Having blacksmiths, farmers, and painters in his ancestry, ceramic artist Joseph Pintz has always had an appreciation for those who make things with their hands. So it is no surprise that he now makes a living making things with his hands and teaching others to do so. Drawing from a Shaker sensibility, his work is not ornate or intricate, but rather understated and direct like the objects his ancestors may have used in their given trades (and kitchens). But, while those objects may have been used for utilitarian purposes only, Joseph’s bowls, toolboxes, and cooking implements straddle the line between functional pottery and nonfunctional ceramic sculpture and examine our physical and emotional connection to our domestic objects.
Today, in an excerpt from our latest free download Contemporary Clay Sculpture: Modern Ceramic Sculpture as Narrative, Object, and Decor, we learn a little about Joseph and his work. Plus, he talks about the process behind his rough-hewn, handbuilt pottery, and shares his clay body and glaze recipes. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
When talking about his work, Joseph Pintz often begins by describing his childhood in Chicago-a place most people associate with gritty urban life. But Pintz’ story differs from many Chicago natives. He was born the third of four children to immigrants who, during World War II, fled from the Russian army as it advanced on the rural Hungarian countryside his ancestors had settled some 300 years previously. Both sets of Pintz’ grandparents made a living working with their hands-his maternal grandfather as a blacksmith and his paternal grandparents as farmers. In Chicago, Pintz was similarly raised to value a close connection to the land: He grew up harvesting vegetables in the narrow suburban plot behind his house, picking cherries for homemade jam and baking loaves of sourdough in the drywall-mud pans his father brought home from his job as a union painter. Holidays and other celebrations were spent with many generations of family and friends, and preparations for the feasts began days in advance.
The combination of groundedness and generosity that marked Pintz’ upbringing also comes through in his ceramic work, which explores the role that domestic objects play in fulfilling our needs on a physical and emotional level. Made from a coarse, high-iron Nebraska brick clay, Pintz’ pieces-plates, cups, and bowls; bakeware and kitchen utensils; toolboxes and feeding troughs for animals-are devoid of decorative embellishment and craftiness. Their character is humble and straightforward, reflecting a basic tenet of Shaker design, and one of Pintz’ major influences:
If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its usefulness or necessity. . . . If it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can.
For Pintz, making it as beautifully as you can entails foregoing the wheel in favor of carving most pieces out of solid clay-a process that lends his work literal and symbolic weight and, by virtue of the trimming marks and subtle inconsistencies of the hand, accentuates the negative spaces, giving them a physical presence and emotional charge they wouldn’t otherwise have. His surface treatments range in color from neutrals to earthy pinks, greens, yellows, and blues, and they contribute to the handcrafted feel. He layers a combination of terra sigillata, slips, and brushed-on glazes, which produces a patinated effect where the red of the clay peeks through in places. The overall aesthetic sensibility seems guided by an appreciation of the material’s raw form and its possibilities; when looking at Pintz’ “pots,” one doesn’t forget that they, like the food they hold, originate from the earth itself.
Pintz’ work ranges from functional to nonfunctional. His bowls, for example, are the perfect size for morning oatmeal, whereas his toolboxes are more metaphorical-too heavy to be carried to a work site. But the two groups of work don’t occupy extreme ends of the spectrum: The nonfunctional objects still speak of utility, and the weight of the functional pieces renders them unwieldy, pushing them toward sculpture. Adhering to sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s belief that “everything is sculpture,” Pintz considers himself both a craftsperson and an artist. “I don’t believe in a hierarchy of one type of my work over another,” he comments. “I see my functional dinnerware and my sculpture as different sides of the same coin.”
Interestingly, Pintz’ interest in clay grew out of his undergraduate studies in anthropology at Northwestern University. It was there that he first noticed how the medium of clay has been used across centuries of civilizations, running the gamut from the mundane to the extraordinary-from the simple pottery of early cultures to the high-tech heat-shield tiles used on space shuttles. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Pintz undertook post-baccalaureate studies in ceramics at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and then attended graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he broadened his scope by researching a variety of utilitarian objects from around the world. In 2007, he was awarded a residency and Lincoln Fellowship at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts-a former brickyard and a fitting place for someone who works with brick clay.
From the beginning of his work with clay, however, Pintz was drawn to making pottery with a close relationship to food. “Sharing meals with others and making the time to eat well are ideals I try to live up to in my daily life,” he explains. Indeed, the stubborn physicality of his pieces forces the user to slow down and pay close attention to the moment (coffee in one of his cups is best sipped using both hands) and their uniformity and seriality take on metaphoric potential, with connotations of community, abundance, and prosperity. Further, the symbiotic relationship Pintz eloquently establishes between volume and negative space reflects the basic nature of sustenance. As the English poet Philip James Bailey wrote, “Simplicity is nature’s first step, and the last of art.” Pintz’ work embodies this idea with a down-to-earth directness, reminding us that the container is just as essential as what we put in it.
Joseph Pintz currently teaches ceramics at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and is represented by Turman Larison Contemporary (www.turmanlarison.com) in Helena, Montana. To see more of Pintz’ work, visit www.iconpottery.com.
Portions of this article were originally printed in Ceramic Excellence, the 2006-07 fellowship exhibition catalog for the Archie Bray Foundation, where Casey Ruble was invited as a visiting critic.
the author Casey Ruble works as a freelance art critic and editor and teaches painting and drawing as an artist-in-residence at Fordham University, Lincoln Center campus, New York, New York. For further information, see www.caseyruble.com.
During graduate school, I began experimenting with clay from a local brick manufacturer (Endicott Clay Products, Fairbury, Nebraska). Their “potting clay” has great working characteristics-plasticity, density and a rich color. It also has the benefit of not being over-processed. With a few minor alterations, the clay that was sent down the conveyor belt to make bricks has become the backbone of my clay body (see recipe).
I employ a handful of rudimentary handbuilding techniques to create my forms. I pound soft clay over bisque molds with a mallet to establish basic shapes, such as bowls. Paper patterns are used to create more delicate forms, such as cups, and thicker forms (toolboxes and plates) are carved from a solid block. Although working reductively is not always practical, it allows me to find the form more intuitively. Once the clay stiffens to a leather-hard stage, forms are trimmed and refined further. This dredges up the coarse grog within the clay and creates a unique texture. Once the clay dries to a bone dry state, I brush on several layers of slip or terra sigillata. After bisque firing, I apply glazes to create subtle, weathered surfaces that suggest a history of use. The work is then fired in an electric kiln to cone 02.
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