Time has etched its mark on the once-ancient seabed, now high desert landscape of the Southwest that Peter Karner calls home. Nestled in a narrow canyon alongside a creek, 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. Karner is fascinated, too, by the markings found in the animal world, like those on cheetah and zebra skins. Simplifying these designs, Karner translates them into his own vocabulary of diamonds, dots, scales, and stripes.
While his pots reflect the forms, coloration, and textures found outside his studio door, cultural influences are at play in the work. He owes the overlapping shapes found in many of his glaze patterns to his mother, who was a quilter. His love of Islamic metalwork can be seen in the interlocking lines of his glaze designs. The illusion of depth often present on his pots is due to his interest in the eye-dazzling designs woven into Navajo rugs. Even with many influences, his intentions remain clear. “I am not only making functional vessels, I am creating an aesthetic statement based on my own experience.”
Karner’s vessels demonstrate a satisfying marriage of form and surface, and are as pleasing to hold as to behold. To drink from a mug is a sensual pleasure and to cradle a dipping bowl feels divine. To contemplate his vessels sends one into the realm of metaphor. The tall canisters and vases stand assertively, like buttes or mesas, secure in their ability to be interesting forms that also function well. The wide, curving bowls he caresses off the wheel suggest not only the gently sloping pastures of the surrounding landscape but also offer repose, an attitude prevalent in a pastoral life. His glazes, though painstakingly applied using an elaborate method, appear relaxed and at ease. Often, these surfaces remind one of desert varnish and rock moss, and look as if they were naturally formed. By attempting to “capture an essence not easily put into words,” Karner’s vessels, like nature, express a complexity that is balanced with simplicity. There is a peaceful accord in the opposing tendencies present in his sculptural works.
While making each piece-from throwing and altering to the multi-layered glazing-his goal is to be in the moment. “I’m drawn to a process that is concerned with the present, the pursuit of an ever-evolving self through creativity. Each piece I make is an expression of that moment and the understanding of my craft. There’s a beauty in that.”
Living and creating in an isolated, rural setting has afforded Karner the solitude in which to develop his work and personal philosophy. Except for the occasional UPS truck rumbling down the ten miles of dirt road to his place, he has lived a relatively quiet and self-sufficient life. The natural rhythms of the seasons, of water flowing through the creek, and of the daily movement of light across the canyon offer a measure for his creative lifestyle. Watching the ebb and flow of natural forces has helped Karner step back and see his own difficulties and successes in a larger perspective. Like nature, Karner’s artistic life changes. Every two years, in order to push himself creatively, he re-evaluates his vessels, invents new forms, and reworks his glazes. “I have an unwillingness to make the same pots over and over. I need to be evolving. To be fulfilled, I need to come up with new ideas for forms and technical processes and work on them for a few years to see them through. That can bring disappointment, but I have to take those risks, to work through the ideas. When I fail, I reassess, then re-execute and modify.” After more than a dozen years of dedicated focus to his career through creative and technical exploration, rigorous work routines, and demanding show schedules, Karner feels that his creative life couldn’t be better. “As a young potter, I was impressed by the lifestyle that was possible as a studio potter. And I pursued that without a lot of distractions. Now, as I begin the middle of my career, I see that the exclusivity of my energy has paid off.”
Today, though he has long stretches of time alone in the studio, he has achieved a balance in his lifestyle, spending more time at activities that feed his body and refresh his personal life. Like his vessels’ ability to express harmony within opposition, so his life has achieved equilibrium. “Soul searching and the evolution of my personal philosophy have produced deep satisfaction. Taking the opportunity to live my life as I do is not easy, but it is truly rewarding.”
For more information on Peter Karner and his work, see www.peterkarnerpottery.net.
the author Jules Masterjohn lives in Durango, Colorado, where she teaches studio and lecture courses in art at Southwest Colorado Community College and writes a weekly column, “Arting Around” for the Durango Telegraph. Read more from her at www.durangotelegraph.com.
Learn how Peter Karner creates his patterned glaze surfaces here!