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Kenneth Baskin: 20th Century Artifacts


Stability, from the 20th Century Artifact series, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, mid-range stoneware, anagama and soda fired, 2008.

Picture it: You’re in the jaws of a grinding machine roughly
the size of an Army tank. Never mind that it’s turned off. Never mind that
you’re the only person with the key. Still-it’s holding you there, your back
pressing into its rough steel tongue, gear-like teeth surrounding you on all
sides. It’s the day shift at a Detroit factory and the plastic recycling
machine has clogged again, this time the twisted shards of milk jugs and soda
bottles accumulating in all the wrong places and jamming up the gears. It’s
your job to get them out first. Then you have to get yourself out.

So it went for nearly twenty years for Kenneth Baskin. Born
in the epitome of an industrial city with an aptitude for installing,
repairing, and fabricating machinery, this work seemed a natural step. “At that
time, I did not possess the personal tools or skills necessary to follow a life
in art,” says Baskin. One class at a time, he learned basics on the potter’s
wheel through a community college. After several years, ceramics became a
“serious hobby,” even though Baskin still viewed the artist’s life as an
unattainable fantasy. In 1998, this hobby became a dream he could no longer
ignore and he enrolled in a four-year college with aspirations to study ceramics
and teach.

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly.
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Pieces from the 20th Century Artifact series. Clockwise from upper left: Counter Weight, 28 in. (71 cm) in height; Track, 48 in. (1.2 m) in length; Wheels, 144 in. (3.6 m) in length, each wheel 32 in. (81 cm) in diameter. All pieces are salt-fired stoneware, 2005.

With all mediums, there exists the notion that an artist
must pay respect to the life experiences that shaped him the most. Call it
source material or call it biographical influences; this acknowledgement
happens consciously or subconsciously and is evidenced in the work itself. From
roughly 1998 to 2007, Baskin’s work did just that. “This work was dealing with
the city from the perspective of industry-the grit of the city and urban decay. The way I was using color and texture to break up the space
has a lot to do with the idea of contrasts, relationships, and strength of
line,” says Baskin. “I decided to focus my attention on the micro world. By
enlarging objects, we view them differently. We can understand the formal
beauty of line, shape, and form.”


Anchor, from the 20th Century Artifact series, 30 in. (76 cm) in length, anagama-fired stoneware, 2008.

Developing techniques he still uses today, Baskin fired some
pieces up to five times to achieve a certain effect. The first, and highest,
firing is always in an atmospheric kiln for a spontaneous, natural looking
surface. Adding silicon carbide to slips, Baskin accomplishes a gritty,
textured surface. Additional layers of glazes and a black wash fired at lower
temperatures complete the design.

By 2005, he finished the first round of his 20th Century
Artifact series, which relied heavily on abstracted forms that echo the
industrial world. Altering the scale and shape of these pieces separated them
from their intended functions and invited viewers to consider their own
relationships to tools and machinery.

When an artist has attained some level of critical distance
from the life experiences that shaped him the most, he is free to create with a
more deeply imaginative vision. Union (2007) was a pivotal piece for Baskin, as
it represents the first time he connected two ceramic objects to imply motion, while
at the same time immobilizing the forms by their very size and structure. “When
I put the two together, they spoke to me about interpersonal relationships. I
understood that this piece needed to be scrutinized. I stopped what I was doing
and started to think about the implications of the relationship the forms


Union, from the Industrial Intuitions series, 24 in. (61 cm) in length, soda-fired stoneware, steel, 2007.

Baskin spent the next two years exploring these
implications, adding conceptually sophisticated pieces to his 20th Century
Artifact series. Every form in the series is an abstraction of industrial
objects that show evidence of the human touch, yet Baskin’s newest additions
carry the seeds of narrative tension. There is always a push-pull between the
notions of connecting and disconnecting, balancing and unbalancing, moving and
staying put. Baskin hopes this work will call attention to the fact that the
Technological Age is replacing all evidence of the hand. The tension between
our roots as a people who built tools for survival and our future as a people
with unparalleled technological tools can be summed up in this pressing
question: If technology has become the new definition of humanity, by what
means do we measure our humanity and, ultimately, what does it mean to be


#9 Untitled 4 ft. (1.2 m) in length, salt-fired stoneware, 2004.

Appropriating the language of the industry, Baskin
fabricates his larger forms from slabs and molds. He incorporates steel when
necessary for shipping and assembly. He also uses wood trays engineered to
assure each ceramic piece is straight and level before final assembly and
detailing. Shaped by early experiences physically crawling into industrial
machines, the artist now creates work that conceptually crawls into the human
machine. “I often equate the idea of machines to us,” says Baskin. “Machines
have a skeletal structure that protects and houses all of their necessary
functioning parts (internal organs), lubrication lines (blood), and a
functioning brain with a rhythm of sounds they produce that can diagnose
potential problems.”


Salvaged, from the Industrial Intuitions series, 26 in, (66 cm) in height, soda-fired stoneware, 2007.

In 2010, Baskin will show his latest work in a solo show at
Goldesberry Gallery in Houston, Texas. This will include a series of large,
altered crucibles. He also plans to work collaboratively with Virginia
Scotchie, Scott Meyer, Ted Metz, Rick Hirsch, and Michael Rogers on a group
show at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts.


Kenneth Baskin teaches at McNeese State University in Lake
Charles, Louisiana. He has traveled twice to Taiwan as a visiting artist and
guest instructor at Tainan National University of the Arts and National Taiwan
University of the Arts. He is represented by Blue Spiral 1 Gallery
(bluespiral1.com) in Asheville, North Carolina.To learn more visit


the author a frequent contributor to CM, Katey Schultz
writes from her home in Bakersville, North Carolina. She is the author of Lost
Crossings, a collection of contemplative essays. Her current work includes a
series of essays about artists. To learn more, visit