Ryo Toyonaga’s recent survey curated by Midori Yamamura and designed by Yumi Kori at the Vilcek Foundation in New York City (March 12-May 15, 2009) summarized nearly twenty years of work in ceramics and other media. For our purposes, we will concentrate on Toyonaga’s evolution as a ceramic sculptor. This is helpful, especially now, since, like many other ceramic artists recently (Frank Boyden, Peter Voulkos, Jim Leedy, Patti Warashina, Michael Lucero, etc.), Toyonaga is switching almost exclusively to bronze and aluminum, cast at the legendary Tallix Foundry in Beacon, New York, near his studio in Garrison, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. It is more important than ever to treat his ceramic work to date as a finite system, even a closed book.
Working from her faculty studio at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, Karen Swyler employs what can be described as a thematic approach to her ceramic work. Concentrating on personal relationships and memory, her pieces rely on juxtaposition to one another to be complete both in concept and form. Swyler’s work is clearly grounded in the history of ceramics and the vessel, but through cutting and altering her thrown forms, much of Swyler’s work enters the realm of the sculptural. Her vessels act as metaphoric memoirs—as bodies relating to one another through proximity, palette, line, and contour.
The initial reason I wanted to make a living at pottery was that it would provide me with a degree of independence. I imagine this was instilled in me growing up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota. I was accustomed to work but what I enjoyed about pottery (and farming) was the cyclical nature of the occupation and the ability to live and work from home.
I fell in love with making almost as soon as I touched clay, some two years before leaving school. But it was at Cambridge University, where I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum twice a week to see the early Chinese porcelains from the Song period, that I discovered a determination to give up medicine as a career and pursue ceramics.
I became a potter later in life, following a previous career that never felt quite right—as though I was given a role that should have belonged to someone else. On the other hand, my experience making pots in several adult education classes resulted in exactly the opposite feeling: this was a good fit. I wanted to feel passionate about my profession and have it be an integral part of my everyday life.
I was 36 when I got my MFA in 1978. I was offered two not-very-appealing jobs, one as a part-time ceramics instructor at a nearby college, another as a ceramics studio tech at another college. I knew the responsible thing to do would be to take one of these jobs, but I also knew that if I did, I wouldn’t make many pots. So I set up a studio in my basement. My first job as a potter consisted of making 288 unglazed earthenware cylinders every month, each imprinted with a hand-made stamp bearing the words “Cook’s Tools,” at 50¢ a pop.
As with almost everything in my life, I came to making pots in somewhat of a round about way. During graduate school at the University of Minnesota back in the early 1980s, I never once thought that I would try to earn a living making pots. I saw myself as a sculptor and, after graduating, I had a couple of successful gallery shows and even received a National Endowment for the Arts grant based on my sculpture. Around my second year out of school, I took a break from my sculptural work to handbuild some small jars and cups. I found that I really enjoyed the freedom of painting the pieces and loved how quickly I was able move through the stages of glazing and firing. I was enjoying the work, so I just kept at it.
Nestled in a narrow canyon alongside a creek, Peter Karner makes functional vessels that embody his surroundings. The surfaces of his undulating ceramic forms rise and fall like the ridge lines around his studio. The highly contrasting glazes on his pots, toned black, green, tan, and orange, are reminiscent of the desert patinas and lichen that appear in his environment. In a most subtle way, Karner’s pottery incorporates these natural elements, bringing the vastness of the landscape into an intimate perspective.
Steve Reynolds’ work is a poke in the eye; enmeshed in contradiction, it is deeply intelligent, prickly, and tough-minded. His work is uncomfortable to look at, defying all categories, always an amalgam of the beautiful and the ugly. Neither of these qualities have been his focus, they emerged as an indirect consequence of his process.
Daniel Bare, Hudsonville, Michigan