The Function of Vision.... The Vision of Function
by Dick Lehman
Once each spring, I drive from my home in northern Indiana to eastern
Ohio. It is a yearly ritual for me, one that occurs at my favorite time
of the year. The change of seasons has coaxed the tree buds to pregnant
proportions, casting a violet-green aura to the bare treetops along
the miles of rolling Ohio woodlands. And to my delight, my route takes
me past what must be an abandoned homesite.
Evidence of the original structure has long since vanished. Over the
course of the years, a stand of trees has obscured what must have been
a once-tidy yard. But there remains some evidence of the foresight,
planning and nurturing of the original caretakers: a carpet of daffodils
emerges to celebrate the season, trumpeting a yellow delight to all
who would notice while speeding past. It is a dependable gift to the
There is also another kind of "blooming" that takes place in Ohio each
spring this one, not at all obscured by the trees of neglect.
Rather, to the observant, this yearly flowering is a testament to the
foresight, planning and nurturing of another sort of caretaker, Phyllis
Blair Clark. Her gift to the ceramics community is a yearly workshop,
which serves the particular needs of those whose passion is to create
visionary pots of function and utility.
Twenty-four years ago, Phyllis pioneered the organization of a yearly
exhibition of contemporary functional ceramics (initially with the support
of the College of Wooster, and now with the cooperation of the Wayne
Center for the Arts). Three years later, the event was expanded to include
a three-day workshop, featuring selected presenters from around the
The positive ripple effect of Phyllis' decades of commitment are vast:
over the years, "Functional Ceramics" has featured more than 700 potters
(showing more that 8000 pieces) in the annual juried exhibition, while
the workshop has made it possible for nearly 60 presenters from North
America, Europe and Asia to share their philosophies and techniques
with more than 4000 participants from 40 states.
The workshop continues to be organized with the special needs of functional
potters in mind. Yet, over the years, Phyllis has managed to "throw
the net" pretty widely, including artists such as Paul Soldner, Barbara
Diduk and Bill Daley right alongside the likes of John Leach, Cynthia
Bringle, Robin Hopper, Lenore Vanderkooi, John Glick, Ginny Marsh, and
The presenters' assumptions and approaches to functional ceramics have
varied widely; they have offered a seemingly inexhaustible diversity
with respect to clay bodies, glazes, forming methods, tools, kiln types
and designs, firing temperatures and atmospheres, fuel sources, studio
designs, work schedules and marketing approaches.
Sometimes the selected presenters in a given year appear, at first
glance, to be miles apart. Yet Phyllis exhibits continuing creative
genius in knowing just who to bring together. The resulting dialogue
between presenters has been purposeful and generative. One will not
hear a mere replay of the overindulged "funk-versus-function" arguments.
A wider awareness of the interdependence and connectedness that all
clay artists share seems to have emerged. Participants (who, by the
way, range from teenagers to octogenarians) leave the workshop with
new appreciation for varied methods and approaches, and an enhanced
sense of visual literacy.
It would be difficult to overestimate the number of careers that Phyllis,
through the "Functional Ceramics Workshop," has encouraged and in some
cases saved. And one could quite conceivably make the case that in her
own unassuming way, she has nurtured the lives and careers of more functional
potters, in the last 20 years, than anyone else who might be named.
The 1997 workshop, featuring Linda Arbuckle and Richard Aerni, continued
the flavor of previous years. Linda gave a thorough and insightful slide
lecture featuring an historical overview of majolica; she also presented
an equally generous review of contemporary majolica practitioners and
their contributions to the field. Her articulate commentary on color,
line, form, surface and patterns offered tools for new ways of seeing.
In her own work, Linda is concerned primarily with the interpretation
of functional form. "One of the things that has been a great help to
me is working in series," she explained. "There's so much you can learn
from repeating something - it's never the same twice." And because of
that, she said, it's altogether possible to "create a lifetime learning
opportunity and a lifetime of exciting personal work within a fairly
Richard demonstrated the production of large dramatic forms, made in
sections, and partially thrown in plaster molds. He claims little formal
education in pottery and pointed to the "Cone 10 stoneware-oriented
aesthetic" as the environment in which he began learning. Much of what
he knows about claywork has come "by solving the problems that present
Indeed, Richard began using plaster out of necessity: Having taken
an order for 300 very large pots with very small bases, he had a problem
to solve. His solution was to design and use a partial plaster mold
which allowed large pots with small bases to be thrown in one sitting
(as opposed to throwing separate sections and allowing them to dry a
bit before joining).
Further complicating this particular order was the short amount of
time between the customer's order and the required delivery time. A
second solution came in the form of single firing (eliminating some
time from the production process).
Reiterating the problem-solving paradigm, Richard asserted, "It's not
talent that makes the potter, it's persistence, a certain hardheadedness."
He markets his work "through galleries that are in business for the
love of pots/crafts, and are not just driven by the desire to make a
lot of money."
The 1997 "Functional Ceramics Workshop" was a testament to the function
of vision, and the vision of function. The ceramics community is fortunate
to have Phyllis Blair Clark's vision and commitment. Yet it should come
as no surprise to us, if in 20 years we realize that her greatest legacy
is not the annual exhibition and workshop, but that she has succeeded
in helping to nurture an entire generation of potters who share her
generous, gracious and visionary spirit.
This article is reprinted with expressed permission from
the December 1997 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville
OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org
© Dick Lehman, 1997. All rights reserved.