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On the River Through the Valley of Fire: The Collaborative Ceramics of Frank Boyden and Tom Coleman


Spider Shadows, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, soda-fired porcelain with flashing slip, 2007.

Golden Fish Vase, 26 in. (66 cm) in height, wood-fired white stoneware with lustered copper and manganese glaze, 1985-6.

Raven Vessel (detail inset), 25½ in. (65 cm) in height, unglazed, wood-fired porcelain, 2007.

Spawning Salmon Vase, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, porcelain with polished celadon, 2006.

As poetry is to language, pottery is to art. As you trust poetry to say more than one thing, you trust artful pottery to elaborate on its sources.

The pots in this exhibition represent a river through a valley of fire. The image is dual, but quite literal. The way the kiln works is riverine, and these pots reflect their creators’ homes. Frank Boyden lives on the Salmon River estuary near Otis, Oregon; Tom Coleman lives on the desert in Nevada, an hour from a place called the Valley of Fire. The geographies and the men combine to make a ceramic art as grounded in the senses as are the best of poems, and as clearly focused as a poem whose multiple images are gathered and fired, finally, at a point in the deepest part of us.

Coleman and Boyden once lived near each other in western Oregon, where as young artists both men established reputations for craft and unique artistry. Even then, Coleman was a potter renowned for the nearly impossible perfections of his work as well as for his glaze mastery and his ability to guide a ceramic pot to anti-gravitational heights and thinness. Boyden, who turned to ceramics after he began to teach painting and drawing, made pots whose forms show pressures from their own interiors-wings and fins pushed out from within-and whose surfaces Boyden incised with images of his river’s estuary animals.

This article was published in the March 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!

In these creations, soil, wind and flame combine in the most fundamental way-the way that has made the craft and art of pottery the archetype of the human and the divine. Boyden and Coleman work with the river and the sea, and with the very desert where, for centuries, the rain and wind have formed small bellies in the rocks, necks on stone columns, feet on the sandstone pedestals. Boyden fishes every day; he walks among owls and herons, among the bones of deer on the river bank, the bones of salmon hung in the scrub of a receding river. Coleman lives just south of Las Vegas, in a home and studio he built right on the sand and rock. If you put these places together, they would hiss.

Boyden and Coleman’s collaboration is rooted in faith, because each man at first feels the labor alone. The verb “to labor” means to hurt, to suffer. Labor is as gritty as it gets. We may cheer another on, but the one whose muscles are burning is the one who gets things done. But when each pot is born of two men working together, something indescribable happens; the lineage is out of either artist’s hands alone and the mix becomes the subject of speculation. How did that happen? Who did what? It’s archetypal. Do you have your father’s nose? How did her lyrics influence his tune? Who raised the barn? Who sailed the ship? Who wrote the law?

It is important to remember that free collaboration, the unforced shared labor of two people, is risky, because collaborators see each other sweat and worry. What is it to collaborate? It is to do more than one body can do, more than two bodies alone can do. Collaboration assumes each laborer cares as much as the other. That’s the faith of it. The sum of this effort, at its best, is what each artist hoped for.

Some of the pots in this [exhibition] were made more than twenty years ago, when Coleman lived near Boyden in Oregon. The men built their own tremendous kiln, near Willamina, Oregon-the East Creek anagama, styled in the ancient Korean tradition, an immigrant from Oregon’s far-eastern neighbor. It was a wood-hungry giant, with its rear on the valley floor and its head pointed way up the mountain. In 1985, with the first firing of the East Creek kiln, Coleman and Boyden declared their trust in each other; each acknowledged that neither would love a lousy pot-that the hammer, the hard floor, the toss in the ditch, the drop off the cliff was what they would inflict upon the imperfect pot.

What seems most sure and most ancient about this collaborative work, what brings out comparisons with the archetype, is the way both artists attend to those fundamentals that grow toward art only through talent that becomes genius with study, practice upon practice, hard work and care. In their collaborative work, both men draw and incise on the pots.

At their first collaboration, back in 1985, Boyden and Coleman approached the project with some hesitance. They felt a little stiff. Coleman thought Boyden was wonderful with tools on clay, but Boyden didn’t throw the larger shapes as well as Coleman did. Each man so respected the other that each was afraid to screw up. The 2007 collaborations-some wood-fired in Al Tennant’s Coupeville, Washington, kiln, some gas-fired in Coleman’s Henderson, Nevada, kilns-illustrate how maturity has guided the artists recently. Coleman says, “Since we worked together in the 1980s, our pots have changed a lot-his drawing and my throwing. Frank’s so good at the wood firing. He knows how to control the fire to let the wood do all the subtle decorating. He’s a master at that. I don’t know how he does this, but then, when Frank saw a couple pieces I’d done in the gas kiln, I saw a look on his face, too.” Boyden’s drawing had to change for works made in Coleman’s gas kiln, where glaze makes its own highway of color. Boyden’s drawn lines, so active and full of rhythm, compete against the direction of the glaze sometimes. Submitting the pot to the fire is such a big chance anyway, and the art of putting a piece in the right part of the fire is a practiced skill. Boyden knows the smoke of wood firing intimately. Coleman knows the cleaner gas fire. The process of working together, of putting a pot in the other man’s fire, made this art even more exciting.

If we want to understand how the pots evolved, this shared insider knowledge they have can be frustrating for us. Writers about art often assure us of an artwork’s superb qualities rather than permit us to see how the artists achieved those qualities. Unfortunately, such reverential writing downplays what is resistant about art, what is cussed, unexplainable and hidden, for cussedness, in technique, in content, in style, is an honorable and sometimes necessary way for artists and art to behave. We assume that an artist’s work is often deeply personal, obsessive even; the technical hand, the expert eye, come forth from untraceable, deep roots the same way a musician’s or a poet’s gift might. A person who works life-long at themes of terror or Eros or animals or a particular magical color probably does so because he or she obsessively hopes to understand or, perhaps, deny a fundamental fact. Boyden and Coleman don’t collaborate purely out of intellectual interest, or for some kind of special recognition in the marketplace. They have spent their lives collaborating with others for a reason. Whether it stems from early loneliness or from early confidence, collaboration is as much a drive for them as competition is for others. They are driven to be closer to something. They know that, in collaboration, it’s possible to listen and look until something terribly intelligible happens-perhaps after a long time, but eventually.

Both Boyden and Coleman are in their early sixties. Each has seen his father die, his mother grow old. The back door is opening. Both men talk about their families. What is the role of biography in art? Potters, like architects, need seasoning, which takes time. Additionally, ceramists endure physical stress-turning, pressing, bending over, looking in and breathing the chemicals and smoke. Autobiography works its way into the image.

In this ceramic art, that sublime fall from perfection happens in concert with the elements. There’s nothing to be called perfect in nature; yet, as Alexander Pope observed, “Whatever is, is right.” Nature changes to fit opportunity or loss-it’s sure not static rectitude-and it will do what it wants on anything from your singlewide in the hurricane to your mansion in the wildfire. You can’t really do anything but plan for the event you can’t predict. Describing a recent collaborative piece, a long cylindrical pot, Boyden mused: “Sometimes you get these pinks-with iron, usually you get orange-but these pinks, I don’t know where they came from. I just don’t know.” With the kiln, you’re down to doing fire dances, calling on higher powers, seeding the clouds. Add some fuel for nature to work on, and the most essential form of collaboration happens. The form is in the formulas, because you can’t predict how much water is left in the wood, how much ash-melt will settle where. You can plan but you can’t be altogether sure. . . . It’s not really that the artists cast their art to the fire god of accident; rather, it’s that the artists can’t claim credit for everything. If they were merely guiding the natural to do as they wished, they would be excellent craftsmen, perhaps, but not artists who recognize the wonder of forces that work with the artists and without them. Afterward, you can sit in the parlor, like survivors in an Agatha Christie story, and decipher what happened. You can expertly pick the pieces you like best, though their real mystery remains.

This article was excerpted from the book On the River Through the Valley of Fire: The Collaborative Ceramics of Frank Boyden and Tom Coleman, published by the American Museum of Ceramic Art (www.ceramicmuseum.org) in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title.

the author Daniel Lamberton directs the Humanities Program at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington, and is a visiting professor in the Department of History at the University of Washington.