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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 observant.

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 world.

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 Warren MacKenzie.

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 limited/restrained vocabulary."

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 themselves."

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.