my style.
MR. LLOYD: Vivika and Otto have – or had a very early makara, a covered vessel that was blue and white.
MR. BACERRA: I remember.
MR. LLOYD: Well, it was very Chinese –
MR. LLOYD: – but it was almost indistinguishable from Chinese –
MR. BACERRA: Really? Okay.
MR. LLOYD: It was – it was a wonderful piece, and I remember Vivika taking it out and asking me, “Do you know who did this?”
MR. BACERRA: [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: And I said, “Well, it looks like it’s Chinese,” and she said – turned it over and, you know, and it’s Ralph Bacerra.
MR. BACERRA: Okay. Well, that was during the time I was – I was really into the research and exploration of how the Chinese actually did what they did and the Japanese and the Koreans and the Thai because they all have a different – different feel and a different look.
MR. LLOYD: In line with that you’ve continued to research this, and we have a show at the gallery which included, I think, the widest range of celadons I’ve ever seen. There were – the Cloud Vessels that you did, and they ranged from almost a pure white to a very gray-green, dark gray-green –
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, well the celadon – the celadon glaze is an ancient Chinese glaze that was developed when they began to high fire their clays, and it was – it was strictly from the ash residue that they used to fire the kiln that they mixed with water, put on the – on the clay, and it gave them this transparent glaze. And as the kiln smoked, because of the wood fire, reduction happened in the kiln, so this ash glaze was transparent, would bleach through into the clay and pull out the iron and cause the color to become sort of green, and that’s why it’s called celadon.
Celadon is a French term. It was – he was – Mr. Celadon was a French actor who wore this coat of this particular shade of green, and, I guess, the French associated that color with the Chinese glazes, and so celadon stuck to the ceramic high-temperature glaze. But celadon, it could be white, and it goes all the way to black to gray – or gray to black, brown.
MR. LLOYD: And in your exhibition you varied also the amount of crackling.
MR. BACERRA: Well, that has to do with the – with the components of the glaze. If there’s high soda, then you begin to – the glaze begins to crackle because it doesn’t have the proper fit with the clay. So that’s just through experimentation and knowing what your materials do, and that’s because of glaze technology that Vivika sort of shoved down everybody’s throat. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: Well, quite a valuable experience.
MR. BACERRA: Because she was very, very big on people knowing what materials do and what the glaze – components of the glaze do in the glaze at all the different temperatures.
MR. LLOYD: Did your travels to other countries have a similar impact on your work or –
MR. BACERRA: Probably the museum in Taipei, the National Palace Museum, which is the imperial collection out of Peking that Chiang Kai-shek took from Peking and hid it in the hills in Taipei, and they have it there. So – and their exhibition space is hundreds of celadons, all the different variations, best of the best, I think. Also, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco –
MR. LLOYD: Yes, we’ve talked before about that, and there’s a wall that is particularly interesting to you.
MR. BACERRA: Well, before – I haven’t been to the new one. They moved.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah, that’s true.
MR. BACERRA: This is at the – adjacent to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and as you walk into the Asian Museum, there’s a wall that’s called a treasure wall. And it’s done in the Chinese fashion with the squares that are offset, and they have sort of the history of Chinese ceramics; quite fascinating and quite beautiful, always exciting to see.
MR. LLOYD: And you’ve returned to see that many times.
MR. BACERRA: Many, many times. It’s been there a long time, so every time I go to San Francisco, I always have to make a trip to see it because it’s always changing. Yeah.
MR. LLOYD: And what about travel to Europe or to the Middle East or anywhere like that?
MR. BACERRA: Well, Europe – every time I’ve been to Europe, there hasn’t been too much ceramics, especially in France. England, yes, but France and Switzerland and Austria, you don’t see that much. Germany you still see the salt glaze, but I’ve never really tried to look up any contemporary ceramics artists.
Japan, yes –
MR. BACERRA: – because that was mainly my interest, and also at Chouinard I had a lot of Japanese students from Japan studying with me in the ceramics department.
MR. LLOYD: Can you tell me who those were?
MR. BACERRA: Mineo Mizuno, Jun Kaneko, Goro Suzuki, Sawako Shitani, Eiko Shitani – they’re from Kobe and that’s where they had that big earthquake, and the Shitanis lost their father and, I believe, their mother in that earthquake. But he was a very famous sculptor in Kobe, and he sent his daughters to the United States to study English and ceramics. One is still here, and one is still in Kobe doing very well as an artist so –
MR. LLOYD: And Mineo Mizuno continues to live and work in Los Angeles.
MR. BACERRA: Mineo’s in Los Angeles, and he still has a big studio and is working very well.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: Jun is big time in Omaha.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And Goro went back to Japan.
MR. BACERRA: Goro went back to Japan, and he’s one of the best Oribe makers in Japan now.
MR. LLOYD: Can you also tell me a little bit more about then how you think of yourself as a part of an international tradition, or do you think of yourself as one that is particularly American?
MR. BACERRA: I’m particularly American. [Laughs.] I don’t –
MR. LLOYD: And that’s because –
MR. BACERRA: Because I am. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: But you also have some influences from painting. I know I’ve seen that Kandinsky poster in your studio, and some people write about your work in terms of 20th-century abstraction, geometric abstraction. Are those influences in your work?
MR. BACERRA: Well, the Kandinsky – I’ve always been – in California we call it the Blue Four because of the collection of Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Klee and –
MR. LLOYD: Feininger.
MR. BACERRA: Feininger. And that was part of the Pasadena Art Museum’s main collection.
MR. LLOYD: I think you’re referring to the Galka Scheyer collection [Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California]?
MR. BACERRA: Right, right.
MR. LLOYD: Is that right?
MR. BACERRA: That was always on display at the Pasadena Art Museum, where I used to visit quite often, and that’s a big influence in my painting and in my design. Also, M. C. Escher from Holland for his interlocking shapes that form shapes within shapes that all sort of interlock like a puzzle. Persian paintings as well, Persian manuscripts. Japanese prints – you can pick up patterns and different kinds of ways that they have a blank space and then a pattern and gold. And these are all sort of influences that I don’t really think about, but once I’ve done them and I see the piece, I say, well, you know, there’s certain Japanese or a Persian influence here, Escher here, Kandinsky there maybe.
But all those things are sort of intuitive, I think. You do research, you read books, you see the shows, and they’re sort of in the back of your head, and as you begin to work, it all begins to come out.
MR. BACERRA: Nothing is really thought about before so –
MR. LLOYD: In your work nothing is thought out before? You don’t do preparatory sketches or drawings?
MR. BACERRA: No, I don’t do drawings. It’s – it’s all in my head. If I do a drawing, it’s so flat that I can’t really see what’s going on on the other side. Actually, I can visualize and then get out the clay and starting working.
MR. LLOYD: And you actually – you visualize the components of the piece as well, because your work is often in three pieces, a base, a vessel, and a lid. So that is intuitive as well?
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, yeah. After 40-some years of working it should be, right?
MR. LLOYD: And you work almost every day. When you’re working, you work on a pretty full day’s schedule, don’t you? You – you’ve often worked –
MR. BACERRA: I’m mainly a night person.
MR. LLOYD: – at night.
MR. BACERRA: I start my day around 10:00, 10:30 and maybe finish it by 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. So –
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: – but in the meantime I have lunch and I have dinner and that kind of thing, but I’m not an early person, morning person.
MR. LLOYD: I understand from your students, though, that you do stress the importance of continuous activity in the studio as students, and you practice this, as well, as an artist.
MR. BACERRA: Well, I think that most of the creativity comes from the actual doing of the object or doing – using your hands, using the clay, using the materials. And you can’t sit there and think about it, which is what was happening at the end of Otis, that they would have these think-tank theory classes, and everything had to be conceptual, and you’d think about it so much that you don’t really do it. And they really thought that if you needed to make something with your hands, you needed to actually have something physically made, you hire somebody to do that for you, and that wasn’t my philosophy. My philosophy is you get in the studio and you get out the materials, and by using and working and actually putting the forms and the clay together, then it – the process begins –
MR. LLOYD: Right, and –
MR. BACERRA: – along with your thinking process –
MR. LLOYD: Where you discover –
MR. BACERRA: – and your visual process. So the actual using your hands and the material, the visual process of seeing how it all goes together and then you think about it as you’re doing all of this, and that’s when it all begins to happen.
MR. LLOYD: So in your teaching process you would emphasize that, and also the clay technology and glaze technology –
MR. BACERRA: Well, along with that you need to know what the materials do. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: Right. And you also –
MR. BACERRA: Because there’s nothing more devastating than to have a beautiful object that is in the green stage or in the bisque stage and then not knowing what to do with it when it becomes time to glaze it or to finish it. So you need to, as you’re working through this initial stage of working with clay, always think about what it’s going to look like at the end, because the final firing is the major part of the whole process. If you don’t have the right glaze, the right – the right color, the right texture, the right surface, it can destroy the piece.
So you think about – it’s exciting when you’re working to see the clay and the forms and the volumes and the shapes that are happening, but you always have to think further. You have to think at the end because that’s the end product, and if that isn’t thought through, you could destroy the piece. So as you’re working, it also gives you a time to think about how you want to finish the piece instead of – some people get the whole table full of work, and then they have this bucket of glaze and that bucket of glaze, and they just – they just glaze without any – with any thought.
[Audio break, tape change.]
But you need to really think about how you want this piece finished as you’re making it. That’s what I always stress to the students. Glazing was the most important part of the whole process. So you need to know about glazes and clay, and experience all the different temperatures, surfaces, whether it’s shiny, whether it’s dull, whether it’s matte, whether it’s textured, and all the different variations of color that happen.
MR. LLOYD: So this philosophy of teaching and working, would you say that that’s an integral part of the American craft movement?
MR. BACERRA: It was.
MR. LLOYD: It was.
MR. BACERRA: I don’t know what’s happening today. I’ve been out of the teaching business for like seven, eight years and don’t know what’s going on in the universities today. What I do see when I – when I see announcements and maybe of the smaller shows around some of the colleges, it’s all very conceptual and more sculptural. They’ve gone away from the pot is a pot, the teapot is a teapot, or vessel a vessel. Everybody wants to do sculpture today, which is fine.
MR. LLOYD: But a thorough knowledge of the material they don’t have.
MR. BACERRA: But I find that some of the work doesn’t really have the understanding of what the glaze is and what the glaze can do and what the clay can do –
MR. LLOYD: Exactly.
MR. BACERRA: – because they don’t know. Nobody that I know of gives them the understanding of glazes. Alfred, I think, still does, but the Southern California ceramics department is very conceptual. Irvine’s [University of California, Irvine] campus is very conceptual. These things are not stressed anymore. It’s all in the head.
MR. LLOYD: And it’s more sculptural and more conceptual and doesn’t relate then to the pot is a pot, nor does it relate to the function of objects.
MR. LLOYD: Right. Which was often a –
MR. BACERRA: That’s not important anymore.
MR. LLOYD: But it was often a very important component.
MR. BACERRA: But when I was going to school – when I was a student, the function of the piece was – was ultimate.
MR. LLOYD: And that would also carry over –
MR. BACERRA: Frank Lloyd Wright’s form follows function, that kind of thing.
MR. LLOYD: Right. It would also carry over into other media, like you were referring to your – the concurrent interest in woodworking in Southern California and Sam Maloof’s practice, and obviously he was interested in similar aspects of wood. The ways that you can join it, the strength of the wood –
MR. LLOYD: – and then it – he was always making a useful, functional object, right?
MR. BACERRA: Well, that’s important.
MR. BACERRA: I still maintain that that – that attitude, it’s ingrained. I don’t know, I can’t – that’s what I do. [Laughs.] It’s hard to say, well, I’m going to make an object that is just going to be for visual pleasure. There’s something sort of – well, maybe it should have a cover or lid or should have a handle or that kind of thing for some basic function aside from visual.
MR. LLOYD: Well, do you derive an aesthetic pleasure from the use of everyday objects in your home environment?
MR. BACERRA: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
MR. LLOYD: And this carries over into your own work as well?
MR. BACERRA: Mm-hmm.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: I have a large collection of Imari. I have a large collection of Chinese ceramics that I use everyday.
MR. LLOYD: And another thing that I’d like to explore briefly here is about the role of any other influences on your work. Does religion or a sense of spirituality play a role in your art?
MR. LLOYD: Not at all?
MR. BACERRA: Not at all.
MR. LLOYD: Also related to these – the craft movement itself, how have you exhibited and sold your work? Are their individual exhibitions that you’d like to talk about, or should we talk about some of the major exhibitions that have come about during your period of time of practicing, such as the exhibit put together by Lee Nordness called “Objects USA”? I think that was in the middle ‘70s.
MR. BACERRA: Was it in the ‘70s? Yeah, it was.
MR. LLOYD: We have a date down here. Let’s check.
MR. BACERRA: I think it was early – late ‘60s.
MR. LLOYD: Late ‘60s, you are correct.
MR. LLOYD: It says here 1969, “Objects USA” at the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and I believe the curator was indeed Lee Nordness.
MR. BACERRA: Right. That was a show that traveled around the – around the country, and he visited all of the – it wasn’t only ceramics. It was other – other works as well, I believe.
MR. LLOYD: Yes, it was all craft media. So I think Sam Maloof was in that show as well.
MR. BACERRA: Right, right.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah. We have a book – I don’t have it here with me but we have it at the gallery and – did you know Lee Nordness?
MR. BACERRA: Oh, yeah. He came and visited – I think he visited every artist that he had in that exhibition. He traveled around the country, visits the artist’s studios, and we became very good friends.
MR. LLOYD: There were other large-scale exhibitions of craft media at the time but more specifically related to ceramics. In 1972 you participated in something called “International Ceramics ’72” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
MR. BACERRA: Was that ’72 or ’82?
MR. LLOYD: Well, it says here it’s ’72.
MR. BACERRA: I think that was – that may be a misprint. I think that was ’82.
MR. LLOYD: Oh, should be ’82?
MR. LLOYD: How about these: do you remember the California design shows at Pasadena Art Museum in Pasadena, California?
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, that was a every-two-year exhibition started by Eudora Moore who put together “California Design.” It was design whether it was industrial or sort of studio design, and every two years the Pasadena Art Museum would put on a large exhibition of just strictly California design. I think I was in every one of them.
MR. LLOYD: And Eudora Moore created every one of those?
MR. BACERRA: Yes. Eudora Moore was the – the main curator. Bernard Kester, I think, did most of the installations for her, and he’s the main installer at the L.A. County Museum today. But Bernie was – started out as a potter with Laura Andreson at UCLA.
MR. LLOYD: And he was a member of the –
MR. BACERRA: American Ceramic Society as well, right.
MR. LLOYD: Design chapter. Right. And then you also began to exhibit your work in commercial galleries during that period of time of the 1970s, including Theo Portnoy Gallery in New York, New York.
MR. BACERRA: Well, it probably all started first with the American Hand out at Washington, D.C., which was a small – it wasn’t really a gallery per se but they – they sold functional ceramic ware. It was started by Ken Deavers and Ed Nash, and they had a nice shop or gallery in Georgetown, Washington. And I used to have shows with them every – once or maybe twice a year – not twice, every two years along with Adrian Saxe, Peter Shire, and Elsa Rady and the whole – my whole list of students at that time – ex-students. And he – he was there for 20, 25 years. I think he’s since left Washington. But that was where most of it was sold in the beginning – most of my work.
And then Theo Portnoy opened a gallery in New York City on 57th Street just down the street from Garth Clark today. And I had a show – my first show with her was in 1976, and then I did a series of large-scale animals.
MR. LLOYD: Was that the ’76 show?
MR. BACERRA: That was in ’76, yes. So those were not functional as far as, you know, you could take a lid off, but it was – well, I thought New York, I’ll do something big. That’s what I did for that first show in New York. Then the next show were more vessel types.
MR. LLOYD: And the shows at the American Hand Gallery in Washington, D.C., were functional vessels?
MR. BACERRA: They were all – it was all functional work, right.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And how many times did you show there at the American Hand?
MR. BACERRA: I can’t remember. Many years.
MR. LLOYD: Many years.
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, 10, 15 years.
MR. LLOYD: In line with that, could you describe your relationship with these dealers and others as your career continued? That would be Ken Deavers, Ed Nash, Theo Portnoy, Garth Clark –
MR. BACERRA: Well, Ken’s retired. Ed Nash passed away. Theo disappeared. She closed her gallery and then disappeared. I couldn’t find her, don’t know what happened to her. Garth Clark opened his gallery in ’82, I believe, in Los Angeles, and I was one of the first artists in his gallery in Los Angeles. And then he opened – I can’t remember when he opened in New York but probably five or six years later. Was it – or maybe 10 years later.
MR. LLOYD: Now, see you have – you have one show listed here in 1986 in New York at the Garth Clark Gallery.
MR. BACERRA: So about – about six years later. He moved – opened the second Garth Clark Gallery in New York City.
MR. LLOYD: And then you’ve alternated exhibits in Garth Clark Gallery, Los Angeles and New York over several years –
MR. LLOYD: – following that.
MR. BACERRA: So it was – it was either New York, Los Angeles – I still have very good – I’m still with Garth Clark and also Frank Lloyd Gallery out of Los Angeles, who took over when Garth closed his gallery in Los Angeles, and Frank opened the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica.
MR. LLOYD: And you’ve also continued to exhibit in major survey exhibitions –
MR. LLOYD: – throughout the world –
MR. LLOYD: – during that period of time from the late ‘60s on through the present time. Do any of those stand out in your mind in particular? Say let’s – let’s talk for a moment about the exhibition that Jo Lauria curated called “Color and Fire.”
MR. BACERRA: “Color and Fire” at the L.A. County Museum. Well, that was an exhibition of work that was owned by the County Museum, or, you know – that show had – the work had to be purchased or be owned by the County Museum, or dedicated to the museum at some point. It was a very large show, all ceramics. That was – what year was that, Frank?
MR. LLOYD: I think it was the year 2000.
MR. BACERRA: Two thousand.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: So that must have been four years already.
MR. LLOYD: And –
MR. BACERRA: I think I had two or three pieces in the exhibition.
MR. LLOYD: You’ve also had work included in a more recent exhibition at the Newark Museum called “Great Pots,” put together by Ulysses Dietz, and that is a beautiful publication.
MR. BACERRA: Yes. And I think that’s also work that the museum owned? Right.
MR. LLOYD: Yes, that’s correct. You’ve also exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Art, in 1996. I believe that institution and the Renwick Gallery own a teapot –
MR. LLOYD: – that’s used frequently in their publications. It’s on the – a coffee cup that I have –
MR. BACERRA: Right. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: – it’s on a traveling mug. I think it might be on T-shirts.
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, well, I’ve been involved with the Renwick Gallery in Washington since they’ve started. I don’t remember when they really –
MR. LLOYD: Really?
MR. BACERRA: – really opened. They opened in the late ‘70s – early ‘70s maybe. What was his name? That ran the – ran the gallery [Lloyd Herman]. He’s now in Oregon. Anyway –
MR. LLOYD: And in those exhibitions it also still continues to be a group of people that you are affiliated with and have known over a long period of time: Susan Peterson, other practitioners in the ceramics arena. Do you sense that there’s any kind of a community in the American craft movement? And I’m thinking of a time, for instance, when I went to a – an NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts] conference with you, and one of the demonstrators was Toshiko Takaezu, and she immediately recognized you and took special care to come over and greet you.
MR. LLOYD: Do you feel that there’s a sense of community among the early practitioners of ceramics?
MR. BACERRA: Today, yes. But I don’t know about the younger people that are doing what they do today, but it – the older people – Toshiko and Bob Turner from Alfred, Bill Daley in Philadelphia – when we all get together, there’s a nice sort of communal feeling.
MR. LLOYD: And you still maintain your relationship with Susan Peterson, for instance?
MR. BACERRA: Well, I don’t – well, Susan and I talk on the phone maybe, or we can talk about her book, or whenever we see each other, we always have to have a drink together or some sort of social thing.
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: And I visit Otto in Ojai every so often, maybe once or twice a year. Vivika passed away several years ago so – but I don’t know too much about what the younger people do. I sound like an old man, Frank. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: Well, no, I think what it – what I’m getting at is that in the earlier days of the American craft movement there was a sense of community –
MR. BACERRA: Well, I think everybody sort of responded to what everybody else was doing and it was the American – it was NCECA that brought everybody together, I think, at that time. At that time, the National Council for the Education of Ceramic Arts was a division of the American Ceramic Society, and they had yearly meetings, and I think I was at the third or second – the third meeting in Pittsburgh of NCECA. It was in conjunction with the national meeting of the American Ceramic Society, and there was Ted Randall and Bob Turner and Susan Peterson, Vivika Heino, the – Lyle and Dorothy Perkins from Rhode Island School of Design. I’m trying to think of – of all the people that time.
So everybody once a year got together, and it was a social event. Talking with one another, having dinner with one another, having meetings, discussing what to do about ceramics art education.
MR. LLOYD: Right, and you were all involved in that –
MR. BACERRA: Everybody was mainly involved with – well, the Alfred people and the Rhode Island people –
MR. LLOYD: Toshiko was teaching at Princeton?
MR. BACERRA: Well, Toshiko wasn’t at the very beginning part of NCECA, but I think – I don’t know whether she was teaching at Princeton at that time or not [taught at Princeton 1967-1992]. I think she was in Los Angeles. Or maybe she was in Ohio somewhere.
MR. LLOYD: But Turner was definitely at Alfred?
MR. BACERRA: At Alfred, right. Turner and – Ed Turner and –
MR. LLOYD: And Daley at the Philadelphia College of Art?
MR. BACERRA: – what’s his name? My memory’s getting bad. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: Well, that’s a lot to remember.
MR. LLOYD: Now, but there’s another sense of sharing and community that we’ve talked about before that I’d like to hear a little bit about again, and that is Vivika and Otto Heino’s sharing of information – the clay bodies, the glaze technology; they would give away these recipes.
MR. BACERRA: Well, I don’t know if they would give them away, but it was – it was called – there were no secrets. I mean, her passion was giving information, and it didn’t matter how complicated or how simple it, was or what the glaze was, whether you always got the glaze. And you did with it what you wanted to do with it; you didn’t copy what they – or she and Otto did with it. So it was – it was a full sharing of information; nothing was kept secret and that’s my philosophy today.
MR. LLOYD: Some of those glaze – the information about glaze technology came with her from Alfred, but then passed on to other generations. So there’s a continuity and community –
MR. BACERRA: Right, and I always taught a glaze technology class as well where I was teaching, so the students knew what was happening within the glaze.
MR. LLOYD: And those formulas for clay bodies became an integral part of the clay companies that were started in Los Angeles. Is that correct?
MR. BACERRA: Well, when I first started in clay, everybody made their own clay. Before you could even – [laughs] – make your first clay piece, you had to make the clay. That was part of the – of the assignment, and in school the lab assistant made all the clay for all the classes. And then there were so many schools opening that Ernie Sherill decided that it was time to open a ceramics company, and he opened his ceramics company in Westwood, California, next to UCLA called Westwood Ceramics. And then every school would send their recipes in, and he would make up their formula for the different – different schools. And most of the recipes were shared between schools so I don’t think nobody copyrighted a formula or they said if you want to sell it fine.
MR. LLOYD: But Westwood clay was distributed all over the place, wasn’t it?
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, and then Ernie Sherill sold it to a company called Laguna Clay. Well, Ernie moved it out to the City of Industry, and then Laguna Clay bought it. There was another ceramics company in Los Angeles or Pasadena called Ward – S. Paul Ward, and Laguna bought that. So it’s a big growing concern now. They make lots of different clays, different glazes.
MR. LLOYD: S. Paul Ward was located right down there on Mission Street in South Pasadena.
MR. BACERRA: Mission Street in South Pasadena, right. It was so convenient to my studio.
MR. LLOYD: They also sponsored a little league team.
[Audio break.]
Well, the question is, how has the market for American craft changed during your lifetime?
MR. BACERRA: Pricing, I think, is the main – the main difference or the main change. In the beginning you used – you sold your work because people were going to use it, and they weren’t going to sit on a shelf whether it was a plate or a cup or a bowl or a covered jar or a casserole, whatever you were making. And so you wanted it priced so people could use it, and they could break it and they weren’t going to be concerned. They’d come and buy another one. And that was mainly the market in the ‘50s and the ‘60s.
And it wasn’t until probably the late ‘80s – or the early ‘80s, maybe late ‘70s – when the prices began to increase, and then Garth Clark came along and opened the gallery in Los Angeles and began to raise prices. Then other galleries around the country – but I think the pricing is the main change. People were still making their pots or their objects, but the prices were getting higher and higher, as everything does. I mean, look at what a hamburger costs today – [laughs] – not at McDonald’s but a good hamburger is like $10 today. Right?
MR. LLOYD: [Laughs.] You’re right. Now, what – speaking –
MR. BACERRA: And I know some – some restaurants are charging $25 for a good hamburger.
MR. LLOYD: Right. So speaking of the increase in prices and the ascendancy of the Garth Clark Gallery, when did you first meet Garth?
MR. BACERRA: Garth came through in the ‘70s. He was a graduate student at the Royal College of London, and he was visiting the ceramic artists because I think his thesis was on ceramics or European ceramics. But he was visiting different ceramic artists throughout the United States, and he came through and visited the studio and me, and that’s when I first met him. But he also gave slide lectures at some of the different universities, and I remember going to one at Long Beach State College, and it was on European ceramics which was a real eye opener because I’d never seen a lot of European ceramics. And he had really done a lot of research and I was really fascinated what was going on in Holland and Czechoslovakia and England, as well as France and some of the Baltic countries.
MR. LLOYD: So this –
MR. BACERRA: Russia – which you never really – really saw – it wasn’t published. You saw a glimpse of it in some of the collections in the museums, but it was never an in-depth study on European ceramics, and it was a very nice slide lecture, very informative.
MR. LLOYD: So this would have been previous to his organization with Margie Hughto of the “Century of American Ceramics.”
MR. BACERRA: This was a prelude – I think it was a prelude to his working with Hughto on the exhibition. I believe that was at the Syracuse –
MR. LLOYD: Everson Museum of Art –
MR. BACERRA: Everson, right.
MR. LLOYD: – in Syracuse, New York. And the full title is “A Century of Ceramics in the United States, 1878-1978.”
MR. BACERRA: Now, what year was that?
MR. LLOYD: And it says that it traveled starting in 1979.
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, ’79, right.
MR. LLOYD: So do you think that made a big difference in the visibility and marketing of craft or ceramics?
MR. BACERRA: Probably for Garth, but maybe not for me –
MR. LLOYD: Your work then –
MR. BACERRA: – because – well, my work was already out and I was selling. There was no –
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: Yeah. But I think it was maybe an eye-opener for Garth Clark because he could see what was happening.
MR. LLOYD: And that exhibit –
MR. BACERRA: It was his research on the different areas of the country and different artists of the country, and I think –
MR. LLOYD: And also it got a lot of –
MR. BACERRA: – it sort of inspired him to open the gallery.
MR. LLOYD: And it got a lot of national publicity.
MR. LLOYD: And it did inspire him to open the gallery. I think the first exhibit that they had was called “A Very Private View: Works by Beatrice Wood.” Well, anyway –
MR. BACERRA: That was the first exhibition in Los Angeles?
MR. LLOYD: I think it was.
MR. BACERRA: It was? I can’t remember.
MR. LLOYD: Can you remember the first exhibit at the Garth Clark Gallery in Los Angeles that included your work?
MR. BACERRA: I believe that was in ’82. It was just – when the object – it was – I think it was a series of rectangular plates or rectangular shapes.
MR. LLOYD: Another person who was active in the Los Angeles world of ceramics and who is an art historian is Elaine Levin. And she’s the author of A History of American Ceramics from Pitkins to Beanpots to Contemporary Forms [New York, Harry N. Abrams: 1988]. And have you known Elaine for a long time?
MR. BACERRA: I’ve known Elaine – she wrote an article for American Ceramics – no, Ceramics Monthly, I believe, or Craft Horizons it was called. That’s when I first met her. She wrote an article about me and the studio, and I think it was about 1973, ’74. So I’ve known Elaine for a long time. I see her every so often at meetings or at lectures or at gallery openings. And she also taught ceramic history for me at the Otis College.
MR. LLOYD: And do you think that her publications and Susan Peterson’s publications and Garth Clark’s many publications have helped in the advancement of American ceramics?
MR. BACERRA: Oh, it all – it all helps, right. Yeah.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: The more – the more literature, the more that is written about the crafts, I think, the more important it becomes because there isn’t enough written about it. There isn’t enough critical information that’s being said. If you look at the amount of books and literature and print that is printed about painting –
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: – and sculpture as opposed to the craft; there needs to be more people writing, which is, I think – is why Jo Lauria – we mentioned Jo Lauria before – I mean, she has turned into a very good writer and curator. And she was a former student. She got her master’s degree at Otis in the ceramics department with me.
MR. LLOYD: Jo Lauria came to you as a student not of art history but of practicing ceramics.
MR. BACERRA: Ceramics, yeah.
MR. BACERRA: And she did her master’s in the ceramics department, right. And then she set up a little studio, and then she got an apprenticeship at the County Museum [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] in the decorative arts department as an assistant curator, and then she became curator. And then she was there for many years, and then retired and is now a freelance curator and writer. So maybe she’ll do some good books on – and she has done several on different people.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah. So you’ve had students that have become practitioners –
MR. BACERRA: [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: – you’ve had students that have become teachers; you’ve had students that have become art historians and curators and critics.
MR. BACERRA: Right, yeah.
MR. LLOYD: And all of them – they’re quite a few who remain active.
MR. BACERRA: Well, I think the art school background teaches you to solve problems, and this is what life’s all about is this solving problems. I mean, you pick up a lump of clay and then you have a problem: what do you do with it? And you have to solve that problem so – and each stage of the working process of working with clay there’s another problem you’re confronted with. It’s always, well, what – what do I do with it now? What’s going to happen to it now? So you’re always thinking, and I think your mind is constantly active, and I think as long as you can solve problems – it doesn’t matter where you go – that you’re going to be successful. It’s the person that can’t solve the problem – [laughs] –
MR. LLOYD: Right. Let’s also continue in that vein and talk a little bit about how you solve those problems when you’re in your working environment. You’re talking about your work ethic and your ability to work with glaze technologies and everything. Is there anything specific that you refer to in your working environment or use repeatedly in your working environment to aid you in the process?
MR. BACERRA: Probably just the things around me. I enjoy plants, plants’ shapes; flowers, flowers’ shapes; color, just the things that are – that are around the environment.
MR. LLOYD: In your –
MR. BACERRA: Nothing really is going to dominate, but some of the cast teapot shapes, or I went out to the woodpile and picked up pieces of wood and said this would make a nice base, this would make a nice spout, this would make a good handle and went back into the studio and cast them out of plaster and then used slip to make the actual shape.
MR. LLOYD: And those are the forms – and I have a catalogue here that we were looking at. There’s a teapot from 1990 that contains a –
MR. BACERRA: That was just a piece – pieces of wood that were cut up, and I just dug them out of the woodpile.
MR. LLOYD: And the same is true, actually, of that teapot that’s in the Renwick collection.
MR. BACERRA: In the Renwick, yeah. No, that’s not the one that was in – the one that’s in the Renwick is the one that was chosen for that Smithsonian show that traveled around the United States, which was sort of –
MR. LLOYD: It’s red – red and gold, isn’t it?
MR. BACERRA: What? What’s that?
MR. LLOYD: It’s red and gold.
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, I don’t remember that. No, it’s gray and – yeah, it has a red base, I think.
MR. LLOYD: Red base.
MR. BACERRA: But that was a sort of a very, very good show that traveled. I think the Smithsonian put it together. I don’t know how many pieces – objects, but it was Lincoln’s top hat, and it was the sword that Washington used when he crossed the Potomac or Delaware, whatever it was, and objects that were most often asked for by people that went to the Smithsonian. And I was honored to be – [laughs] –
MR. LLOYD: Right there with Lincoln’s hat.
MR. BACERRA: – right there with Lincoln’s hat and the first light bulb and the first electrical microphone. It was sort of amazing.
MR. LLOYD: That’s great. I’d like to stop for lunch.
[Audio break.]
MR. LLOYD: This is Frank Lloyd interviewing Ralph Bacerra at Frank Lloyd’s home in Eagle Rock, California, on – let’s see – April 19, 2004 for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and this is disc number two.
So, Ralph, continuing on from our previous conversation, one of the interview questions here is – deals with the way that your work, and perhaps other work in the field of American ceramics and American craft, is recorded by writers. The question is how has your work been received over time? And, in your opinion, who are the most significant writers in the field of American craft, and why is their writing meaningful to you? Is criticism written by artists more valuable to you? Can you give me any insight into that?
MR. BACERRA: Well, you want to talk about the writers first?
MR. LLOYD: Sure.
MR. BACERRA: I think a more established sort of historian or critic gives a little more insight than something that is written by the artist because the artist’s viewpoint is mainly geared towards their bias and their – the way they work and not so much as far as historical values and research that a professional writer would do. So I think the art critic or the historian has a more overview of what the artist or the work is all about. So –
MR. LLOYD: I think we – we already discussed some of the people that you are – you have known during your career, such as Susan Peterson, Elaine Levin, and others. And we did discuss the participation – you had a – you have participated in several exhibitions, landmark exhibitions such as “Objects U.S.A.” and “A Century of American Ceramics.”
And one of the things that people often point is that when Garth Clark and Margie Hughto started that exhibition, “A Century of American Ceramics,” and it toured around the country, there was a greater amount of interest in the history of the movement and history of ceramics, and that the publication and the touring exhibition created a lot of other opportunities for people to write. Do you remember any of that, and do you think that’s a significant turning point in the reception of American ceramics?
MR. BACERRA: Well, after that “Century” book with Garth Clark and Margie Hugo – Hugo?
MR. LLOYD: Hughto, I think her name is.
MR. BACERRA: Well, I think then Garth Clark – his book on American ceramics came out [American Ceramics, 1876 to the Present; New York, Abbeville Press: 1987]. That was in the – I can’t remember, the ‘80s, ‘90s? No, ‘80s, I think, maybe middle ‘80s. And then Elaine’s book on American ceramics, I don’t remember the title – Elaine Levin. And those are the only two real scholars that – that have written about American ceramics in depth that I know of. Can you think of anybody else?
MR. LLOYD: I think those are the significant larger volumes that –
MR. LLOYD: – chronicle the history.
MR. BACERRA: And people just write about different artists though, different craftsmen.
MR. LLOYD: Actually, you brought me today a copy of the publication, collective writings of Garth Clark, called Shards [New York, Distributed Art Publishers: 2003], and this probably also is related to this question because Garth’s writing wasn’t just historical. A lot of it was criticism and observations from a different vantage point.
MR. LLOYD: And I was wondering how you see that as – in what way did that contribute to the development of a critical – a base of critical literature for the field of American ceramics?
MR. BACERRA: Well, right – I don’t think there is too much critical – critical writing going on about American ceramics today or the American craft.
MR. LLOYD: Most of it would be expository or kind of the historical documents –
MR. LLOYD: – and also –
MR. BACERRA: Jo Lauria may be – may be trying to do something because she’s become very knowledgeable in the American crafts, but I don’t know of anybody else. I’m trying to think – and we need more people in the field to do this kind of writing to sort of validate the field.
MR. LLOYD: Well, related to –
MR. BACERRA: I think we’ve discussed this before. There’s so much writing historically and over the centuries about painting, sculpture, and very little about craft.
MR. BACERRA: Now, who’s going to follow Garth or Elaine Levin or – I don’t know, I don’t – I don’t see that much happening.
MR. LLOYD: What role do you think specialized periodicals for ceramics, or other craft media such as clay, glass, fiber, metal, wood, publications such as American Craft, which was formerly Craft Horizons –
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, well every – every craft, every discipline has its own magazine. You have Metal Art, you have Jewelry Art, you have Fiber Art, you have American – Ceramics Monthly, American Ceramics when they publish, Craft Horizons or now what’s called –
MR. LLOYD: It’s now called American Craft.
MR. BACERRA: American Craft. And they publish and write. So there’s good criticism and good articles on – especially American Craft – about the different disciplines that are doing things in the field.
MR. LLOYD: And were these publications of use to you in your development as an artist?
MR. BACERRA: I’ve – I’ve subscribed to American Craft since the early ‘50s, so I read all the – I take all the magazines, I read all the magazines, and I sort of keep aware or abreast of what’s happening in the field.
MR. LLOYD: And did you make them available to students in your classroom?
MR. BACERRA: While I was teaching, I took all of my magazines after I read them and deposited them in the studio, and they were read constantly and disappeared constantly. [Laughs.] I could never keep them in the studio, but it was a good resource for the students.
MR. LLOYD: Right, right. So that would have been Craft Horizons –
MR. BACERRA: So there was Craft Horizons, American Ceramics, Ceramics Monthly. Those were the three – three major ones.
MR. LLOYD: I think I remember when I visited your office there at Otis, when you were teaching at Otis, you had shelves of magazines –
MR. BACERRA: Magazines?
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: And every show that Garth Clark or Frank Lloyd had, I posted – we had a big bulletin board and all of the – the announcements were posted on the board so people could see what was going on across the country.
MR. LLOYD: And let’s – there’s another question here. It’s kind of a wider scope of a question. Could you discuss your views on the importance of clay as a means for expression, and what are the strengths and limitations of the medium? This is a large question.
MR. BACERRA: I know. Say that again.
MR. LLOYD: Could you discuss your views on –
MR. BACERRA: It’s the same question that everybody asks you.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah. The importance of clay as a means for expression.
MR. BACERRA: Well, it’s my chosen medium. I mean, I worked with paint and drawing and prints and stone and wood, and it seems to be the one that I’m most excited about.
MR. LLOYD: And do you have any particular feelings, say, for any of the qualities of the material, such as its plasticity, its –
MR. BACERRA: I mean, that’s sort of something that’s very basic –
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: – and they want –
MR. LLOYD: No, I think they’re just looking – what are the strengths and limitations of the medium of ceramics?
MR. BACERRA: I don’t know if there are any limitations –
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: – except – there was a piece that I saw at the “Scripps Annual” [Scripps College, Claremont, California] this year, and it was very tall, like six or seven feet tall and very thin, and I said, “How did they get that in and out of the kiln?” And then a person in the gallery that was looking at the show said, “It’s fiberglass, it’s not clay. We don’t even know why it’s here.”
But there are limitations are far as thinness and height and structure and –
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: – how – how it holds up in the kiln because, as I said before, the kiln is the final product – or makes the final product.
MR. LLOYD: You’ve been –
MR. BACERRA: And there’s such a beauty about all the different clays: porcelain, stoneware, earthenware, smooth, textured, coarse, unrefined, and then the whole variety of different surfaces with glazes.
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: From the ancient Chinese to the Japanese to the Koreans to the Europeans to the production factory – like Sevres out of France and Meissen out of Germany and Haviland from France. There’s a whole variety of glazes and surfaces that sort of excite me, and you can’t get this with any other medium. Paint is paint and glass is shiny and fabric is, you know, it could be shiny or matte, but the transparencies, the translucencies, the opaqueness of the clays, the unctuous quality of some of the matte glazes – – it doesn’t happen in any other medium.
MR. LLOYD: Now, you’ve done some very ambitious projects in the medium, including one fairly recently, and I think that’s one of the things I wanted to discuss today is about commissioned works. The question here is what are your most important commissioned works? How did the commissions come about? Could you describe how they differ from other work? Did the circumstances of the commission have an impact on the work? And describe the difficulties or opportunities presented by commissions.
I’m thinking of a couple of them that I know of. One would be the commissioned works, the Four Vessels that you did for the Four Seasons dining room in San Francisco. And I guess I could fill in a little bit about – the way that commission came about was that the art consultant for the hotel developer came to the gallery and asked about what artist would be appropriate for that project. I suggested that your work may be very appropriate for it. I showed her examples of your work, and then we presented some samples as well, and she selected rather large – she wanted these very large-scale vessels. Could you describe what you did on that project?
MR. BACERRA: After talking with Frank – was Wayne involved there? I don’t remember.
MR. LLOYD: I think it was –
MR. BACERRA: Well, anyway, after talking with the Frank Lloyd Gallery, and then I spoke with – I can’t remember her name now.
MR. LLOYD: The art consultant.
MR. BACERRA: The art consultant, and she had mentioned that the owner of the Four Seasons knew my work, so he was very enthusiastic about having me do the project. And she sent me samples of – diagrams of the dining room. These – we’re talking about commissions.
MR. LLOYD: Yes, it was. We had a floor plan, didn’t we?
MR. BACERRA: We had a floor plan, and then she sent me samples of the fabric and floor materials and wood materials, and she wanted it to be very subtle. And so I did some very, very large, probably four feet high, sort of big-volume vessels with sculptural tops, and I used a very subtle local reduction luster with some overglazing enamel over them. And they were placed probably, what, 20, 40, 20, 30 feet apart?
MR. LLOYD: They were. Yes, a large – it was a large space.
MR. BACERRA: I can’t remember. It was a large dining room, and there were four on large pedestals, which were – when, I saw the whole project finished, it looked very, very good.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah, I think we were both very pleased.
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, everybody was impressed. Frank and Judy and I think – was Steve there, too? I can’t remember.
MR. LLOYD: Steve was there as well. We all had dinner there.
MR. BACERRA: We all had dinner there. Right.
MR. LLOYD: Mm-hmm, about three years ago.
MR. BACERRA: And there was another one at the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, which was a very large vessel, but it was multicolored and multi – lots of pattern. And that’s in one of their dining rooms on a very large pedestal, and that’s still impressive as I go and look at it every time I’m in Las Vegas.
MR. LLOYD: And then there’s –
MR. BACERRA: The other commission that came out of the Frank Lloyd Gallery was – most of the commissions come through the gallery – was the Joan Borinstein portrait commission, where she wanted two – two vessels on either side of her dining room. And I decided to do her portrait as a vessel, and so we did one for each side of the dining room.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And then the most recent one that you worked on is a – one of the largest projects that you’ve worked on. It was commissioned by Maguirre Partners for the –
MR. BACERRA: Out of Los Angeles.
MR. LLOYD: – Maguirre Partners Development Company, and they built a building in Pasadena called the Western Assets Plaza.
MR. BACERRA: The Western Assets Plaza, and at the entrance to the building, there’s a – they left a wall that was 12 feet by 14 feet that they wanted a ceramic mural. And they contacted the Frank Lloyd Gallery, the gallery that worked with the art consultant for a while. And then the owner decided they didn’t want to work with the gallery, so they worked directly with me, but the initial contact came through Frank Lloyd.
And after meeting with them I presented my work and told them my ideas, what I thought it should be, and then all of a sudden they decided that – well, maybe that wasn’t – that was too subtle. They wanted something very wild. They wanted something very visual, something that would really stand out and people would stop and look at it, so instead of something very subtle that was on the wall.
So I came up with a 12-by-14 mosaic of geometric shapes – circle, square, triangle – lots of pattern, lots of movement, six different colors from white to black to blue to gold to red to yellow – and I can’t hold my train of thought here. So there was matte glazes, shiny glazes, colorful glazes, and the project was about three – over about 3,000 pieces.
MR. LLOYD: This is the significant thing that when one looks at it, you realize that you had to fabricate 3,000 pieces, all different sizes, each one –
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, it wasn’t like – it wasn’t square tiles that you go and buy. I fabricated the whole project. So I rolled out the slabs, cut the individual pieces, dried them, fired them, glazed them, and even helped stick them on the wall. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: So other than – you – this is a great example of the attention to detail and the all-encompassing kind of attention to the craft of making your work, because you did everything, save – you did hire an assistant to do the grouting, the mounting and grouting. But you did –
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, I did hire a tile setter just –
MR. LLOYD: A tile setter.
MR. BACERRA: – because I wasn’t that familiar with it. And he was – he was very excited about the project because it was something he had never done before, because he’s only worked with square tiles, and you stick them on the wall, and you put the little bitty things in between. And this particular project had no grout, so every piece had to fit together perfectly. And as we put the last piece in the corner, everything was square. [Laughs.] It was amazing.
MR. LLOYD: Well, that sort of addresses the other question here. Describe the difficulties or opportunities presented by these commissions.
MR. BACERRA: Well, there weren’t difficulties. I mean, if you know what you’re doing –
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: – and you have your vision, you have your idea, and it – it comes out.
MR. LLOYD: You see, that’s what I had told the art consultant. I said, “You should have Ralph do this because he can do anything. Just tell him what you want. He can do anything.” [Laughs.]
Did you do any commissions during your earlier period of –
MR. BACERRA: Oh, there was a commission for the – one of the television stations of Los Angeles. I don’t know what it’s called – KTTV, I believe, Metro Media. And I did a wall for them in their patio dining room upstairs, but that was in the ‘70s, and I had forgotten all about it. And one day I was watching a movie, and all of a sudden, there’s my wall. [Laughs.] I had forgotten all about that project.
MR. LLOYD: And do you think that the commissions that you’ve done – how does it – does it have any influence on your work, your other work?
MR. BACERRA: Not at all, no.
MR. LLOYD: It’s really quite separate activity?
MR. BACERRA: It’s sort of – sort of separate, except for the vessels that are – that are – that I’m known for, that’s what I do. The mosaics and the murals have never been published or seen or – because the one at Metro Media, it was a private dining room. Now, the one in Pasadena, there’s been lots of talk about it, so people are looking at it and wondering what – who did it, what is it all about?
Along with that project, Jun Kaneko has two of his large dangos in the same – in the same building.
MR. LLOYD: Let’s see. Another thing that the Archives is interested in is a different kind of a question, if we can backtrack a little bit. But I want to have you describe, what are the similarities and differences between your early work and recent work, or are there any?
MR. BACERRA: Probably the amount of, oh, what would you say, sophistication? Because you’re constantly growing, and you’re constantly adding to what you already know, so there’s a general idea of maturity I would think.
MR. LLOYD: And so it gets more complex than the amount of elements at your disposal that you can bring to an individual piece.
MR. BACERRA: Well, most of it is – I think I’ve said before – is intuitive. It’s something that I’ve done that I’ve exhausted the process. Because normally when I work, if it’s a new glaze or a new process, a new idea, I sort of work it through until I’ve exhausted everything I wanted to say about it and move onto something new. But that – what you did before always comes into what you’re doing now, so it becomes more sophisticated and intricate and more involved and hopefully better.
MR. LLOYD: Do you see a time when you might be reintegrating some of the earlier work into – revisit an idea? Let’s say for instance your interest in plant form. You may have incorporated that in other pieces earlier, but we haven’t seen it so much –
MR. BACERRA: Well, who knows what – you know –
MR. LLOYD: You don’t know because it’s intuitive.
MR. BACERRA: Right. Because I said all of that – all of that comes by working, and if you see a form or you see something happening while you’re working with the clay, I can use that; that comes into mind and I can inject that into what I’m doing. So it isn’t a specific idea. It is in the beginning, but as it begins to grow and evolve, everything else that happened before comes into play.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And this is – we just did discuss earlier on our previous sessions –
MR. BACERRA: I think so, yes.
MR. LLOYD: – particularly as it related to this question: Is there an element of play in your process or finished work of art, and that’s where you discussed the intuitive process of working and the necessity of being in the studio in order to make things happen, which of course also relates to your teaching philosophy, and that’s something that you stressed with your students.
MR. BACERRA: But just working in the studio or just working is the major part of what I’m all about. It was difficult while I was teaching because about six months out of the year, I dedicated my time to the students. And that was about six, seven months, and then the other five months I could work in the studio.
But during those five months it was very intense. I dedicated all of my time, forgot about the students, and that’s how I had to work it that way. I couldn’t – I couldn’t really work in the studio during class – school time. It was difficult because my head was not there; my head was at school, and when I’m at the studio, my head’s at the studio. Now that I have all this time and no students, no school, it’s probably the best time of my life right now.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah. Your daily routine then is pretty much uninterrupted; you can at any time be in the studio. You take only your breaks for lunch or an interview, as we’re doing today, and you work late.
MR. BACERRA: But I do – I do travel. You need an intense period of working, and then you need some fallow time to – where you do nothing but – maybe not nothing, but you sort of go to museums and you go to the different shows and you read and you do something to get your mind away from the studio.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And that intense period of time is where you – you generate ideas in the studio. And we’ve talked also about your influences from some of your travels and looking at other work, but do you have any other inspirations beyond those? And have those inspirations or sources changed over the years, or are those pretty much what you follow?
MR. BACERRA: I think they’re pretty much what I’m all about, because I can go to the same museum 10 times, and then when you go back the 11th time, I begin to focus in on maybe one – one object that interests me, and then that sets off a train of thought on how could I interpret that or how can I use that in what I want to do.
MR. LLOYD: Do you have any political or social commentary in your work?
MR. BACERRA: Very little, if any.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And –
MR. BACERRA: Not that I’m against it, but I just – I just have no reason to put it in my work.
MR. LLOYD: Right. I’m going to stop the tape for a moment so we can take a break.
[Audio break.]
MR. LLOYD: So we’d like to address something else here, and that is – this is the last question on their list here, but it relates to the period of time in between your two major stints as a teacher. There was a period in between when you taught at Chouinard and when you taught at Otis where you were on your own and doing technological research. What impact has technology had on your work? Did that experience have any impact on your work, or did the research –
MR. BACERRA: Only to develop new glazes or new – probably new glazes, because it was a period where I worked for several tile companies developing glazes for them, and then the stove – Induction Stove Corporation – developing the clay tile that would accept heat, and you could actually cook on top of the tile. I did the whole series of tiles for them for several years. That’s all I did. But it had really no effect on the kinds of form I was doing because we were working with flat surfaces.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And do you think any other kinds of technology has entered in? Are you basically working off of –
MR. BACERRA: I don’t even know how to use a computer, Frank. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: Right. So you’re still basically working off –
MR. BACERRA: I’m back in the Middle Ages. Even at school, at Otis, they were giving classes for the instructors to use the computer, but I had no interest. And I would always be kidded at the faculty meetings because I didn’t have e-mail or I didn’t know how to use the fax machine. [Laughs.] Technology is not my thing.
MR. LLOYD: Except for that you have done a tremendous amount of research into glaze technology, and so you – but you continue to use the same methods that you used before – measuring and testing and recording that information about the temperatures you’re firing to.
MR. BACERRA: But it isn’t at a computer. I’m not a computer person. I doubt if I ever will be, even though there – there’s one at home; there’s several at the office. I’m around them all the time, but I don’t have the time to sit down, because I know it takes a tremendous amount of time at my age to figure out how the thing works and what to do with it. And somehow every time I touch one, it breaks. Really. There’s something that happens. Whenever I go to the office, they say, “Don’t touch the computer.” [Laughs.] Because that’s where I go to do word processing and write reports or letters, and I always have trouble.
MR. LLOYD: You know, we did discuss before some of this, but I think maybe we can consolidate here this discussion of the involvement that you’ve had with national craft organizations. We talked a little bit about the National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts –
MR. LLOYD: – but there are several others, and maybe we could run through a list here and see –
MR. BACERRA: Didn’t we go through that?
MR. LLOYD: Well, this one has to do with the American Craft Council. Did we discuss that one?
MR. BACERRA: No, I don’t think so.
MR. LLOYD: No, we didn’t. So have you been involved with the American Craft Council at any point in your career?
MR. BACERRA: Only by being a subscriber to the magazine. And they did give me a fellowship award several years ago.
MR. LLOYD: And I guess the –
MR. BACERRA: I don’t really have that much time to be active in organizations, because I really feel if you’re going to belong to an organization, you should be involved and become a part of the – part of the group. And I don’t have time to travel, and I’d rather be in the studio.
MR. LLOYD: So you haven’t participated in the international one that’s called the International Academy of Ceramics.
MR. BACERRA: No. That started with Susan Peterson like 30 or 20 years ago.
MR. LLOYD: Did it?
MR. BACERRA: Yes. [Laughs.]
MR. LLOYD: So many things start with Susan.
MR. BACERRA: I know. She’s the guru.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah. And the local craft organizations –
MR. BACERRA: The American Ceramic Society?
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: I’m just an honorary member because I’ve just been with them for so long. I don’t go to their meetings or their workshops or – but I know what’s going on.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And some of the people that you know are very active in it, such as Ricky Maldonado.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And let’s see, another thing that I’d like to discuss is the contemporary scene. We haven’t talked too much about your observations of what’s going on in exhibitions and in, oh, what you see as far as young artists coming up and how you see the future of contemporary American ceramics.
MR. BACERRA: Well, I think as far as the younger artists that are coming up that I can – I don’t have much contact anymore with students because it’s been like eight years now since I’ve retired. And so I don’t know what they’re doing, but the whole sort of ceramics area has turned into more of a sculptural area. Nobody really is doing a good pot or a good teapot that – nobody’s doing really functional ware. They all want to be sculptors. That’s how I see it.
MR. LLOYD: Well, do you –
MR. BACERRA: Even looking through the magazines, and you’ll see what different people do, and except for American Ceramics – they still show the vessel and the teapot and the bowl and the cup and the different kinds of ceramic firings, but the majority of the younger people I think want to be sculptors.
MR. LLOYD: Well, let’s talk about then the people that came along both as your students and contemporaries, and I’m thinking of people who were at Chouinard, and maybe we could just go through and talk about some of them, your observations. We did discuss your having had a class that you were given to teach in the summer for high school students, and one of the students in that class who went on to study with Vivika Heino is – her name was Elsa Rady.
MR. BACERRA: Elsa Rady, right.
MR. LLOYD: And you’ve probably followed Elsa’s progress throughout her career.
MR. BACERRA: Since she was 16, yeah.
MR. LLOYD: And it’s very well known –
MR. BACERRA: And she was very dedicated and interested in the bowl and throwing on the wheel, and that’s all she wanted to do, and porcelain. And she has made a career out of it. And from just throwing on the wheel, using the bowl and the bottle shape, she has sort of – things have sort of become more sculptural, where she’s combining different bowls and bottles and shapes together and putting them on platforms and making a maquette or a sculpture.
MR. LLOYD: Right. And –
MR. BACERRA: And then Adrian Saxe has gone his way. I think as I’ve said before, you give them the basics, and everybody begins to move out in their own different way. Adrian is very interested in ideas and the current culture and making social statements with his – with his pieces. The function is no longer there as far as eating or drinking out of it or using it as a vessel. Peter Shire is very sculptural, even though he does a lot of utilitarian pieces in his studio.
MR. LLOYD: And you’re familiar of course with Peter’s development as an artist and how he, although he was your student at Chouinard and started out in ceramics, at one point during his career, he – his work was noticed by Ettore Sottsass, and he became part of the Memphis Design Group, an international design team. And Peter branched out into designing furniture, doing some sculpture, glass, architecture, all kinds of things.
MR. BACERRA: As I said, everybody has their own way of doing things, like Jo Lauria, I think we mentioned before, who was a curator at the County Museum in the decorative arts field. And she got her master’s in ceramics at Otis, but then she went on and became the curator even though she had a degree in ceramics, and now she’s writing about the whole field of craft and curating as well.
MR. LLOYD: Another person that came over from Japan – we did talk a little bit about your relationships with three Japanese people who came over – Mineo Mizuno, Jun Kaneko, and Goro Suzuki. But we – but not to discuss at length the development of Mineo Mizuno’s work, and I think you’ve have the opportunity to observe that. So can you tell me anything else about that? I think, again, you give them the tools, and Mineo’s work for a long time was based in vessel-oriented and functional ceramics. And he still does that, but he has gone on –
MR. BACERRA: He still does that, but he has gone on into sort of monumental, very big clay sculptures, very simple shapes, and some of them are very elaborate shapes. But he still maintains the vessel orientation. He does a lot of work for the upscale sushi restaurants in Los Angeles. Is this – do we need to talk about the students? Is that –
MR. LLOYD: No, just trying to kind of identify what happens –
MR. BACERRA: What happens to the students?
MR. LLOYD: To the students, but as a result of your teaching philosophy and your teaching methods and how you see the craft movement.
MR. BACERRA: Well, I think it’s as we said before. I mean, I give them the basics, and I stress the technique and the skill and the actual doing and working and working and working. And once they get out, they do whatever they want to do, even though they have all of the same information as far as the glazes and the same information as far as the technical aspect of doing something, whether it’s throwing or doing slab building or doing slip casting or coiling or whatever it is. They take off and go their own way. And I think that’s a sign of a very good instructor, is that they’re not doing what you’re doing.
MR. LLOYD: Right. Now in your teaching career at Otis, Otis College of Art and Design as it is now known, another generation of students studied with you, presumably with these same types of – same teaching philosophy. But some of their work is quite different. I’m thinking of Cindy Kolodziejski’s work and her incorporation of imagery –
MR. BACERRA: Well, she likes to make very, very basic social statements, and it’s a play on – an image on one side of her piece would be an image of a figure, and then on the other side would be the sort of the opposite of that statement. But that’s what Cindy is. [Laughs.] You know Cindy.
MR. LLOYD: But basically the familiarity with methods, techniques, materials that she’s using – all were in place by the time she had completed her degree in studying with you, right?
MR. BACERRA: Well, she had the basic information, and she expands on it. Right.
MR. LLOYD: Mold making, china painting, all of those things that she does.
MR. BACERRA: Yeah, all of that was done at school, right.
MR. LLOYD: And did you – do you see – a question I always have about teachers – you see hundreds or thousands of students come along in your career. How – at what point do you notice the ones that will have significant careers as artists? Can you tell right away?
MR. BACERRA: Well, in an art school, most of the students that come are all very dedicated. They’re not there because they have to be in school. And some have – I’ve said they all have talent, but then in the very beginning you recognize who’s going to go somewhere. It always happens. And there have been several that haven’t gone somewhere, but that’s because they’ve either gotten married and have children, and the family becomes the most important thing, or alcohol or drugs get in the way.
MR. LLOYD: Right. Going back to one of the questions that we addressed earlier, it had to do with the early exhibitions that you had and your relationships with dealers. We did discuss your association with Theo Portnoy in New York, and we did discuss the exhibitions with Ed Nash and Ken Deavers at American Hand. Those were during the 1970s and early 1980s.
You also did begin to talk about your initial relationship with Garth Clark here in Los Angeles, but we didn’t discuss too much about your exhibitions in New York over the years at the Garth Clark Gallery. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the composition of those exhibitions, what works you exhibited in New York at the Garth Clark Gallery, and whether that’s had a significant impact on the development of your collector base, which I think it has.
MR. BACERRA: Well, I mean, the collector base mainly came from Theo and the American Hand, and then when Garth Clark opened his gallery in New York and Los Angeles, the collectors came to the gallery, liked the work, supported what I was doing, and each show in New York has been very successful. It didn’t matter what sort of format I would take, whether it was very functional or whether it was more on the sculptural level, but that’s where the collectors see the work. Then they want to meet the artist. They either come to my house or come to the studio when they’re in town, and you have a nice relationship with the collector on a more personal level than just, oh, I have a piece of yours when they see me. But they know who I am, what I’m all about, and –
MR. LLOYD: And you’ve –
MR. BACERRA: And Garth has been very, very good about having the collector meet me, and Frank as well, or you as well.
MR. LLOYD: Now you’ve had shows at the Garth Clark Gallery in New York according to this resume in 1986, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, and even last year in 2003.
MR. BACERRA: Two-thousand-and-two, I think – ’02, right.
MR. LLOYD: And those have also been chronicled in publications, I believe in American Ceramics. I’m thinking of a review here that I’m looking at by Ulysses Dietz. American Ceramics published this in their issue 12/4, and Ulysses Dietz is of course the curator at the Newark Museum –
MR. BACERRA: At the Newark Museum, right.
MR. LLOYD: – who produced this wonderful exhibition called “Great Pots,” of which you were a part of.
MR. BACERRA: From their collection.
MR. LLOYD: From their collection. And he’s written a rather interesting review here. It’s kind of an interesting thing to look at the language that he used in this review in the context of this interview, because there’s – I’ll just read you a little bit, and see if you think that this directly reflects something about your work.
“Bacerra’s latest show was a refreshing departure from his sculptural pieces of the last few years, in which complex decoration had reached an almost frenzied state as his vessel forms had become less readable as vessels. Such art-driven trends are typical in contemporary ceramics, as in all the craft media, and always set off alarm bells in this decorative arts curator’s mind.
“The Los Angeles-based Bacerra has taken a fortuitous step backward while moving vigorously forward, producing work unlike anything that has gone before. The work is distinctive, technically brilliant, and a visual feast, gorgeous in the best sense of the word. Two forms, one old and one new, make up the elegant presentation in the gallery. Bacerra’s Cloud Vessels in two basic sizes, though inspired by cloud motifs found in Chinese art, are purely his creation. The subtle forms of the bodies are ideally suited to being cast in porcelain, on which the modulated glazes of crazed celadon sit beautifully. On some, the glaze is a silvery white while on others it is a deep, cloudy olive. On both, Bacerra controls the crackling of the glazes with the assurance of a master.
“But it is the decoration that lures the viewer. Cast appliques of geometric shapes adorn these vessels, forming vestigial handles and whimsical finials. They are richly enameled in saturated colors and highlighted in gold and/or platinum lusters. The interplay of rich decoration with the simple swellings of the celadon bodies evokes Chinese monochrome porcelains. Likewise, the controlled profusion of ornament gives these pieces an eclectic aesthetic that is sympathetic with the look of 19th-century interiors.
“Beautiful but less successful are the show’s other vessels, which harken back to more inert forms Bacerra used in the 1970s, whose shapes, compared with the movement of Cloud Vessels, seem inert. However, they also seem more modern, and this might make them more appealing to those for whom Bacerra’s style is too rich a banquet.” And that’s by Ulysses Dietz.
These reviews – there’s another one here that came from the New York Times, actually, and I think it has to do with that same exhibition, but perhaps a different one. And this is a rather interesting use of words, and it says, “Gorgeous large ceramic vessels by a Los Angeles-based craftsman, Mr. Bacerra’s tall bulbous jars have traditional Asian profiles that are covered by intricate, richly glazed patterns and checkerboards, triangles, trapezoids, circles, and stripes that dissolve the surface into deliriously congested cubistic spaces. To look at them is to wallow in visual hedonism.” This is by Mr. Johnson in the New York Times, February 19th, 1999.
Do you find that these kinds of reviews have any impact on you? Do you read these reviews? Do you have any – do they give you any kind of feedback as to the critical audience, or do you think it’s just significant for documentation purposes and for perhaps other viewers to see?
MR. BACERRA: I think that the main part of these reviews are for the people that observe or look at the objects. It doesn’t really have the impact on me –
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: – but I’m always curious as to what an individual writer or curator or, well, critic has to say. Whether it’s good or bad doesn’t really affect what I’m going to do or what I’m doing, but I think it does have an effect on what the viewer, who maybe doesn’t have the knowledge or the knowledge of the skill or technique that’s involved in making the object, gives them a little more insight or maybe an excitement about – about what they’re looking at. But as far as changing my direction, it really hasn’t affected it. Because I think as a creative person, as an artist, you have to do what’s inside. I don’t know any way to put it. It’s what’s in there, and then when you get to the material –
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: – this is what happened.
MR. LLOYD: Right.
MR. BACERRA: And no critic is going to –
MR. LLOYD: It’s not going to change your direction –
MR. BACERRA: – change that direction.
MR. LLOYD: – or your mind about doing anything right.
MR. BACERRA: It’s always nice to have somebody write something nice about what you’re doing, or it’s always nice to have somebody criticize –
MR. LLOYD: Exactly.
MR. BACERRA: – what you’re doing so you get the different viewpoint. I mean, one – those two articles that you read, one is a writer who writes for the New York Times, and one is a curator of the decorative arts at a major museum, and they each have sort of two different things to say about – even though they’re similar, they say it in a different way. I wish we just had more writers in the craft field.
MR. LLOYD: Yes. You mentioned the woman who had became a curator was your student at Otis. Her name was Jo Lauria and she’s written about your work. I have a copy here of an article that she wrote for Ceramics Art and Perception in 1994, and its title is “Ralph Bacerra, Ceramic Artist: Article by Jo Lauria,” and it was published, as I said, in Ceramics Art and Perception, Number 15, in 1994. And this is a fairly comprehensive article which incorporates a lot of the things that we have been talking about –
MR. LLOYD: – and makes some rather interesting observations about the series of work that you’ve done and also about the Portrait Head series that we discussed. I won’t read it here because it is lengthy, but I think you’re familiar with this. Did you consider that to be a pretty accurate assessment of your work?
MR. BACERRA: Yes, yes.
MR. LLOYD: Good. And then here’s one that I know you were quite complimentary of the author, and it’s an author who is a general writer about not just ceramics of course but about contemporary American art, someone who I think you knew initially through his chairmanship of the Otis College, Peter –
MR. BACERRA: I never met him.
MR. LLOYD: You didn’t meet him?
MR. BACERRA: Peter – what’s his name?
MR. LLOYD: Peter Clothier.
MR. BACERRA: Clothier, right. He was at Otis, but he was there while – and I wasn’t there.
MR. LLOYD: I see.
MR. BACERRA: He predates me.
MR. LLOYD: But this involved an interview process maybe similar to what we did –
MR. LLOYD: – and I think you were very pleased with the way – the observations that he made.
MR. LLOYD: So this was published –
MR. BACERRA: Because he was from a whole – he was from a writer’s point, or a more academic approach to writing, as opposed to what an artist would say.
MR. LLOYD: And so this is pretty much a continued observation that you have. What you need is more writers, and perhaps from different vantage points, in order to make a contribution to the literature of the field.
MR. BACERRA: Yes, it makes the field a little more valid. I think the craftsman or the potter or the jeweler that writes about their own field has a certain bias and they – oh, I think we’ve discussed this before.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: When somebody with a different viewpoint outside of the field, that comes in and takes a fresh look at what people are doing.
MR. LLOYD: And I’ll just, for the record, enter that this is an article published in American Ceramics, Issue Number 13/1, by Peter Clothier – that is C-L-O-T-H-I-E-R. One of the things that he mentions in here – we may have discussed this before, but I think it relates to your travel, your interest in Chinese ceramics – he mentions the purchase of a Tang horse, deaccessioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
MR. BACERRA: Oh, this was in the early ‘70s. This is before the Los Angeles County Museum moved.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah.
MR. BACERRA: Well, they’d just moved to their new building – I think it was the late ‘60s – and they were – at the old museum they were selling things that I guess were deaccessioned from the museum, and I purchased a Tang horse and camel. I don’t know why they didn’t want them, but I bought them and I still have them. And that set off a whole new – that set off that whole sort of animal series that I did for a show in New York, and that was sort of the inspiration.
MR. LLOYD: That’s a brilliant purchase on your part, too. Did you get them for a reasonable price?
MR. BACERRA: Of course. [Laughter.]
MR. LLOYD: What a great collectible thing to have.
MR. BACERRA: Right, right. But that was – I don’t know; I was just lucky that day.
MR. LLOYD: Yeah, you were. And what other things do you collect?
MR. BACERRA: Right now not very much because I don’t have too much space left, but it was mainly ceramics. And the – as I had mentioned before, the Imari, the Chinese, Korean ceramics, Japanese ceramics. I’ve even purchased Goro recently – Suzuki, the Oribe maker. And most of the visual, the paintings, are artists that I’ve known, and we trade. So it’s a barter system there as far as collecting paintings.
MR. LLOYD: What paintings do you have that you have traded for?
MR. BACERRA: Nobuko Hideshi, Japanese printmaker, painter – I’m trying to think of other people that I’ve traded with.
MR. LLOYD: And of course I think we mentioned before that you have been influenced by European painting. I’m thinking of Kandinsky, and we discussed –
MR. BACERRA: No, I didn’t trade with Kandinsky.
MR. LLOYD: No, you didn’t trade with Kandinsky. [Laughter.] And you didn’t trade with M. C. Escher, but this is certainly an influence on your work and something that you admire.
MR. LLOYD: Well, let’s take a break for lunch.

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Smithsonian oral history interview: Val Cushing

Oral history interview with Val Cushing

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 Val Cushing, 2001 Apr. 16, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.\

An interview of Val Cushing conducted 2001 Apr. 16, by Margaret Carney, for the Archives of American Art’s Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, in Cushing’s studio, Alfred Station, N.Y.

Cushing speaks of his early interest in drawing; applying to Alfred University without a portfolio and being accepted on an athletic scholarship to play football; his teachers at Alfred including Katherine Nelson, Charles Harder, Marion Fosdick, Kurt Ekdahl, and Dan Rhodes; his classmates at Alfred including Herb Cohen, Marty Moskof, Marty Chodos, Luis Mendez, Ed Pettengill, and Richard Homer; the influence of Marguerite Wildenhain, who came to Alfred to teach for two weeks in 1952 (Cushing’s senior year); his first job making pots at Santa’s Workshop in Adirondack Mountains in New York in 1951, and the value of throwing every day; learning that “technique is not enough”; his travels; serving in the military police in Fort Dix, New Jersey, during the Korean War; visiting the Metropolitan Museum to sketch pots; meeting his wife Elsie Brown, who was private-duty nurse in New York; Charles Harder as an administrator and teacher;

attending graduate school at Alfred on the G.I. Bill from 1954 to 1956; his decision to become teacher rather than full-time potter at the suggestion of Charles Harder; teaching at University of Illinois in 1956 and then Alfred University in 1957; the “famous” dialogues between Charles Harder and Bernard Leach; the importance of designing functional handmade objects; the evolution of the American craft market; his work for Andover China; exhibitions; his close-knit ceramics community in the 1950s and 1960s; his relationships with galleries including American Hand and The Farrell Collection in Washington, D.C., Helen Drutt Gallery and the Works Gallery in Philadelphia, The Signature Shop & Gallery in Atlanta, Martha Schneider Gallery in Chicago, and Cedar Creek Gallery in Creedmoor, North Carolina; teaching at Penland, Haystack, Arrowmont, Archie Bray, and Anderson Ranch; “the Alfred connection at Archie Bray” and his grant to study at Archie Bray in 1968; the importance of Alfred’s summer school to the history of contemporary clay in America;

the value of university training; Bob Turner’s and Ted Randal’s influence on his work through their “philosophic stance” and “presence as artists”; his working space and his 1983 NEA grant to adapt an existing barn for use as a studio; the influence of nature on his work; working with kick wheel, Soldner wheel, Venco Pug Mill, natural gas and electric kilns; his glaze expertise; opportunities for experimentation; his love of jazz music and its influence on his working methods; pricing his pots; commissions; ceramic workshops as theatrical “performances” and an American phenomenon; the role of specialized periodicals in the craft field; the difference between craft critics and painting and sculpture critics; and the place of ceramics in museum collections in the United States and abroad.

Cushing also talks about his involvement with NCECA [The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts], the American Craft Council, and the American Ceramics Society; the lack of political and social commentary in his work; his teaching experiences in Europe and Asia; his participation in the opening of The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Japan; and the importance of ceramic history for the contemporary ceramist. He also recalls Susan Peterson, Bill Pitney, Marv Rickel, Don Frith, Winslow Anderson, Ken Deavers, Joan Mondale, Joan Farrell, Don Reitz, Gerry Williams, Bill Parry, Ken Ferguson, and others.

Interview Transcript
Interview with Val Cushing 
Conducted by Margaret Carney
At the Artist’s studio in Alfred Station, New York
April 16, 2001
DR. CARNEY: This is Margaret Carney interviewing Val Cushing at his studio in Alfred Station, New York, on April 16, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Hello, Val.

MR. CUSHING: Hello, Margaret. It’s nice to see you in the studio. And we’re all set to go.

DR. CARNEY: Can you tell us when and where you were born?

MR. CUSHING: Well, that’s a pretty hard question, but I’ll — [laughs]. I was born in Rochester, New York, January 28, 1931.

DR. CARNEY: And can you describe your childhood and your family background, and perhaps even leading into how you ended up in Alfred, New York, if there’s a connection?

MR. CUSHING: There is a little strange connection there. In 1931, some of you who hear this will know that was the Depression. And of course babies don’t know about Depressions, but my family was, I guess you’d say, poor, and my father was an Italian immigrant who came to this country when he was about 10 years old. So we lived in a part of Rochester that was a sort of lower middle class, I guess you’d say now, but, you know, kids don’t know any of this stuff.

I went to high school in Rochester. My interests in art were totally hidden, other than what most kids do that is, to draw and things like that, which I always did. I wanted to take art in high school, but all they had was commercial art. I took a course in that and I didn’t like it, so that was the end of my art training.

So when I came around to applying to Alfred, of course, I had no portfolio. I don’t think portfolios were required then. I’m not really sure. I certainly didn’t have one.

DR. CARNEY: What year was this, Val, that you were thinking about going to Alfred?

DR. CARNEY: It was 1948, my senior year in high school. At that point — I’ve told this story before, but I had what I guess you’d call an athletic scholarship to play football, which was what I mostly did in high school instead of art, was play sports, like a lot of kids at that time, anyhow. And I was going to be a coach. That’s all I knew what to do.

In my whole family circle of cousins and uncles, no one had ever gone to college except my oldest cousin, who, as it turns out, went to Alfred University. He came out of World War II as a pilot-navigator and on the GI Bill came to Alfred to study medicine; I mean pre-medical school.

DR. CARNEY: And what was his name?

MR. CUSHING: That was Wilson Cushing. And he graduated from Alfred in 1949, I think it was, which my freshman year was ’48-’49. But the whole reason I ended up at Alfred was because my cousin — I found all this out in retrospect, sort of — but felt that I had some talent in art. And no one else in my family had any connection with that kind of experience, so nobody could recognize this, including me, except that I liked drawing.

But my cousin, in the summer — no, let’s see, it was in the spring because I remember the football coach here, Alex Yunevich, was on the football field practicing his golf swings, and my cousin brought me to Alfred to see his school. And of course it blew my mind. It never even occurred to me or anybody in my family that you could go to college and study art, first of all. And when I saw people doing things that I could hardly comprehend, I mean standing at an easel painting and looking at still-life objects, stuff like that, I just didn’t know anything about that. It was a lost world as far as I was concerned. And I was very excited and immediately wanted to come to Alfred.

So my cousin brought me down to the football field where Yunevich was practicing golf. And it turned out that Yunevich had heard about me, because I made what used to be called “All City” in Rochester playing football, and he was delighted at the chance of having me come to Alfred. So that’s how I came to Alfred.

DR. CARNEY: That’s a great story.

I wondered if you could tell me about your initial impression of Alfred once you started school, and who maybe your teachers were, that kind of connection, and who some of your fellow students were.

MR. CUSHING: Well, you know, I feel sorry for people starting college these days, in the sense that I’m not sure how much of the kind of naive excitement that I had still exists. It’s probably a good thing it doesn’t, but at least for me, everything was so entirely new and exciting that it was just absolutely wonderful. And the teachers at Alfred were all wonderful to me. Katherine Nelson was the painting teacher, Marion Fosdick the sculpture, clay teacher. I’m speaking of my freshman year. And Kurt Ekdahl, a Swedish designer, taught what we would now call Foundation, but it wasn’t called that then. And they were all wonderful. And everything was so entirely new to me that I just couldn’t get enough of it. And many people in my class felt the same.

My freshman class, I think, had 33 students. That was the entire freshman class in what is now called the Art School. It was then called, I think, the Department of Design. There have been a few changes in the name over the years.

So I’m talking 1948, and half the class were veterans from World War II. I just missed that. I was just young enough to not have been drafted. I just missed that. So half the class, though, were veterans, and we were about half men and half women, roughly speaking, which was a little unusual. It was because of the veterans coming back.

So Herb Cohen was the star in our class. Herb Cohen is now a full-time potter in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. But Herb came from the Music and Art High School in Manhattan, and Herb Cohen was on the potter’s wheel when he was nine or ten years old in the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan, Lower Manhattan.

DR. CARNEY: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s fascinating.

MR. CUSHING: Yeah. There was a film done of him throwing. In fact, I’d love to — I wonder if that’s still around somewhere. But what you have to understand is, though, that by the time Herb came to Alfred in our freshman year, technically speaking, he could throw better than anybody in Alfred, including the grad students and so on. So it was a bit intimidating to those of us who began to get interested in ceramics.

But in the freshman year, we didn’t touch clay. Well, we had a sculpture class, but there was no pottery in a freshman year here. And even in the sophomore year, we just began again a little more clay work, but not pottery. So my teacher was Dan Rhodes in the junior year. That’s when we majored. I mean, it wasn’t called a major, because everybody majored. There was only one major then, and that was ceramics, in the art school. So everybody took it in their junior and senior year, and Dan Rhodes was the teacher.

And Dan Rhodes was a magnificent teacher. He gave us everything. I think between Rhodes in clay and Katherine Nelson in painting, by the junior year I had narrowed my work down pretty much to those two areas. You could still do electives, but most of your time was in ceramics. And Dan was an incredible teacher and he gave all his time to teaching. I mean, he was doing his own work always, but teaching was something he gave a lot to.

DR. CARNEY: When did you really narrow down that you were interested in ceramics more than painting or drawing, which you expressed an early interest in?

MR. CUSHING: That was a kind of a tough decision, in a way. I mean, my interest continued in all those areas, but what really nailed it for me was in my junior year, where I first got on the wheel. The wheel was really fascinating to me, and I have talked to other friends since about that. And one of the appeals, I’m almost reluctant to say, was the competitive sense of it and the sort of macho sense of it, I guess I’d have to say. And remember, I came out of a sports background, where practice was something I understood. And I could see — it was so clear — that if you practiced throwing, you got better.

DR. CARNEY: I never thought of it that way. [Laughs.]

MR. CUSHING: And especially Don Pilcher. I don’t know if you know Don, but he and I have talked about this, because he was quite an athlete in his early days, too. And we both had a sort of competitive nature that came somewhat out of sports and easily transferred, especially to throwing. Of all the various ways to work with clay, throwing represented to us that kind of skill-technique edge that we understood from sports.

And it’s interesting because when I got to Alfred, I completely dropped sports. I played freshman football because that’s how I got here. My scholarship here consisted of waiting on tables in Bartlett Dormitory, and therefore I got free room and board. But then I dropped that because I was so involved in art, and Yunevich never forgave me for that, as a matter of fact. [Laughs.] We lost our friendship.

But what really convinced me, in a way, was in my senior year, Marguerite Wildenhain came to Alfred for two weeks. Dan Rhodes brought her here, who had known Marguerite from California. And in spite of every teacher at Alfred — it was a wonderful place, and every teacher gave so much to students. I mean, it was really wonderful. But there was no one here then who was a full-time potter. I mean, I hadn’t met anyone like that, and Marguerite was the first one.

And of course Marguerite was of the — how can I describe her? She had a charisma about her like I imagine Frank Lloyd Wright was, you know, that type of person. She was very authoritative, very dogmatic, very much a person who had all the answers, but backing that up was, again, this incredible skill and technique that she had on the potter’s wheel. And if you sat there, as I did, and watched her throw, it was like magic, even though by that time, you know, at least I knew the basics of throwing, which, by the way, when Marguerite came — Dan Rhodes had prepared us for this — but when she came and she actually became our teacher for this period, we had to start over, because we were doing everything wrong in her eyes. [Laughs.] There was Dan standing there, of course, who was our teacher, but he understood what this was going to be like. And so we had to learn how to wedge again, how to center, I mean all the steps of throwing. But it gave us a clear view of a system of throwing that she had learned as an apprentice in Germany, going through the whole Bauhaus experience that she went through.

DR. CARNEY: So what year was this, Val, that Marguerite Wildenhain came?

MR. CUSHING: This was 1952. And I was never quite sure of this, but I think she stayed with Bob and Sue Turner, because I don’t think there was a motel in Alfred in those days. My memory of things like this gets a little hazy, but I know that the Turners had parties for her during this period in which we were square dancing, I remember. And in fact, it was this association with Marguerite and this absolute conviction she had about her life and the life of a potter that did it for me. I said, oh, wow, I’ve got to do this.

There was one other experience that I slipped over here that I wanted to tell you. And I tell this story often because it really happened and it really did something for me. In my junior year, the summer between my junior and senior years, Charles Harder got a job for me making pots. In this job, I served not exactly an apprenticeship, but I worked for a week with another potter while he oriented me to this situation. I’m holding back what the situation is because it was the bizarre nature of the situation that makes the story interesting.

I was a potter for that summer at a place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State called Santa’s Workshop. [Laughs.] And in Santa’s Workshop, there were various craftsmen making toys that, of course, Santa Claus had made every summer for kids. So there was a woodworker, there was a metal worker, and I was the potter. And I was taking the place of this guy who had run this facility for a couple years before this.

Now, you’ve got to think about this, because the people who make toys for Santa Claus are elves, right? So we had to wear an elf costume. [Laughs.]

DR. CARNEY: I never heard this.

MR. CUSHING: Oh, yeah. I have pictures of this, Margaret.

DR. CARNEY: You do?

MR. CUSHING: Yeah, I do.

DR. CARNEY: Oh, boy. [Laughs.] I’m sure the Archives will want those pictures, Val.

MR. CUSHING: Okay. Well, you know, the thing is, as funny as the situation was, it was a milestone in my life, absolutely, for two big reasons. One, when I first went — which was when school ended here sometime in June, then I was up there till September — when I started — I have a problem that’s been with me on and off all my life, which is overweight. And when I went up to be an elf, I was greatly overweight, so I had this elf costume and all this stuff we had. [Laughs.] And when I came back to school in September, I had lost something like 80 pounds, which I did by putting myself on a self-diet. So that was one of the first evidences of self-control that I realize were crucial.

DR. CARNEY: I have to ask you where Santa’s Workshop was in the Adirondacks.

MR. CUSHING: It’s still there, by the way. It’s still operating under that name. And it’s on Whiteface Mountain. And one can go up there, as I have done twice now since then just for the nostalgia of the situation. But it’s still there. I don’t think they have a potter there anymore. I’m not sure about that.

But really, this sense of self-discipline, which came on the one hand from taking control of my physical health myself and what I learned in throwing, at the end of that summer I was a very skilled thrower. I mean, just that practiced every single day. I worked on the wheel every day.

Of course, half the time there were people watching me work. That was part of the deal. And we had our own little house, and a complete pot shop in one end, which was a wheel, an electric kiln, a spray booth, you know, that kind of thing. And everything I made was then sold on the other side, so I had to make souvenir things frequently. I was allowed to make a few other things, but I made these little bowls that I would slip decorate saying “Santa’s Workshop” or something like that, you know. And I had another elf on the other side selling my work. [Laughs.]

This was the first theme park in America, I have found out.

DR. CARNEY: I didn’t know that.

MR. CUSHING: Yeah. And it started, I think, in ’46, something like that. But anyway, so you’ve got a picture that I came back feeling extremely confident in my — you know, I was sort of quietly saying to myself, “Well, wait till they see what I can do.”

DR. CARNEY: What summer was this?

MR. CUSHING: This was the summer of ’51, and my senior year was 1952. And I was thinking — as I say, there was a competitive edge to this whole thing –and I’m thinking to myself, well, there’s Herb Cohen, who was this great thrower, and, you know, I had progressed the way most people do in a year of throwing, so I could do the basic stuff so that I could do this job, but I was much more skilled when I came back. And I was thinking, oh boy, this is going to be wonderful, you know.

And then I came to the second important discovery in my life, which is that technique is not enough. And it was the most frustrating year of my life because, on the one hand, I could make anything on the wheel — I mean, I really had the skill — and I had no ideas, and I didn’t know what to make. And all I could do was look at books and try to make something that somebody else made, but it was extremely difficult. And then I got drafted.

DR. CARNEY: Oh. This is a great lead-in to my next question, which is to ask you about your travels, which might have to do with you being drafted, or anything else you’d like to talk about your general travels and how they’ve impacted your work over the years, whether it’s residencies or vacations or the draft.

MR. CUSHING: Well, I have to say again what a relatively sheltered life I led because I grew up in Rochester and never left. Well, we took fishing trips to Canada through my childhood, so I had seen Canada, which, by the way — and this was partly during World War II — when you went north of Toronto, which is where we used to go fishing, they were all dirt roads. I mean, if you can picture that in the early ’40s, the roads leaving Toronto north were dirt roads in those days.

But anyhow, other than that, I had never left Rochester. So in my experience at Alfred, again it was only back and forth. I would go back to Rochester every summer during college years to earn money to come back the next year, by doing construction jobs and stuff like that.

But in the senior year, after we graduated, Herb Cohen and myself and Marty Chodos — who was another person in our class, who later taught ceramics in a community college in California for several years, Rio Honda Community College, it was — so the three of us took a trip. Marty had a car. Marty was a World War II veteran, so he had a car, and the three of us took a trip to Denver, Colorado. And we camped up in the Rocky Mountains there, and this was the first time I had ever seen mountains or been anywhere. We also took a trip to Jones Beach in Long Island, and I saw the ocean for the first time. So you can see, then, how limited my experience was in terms of travel and so on.

Being drafted, we all — both Herb and I were drafted at the same time. We knew we were going to be. This was the Korean War going on. We graduated in June of ’52, and I went in the army in September of ’52. And we took this trip in between, knowing that we were going to be drafted and, you know, wanting to have some kind of an experience before that took place.

I went through an infantry basic training, as almost everyone did — this was the height of the war that year — not wanting to go to Korea but expecting to go. And Herb Cohen did go to Korea. But what happened to me was, at the very end of my infantry basic training, which was then 22 weeks or something — it was a huge, long basic training, for some reasons that I never understood except this is how the army functions — a group of us were taken out of infantry basic training and interviewed and then put into the Military Police. And this was in Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I was training. We went through another 16 weeks of basic training learning to be a military policeman, which is what I did in the army and stayed at Fort Dix and had this job.

Now, the significance of that was two things. That as time went by, I had enough time off — you know, with a permanent assignment like that, you got a couple days off a week — I would go to New York City to the Metropolitan and look at pots. And that got to be something. And I’ve got sketch books filled with drawings I used to make sitting there looking at these wonderful — this whole world of especially Islamic pottery. That’s what attracted me the most at that time, because I used to do a lot of decorating in those days and I was totally captivated by that. So I went to New York as often as possible. And it was during this period when I met my wife, who was a nurse in New York City, so that being the next most important thing.

DR. CARNEY: So give us the name of your wife, her maiden name and all that.

DR. CUSHING: My wife’s name then was Elsie Brown. As a matter of fact, she was a private-duty nurse at that time, and one of the people she worked with was Rita — I can’t remember her maiden name then, but she married a high school classmate of mine, Bob Locke. Bob Locke worked for the Chase Manhattan Bank in Manhattan while I was in the army. But he was about to be drafted, so he wanted some advice about the army and so on, so I went to New York to talk to him. And they had invited Elsie to come to dinner because Elsie and his wife worked together as nurses. So that’s how I met Elsie in New York. And we got married.

So my army career had no travel, but it was the opportunity to look seriously, almost week after week, at the collections at the Metropolitan that — I mean, up until then, I had never seen — remember now, in Alfred we had no museum. We had nothing. We had a small collection called the Glory Hole that had a few things in it that were certainly fascinating, and there were very few slides in those days. We had some slides, the big glass kind that go in those big old projectors.

DR. CARNEY: The lantern slides.

MR. CUSHING: And Dr. Sutton, who was an engineering professor here at Alfred, had been to China several times working on projects in China. And he was there, I think — well, no, I’m not sure he was there when the railroads were put in and pottery kept turning up, but he did have some sort of a collection of shards, at least. And he used to show us slides of, I think, Ching-te-chen. Did I give you those big slides?

DR. CARNEY: Haven’t seen slides.

MR. CUSHING: I ended up with those slides. And I think I gave them to Carla. They might be over there somewhere.
DR. CARNEY: She might have them.

If we could go back just for a moment. Did you give me the whole list of names of your classmates that were interested in clay besides Herb Cohen and Bob Locke?

MR. CUSHING: Actually, Bob Locke was a high school friend.

So there was Herb Cohen, who was by far the most advanced at that point in terms of his interests and abilities, but also in our class was Luis Mendez. Now, Luis Mendez has had a career in clay ever since then, too. He lives near New York City, and he’s been an active exhibiting artist since that time.

I must say, though, the main emphasis in the course in those days was on industrial design, and several of our classmates took that route, which I was very interested in myself. And if I hadn’t been drafted, I had a possibility of going to Blenko Glass in West Virginia to be a designer. Now, there was an Alfred tradition going on there. Oh, what was his name, Margaret?

DR. CARNEY: Winslow Anderson.

MR. CUSHING: Winslow Anderson, who we all heard about here when we were students because he had been successful in design. And this Swedish professor, Ekdahl, who ran this course, was very influential, also a very strong personality, and it was very intriguing. And remember, we had a lot of veterans then, and they were more interested in getting into design than they were in being studio potters. So let’s see. Herb Cohen, Luis Mendez.

Ed Pettengill became a designer for Thatcher Glass in Elmira and then moved on into other areas. We had Richard Homer in our class, who was a great grandson of Winslow Homer, the painter, and he went into architecture. Oh, dear, you caught me with this one. I’d have to look at the list now. But next year is our 50th reunion, by the way, Margaret.


MR. CUSHING: And I’m going to write to all my former classmates and see if I can get them all to come back. Marty Moskof was another one, who became a graphic designer in Manhattan. And I’m leaving off at the moment. I know there are others, but they’re not coming to me right now.

DR. CARNEY: Could you tell me a little bit about Charles Harder as an administrator or teacher? How did you interact with him, and what was his position then?

MR. CUSHING: Yeah, he was another of the wonderful people that were in Alfred, certainly, when I came. Charles Harder was then head of the department. He was an absolutely brilliant man and, I think, one of the people that I regret didn’t do more writing and didn’t do more to communicate what he was all about to the world of clay. I mean, he certainly had a reputation when he came here and studied with Binns and later came back to teach.

He was a very powerful personality, and extremely — between he and Dan Rhodes, both of whom had wonderful minds and talked to us in philosophic terms frequently, the whole idea of reading and thinking and going deeper than just the initial physical presence of clay and so on, which is what got us all excited, started to come from those people.

And at the same time, in the liberal arts school here, Mel Bernstein was another person who we had contact with because there at liberal arts college, we had to take their foundation course, which was called “Civilization.” And it was a very exciting panel of people like Roland Warren, who taught here then, Elsworth Barnard, who went on to — oh, dear, he went on to one of the Ivy League schools. I mean, there were some wonderful people teaching in the liberal arts college here as well.

And so back to Harder, he was one of these people who talked about ideas and gave us books to read. And so he began more than anyone, but with Dan Rhodes, too, began us doing more than just thinking about the art we were making, but where it came from and where ideas came from.

DR. CARNEY: You got your undergraduate degree at Alfred. Did you follow up on that later on with anything else?

DR. CUSHING: Yes. When I went in the army, I said I was an MP, which I was, and I ended up the last few months working in the recreational shop at Fort Dix, where I taught ceramics. And, you know, it was a part-time situation.
DR. CARNEY: This is Margaret Carney, interviewing Val Cushing at his studio in Alfred Station, New York, on April 16, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This is Side B of Tape 1, the master tape.

Val, we were talking about how you transitioned from army life into graduate school.

MR. CUSHING: This whole time I was in the army, I had already decided that, somehow or other, that clay was going to be in my life. That happened in my senior year, as I said before. And yet, you know, I didn’t know quite what form that was going to take. And while I was in the army, one of my friends had spent some time in Tasmania, and right at that time, I read Alan Moorehead’s book about the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and I was tremendously excited by both these things. And I actually started the process of applying for a Fulbright to go to Australia. Fulbright grants were in their real prime in those years, and I’m sure everyone knows about the Fulbright as a way to deal with payment of loans to countries during World War II and all that sort of thing. So I began looking into this, and that was one of the options I saw for myself.

In the meantime, though, I also knew about graduate school and getting the MFA degree and that sort of thing, and for me that became more and more attractive as time went by. And when I ran this craft shop thing in the army, I began to get a feeling for teaching for the first time. And this was a very profound thing to me because — I don’t know how many people have this experience; again, it may have been truer for someone in my generation — but my life was totally transformed by teachers and by Alfred and by the experience here. And I never forgot that, and I always wanted to carry that on in some fashion. I mean, that idea didn’t solidify as such — I’ll tell you how that happened in a minute.

So, anyway, I had the GI Bill, which was another wonderful benefit of the army in those days. And I got married in 1953 to Elsie, and we moved to Alfred, and I can tell you that was a shock for Elsie, who having lived and grown up in New York City, coming to Alfred was a real experience in moving to the small rural community. But we were very happy here and, you know, that went well.
Anyway, I was able to go to graduate school because — I didn’t, we didn’t have any money, zero money, but we had the GI Bill, which paid enough per month that with a job working as an assistant at the school in graduate school, we were able to do it. And we had no other income. And we started our family then. Our first child was born immediately, so we had a baby when we started graduate school at Alfred.

And I had an assistantship then, which required 10 hours of teaching a week and doing other chores around the school, so that kept my hand in teaching. But what I really wanted to do then was to be a full-time potter. I still couldn’t shake that influence of Marguerite Wildenhain and the inspiration that she communicated and the excitement that she communicated about that kind of life. But there was just no way possible. I mean, you know, we had nothing, so there was no way that I could have a studio or a place, no way that I could see, at any rate.

And so I went in to Charles Harder in my second year of graduate school, when I knew I’d be leaving, and we talked about the future. And he more or less just let me talk and sort of express what I was feeling and what my options were and so on. And then he just sort of looked at me, and he said, “Have you thought about teaching?” And then I said, “Well, no.” I was so focused on being a potter that I hadn’t thought about teaching that way. And he said, “Well, what are the most important things to you in your experience in college?” And I immediately said, almost without thinking — which, of course, he knew I would say, in a way — “Well, it was the people who taught me.” And then this led me right into it. It just seemed so natural to me then to consider that career.

DR. CARNEY: Could you clarify what years you were in graduate school in Alfred?

MR. CUSHING: I was in the army for two years, so from 1952 to ’54 I was in the army, and then began graduate school in ’54 to ’56. So it was 1956 when I was looking for a job.

And this very year, the ceramics teacher at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Donald Frith, had worked out an arrangement to come to Alfred to study with Charles Harder because his orientation was industry; that is, Donald Frith. He was a potter, but he was very interested in industrial design, which, of course, Charles Harder taught at Alfred. I mean, as graduate students, Charles Harder came in for one week, and this was a traditional project that he always did, and in one week all the graduate students had to make a complete set of molds for a teapot and finish it in this week. And so, you know, we all had that kind of experience.

So because Frith was coming to Alfred, he needed to be replaced at the University of Illinois, and Charles Harder set me up for that job. And I can tell you, when we left Alfred, I had an old 1941 beat-up car that my aunt had given me; I rented a U-Haul trailer, a small one, and everything we owned in this world fit in that little trailer. So I drove to Illinois myself and set up our apartment while Elsie and our then two children stayed with my parents in Rochester, and then she finally came on.

And that feeling when I was driving to Illinois was, you know, I never thought I’d see Alfred again. I mean, I had no plans, obviously. I mean, I would never have dreamed that I would be back here teaching then. So I went to Illinois, and during that year a job came up at Alfred, and I was invited to apply, so I did.

I’ll tell you a story about that, too, that’s bizarre. It has nothing to do with anything, except it was so weird. At that time the University of Illinois had a tiny, little airport, and the only way you could leave then was you would fly from there to Chicago in these little planes, you know, and then get on another plane. There were no jets then, by the way. These were the other kind. So this field was so small that, you know, I drove in the parking lot, parked my car, got in the airport, got in the airplane, and as we were taking off, I could see that I had left my headlights on. [Laughs.] It was so early in the morning. So when I got back, I had no battery in my car. [Laughs.]

Anyway, much to my amazement — I mean, when I decided to teach, I applied to something like a hundred — no, there weren’t even that many schools that taught ceramics, but Elsie and I — and Elsie did all the typing — we applied to schools just for a shot in the dark, just looking for a job, you know, and we went through that experience. But the possibility of coming back to Alfred was just unbelievable to me, even though by then, even though Frith was coming back, they offered me a job to stay at the University of Illinois.

I can give you a perspective here. In 1948 — no, this was 1956 — I came back here to teach at $4,800 a year, and they had offered me $5,400 to stay at Illinois. But there was no comparison then. In my mind, the possibility of teaching at Alfred — as I say, I wouldn’t even have dreamed of it. Never thought it would be possible. So I was tremendously excited. And so I came back to Alfred and I began teaching here, would be the fall of 1957. That’s why I retired in 1997, to tell you the truth. I wanted to keep it an even figure. [Laughs.]

DR. CARNEY: Let’s switch tack for just a moment here. And I wondered if you could tell me whether or not you think of yourself as part of an international tradition, or one that’s particularly American.

MR. CUSHING: I would say I feel part of being an American potter, but you can’t say that without recognition of roots, so it is kind of a hard question. And I’ve already mentioned Marguerite Wildenhain, who, of course, was trained in Germany in a strict German apprenticeship. That’s what happened in the Bauhaus in those days. You worked with materials and processes before you worked with theory. So she worked for several years as an apprentice potter in the strictest conceivable apprenticeship you could ever dream of. I won’t even go into it, but it was incredible.

So there was an influence there that had to do with — if you wanted to trace that back, I guess you would go back to Rome and Greece in terms of influence. It was her ways of throwing and her form sense. She was a profile thrower, not at all the Japanese system or the Chinese, the Oriental system of reading the clay. It was shape and profile and form, that kind of thing. So that was an influence, for sure.

But at the same time, in my freshman year at Alfred, Bernard Leach came here, and there was another obvious and big influence. It was an extremely fortunate time for me, all these things, to have in the same four years people like Leach and Wildenhain as influences, not to mention Dan Rhodes, who was already here, of course. He was the main — Charles Harder in those days wasn’t doing his own work. Marion Fosdick, another big influence, was still making pieces during my college years, but her influence, certainly on me, was her personality and her wonderful, supportive character, which was great.

DR. CARNEY: What year did Bernard Leach come to Alfred that you got to see him throw and talk to him?

MR. CUSHING: I can easily get diverted here, Margaret. [Laughs.] You know, dates — Elsie, my wife, before we started this said to me, “Be sure to get the dates right,” because I don’t get dates right, frequently. [Laughs.] No, it was my freshman year, so that was school year ’48-49. 1948 to 1949. And he came, it would have been actually ’49; it would have been the spring of that year.

And, I mean, I didn’t know anything about Leach or anybody else. I mean, I was a freshman, as I’ve said, coming out of a completely naive background as far as art and crafts are concerned. But again, the teachers here had prepared us somewhat for this, and others in my classes, especially Herb Cohen, who did know all about Leach and so on. So we had talked this thing over. And at that time, Susan Peterson was a graduate student here. Let me see, who else. I could recall all these names if I looked at a list, but, you know, as always there were graduates — I’m sorry.

DR. CARNEY: Was Bill Pitney here as a student then?

MR. CUSHING: Bill Pitney was here. Marv Rickel, by the way, whom I just met in Charlotte at the NCECA conference for the first time since then, who was the ceramics teacher at Ball State College in Indiana and who was the teacher of a lot of very well-known ceramists, by the way, carrying his Alfred tradition there; he was a grad student. Karen Karnes — no, no, no, Karen came later, she wasn’t there then. Anyway, there was this kind of thing at Alfred. I mean, there were some wonderful people here.

DR. CARNEY: Wasn’t Bob Turner, and maybe Ted Randall, both graduate students in ’49, that time period?

MR. CUSHING: Yes, of course they were. And Bob then — gee, these dates, we’re going to have to look at these carefully, but Ted Randall was a graduate student, because he was the teaching assistant when I was an undergraduate. And he used to — in fact, we virtually prayed for the opportunity of Ted to come and look at our work because Professor Ekdahl was such a bear, we were all terrified of him. But Ted Randall would come around, and he was supportive and friendly, and we loved having Ted look at our work. So Ted was there.

Bob Turner, by the time — I think he already had his studio in the East Valley by then, but he must have been a grad student then too. But anyway, they were all there.

DR. CARNEY: This is during your undergraduate days.
MR. CUSHING: That’s right. This was when Leach first came. He came to Alfred another time, but this was the first time. And there were famous — I say “famous” to those of us who were there — dialogues between Charles Harder and Bernard Leach, some of which are in correspondence in the Archives here at Alfred. Their dialogues had to do with the John Ruskin, the whole thing of — Leach represented the almost Luddite kind of reaction to the Industrial Revolution.

Leach’s position was that handmade things had a presence that couldn’t be matched by industry, and industrial production wasn’t capable of making beautiful objects. And of course Charles Harder had the opposite point of view; not the opposite point of view, but he felt strongly that industrial design was the thing of the future and that it didn’t have to be negative as far as art and form is concerned. So we were aware of these things going on, and that certainly, although it was all new stuff for me, it certainly did impress me.

And so the question we started with was about international or outside, am I an American potter and so on. The thing that makes me say I’m an American potter in terms of this question was that — and Ted Randall and Bob Turner were both outstanding examples of this, which was to solve in handmade objects the form process aspect of objects. In other words, design. You know, design was an important word to us, meaning that you would design something to function but make it by hand, rather than design and function and industry, which was the other route one could take.

And remember, these were exciting years in design. This was Charles Eames. I mean, you know, all this happened during this period that I’m talking about. I mean, I’m not suggesting that only American potters have worked this way, but after World War II, when there were no more imports from Scandinavia or Europe, there was an American — that’s when the handcraft movement started in this country. We may get to that question somewhere down the line here. But there emerged people like Ted Randall and Bob Turner, who were among the very first who worked in their studios making handmade things and selling them in interior design stores. Those were the outlets. There were no galleries then. I mean, there were galleries, but they weren’t the main vehicle for this kind of life. So I was very taken by that idea.

DR. CARNEY: I’ll directly ask you the question here, then: Does the function of objects play a part in the meaning of your work?
MR. CUSHING: Yes, they certainly do, you know. And I think that was something that was, I guess, taken for granted at Alfred, anyway. Not that we didn’t study sculpture, but sculpture and pottery were separated. That is to say, when we did sculpture, the objective had to do with form and idea, not with vessel; and when we made pottery, we made functional objects. I mean, that was the pottery world in those days. And this is not to say that there weren’t, quote, vessels made where function was not the main objective, you know, just the shapes and the symbols of pottery; that was done. But making functional objects was the goal, and it has never changed for me. I have made other things, of course, in my life, and I still do, but nothing gives me the gratification that a functional object still holds for me, and that’s been my focus all the way.

DR. CARNEY: This directly leads into my question about how the market for American craft has changed in your lifetime, and kind of your relationship with dealers along that same line, and even if you want to venture into museums and how that’s evolved during your lifetime.
MR. CUSHING: You know, I used to say to students in teaching, and I still feel this way, that I was so fortunate. I mean, I was born at the right time in terms of questions like this because World War II happened, and as I’ve said, it cut off the influences of Europe for a while, which were so much a part especially of objects, and ceramics in particular. So something new had to take place.

And because industrial design became such a big thing, that affected ceramics too. I mean, this was Eva Zeisel designing dinnerware. I mean, this was the period when there was an American market, and there were designers emerging in all kinds of fields, and I’m sure this historically traces the beginning of what we call the contemporary craft movement in the ’40s, the late ’40s and early ’50s.

So at that time, of course I was a student, but very aware of Ted Randall and Bob Turner, who, by the time I was a graduate student, were both running their own studios. And so we were, of course, aware of what was going on there all the time, and some other Alfred people who were not in Alfred anymore but were also living this way.

And so they were selling. And there used to be in Manhattan and other big cities, of course, interior design stores, and it was the interior designers who were promoting the idea of handmade pottery. I mean, there were, of course, museums and there were some galleries, but to my knowledge, I never heard — I mean, other than occasional shows, invitational or competitive shows like the Everson Museum, the Syracuse show, and there was one in Wichita that we called the Wichita show, there was the Miami show, there were a few shows taking place in museums concerning ceramics; that was starting to happen; but for the most part, for one making a living or trying to make a living, I think it was the rise of craft stores, and that came later. But as I say, those interior design stores — I’m trying to think of the name. Terrible. It was a really big one in Manhattan. I can’t — but anyway, they both sold there.

DR. CARNEY: We can come back to it.

MR. CUSHING: Yeah. So we were aware of that going on as students, and — Bonniers, that was one of the ones in Manhattan, and the American craft — what was the name? They had a craft store also.

DR. CARNEY: America House?

MR. CUSHING: Yeah, America House. Thank you. That was the one. And I actually sold some things there as soon as I began teaching here.

DR. CARNEY: Didn’t you work for Andover China at some point? And when did you do that? And tell us about where that is and if that fits into this picture at all.

MR. CUSHING: You know, that — yes. It’s amazing how you can gloss over things. That was very important to me because this was actually as an undergraduate in 1952. I had a night job working in Andover, New York, a little town eight miles or so from Alfred, where a Mr. Briggs, was his name, who had been, I think, one of the chief — my knowledge of his background isn’t going to be totally accurate, but essentially, he came from Lennox China in New Jersey, where I think he had been their chief ceramic engineer or something like that. And somehow — I never heard the story of this myself — but somehow he decided to open his own pottery in Andover called Andover China.

And by the time of my senior year, 1952, it was already diminishing to a great extent, and he hired students, and myself, at that time, anyway — I’m not sure who else worked there — but myself and a classmate of mine who isn’t around anymore, who was killed in a car accident, but he and I would go at night and make molds for Mr. Briggs. And we even got to design a couple shapes. I made one shape. I remember Charles Harder designed shapes for Andover China. And I’m not sure whether Glidden did, or I don’t know about that.

But you know, there was a connection there because this guy, unfortunately — I never knew the whole story of this, but technically he produced something that looked very much like Lennox China. In fact, it looked so much like Lennox China — [laughs] — that I’m surprised he wasn’t sued or whatever was going on in those days. But technically he had the clay body, this beautiful, creamy, translucent china, and it was lovely stuff, but he never was able to work out the wrinkles, the technical wrinkles. I mean, there were huge amounts of seconds.

But we had this funny, and by the way, when I was in the army, this was in Fort Dix, New Jersey, which is right near where Lennox China is in New Jersey, and Lennox China used to give the recreational shop seconds, bisqueware, for the army guys to decorate on. So we had stacks of those. And of course I took a bunch of them and glazed them and just took them home. [Laughs.]

And by the way, Winslow Anderson, who was the designer at Blenko Glass, later became the main designer at Lennox China. You have to realize that all through the ’30s, ’40s, and certainly, I guess, most of the ’50s, in terms of the ceramic industry, the designers were coming from Alfred, or had Alfred connections somewhere along the line, not just the designers, but in the engineers, too, in the big industrial plants.

Charles Harder took us, as students, through a tour down the Ohio River to all the big industrial plants. And unfortunately, it had a reverse reaction to me. That’s when I really decided to be a potter — [laughs] — because I could see that the industrial designers were not being given an opportunity to really design; they were sort of being told what to design. You know, to some extent that was going on.

And we met Don Schreckengost and people like that, who was a designer at Homer Laughlin, one of the big china places there. Anyway — God, now I’m all lost here, Margaret.

DR. CARNEY: Let me get you back on a different track. Could you tell me about your relationship with actual dealers and when that became important for ceramics, or whether you were selling at other places that weren’t just strictly ceramic dealers?

MR. CUSHING: Yeah. The evolution that happened to me was to begin selling in shops the way Ted Randall and Bob Turner had done. But now remember, I was not a full-time potter, but I was a full-time teacher who never stopped making my own work. But it was a little bit different situation, so I couldn’t fulfill big commitments to these stores the way one would do if you were a full-time potter.

And at around this time — now we’re talking the late ’50s and early ’60s, the beginning of my career in teaching and in selling and showing and so on — as I’ve said, there began to be more exhibitions in ceramics. I’ve mentioned the Miami show and these others. And so I began showing in these shows, and I got some awards in these shows quite early on in my career.

I mean, it was a small ceramic world then. I think I knew the name of probably every potter in the country. That’s a huge exaggeration, but not as much as you would think. I mean, we sort of knew who we were. And if you look at the old catalogues — I have some — of the Syracuse show and shows like that, you’ll see these names. You know, Charlie Lakofsky and so on. I mean, we kind of knew each other in a way. And therefore, having a little success like that early on, I began to be invited to invitational shows, and that led to connections with dealers, and that led to what was beginning to happen now were galleries, who were emphasizing the, quote, art aspect of this whole ceramic world and who were gradually becoming the marketplace.

There were craft stores always through this time and there still are, but I think a lot of the prestige, certainly, and the emphasis kind of shifted to galleries. And there, you know, some of them, anyway, were trying to promote ceramics over what would traditionally have been just painting and sculpture. I don’t know if you want to get into this whole question. [Laughs.]

DR. CARNEY: Could you name the first gallery that represented you? Did you have galleries that were showing your work specifically? Or name some of the major ones that you’ve been in in the last 40 years that you’ve enjoyed relationships with.

MR. CUSHING: My career got a kind of slow start in relation to that, Margaret. I mean, I’ve been literally in hundreds of exhibitions, and they have been frequently in different museums and galleries that were group shows of one sort or another. I think the first exclusive gallery connection for me was Helen Drutt in Philadelphia, and that didn’t happen until the late ’70s or early ’80s, somewhere in there, anyway. I had shown in exhibitions in the Everson, in Syracuse, and in Rochester, too. In fact my first, my very first piece in an exhibition was in a show called the “Fingerlakes Show” in the Rochester Museum, which they still have, I think.

DR. CARNEY: Mm-hm.

MR. CUSHING: And I got a prize in that show. In fact, Herb Cohen may have also gotten a prize then, or at least he was in the show. It was the first time.

DR. CARNEY: What year was that?

MR. CUSHING: That was 19 — I was in graduate school. That was in 1954, I suppose, somewhere in there. This is where my dates get a little — no, no, it couldn’t have been. Fifty-five. Fifty-five, yeah.
DR. CARNEY: This is Margaret Carney interviewing Val Cushing at his studio in Alfred Station, New York, on April 16, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This is Tape 2, Side A.

Do you want to talk more about dealers that you dealt with?

MR. CUSHING: Yes, I do want to say more there, because I realize I’ve forgotten one that came before Helen Drutt that I do want to mention. It was quite unique. It was in Georgetown, in Washington, called the American Hand. And it was quite an amazing place. One of the two guys who ran it, Ken Deavers, I think was his name — I understand, by the way, that that gallery is still there. I haven’t looked in on it. But in the time I’m talking about, which, oh dear, must have been sometime in the ’70s — I would have to look this up myself; I just can’t remember for sure — but here’s what they did.

They would have a series of artists come in and do — they had a connection with a community college in Maryland [Montgomery College], which has a history of excellent ceramics, and they have sent students here. This name is also out of my head at the moment. [Richard Mower] But what happened was, if you were going to have a show with the American Hand, the show would open on a Sunday, so they would arrange a workshop at this community college, which would start on Friday. Friday night was a slide lecture, Saturday would be a demonstration, you know, that kind of thing, and then Sunday would be the opening of the show at the American Hand. This was very clever because everybody who was at the slide show and the demonstration for sure came to the opening, plus they had a whole big client list.

And it was quite amazing. This is the first time I had ever had an experience like this. The American Hand is on M Street in Georgetown, and the show opened, let’s say, either noon or 1:00, something like that, on Sunday. And we got there a few minutes before that to see a line that went down the block and around the corner literally, like people queued up for — for something, you know? I mean, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I mean, these guys really knew how to promote things.


MR. CUSHING: And they had a clientele list. And there was another thing about that show that I hadn’t expected. When something sold, it was immediately taken out, rather than given a red dot and you wait till the show’s over. And I have to tell you another story that leads up to this.

Just before this is when — and this will date it for us — when Joan Mondale was the vice president’s wife. And as I think is well known now, she was a greater promoter of crafts, being a potter herself. And this is where we first met, was she had some artists to dinner at the vice president’s house if they were people whose works were in the collection they had on loan at the vice president’s house, pieces from various museums around the country and so on, and a piece of mine was there that was in the Everson collection.

So as it turned out, there was a horrendous snowstorm the night of this dinner, and a lot of people weren’t able to get to Washington. So in terms of invited artists, there was myself and Richard Estes, the painter, and one other person. So we got all the attention. I think Motherwell was to have been there that night and various other people, but they couldn’t make it. And Joan Mondale was a wonderful, gracious person. In fact, she sat me right next to her, you know, and — you know, putting this potter, you know. I mean, anyway, the room was also filled with wealthy people from Minnesota who were giving money to the Mondales.

But anyway, it was very impressive, the idea that here was somebody in government really seriously interested in crafts. Joan Mondale was just great.

Now the point of this story is that she said to me, if I ever had a show in Washington, to please let her know, you know, that she would definitely go to see it. And you know, even then if someone like a vice president’s wife went somewhere, they went with Secret Servicemen and the whole bit. Well, so of course I gave her an announcement about the show at the American Hand. But she couldn’t come to the opening, which was on Sunday, right? By the time she got there, the show was completely sold out. It was actually sold out the first day. I mean, it’s the way those things went. I mean, there were a few scattered pieces, you know, and she came to see the show with her whole entourage of cars and stuff. She told me about this later. So anyway, that was a funny thing. And Joan Mondale has now been honored by NCECA, among other organizations, for her role in supporting crafts.

I’ll just tell you this other quick story. In Philadelphia there was a joint conference between what used to be called Super Mud, which Penn State put on, and NCECA, and we had a joint conference together, and Joan Mondale was to receive honors at that conference. Now I have to tell you that if you’ve ever been to a potters conference like NCECA, the usual dress are jeans and, you know, whatever potters wear, but it’s not like suits and ties, okay? So when Joan Mondale arrived, all of a sudden in the hotel came this circle of guys with suits and ties and raincoats. I mean, it was so classic. These were the Secret Service guys, and she was in the middle, and they were walking this way, up, you know.

And of course I came by at that time, as did hundreds of other people, but we caught each other’s eye, and, you know, she gave me a big smile, and so I started in to say hello, right? The circle closed. [Laughs.] And then she said, “No, it’s okay,” and we said hello. But it was that funny juxtaposition. Nobody could have been more obvious at that conference than this group of Secret Service guys. Anyhow.

DR. CARNEY: I am going to drag you back to another question, even though that was a great story, Val. Are there other dealers that you’d like to mention that have been really influential in your career?

MR. CUSHING: It’s a good thing we have Margaret here to keep this going straight here.

So there was a gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, that I had a connection with called the Signature Shop, which was then quite an important gallery for crafts and ceramics. And the owners —

DR. CARNEY: Atlanta, Georgia?

MR. CUSHING: Atlanta, Georgia. The owners have both died and now it’s in new hands. Well, I know her name too. But anyway, I’ve been in a couple shows, but I haven’t had a one-person show there, which I did have before.

Then what is now, in fact, my main gallery is the Martha Schneider Gallery in Chicago, used to be in Highland Park, and then she moved to Chicago. And I’ve had several one-person shows with Martha, and she’s been a tremendously supportive and important person for me in terms of getting my work into collectors’ hands, that sort of thing.

I did another thing that was interesting in connection with this. When Paul Smith was head of the American Craft Council, or the American Craft Museum, I should say, he had a program going — dates again, it had to be in the ’70s, I guess — where at least I went as an artist-in-residence to the American Craft Museum and demonstrated in the museum for a weekend. And it was very interesting because I was there throwing and a lot of people were coming in and out, and including a lot of dealers and collectors in New York at that time. And so I made a lot of connections that way, you know, for people like Dan Jacobs and others who had heard about me and seen my work but came and sort of made a personal connection. So that was, you know, one of the little kind of networking things that groups like the ACC or the American Craft Museum could do for people.

DR. CARNEY: How many years have you been working with Martha Schneider? And can you give a more definite date on Paul Smith and American Craft Museum? Was it early ’70s?

MR. CUSHING: I can give this to you at another time and you can put it in here, because it’s in my big résumé, not my little one, you know. A lot of these dates will be there.

My first show with Martha was in Highland Park, and that would have been pretty close to 1988, I would say. That’s going to be quite close, somewhere around there. Then I think she moved to Chicago in the early ’90s. I can give you these dates, Margaret.


MR. CUSHING: So it was during that period. Of course, I have been in some other galleries. I’ve shown in the — used to be called the Hand and the Spirit in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ve been in the — oh, what’s the one in Philadelphia, not Helen Drutt but —

DR. CARNEY: Called The Works?

MR. CUSHING: Yes. Yes. I’ve been there.

DR. CARNEY: Do you want to repeat that, since —

MR. CUSHING: The Works Gallery in Philadelphia. Oh, dear. But anyway —

DR. CARNEY: What about the one on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.?

MR. CUSHING: Well, thank you. That was called the Farrell Collection. And this was Joan Farrell, who opened up this gallery right across from the Metro stop on Connecticut Avenue, just the one below the zoo in Washington. It was a wonderful location. And Joan had all these years run a craft store in Bethesda called Appalachiana, and that was known by crafts people for years and years as one of the good outlets for basically functional, utilitarian crafts. Furniture, ceramics, glass, that sort of thing. And Joan was well-known in that, but she wanted to try the, quote, gallery scene. And unfortunately, it was bad timing, just the way things worked out. The, quote, craft galleries were kind of beginning to sink right about that time, and glass was starting to take over.

DR. CARNEY: When was this?

MR. CUSHING: [Laughs.] I knew you’d ask me that.

DR. CARNEY: It was in the 1990s, I know that.

MR. CUSHING: The late ’80s or — you’re right, it was in the, well, I think the late ’80s and early ’90s, but right in that period, yeah. And you know, if you talk to people like Mark Lyman, who runs the SOFA in Chicago, but before that was called the Navy Pier show, where galleries brought in their people’s work and so on, and I had been featured in a couple of those with Martha Schneider. But in the beginning of those shows, ceramics was the big item, but then glass gradually took over, and ceramics began to diminish and glass objects became the focus. And this began to happen in the galleries, too.

Joan — I was the first person in Joan’s gallery. I think I had the first one-person show with her. But I also was kind of a consultant for her because she was new to — not new to ceramics, of course, but to people whom she thought of as gallery people rather than the craft store, you know, that kind of thing. And so I helped her with names and people to invite and that kind of thing. And we had a — you know, it was an excellent place for me. In fact, I had an exhibition there with my son, who was at that time a painter, who is now a potter — this is Eric Cushing — and we had a joint show, his paintings and my ceramics, with Joan Farrell. But it didn’t last.

DR. CARNEY: I happened to see that show. It was a great show. I remember it.

Could you tell me whether or not you’ve had involvement with the Penland School of Crafts, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Arrowmont, Pilchuck, Archie Bray, or any other educational facilities?

MR. CUSHING: [Laughs.] All of the above, except Pilchuck. Now, the fact is I have taught in all of those places, including Anderson Ranch, which is another one, Peters Valley, another one in Pennsylvania. I’ve taught twice at Penland and twice at Anderson Ranch and once in the other places. I’m a great supporter of these places. And let me say Archie Bray is in particular significant to me, because in 1968 I had a grant to study at Archie Bray. This was when Dave Shaner was running Archie Bray, and Jim Flagherty, who was his assistant then, who had just gotten his MFA at Alfred. Dave Shaner, of course, had gotten one here earlier.

The Alfred connection at Archie Bray, I think, is well understood. When Ken Ferguson took over the Bray after Pete Voulkos and Rudy Autio left — Ken wasn’t the next one; there were a couple in between, but Ken, I think, made the biggest change at Archie Bray. And then, of course, he was from Alfred, and then Jim McKinnell came; and there were others there. Anyhow, Dave Shaner was sort of groomed by Ken Ferguson to take over when Ken retired, or left and went to Kansas City. So Dave Shaner took over. And Jim Flagherty was another who was to have been the director, although that never did develop.

Anyway, I was there for one summer in 1968, and the whole mystique of Archie Bray hit me. It tends to have that effect on one if you go there. There is something very special there. This is not to say that this doesn’t exist in these other places we’ve mentioned. I mean, Haystack, for instance, is this gloriously beautiful place. And I had this cabin that overlooked the ocean. I mean, I never felt like leaving my cabin, it was so beautiful. [Laughs.] And Penland, you know, up on the mountain. All these places have a great deal to offer. And I’m going to come back to that in a minute.

But Archie Bray, I was there for eight weeks, and I did a significant body of work there. It was just a wonderful summer. By that time we had four children, and the whole family came, and we stayed in what had been a gold miner’s cabin back up in the national forest. We had a glorious summer. So Archie Bray was very special to me and I’ve been a strong supporter of that ever since, although, like most of us, I’ve donated a pot for the auction to each of these places we’ve just mentioned for several years now because we want to support them.

I say “we” meaning the people who have been around as long as I and who are known in the field. We all want to support these places because it represents a way to approach clay not through the university but through another angle. The alternative education offered by places like Penland, Anderson Ranch, Archie Bray, and so on have become a tremendously important part of the field.

DR. CARNEY: As a corollary to that, I know that you’ve taught summer school at Alfred. And how does that fit in with the picture of or comparison of different programs? How does that relate to the Archie Bray summer programs and your residencies?

MR. CUSHING: I think that’s a very important part of the picture. I think we probably should discuss a little bit the relationship of how one gets into ceramics, that is, through the route of the university or through some other route. But in relation to this question, the Alfred summer school has been a very important one through the history of contemporary clay in America. Charles Binns taught summer school in the early 1900s, which brought people like Robineau at Syracuse and a long list of others who became influential themselves in education and ceramics in America. That was carried on by Charles Harder after Binns left, and Dan Rhodes, and then myself. I became the person who directed the Alfred summer school for something like 12 years in a row.

And it was, I have to say, a very influential part of the picture, because it brought people here. And let us say that the main significance, in my mind, at least of the Binns-Harder-Rhodes-Cushing summer school, was an emphasis on technology and the whole question of clay and glazes and how to make them. This has been, of course, an Alfred tradition ever since Binns, and it brought and will always bring people to Alfred who want that kind of information as long as it’s still presented here.

And those summers, where I used to give a lecture every day. This was a six-week course initially. Under Kathleen Collins, the dean of what has become the Art School at Alfred, we — summer school had been dropped for a few years, and under Kathleen it began again, and under my direction again, and became a four-week course. It had been a six-week. So in that six weeks we could cover, we did cover virtually what a semester would be in a normal college year. And I used to give technical exams in the summer school and this hour lecture every day on clay and glazes, and then lab experiments, just as we did in the traditional Alfred technical course. And then, of course, the rest of the time was studio, making things either on or off the wheel.

So the Alfred summer school — first of all, there are literally hundreds of high school teachers who came for this course and always did, and college teachers. This is still true. The Alfred summer school continues under John Gill now, for the most part, and visiting artists who come here. It is an important thing, and it is different than the courses at Penland and Haystack and Anderson Ranch and these other places, largely in the time commitment, four weeks now and six weeks before, where most of the courses in the other places are two weeks, although they have now fall terms in some. I mean, I won’t go into all these.

But it was, in my opinion anyway, it was the opportunity to get into not just studio and the aesthetic aspect of clay, but the technical part. And I think Alfred has both been condemned and praised on this point. That is, in some people’s minds, we always used to run into the idea that Alfred was a technical school and nothing else. You know, this gets into the weird kind of elitism and development of American ceramics.

DR. CARNEY: Can you discuss the difference, if any, between a university-trained artist and one who has learned his or her craft outside academia? And then I guess that would lead into what’s been your most rewarding educational experience, if you think so? [Laughs.]

MR. CUSHING: Well, yeah. That point, of course, is one that’s always been on one’s mind the whole time. I mean, I taught for 40 years here at Alfred, and I left it believing as strongly in it as I did when I started, that is, in the value of a university approach to learning ceramics.

And the obvious difference is that in a university setting, for the most part — you know, I can’t speak for every school, but for the most part — one enters ceramics through art. You learn the vocabulary, the language, the fundamentals, the foundation of art. We don’t differentiate whether you’re going to be a potter or a painter or a sculptor. You enter through the study of the language of art. And I think this gives one a certain background, at least — you know, it doesn’t for everybody, but it does provide a background. And let us not forget art history in this package, a crucial part because — obviously you can see what I’m saying — it’s the broad scope of education; it’s not just the specific craft.

Okay. Now what you lose in that system and what one can easily lose is, first of all, the affiliation with the functional aspect of craft. And when you study art and then apply it to ceramics, there’s a sort of natural flow there that leads one into sculpture and away from the notion of — I mean, you know I’m making huge generalities here and there are exceptions on every side of this, but the fact is, I believe, there is a main thrust. And if one were to look at the ceramic programs in America today, I think it would be quite clear that the emphasis will be on the sculptural aspects of clay.

Now, you know there are very clear and obvious exceptions to that, but I’m speaking of main trends that seem clear to me. I mean, I’ve lectured in schools all over this country, and I see it. I jury shows and I see it. And I seem to be putting this in a somewhat negative light, and that’s only because I have such a conviction about the functional object as an object which can be considered an art object as much as anything else. That discussion isn’t even important to me anymore; it’s so clear to me personally.

So when you approach ceramics through the, quote, other system, meaning either as an apprenticeship experience with another potter or going to these alternative education places like Penland, Haystack, et cetera, you get a focused but shortsighted approach to what you’re making, which can have the result of people who are either limited in their imaginative range, shall I say — that is, what they make might tend to be what their master made, if that was the case of an apprenticeship — or the difficulty to find ideas. That’s what you learn in art school, is how to find ideas, how to develop ideas.

And I think it was clear to me in summer school; this happened time and time again. People would come with various backgrounds, not from art school, and with extreme frustration, somewhat the frustration I expressed earlier on here about having skill but no ideas. The only problem for me was that it just took time for this. Even though I had been through art school, you know, it took time to begin to bring this together. So I would see people who would say to me, “Well, how can I make my forms better?” And I would often say, “Take a drawing course somewhere. Just take a night course. You know, just get into some other way of thinking about art besides clay.”

Now, this is not to say that some wonderful potters have not emerged in the history of ceramics, both past and present, who have not been to art school. Creativity is not limited to anything, right? I mean, there are people who were musicians who became potters and who were able to bring that transfer of approach from that field to this field. I mean, you know, there are all kinds of ways to do it. But I still believe that an art school is a very good way to get into it.

DR. CARNEY: Other than your sort of apprenticeship at Santa’s Workshop, did you have anyone that you apprenticed with? You mentioned your influences by Marguerite Wildenhain and others, but was there somebody that specifically you apprenticed with and you could use that term?

MR. CUSHING: No, there really wasn’t, Margaret, but if we talk about mentor, that’s another way to look at it. And you know, my career happened so fast, in that, you know, my four years as an undergraduate, two years in the army, two years in graduate school, and I was teaching. And it was really too soon. And I must say I had to rely in my first teaching experiences completely on how I was taught. So I would present things in ways that Dan Rhodes presented them to me, and Charles Harder and all my Alfred people I would sort of fuse. I mean, when I taught summer school as a graduate student, I taught it with Charles Harder, by the way, and so he was such a mentor for me.

I just have to tell you one story here. This is a quicker one. But Charles Harder used to give technical lectures, the way I did when I taught summer school, and critiques. And I remember this one critique, the table filled with pots of people from summer school. We would have about 50 or 60 people, by the way, in each of these summers, and they were a total mix of ages, of backgrounds, of experience. I mean, you couldn’t have found a greater mix of people, which is another way to say that there were very few there who had real understanding of everything that was taking place in the summer school.

And at this critique, Herb Cohen and I, who were both teaching, stood there as graduate students and listened to Harder critique this table of pots — and we were there a whole morning, probably three hours — in which he gave the whole history of ceramics. It was the most incredible, brilliant thing I have ever heard anybody do. I mean, and for Herb and I, you know, you always learn more when you know more, and we were just sitting there listening to this stuff and the insights, and it was absolutely brilliant, you know? And it was that kind of thing that made me regret so much that people didn’t know Harder this way.

Now I forgot where we were? What was I answering?

DR. CARNEY: We were talking about mentors.

MR. CUSHING: Okay, so I think I made that clear, that while I had not been an apprentice, only in the sense that Marguerite in that short time became our, quote, master, but looking at Bob Turner and Ted Randall, who were both studio potters when I was in school and then who later became my colleagues and my closest friends for most of my career, there is no question that I’ve been influenced by if not the exact character of their work, by their philosophic position, by their presence as artists. So that was a crucial thing for me.
DR. CARNEY: Let me ask you a slightly different question. The Archives of American Art would like to know about the quality of your workspace, your studio and that kind of thing. And then related to that, can you tell me how your work has changed over the years? And has your studio influenced that?

MR. CUSHING: [Laughs.] Uh-huh. As we sit and I answer that question, Margaret and I are surrounded by glass on east, south, and west sides that are full panels. And I’m looking out into nature in our 60-acre farm here in Alfred, as I have done since 1983, worked in this barn which was a dairy barn converted to a studio. And I must say, Bob Turner when he moved to Alfred did the same thing, converted a barn into a studio. Land was very —
DR. CARNEY: This is Margaret Carney interviewing Val Cushing at his studio in Alfred Station, New York, on April 16, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This is Tape 2, Side B. And I should mention that there’s a master copy and a backup copy. So use whichever one you like.

We were just talking about your studio and the incredible place in nature that this barn has been placed.

MR. CUSHING: Yes. Well, this studio as it now exists has had a big influence on my work. And just let me go back to say that in 1983, I received an NEA grant, the individual artist grant, which made it possible for me to — it was $25,000 in those days — that gave me the opportunity to completely renovate my studio, which up until then, as I said, had been a dairy barn. I had at that time just worked in one small part of it. And I had heat, but it was very primitive. Water used to freeze in my glazes, for example, and I used to throw with hot water to keep my hands from freezing. [Laughs.] I mean, as I said, you know, Elsie and I have four children, and we had a struggle.

So the NEA grant in 1983 allowed me to completely rebuild this barn into this studio as it now exists, with Henry Bauer, who is a local builder in Alfred and who has interests beyond what most local builders had at the time. Anyway, Henry and I fixed this place up so that it’s a wonderful environment.

And I have to say that I’ve never stopped working. That is, in my first few years I had no studio, I worked at school. And the school in those days, Alfred used to close. Students could not work beyond midnight. This was in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And that included graduate students. And people like Victor Babu, for instance, were graduates then, when I first started teaching here, Ken Ferguson, Norm Schulman, Ken Price, people like that. Now, can you imagine telling them they couldn’t work past midnight? It created a lot of problems.

And I, on the other hand, couldn’t do much work before midnight because I was never able to say no to people. My studio was a little office off the main throwing room at Alfred at that time, and so I’d be in my studio working at night, but people would be knocking on the door asking me questions, and I’d always answer them. But at midnight, then I could work. And I used to work several hours at night. I don’t know, it’s only something you can do when you’re in your 20s. [Laughs.] But these guys used to knock on the window and I used to let them in so they could work in the studio — [laughs] — if they promised not to bother me. So there are a lot of stories about that.

Anyhow, having this studio, as I said, even though I always worked and always managed to work one way or another — if the drive is there, you will work — but converting this to a space that really invites me in, that’s the difference now. And it isn’t just a place to make pots. I draw up here. I sit and think up here. I listen to music up here. I mean, you know, it’s an environment that really brings me into my own life and thoughts and that kind of thing.

And we’ve mentioned nature several times, but there’s nothing that has been a greater influence on my work than nature, than a kind of focused look at nature. And I bring it to my work in glazes sometimes, in forms sometimes, but it’s always present. So when I sit at my wheel, I’m looking directly at a field of pine trees and grass and a cherry tree and bird feeders, and often see deer walk by and other animals — some I want, some I don’t want. I’ve had raccoons living in my barn and things like that. But that immediacy to nature has, in terms of influence in my work — I can only say that having this space and this studio has been a chance to focus more.

DR. CARNEY: Can you describe the equipment, like what kind of kiln you use, pug mill, things like that, because I think for history purposes, it might be useful to even name brands or sizes or something.

MR. CUSHING: Yes. Certainly I would like to do that. I have always thrown on the Randall Wheel. This was a kick wheel designed by Ted Randall, motorized. And until the early ’90s, that has been my kick wheel — my potter’s wheel. I also now have a Soldner Wheel, which is now my favorite wheel. My son Eric, who is in the process of being a potter, likes the Randall Wheel, as I always did, so when he’s here, we throw together sometimes, and he uses one and I the other.

I have a Venco Pug Mill, which I use partly because I had a wrist problem in the early ’90s, had to have surgery to remove a problem in my wrist, which was brought about, according to the specialist I went to, by wedging. He had me describe various things that potters do. And as a matter of fact, at this time I was making large pots and wedging large pieces of clay, and that combination of wedging and throwing, centering, that kind of thing, kind of wrecked my wrist. So the pug mill, of course, is a de-airing pug mill, so when I put clay through that, I don’t have to wedge it. And I wedge small pieces, of course, and so on. So I had the pug mill.

And I have a 70-cubic-foot natural-gas kiln that I fire in. I fire in reduction, although since my experience in England a year ago, I have developed an interest in oxidation now, which I haven’t had since I was a graduate student. I have a small electric kiln designed by Dave Fredrickson, who is a kiln-room technician at the College of Ceramics. I expect to get a larger electric kiln soon, but right now I have a small electric kiln and a large gas kiln, which I built out of soft brick, insulating brick. And it’s been a wonderful kiln. It’s a little large. I would like to have a smaller kiln. I’ll probably build one soon.

So otherwise my studio is — oh dear — something like, well, I’ve forgotten the square feet now, but it’s an L shape, approximately 25 feet across and 50 feet long. And in the L, in the other side, it’s 35 feet. And I work off tables, and I have all the usual things. I glaze mostly by dipping, so I have large trash can containers filled with glaze. And I use something like 25 different glazes in my work. So that’s all here.

DR. CARNEY: Although many people love you as a teacher and a million different ways, you’re really known as a glaze wizard. And can you speak to that? Is that what you think your greatest contribution has been to the field so far, or is it something else?

MR. CUSHING: It’s interesting, Margaret. That question reminds me of something, a very poignant thing that Dan Rhodes said to me once. We were talking about things like what we’re doing now, like I’m doing now with Margaret. I didn’t ask Dan if he had any regrets about anything, but somehow that tone came into our conversation. And Dan said he felt disappointed in his life that he was known for his books and not for his work. And, you know, I’m not comparing myself to that in any sense at all, but I have done a lot of work with glazes. It’s been one of the things I taught during my career, and so when you teach it, you know, you learn it better than anybody else. It’s the way teaching goes.

There’s Frances. My granddaughter is now outside on the lawn here. Could we stop for just a second?


MR. CUSHING: So the reason I mentioned that little thing about Dan Rhodes is that because it’s been my course at Alfred, this clay and glaze course — and I want to point out that’s just one of the courses I taught here. I also taught the studio courses and graduate students and so on. But I did do the technical class, and naturally I’ve become somewhat known in that field too, certainly not to the degree of Dan Rhodes, because the Rhodes book [Daniel Rhodes and Robin Hopper. Clay and Glazes for the Potter. Krause Publications, 2000.] — which has, incidentally, just been republished and revised by Robin Hopper — but that book is still looked on by people as one of the basic books that one needs to get into this field, and I believe that’s true.

On the other hand, I have, because of my opportunity to teach this class here at Alfred and the students we have here, I’ve remained interested in glazes, and I’ve developed a lot glazes. And I’ve always carried on really what I consider one of the Alfred traditions, which has been that glaze information is public; it’s not private. And I’ve always shared everything that I’ve developed with students, and students have developed a lot of them for me in the sense that, in giving lab projects, I always formulated certain glazes to illustrate certain things and then had students test them. And, you know, we all gain from that kind of thing.

So after 40 years, practically, of doing that, that has become a big part of my life and my work, and I think I’m somewhat known for that, too. But as with Dan, you know, I feel that’s only part of what I am, and I certainly like to communicate my work and what it represents as well as the technical part. But I believe very strongly in the connection between the aesthetic side of art and the technical skill side, the scientific side, if you want to put it that way. I believe in that. That was a concept Binns brought to Alfred, and it was carried here by Harder and Rhodes, and I still — and I believe in it too.

DR. CARNEY: Val, can I ask you about how you think your work has evolved or changed over the years?

MR. CUSHING: It definitely has evolved and changed, but I think it’s the kind of evolution that is measured more in subtleties than in major breakthroughs, if I can put it that way. When I look at my work, I see things in the forms that — I mean, as we speak, I’m looking at a table full of platters and covered jars and bowls, and I see things in them that I have thought or that have evolved in my work at an earlier time, and I see things in them that I’ve never done before.

For instance, I’m working on a lid for these small canister jars that is different than any lid I’ve ever made before. But the difference is not, as I say, it’s not an earthshaking, profound difference, like Picasso going from the blue period to another period, [laughs] you know, but rather it has to do with subtleties for the most part. But my work, I have always felt — and I want to express this — that one of my responsibilities as a teacher has been to develop my work and share that with students here and with anybody else.

In other words, the opportunity to experiment is what teaching has given me that full-time potters have a much harder time doing. Not to say that they don’t do this, but to be trying out new thoughts and new ideas and new glazes for a person supporting themselves as a potter is difficult, because, you know, that doesn’t always work out. When you try something new, it doesn’t always work, and if you’re selling your work and making your living at it, that puts you in a difficult position. So I think that teachers have the great benefit of time and opportunity to develop their work without such a dire consequence if it doesn’t succeed.

So my work, I would say the way I see my work, anyway, is strongly connected to what I love and like about jazz as a medium. And I have a huge jazz collection, I should add here. And the recent Ken Burns series on jazz was a wonderful contribution, I felt, and I have those tapes and so on. What I see about jazz and my own work all rests in the word “improvisation.” And I see myself; I’ve worked this way. I mean, these jars I’m looking at now all were made with the same weight of clay, but I brought to each of them changes in form and direction that come about not from preconceived drawings, although I draw all the time, but I don’t draw to make the piece like the drawing; I draw to open up certain areas of thought about form.

But when I get on the wheel and start throwing, with the limitation that these are functional pots, and they all have the same opening at the top so your hand can get in and take out what’s inside, and they all are made from the same weight of clay, but they are all different. And the difference is what I see in jazz, where you have a melody and a structure, but improvisation takes it in some personal direction. So that’s the way I evaluate my own work. And the developments that come, whether they be in form or decoration — I’m working with slips right now that I haven’t done in a long time. And so I see my work evolving as I get more insight and more feelings about one thing or another.
I mentioned there’s a period in my work where my ideas came directly from looking at fruit and squash and nature forms like that. Then I left that and shifted my interest to architectural columns, and my work was based on that. And then I came to a period where I was bringing those two ideas into the same piece, sort of contrast feelings of soft nature forms with rigid architectural forms. And so the conceptual part of my work comes from those kinds of thoughts. But the greatest pleasure for me still today is this idea of sitting down with 20 or 30 pieces of clay, making a particular form and playing with the variations of that form in each piece.

DR. CARNEY: Do you actually listen to jazz while you’re throwing?

MR. CUSHING: I do. I do listen to jazz a lot, although I listen to other kinds of music. I have very eclectic taste that way. But I listen to jazz the most. And there are times in my work where I have absolute silence, too. That was one of the things about teaching. It was a constant battle to get students to turn off the music, because there are times when, if it didn’t bother them, it was bothering someone else. You know, this is one of these classic things. But I find when I am deeply thinking out a particular direction or something, I don’t have anything on. But there are other times when the music definitely brings me into something that I couldn’t — I’m not certain that it transfers directly, this improvisation thing I’m talking about, but I really feel it might, and I use it that way.

DR. CARNEY: It’s April 2001, and can you tell me the difference in what you’re — you told us what you made for a living when you were hired at Alfred and your possibility at Illinois. Can you tell us what average pots sell for that — you know, how that price has changed from 40 years ago or longer, and what you’re doing now, just for historical record?

MR. CUSHING: Yes, that’s another one of those things that we all think about a lot. I do continually. Just in general, the functional pieces that I make, which I’ve always made right back to the beginning, things like mugs and bowls and small covered jars, those things that we use in our homes — well, first of all, when I first began selling, a lot of things were sold on a consignment basis, which meant in those days — this sounds astounding to me now — but I had some outlets that were 70 percent to the artist, 30 percent to the store on the consignment. Then it gradually went to 60/40 and then to 50/50. That was even consignment. But a direct selling, wholesale selling, was always for me 50/50 just in terms of the arrangements with either stores or galleries, as far as that goes.

So, you know, I would say that in general, the biggest increase in prices for me came when I had more affiliation with galleries rather than craft stores. And galleries have tended to emphasize more these — now we get into all these funny words — but more one-of-a-kind pieces. I’ve never made strictly production ware. I do repeat forms sometimes. I might make two or three dozen mugs all the same shape or a few things like that, but generally speaking, my pieces are essentially one-of-a-kind pieces. So I would say that things like these covered jars, which you might call canister jars, that would fit in the kitchen and have sugar or tea or rice or something in, would sell for something like $20, and I’d be getting half of that.

DR. CARNEY: When was that?

MR. CUSHING: That would have been in the late ’50s, or certainly let’s say in the ’50s. That same jar now, the ones I’m looking at, which I’m getting ready for a show, these will be on sale at the end of April for about $200 each.

Now, this pricing thing is so difficult because we all know it has to do — there was a panel at the recent NCECA conference in Charlotte in which Tony Hepburn and Tony Morino and the woman who teaches — well, I can’t remember her name now, but they were all talking about things that came back to this in one way. And Tony Morino made this big point of saying one of the dirty secrets of NCECA — meaning to potters — is that there are students out there just coming out of school who can make things as good as, and look exactly like, the pieces that people make who have been making things for 30 or 40 years, and that the difference is that one sells for ten times what the other sells for.

In other words, on the skill level, there are people capable of making anything that any of us can make who have been working at it much longer. And of course that’s true. It’s always been true. But a student can’t sell something for the price that I can sell something for until they develop a reputation. And therefore, a lot of it has to do with one’s reputation, and the ability to price things has to do with things like that and with the galleries and the clientele that a gallery has. So a gallery in Manhattan or a gallery in Chicago or in major urban situations where there are competitive galleries can usually charge more for things than galleries elsewhere. I mean, this is all obvious kinds of things.

And the problem for me is that I have never lost my belief in making things accessible to people. Since I make functional pots, I want them, I would like them to be used. I would like to think that people buy them to use them. But I know the reality of that is there’s a certain number — and whatever that might be, I’m not sure — but there’s a certain figure, I think, beyond which people won’t use something because they’ve paid so much for it they don’t want to break it.

DR. CARNEY: [Laughs.]
MR. CUSHING: And that’s a true conflict for me because — in fact, I give away a lot of pots. I love giving away pots [laughs], because I don’t have to think about anything except the pleasure somebody will get from it. Okay. But, you know, I also want to protect, in a sense, the people who are full-time potters. I mean, anyone who teaches, who has a teaching income, can undersell anybody. I could sell my pots for $5 apiece and they would sell like crazy. So I feel an obligation, and I’ve always felt an obligation, to be careful about that in relation to full-time potters, many of whom are former students, many of whom are friends that I know all around the country. So I’m always aware. I sell in places where they sell, and I never sell for less, and even though it sometimes makes a price on my work that I don’t like.

I mean, other than Warren MacKenzie and a few other examples who have an amazing tradition of selling very inexpensively, I don’t know any full-time potter, for example, who can make a teapot and sell it for less than $200 to $250 to $300, and so that’s where I price my teapots, or sometimes more. And yet I wonder how many people really use these teapots when they’ve spent what their color television costs on a teapot.

DR. CARNEY: If you were to list — and I don’t mean to put you on the spot here too much — but if you were to list, like, your favorite potters, your contemporaries or people in the past, who would you list just if you were going to list 10, knowing that maybe there’s a hundred that you like?

MR. CUSHING: I don’t want to put language into this discussion, but unfortunately, I think we have to make this one distinction that is sort of commonly accepted out there now: that is, pottery being the functional, useful things; the vessel being those forms which are pottery shapes but are not meant to be used; and then sculpture. And these categories have already existed in the history of ceramics, I guess, if you look at it a certain way, but there is quite a different emphasis on them now. And I have favorite potters in all those categories, or favorite ceramists, I have to say now. I can’t say potters anymore because they’re not all potters.

But when it comes to functional pottery, the kind that I’m looking at now on this table of my work, names that leap to my mind immediately are Ellen Shankin, Sylvie Granatelli, Michael Simon. These are three that come to my mind very easily. Jeff Oestreich, another one. These are people who have developed an individual style that is very strong, and they’ve always kept for the most part to the functional pieces. This is very difficult, you know, because I do have a great many friends and whose work I admire a great deal more, some of the younger people, I’ll put it that way, people like Peter Beseaker, who is out there now, Josh DeWeese, another one. These are people whose work I think has achieved something very special and I think a great deal of them. But truly, this could be a very long list.

When it comes to the more vessel, sculpture things, it gets even more difficult in a way, because one’s personal biases come out. I guess I would like to say that I think Bob Arneson is someone I’ve had tremendous admiration for because I think he, in the various periods of his work, has brought something very special to clay. I feel somewhat that way about Ken Price. The influence and importance of a person like Peter Voulkos has been said so many times I don’t need to put that in again, but I have tremendous admiration for what he did to this field. And for my personal taste, it has more to do with his influence than with his actual work. I feel the same way about Bernard Leach. It isn’t so much his work that I admire as what he did in his thinking and writing and the way he lived his life and encouraged potters. I mean, you know, we all have things like that about other people.

DR. CARNEY: Whose work do you use in the house?

MR. CUSHING: Well, I don’t want this to sound bad, but I use Val Cushing’s work in the house. [Laughs.]

DR. CARNEY: Good safe answer, Val.

Could you tell me whether or not you’ve done any commissions?

MR. CUSHING: That’s not something I’ve done a lot of, but I have done an occasional one. I suppose the one that sort of fits best in that category was a building in Dallas, Texas, which is a combination office and living building — I don’t know the name of the building, and I have never yet seen this myself, even though I’ve been to Dallas — but nevertheless, I was commissioned to make three vessels for this building. In the lobby of the building — this was a very ostentatious building; it was filled with marble and all kinds of things, and there was a long corridor in the lobby that led to a fountain and whole marble columns and a whole marble wall, and then they provided three shelves on this wall behind the fountain for three vessels. And I think they came to me on this one because it was this period when I was doing architectural — that is, pieces that showed an influence to the certain aspects of columns.

DR. CARNEY: When was that?

MR. CUSHING: Well, I’m still doing that a little bit, but that came actually when I stopped making things that I called acorn- or apple-influenced forms —
DR. CARNEY: This is Margaret Carney interviewing Val Cushing at his studio in Alfred Station, New York, on April 16, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This is Tape 3, Side A.

On the last tape we were just talking about your commission in Dallas, Texas, the three vessels for the lobby. Would you like to continue that?

MR. CUSHING: Yes. Just to finish that story, the architects of that building sent me samples of the various tiles and a little sample of the marble and so on, so that I would have the right color context in mind for the way I did my pieces. And I did these, for me, large pieces — I guess they were four feet high, something like that — thrown pieces, which were based on aspects of the column that I had been working on in my work. I think there were two large marble columns on either side of this fountain, and I think they were drawn to my work somehow in relation to that.

Anyway, I had all these samples and everything, and I did the pieces, and I was quite pleased with them, and they went down there and they were installed. And the agent who was the go-between that hired me, so to speak, and worked with the architects sent me photographs of the installation, which was the first time I had seen, and slides of the same.

And it was a bit of nightmare experience for me, because everything was exactly the way they said it would be, except the shelf things in the wall where my pieces were placed were supported by a structure that was covered by tiles; and I had seen the color of the tiles and I knew what they were, but what I didn’t know was when they installed the tiles, they had about an inch-thick strip of mortar between each tile which was bright white. So here were these earthen, brownish-colored tiles, and my glazes were all in harmony with that, on these shelves, and from a mile away you could see this gridwork of white mortar holding up these shelves. I mean, it was absolutely horrible. And I tried to do something about it but I couldn’t. So that was the end of that commission.

But other than that and a couple of other —

DR. CARNEY: When was that commission?

MR. CUSHING: That again would have been in the ’80s. That’s as close as I can come to it out of my head.
I have done small commissions like making groups of things for people, but nothing that really has to do with large — you know, I made a dinnerware set for somebody once; I’ve made tea sets; I’ve done things like that, but nothing more.

DR. CARNEY: Val, when we were talking earlier about galleries that were important to you, I think there was one other that you mentioned during one of our breaks that you’d like to talk about.

MR. CUSHING: Yes. The trouble sometimes with speaking sort of spontaneously, the way we’re doing this interview, is that one tends to forget certain things. But actually, at the moment right now in 2001, one of my main outlets is a craft store and gallery called the Cedar Creek Gallery in Creedmoor, North Carolina, owned by Sid Oakley. This has been a wonderful coming together between us, and my work is shown there all the time, and it’s really a major outlet for me, as it is for several other potters whose work I admire. So I did want to be sure to mention this. And of course I’m sure I will have forgotten some other places. But right now this one is important to me.

DR. CARNEY: Another thing that we were talking about during the break that I think would be really very interesting is about the workshop phenomenon in the United States. Could you talk about that?

MR. CUSHING: I think this is important. To my knowledge, I don’t know of anyone who has seriously researched and studied and written about this. I hope someone does someday, because I think it is a phenomenon that we can talk about in, quote, contemporary American ceramics. When I use that term, I’m talking about post-World War II up till the present. That isn’t strictly the meaning of contemporary, I guess, but I look at it that way.

Again, I have not researched this, so I’m just going to speak in what I have observed since that time. But for instance, I’ve already mentioned how Marguerite Wildenhain came to Alfred and worked for two weeks here in this kind of workshop situation. That isn’t quite what I’m talking about. What I mean is the phenomenon now of an artist going to usually another college, although it can be a museum; it can be in any number of formats, but usually another university, and presenting in a three-day session. It will always include, or usually includes, a slide slow of your personal work, a couple days or three days of demonstrations of how you make things, and then often a critique of the students or with the students of the school where you’re presenting this workshop.

And I began doing this myself, actually, even as a graduate student here. There was someone in the summer school that we’ve talked about earlier who was part of the Long Island Craftsmen Guild — this was in 1955 or ’56, either year — who asked me to come and demonstrate for that group, which I did. Well, that was for me the first time, but when I came back to Alfred to teach beginning in 1957, partly because of my summer school contacts and people who came here for summer school, I was asked constantly from that point until the day I retired to do these workshops, somewhat with that format I’ve just described.

And I think it was in the beginning, at least for me, my feeling was — and this was quite true — I was going to places, to schools, and doing this kind of thing where there was very little understanding of — there were students who didn’t know the names that I knew; there wasn’t the common understanding of who were the artists out in the field. I mean, people knew about Peter Voulkos; they knew about a few other people. But somebody sitting down in some of these small schools that were just developing ceramic programs, throwing various forms, talking about decorating and glazing and all that sort of thing, it was a real educational trip.

And I felt very strongly about that. I mean, I could see what was happening. Summer school was like that, too, for me. I enjoyed it a lot because I felt I was reaching people who were really hungry for something. It wasn’t like going into — which it later became — going into sophisticated ceramic programs, where there was often that different reaction. You know, there wasn’t this thirst for whatever it was you had to offer.

But then what it — this is typically American, I think — what it evolved into was a real, quote, performance. And we have people who are really good at that, and I’m not so good at that, in terms of, oh, someone like Don Reitz, who is wonderful in this format. He’s funny. He’s spectacularly skillful. And he really puts on a performance. And there are legendary stories about this. Of course Pete Voulkos has done the same kind of thing, and there all kinds of people.

And I’m not putting anything negative on this; I’m only describing what I think is an American phenomenon, where the demonstration, the kind of superstar status that is attached with that, and then going and really doing these kinds of presentations that are almost theater pieces — I think that that really happened in America. It is very like America. I know that these things now happen all over the world, and they perhaps have been even since the time I’m speaking of, which is in the early — or the mid-’50s, but I think it’s true to say that there’s something about this. For instance, Super Mud, just the name on that conference, I mean, come on. Where else in the world would a name like that come up? And it was very much the focus on three superstars and all they had to do and say and so on. So I think it’s had a lot to do with the tone and presence of American ceramics, just this workshop phenomenon.
But I want to point out that in the first few years I think its value was, shall I say, spreading the word, that is, bringing to places some of the kind of skills and techniques and general depth of ceramics that were not understood then so much.

DR. CARNEY: That’s very interesting.

Some of the questions they have, that the Archives would like answered, include what role the specialized periodicals for our field have played in your development as an artist. Can you address that, and whether or not you feel like you’ve been critiqued properly by ceramic historians or people who are evaluating exhibitions and that kind of thing?

MR. CUSHING: You know, one realizes in responding to these questions and talking about a life of clay, any one of these topics could go on for a long, long time, this one especially, somehow. But let me say first of all that the first magazine that I was aware of was then called Craft Horizons, and later is now called American Craft, I think. That’s the same magazine. Then along came Ceramics Monthly, and they were among the first two that I was aware of. This is the ’50s I’m speaking of. Then there was one produced in Australia called — what was that called? [Laughs.]

DR. CARNEY: Not Ceramic Art Perceptions?

MR. CUSHING: No. No, not that one, for sure. No, I take that back, it wasn’t Australia. It was the Pottery Quarterly, produced in England. That’s the one I’m thinking of. One, by the way, in which Ted Randall, Dan Rhodes, Val Cushing, and who else — and Bob Turner wrote a piece, in a particular article in which the English journal was interested in the ceramic phenomenon going on in America, and we each wrote about the different aspects of that. So that was another one.

And then gradually the other magazines came into the field that we know of. The other British magazine, Ceramic Review, came along in the early ’60s, I think, somewhere in there. That was a very good one. And my reaction to all these was it was spreading the word. It was making ceramics more understood and seen, and people became more aware of the whole craft movement, certainly, through these magazines, because certainly nothing on this, quote, craft world appeared in the art magazines like Art in America or Art News or the magazines like that. They didn’t, and still don’t, essentially deal with ceramics. So, sure, these were the journals that began to mean something to this burgeoning field that was going on in the phenomena of America, I mean, thousands of people studying ceramics one way or another.

And then, of course, Studio Potter. Here’s what I would say about Studio Potter. I feel that Gerry Williams has maintained a kind of integrity about that magazine that I admire greatly. He has tried as much as possible to have the articles in that magazine be as definitive or as accurate as possible, so that the people writing them really knew what they were writing about. This has not been the case in all the other magazines that I’ve just mentioned occasionally. I think they’ve all grown up in a certain way. I think they all have a place, and I’ve never been one to denigrate any of these. They all have a certain place. And I think American Ceramics now, that magazine has brought probably the most critical discourse into this field of ceramic journals.

I’ve written something about this myself in another format, an introduction to a book that came out a couple of years ago [The Ceramic Design Book : A Gallery of Contemporary Work. New York: Lark Books, 1998.]. And I did an essay in which I talked about this problem, the problem — and this I don’t think is a question that I’m to respond to, but as long as I’m started this path, I’m going to finish it — which is that I think there’s a conflict among American ceramists between what they make and how it fits into the picture of, quote, art or the art world. And I think that’s a problem that will never be resolved to a lot of people’s satisfaction.

I don’t think it’s terribly important — that’s my point of view — because, quote, the art world as seen in New York and Los Angeles and those major centers of art, is a group concerned mainly with painting and sculpture and concepts and ideas about art that I don’t think ceramics will ever fit in in quite the right way. There are some exceptions to that, of course, not very many, I don’t think, although in this world of installation art, as a I speak, it is becoming more comfortable for some ceramic artists to be part of this, quote, greater art world.

But I believe that ceramics, as long as it’s in any way connected to the word “craft,” will never be part of that art world. And I don’t see that as any problem. It doesn’t bother me in the least. I think the audience for my work is there, and if some of my pieces end up in museums, as occasionally has happened, that’s fine and I’m delighted with that, but it’s not a main motive for me. And I think I see great frustration among artists in clay who feel left out of that art world, and I think it will always be that way and that’s the situation.

And I think, in fact — I’ll throw another thought into this — I think a great many people in clay began their study in clay as potters. Not everyone basically studies — again, here’s my huge generality — but the greatest percentage of people in clay came out of a university system, so they studied art. We talked about this earlier. It isn’t just working with a master potter. But they began — even this is changing now, I realize as I say this — but let’s say in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and somewhat in the ’90s, most people in clay began their study in clay as pottery. They began either throwing or hand-building vessels. And the whole technology, to whatever extent they got it, of glazes and clays and so on had to do mainly with what I call pottery, and it has to do with function.

Now these same people, many of them, realizing that pottery — I mean the mug and casserole and soup bowl — don’t have many chances of ending up on the cover of a magazine or getting the sort of publicity that’s possible in ceramics — and for a lot of reasons, of course, this is true — but I think a lot of people who are good potters have switched the emphasis in their work to sculpture, but they’re not sculptors. They haven’t studied sculpture; they haven’t thought about sculpture; they haven’t focused on sculpture. And come on, that’s another field, you know. So I think a lot of the mediocre work that I see I think results somewhat from the somehow not getting enough satisfaction or fulfillment from making functional pottery and wanting to reach into this other area but not really being prepared for it.

Now again, there are exceptions to this, obviously, people doing some wonderful work, I think. And the role of the critic enters here, because ceramic shows still tend to be written about, if written at all, by another potter or friend or part of the league, shall we say, of support system, so it’s very seldom really critical. It’s just, you know, either a description of the pieces, and it tends to be always favorable. And I shudder to think what would happen to some of us in this field if they received the kind of critical writing that a painter might receive in a big magazine. I think you see the point here.

So, you know, I think there’s a certain growing up that, if ceramics ever did, and I don’t believe it will, but if it ever did become a serious part of, quote, the art world, I think a lot of ceramic people would be devastated by this move.
DR. CARNEY: Along that same vein, can you tell us how your own work has been received over time? Has your work been critiqued in journals? And are there people that you respect writing about ceramics, even if they haven’t reviewed your own work? Who do you think are the big names in the book business and journal article writers?
MR. CUSHING: I think in terms of critical writing by critics about ceramics, Tony Morino is one who is willing to say certain things are bad, you know, and not an “everything great” kind of attitude about clay. Matthew Kangas in Seattle is another one who seems willing to do that.
Now, I’ve read things written by both these people that I’ve liked a great deal and things that I have very strongly disagreed with. But that’s what we’re talking about. That’s the world of criticism, and it doesn’t always go your way. You know, those people. Somebody whom I admired, though, who consistently wrote seriously about ceramics was Philip Rawson, who is not alive now. But his book Ceramics [Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, reissue 1984.], in fact, was one of the books, and one of the few books still, willing to talk about ceramics in ways other than just technical ways and tried to address some of the bigger issues and implications of ceramics.

And he did review shows. And this, of course, leads me to a story. He reviewed a show of mine. I didn’t even know he reviewed it until I read the review in the British magazine, the Ceramic Review. The show was at Helen Drutt’s. And I was thrilled to death because I had great respect for him and his writing and his books and everything else.

Now, the pieces I was doing at the time this show was on were the pieces I spoke of earlier related to the organic growth of squash and vegetables and fruit and acorns and all that sort of thing. And there’s a direct influence. I mean, I sat here where Margaret and I are talking making drawings of squash right in front of me. In fact, there’s one right over there as we speak, on that little table.


MR. CUSHING: So, you know, this was a focused attempt on my part to get insight from these organic forms and bring it to my work. And the thrust of Philip Rawson’s critique of my show, which was very favorable and he liked the pieces, was how my influences were so great from the Buddhist religion and the mosque domes and temples and so on. [Laughs.] It was a stunning revelation to me because while I wasn’t unaware of these things, they were in no way part of my own focus. But I immediately went to the library and started looking at as many of these as I could see, and I saw exactly what he was talking about. And that interested me a lot because it brought something to my own thinking that genuinely had not at all been part of my references in this work.

So what that illustrates to me is the potential of a critic or writer who can bring a certain kind of insight that can open up something about work, you know. And I don’t think there are many writers of that caliber writing about ceramics, and I certainly don’t mean to overlook anybody in this field. There is one person I’ll mention, is Ed LeBow, who has written about ceramics, and he’s a writer living in Arizona. I respect his approach. And surely there are others.

But I think it’s true to say still that, considering the importance that I believe American ceramics have, I don’t think there are enough people of that sort writing and talking and thinking about ceramics.

DR. CARNEY: That leads me into my next question, which has to do with your relationship and perspective on curators and museums that focus on craft.

MR. CUSHING: Some of these questions can be very touchy here. [Laughs.] No, I think museums — I’m thinking of a place like the Everson, for example, in Syracuse — I don’t know what their point of view is right now, but I know under previous curators there has been a big attempt to develop the ceramic part of the collections, which is really quite wonderful. And certainly going back in this country to the ’20s and ’30s and then onwards, there is a wonderful collection of work showing how ceramics has evolved during those periods.
And I’ve spent some time in England on other occasions and have looked at ceramics in England, and, you know, one can see a great deal without leaving London, for example. But in America you can’t do that. You know, you have to go from Boston to Philadelphia, to New York, to Kansas City, to Los Angeles, to San Francisco. And you see the point: We have wonderful work all over the country, but nothing that I guess I would say is definitive. I mean, you know, the Freer has some wonderful Japanese ceramics, but so does the Boston Museum. And it’s that kind of thing. I think Kansas City, the Nelson Gallery somehow has gotten a monopoly on Staffordshire work, so if you really want to see that, you have to go there. And that seems to be the way it is in America.

But I think from my point view these are very important collections. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have my work in several museums of that stature, which I appreciate because I think this is one of the few places where people can see — I mean, galleries don’t have permanent collections — that is, private galleries — for the most part. They do to some extent, but they don’t preserve work, you know, the way the Brooklyn Museum does or the Metropolitan or these other places. So I think the role of the museums — and the Renwick, let’s mention, which as we speak has a wonderful show on that I’m fortunately included in [“USA Clay,” March 9 – July 15, 2001] — that really is very select now.

DR. CARNEY: What’s the name of that show?

MR. CUSHING: I don’t know. [Laughs.] This is terrible. You know, this is to celebrate an anniversary of the Smithsonian, and the Renwick collection is being shown. And there are a series of lectures going on through the summer. I mean, it’s a wonderful focus on ceramics.

So just to close that out, I think that the opportunity for people to see real work as against magazine photos and slides and all that world, I think the museums in this country do a wonderful job. And I think it’s — I’m glad to see. There are some we could mention that have international status, but ceramics is a very small part of their collection. And that makes me sad. I think ceramics is important enough to hold a more important part, not just in the historic galleries but in the contemporary art galleries as well.

DR. CARNEY: What involvement have you had with the national craft organizations, such as NCECA or American Craft Council?

MR. CUSHING: Well, now that’s another thing. I would start that by saying that when I was in graduate school, there was an organization called the New York State Craftsman, and I used to demonstrate. They used to have a craft fair every summer in Ithaca. That’s where it started. It started in Ithaca and then it moved to Binghamton, to Harper College in Binghamton.

Anyway, in this craft fair they had, I think it was a week-long session of demonstrations by artists, and I was one of them frequently. And then there would be a huge showroom of work for sale, and people would come from all over. And work was juried into this. You didn’t automatically just send. So I think they were, quite early on, that notion of the, quote, craft fair, which has been another phenomenon in American ceramics that’s still very strong. But this was one of the early ones, I believe. And a whole lot of people that I could name and who are well-known in the field kind of exhibited there and demonstrated there. So that was my first experience. And I became eventually, when I came back to teach at Alfred, I was on the board of that organization, as was Ted Randall at the time. I think Bob Turner showed there. I mean, we all got somewhat involved in that. And of course in those meetings, a lot of issues would come up that are still up: What about standards; what do you accept and how do you accept it; and in terms of craftsmen who would show their work there; and all that sort of thing. Now, this organization eventually moved its office to New York City. And whenever that happens in New York State, when something gets focused in New York City, half the state feels left out — right? — because it now becomes New York City. [Laughs.] So that organization dissolved but then came up again with another name. Is it the Empire State Craftsman or —

DR. CARNEY: And that’s changed again.

MR. CUSHING: And that’s changed again. So anyway, that’s evolving. Well, for me, anyway, that was my first experience in being on a board and talking about issues of crafts and so on.

And I’ve always been a member of the American Craft Council, and I’ve always supported their function. And I think their function is genuine of, again, helping to spread the word about a movement like American crafts.

But it was NCECA, which is the National Council on Education and the Ceramic Art, that has been of most interest to me. That was an organization — it’s difficult to say something started with one person, but this is a case that’s very close to that, and that person is Ted Randall; and William Parry, who was the first president of this organization, was also a faculty member here at Alfred, as I was I; and Bob Turner. We were all teaching here.

And Ted Randall had all kinds of experience. He formed an organization in New York State — I’ve forgotten the exact name of it — that concerned the heads of art departments, of art schools in New York State. And Ted started that, you know. So he was very interested in trying to bring people together to discuss issues concerning all these areas.

And he wanted NCECA to be an organization, as the name suggests, of ceramic teachers, basically, and their common problems and support system. Ted was also in the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. And that organization, which has to do with accreditation of art schools, again brought Ted somewhat to this notion for NCECA. So this organization started as part of the American Ceramic Society, as a branch of the American Ceramic Society called the Education Council. And we went to those meetings. Just a handful of people from around the country — many of them were Alfred graduates, people like Vivika Heino would be here — would come to these first meetings, Jim McKinnell, Jim and Nan McKinnell, and others.

Then, without going into this whole thing, that format didn’t seem to fit, and so the ceramic teachers and artists broke off from the American Ceramic Society and became an independent organization, and as I said, with Bill Parry as the first president. Then that organization grew. I remember the first meeting of that group as an independent group, and I remember I knew every single person in the room who came to the first conference. So that amounted to probably something like 60 people. And it’s grown every year into what is now getting close to 4,000 people at the NCECA conference.

So I think it represents something that I guess you’d say was needed or at least fulfills a function. And it has a format of papers presented on various aspects of the field, of a city transforming itself, to a certain extent, to a world of ceramics in which every gallery puts on a ceramic show. Every major museum in the city, if there happens to be one, does the same thing. So it puts a lot of emphasis on ceramics. And I think this is an organization that I was part of the founding with Ted Randall. I was on the original board, and I’ve been on the board on and off two or three times and ended up eventually as president in the 1970s sometime. [Laughs.] Here we are with dates again. Can’t remember the exact date.

In NCECA, you serve as president-elect and then as president and then as past president. And in order to get in that system, you have to have to have been on the board previously anyway. So it amounts to many years of real commitment to this volunteer organization that has to do with bringing professionals together to talk about common goals.

So I don’t know how American that notion is. I suspect that’s pretty much an American notion too, when it comes to organizing and getting together as a group. But I think they’ve helped the scene in this country enormously.

DR. CARNEY: Val, didn’t you get an award from NCECA just a few years ago, sometime in the ’90s? Can you tell us about that?

MR. CUSHING: Well, I actually got two awards from NCECA. The first one was interesting because for two or three years the American Ceramic Society would sponsor a one-person show for a ceramist who was in NCECA, and I got that award one year. So when I went to the American Ceramic Society convention in Chicago — again, I can’t come up with the year right at this moment, but it was —

DR. CARNEY: What decade was it?

MR. CUSHING: This was in the ’60s. And the American Ceramic Society was then a conference of several thousand. I don’t know exactly how many, but it was huge compared to NCECA.

And the commercial exhibits of the American Ceramic Society were a fascinating thing to see. And that’s where my show was. They had this huge bottom floor of one of the huge hotels in Chicago, and all the commercial shows were there, and that’s where my one-person show was. And it was really a fascinating experience because I was not only surrounded by, you know, companies selling huge ceramic machinery and electronics and everything you can possibly imagine, a fascinating place. The NCECA conference does the same thing.

And it’s one of my favorite things at NCECA, too, is to go around the commercial booths. But here, they were all engineers and scientists, many of whom had been to Alfred as engineering and science students. And when they knew that I was from Alfred, and some of them were even here when I was here as a student, so they remembered me, and they would come. And it was fascinating to get the sort of, quote, critique from the science and engineering world in terms of my work than I might have gotten in the context of NCECA. And it was really fascinating to me and I enjoyed it no end. So that was my first award from NCECA.

Then the second one that I think means the most to me was they instigated — I think they’ve done for four or five years in a row now — they instigated a special award to honor people in terms of their teaching careers and excellence in teaching, I guess they call it, something like that. I think Peter Voulkos may have been the first one. Ken Ferguson was one. I think I was the third one in that list. And that continues. But that, of course, you know, having taught for 40 years, that was a nice recognition.

DR. CARNEY: I’ll just ask you a couple of what might be quick questions [laughs] and we’ll wrap it up.

In what way do political and social commentary figure into your work, if at all? And does that reflect on your choice of materials or anything like that?

MR. CUSHING: No, those are not elements of my work. But I do want to say something about that, because the last year of the Syracuse national show, when it was suspended before it was brought in again, happened when Robert Turner, Jeff Schlanger, and, I think, either Bob Arneson or Peter Voulkos — I think it was Peter Voulkos, we’ll have to look that up — but the three of them were the jurors for this show. And it was at the height of the Vietnam War protest.

And they actually decided somehow that there was so little work reflecting the social and revolutionary sort of spirit going on in America at that time, there was so little work submitted by ceramists representing that protest period, that they decided, they actually suspended, they decided not to accept pieces — I can’t remember exactly how this went now, but I think they decided to invite some people on the spur of the moment who weren’t even — there never had been an invited section in that show. It was always a juried show.

Let me say that at that time, Jeff Schlanger himself had done an exclusive body of work that he spent years developing concerning political protests in Chile. In fact, that exhibition was held here at Alfred University at one point. So he was very much about social protest in his work. And Pete Voulkos or Bob Arneson, whichever it was, one or the other, but both were rebels in a certain sense of the word. That is, their work presented, especially Arneson, presented aspects of American culture in a satirical sense and so on. So they were both aware of that. Now Bob Turner, that was not a part of his work. But somehow or other that year, because there was not enough interest among American ceramists to pursue those things, created somewhat of a fuss.

Now, my only point in mentioning all that is — here’s my own personal feeling — is that while I certainly am sympathetic with social protests of various sorts, depending on the issues, as I look at even the history of art, I see very little, although with some wonderful exceptions, I see very little of visual art able to portray the intensity of feeling that social protest often concerns. Now, you know, we can talk about Picasso and Guernica and examples like that, and some satirical examples, Daumier, you know. I’m aware of this happening in the history of art.

But my own feeling is that many issues like this are so powerful that visual representations of, except perhaps in photography, don’t communicate the power of the event. Sometimes music is a better format. We’ll think of Beethoven. Sometimes poetry is better, sometimes novels, just literature. I think sometimes, if I think about people making in clay some sort of objects that represent the protest in the Vietnam War, for example, the example I gave, I don’t think it would work.

Now, that isn’t why I don’t do it. I’m just not motivated that way. My own thoughts, I’m very concerned about social issues, but I don’t put it in my work. It’s just not something that I see the vehicle for.

DR. CARNEY: I wondered if you had anything else you wanted to talk about. I know you’ve traveled and done workshops extensively in England and elsewhere. I wondered if you wanted to touch on any of those international connections and any comparisons you want to show between the American scene and, say, Europe or Asia or someplace.

MR. CUSHING: You know, travel is an important thing in one’s life, and we spoke about this a little bit earlier. I have taught in Norway at the National School of Art and Design in Oslo. I first went to England on a Fulbright and taught in Manchester at what were then called the Polytechnics. These were the art schools in England. I taught there in the Fulbright exchange thing.

I’ve been back to England three times and taught on two of those occasions, and last time I was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wolverhampton, where I just was given a studio and four months in which to produce my own work. And I had a show in London, in the Contemporary Craft Gallery in London, and a show in Wolverhampton. I’ve also given a workshop for a week in Gallica, in Spain, with Adrian Saxe. He and I conducted a kind of hands-on workshop there. I’ve given workshops in Canada and have juried exhibitions in Canada.

And then I’ve been to Japan. I was on the second — I think it was the second biennial in Mino, Japan, an international exhibition. I was on the jury. There were a contingent of ceramists from different countries. Nino Caruso from Italy, for example, was on it, and others from different countries, with some Japanese counterparts, and we juried the Mino exhibition. And on that trip, we were taken around as VIPs to Japan, and we visited the six old kilns area of Japan, where the — this is the whole district around Mino where all this took place. So that was an eye-opening experience for me. And then last of all — oh dear, the curator at the Freer, Louise —


MR. CUSHING: Cort and myself and Rob Barnard, a potter in Virginia, were asked to speak at the Shigaraki Ceramic Park, which had just opened in Japan. And they had opening ceremonies and they had closing ceremonies, and we were in the closing ceremony. This was an incredible experience for me because, first of all, Louise Cort [Curator of Ceramics, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution], who had written the definitive book about Shigaraki [Shigaraki: Potters’ Valley, 1979], who speaks fluent Japanese, was with us, and Rob Barnard, who had studied several years in Japan, whose Japanese was slipping a bit but still, compared to mine, was better, and the three of us spent time together and in different places in Japan and we all gave —
DR. CARNEY: This is Margaret Carney interviewing Val Cushing at his studio in Alfred Station, New York, on April 16, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This is Tape 3, Side B. And we have two tapes, a backup tape and the master tape.

Val was talking about Shigaraki Cultural Park.

MR. CUSHING: Where I was headed with that is, in mentioning these various countries and places where I’ve been, is that while each of these places has their own history, clearly and obviously — Spain, England, Norway, not so much Norway in terms of ceramics, and Japan, of course — aside from that, though, when it comes to the work being done at the present time, let’s call it the contemporary ceramics, there is definitely an international coming together of style and forms and techniques and approaches. I mean, it really amazes me when I think about it.

I have juried several exhibitions over the years, and one of the things that strikes you right away is the history of ceramics. I mean, you go through just about any exhibition, unless it’s been specialized in some way, you know, by raku this or wood-fire that, but if it’s a general open exhibition, then you will see virtually every style that’s ever been done in clay. You’ll see majolica, you’ll see soft glaze, you’ll see wood-fire, you’ll see high-fire, low-fire, and so on. And we take that for granted. I mean, even when I began my own work in clay in the ’50s, I hadn’t ever seen a lot of the kinds of styles I just mentioned. I’d seen them in books and in slides and so on. But I think there is definitely, not an international style, but there is an international sharing of information and approach and idea, and we have access to so many things.

I mean, most schools, including Alfred, somebody or other here would give a project in which students would go to the library, pick a favorite pot from the history of ceramics, and make one like it, try to make one like it, and obviously the point being to just begin to see what’s involved in working different ways and so on. So not only does that take place, but there is so much information available that in any country, any particular ceramist can be influenced in so many different directions.

And I’ll just speak to myself in closing this. We spoke a little bit about influences and references on this tape, but the very first influence for me in terms of styles of work was the Song Dynasty period in China. We used to call it the Sung Dynasty. I realize that pronunciations are different now. Binns and Harder, and there was a tradition at Alfred already existing, Dan Rhodes, of high-fire reduction and porcelain and all that sort of thing, so there was a natural attraction, I suppose you’d say, here at Alfred for that period. But it certainly influenced me and continues to, Chinese ceramics, in many other respects, not just that period.

But there are influences in my work from medieval Europe; there are influences in my work from Native Americans. I mean, I think we have the freedom, not just we here in America, but we may have been among the first to experience that freedom. I think that’s international now as well. But we pick and choose and bring things in our work that come from all over the world and all over time. So I think that is certainly the picture today that I see it.

You’re listening to a seventy-year-old man still actively involved in making pots but looking at a long period of time behind me, and I see this. I was in England, as I mentioned, and I saw work all over England again, as I’ve done in the past, and some of it could have been made in Ohio; it could have been made in Japan. I mean, you just can’t nail it down anymore the way you used to be able to.

DR. CARNEY: Val, I want to thank you very much for allowing this interview, which has gone on now for several hours, anyway. [Laughs.] Are there any final words that you’d like to add, or have we said enough for one interview?

I want to thank you very, very much. I’ll reiterate, it’s April 16, 2001, and I’m very happy to have interviewed Val Cushing in his studio today in Alfred Station, New York.

Thank you very much, Val.


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