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A Conversation with Dick Lehman

Eric:  You’ve been working in clay for 40 years, yet my perception of you is emerging, or constantly emerging, or, perhaps re-emerging or starting over.  Would you care to speak to this?”

Dick:    I suppose that there is a “near” and a “far” element to this, Eric.  And I’m happy to see that you found this quality in my work.  The “far” back element has to do with the way I was trained, back in the early 1970’s.  I was taking an introductory class in clay.  Most all of us were not art majors.  I think that we were not educated as art majors – rather the idea was to introduce us to the many wonders that make up clay, and then to step aside and see what we students would do with that introduction.

When we asked professor Marvin Bartel…..”So, what do you think would happen if we tried to …..?”  He’d always respond, “Well, why don’t you try it and see what happens.”  I think that we grew into clay with the idea that there were few limitations, that failure was also learning.   We could try/sample/investigate in as many directions as we wanted.

This approach, as you might imagine, led to some wonderful discoveries, but also to some (literally) monumental failures – not the least of which was the brick-making fiasco that Bob Smoker and I ventured into.  Bob and I, with Marvin’s support, decided to make bricks to build a kiln.  Instead of making either hard/high-duty bricks, or soft/insulating fire bricks, with Marvin’s nudging we decided to make a single brick that would be both:  the hot face was made up of a dense mixture and toward the middle, the consistency of the brick material was filled with sawdust and became more insulative in nature.  We prototyped and test-fired with great results.  Then we made the fatal error:  instead of using, for the final brick production, the silica sand that we’d used from the clay lab, we ordered our sand from a local gravel pit.  Several tons of the stuff was unceremoniously dumped outside the back door of the ceramics lab.  We proceeded to make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these bricks using (as we learned later) an untested material.

The local sand had some calcium in it…..probably little pieces of aquatic shells….not much….but it was there.  After all the bricks were made, we began firing them.  The first load – an ungodly-long firing – cooled and all looked just fine.  But then…..little by little…..as the days passed….little pieces of the bricks began popping off (just like a plaster pop-out on a studio pot).  Before we knew it, the bricks came entirely undone!  They completely disintegrated into dust, right before our eyes, as we watched all our labor and vision and youthful naive energy come crashing down in a pile of dust.  

What had been the norm:  Bob and Dick working away at the studio at every available hour, turned into a complete absence from the studio and we licked our wounds, wondered “what had we been thinking?”, and tried to learn from the experience.   Marvin took pity on us and simply called the college ground keepers who with front-loader and dump truck, hauled away all the contaminated materials, the decomposing fired bricks, and the bricks waiting to be fired.  Hauled them away, along with our invested energy and emerging clarity.

Hard lesson.  But one that was great preparation for a life in clay.  It’s ok to fail.  What did you learn?  That lesson in consistency between prototypes, tests, and small batches and consistency with the final product, production, and large batches, likely saved me far, far more time over the course of my career than it cost me in the brick project.  And there at school, the materials were free, and the haul-away complimentary.  Not the case in ‘real life and work’.

So that early lesson gave me permission to try and fail.  To explore and investigate.  And ultimately, I set aside 15% of my time each year to investigate, start over, explore and develop.  I budgeted my time and production so that if the 15% of time committed to development yielded nothing of value ($$$), my 85% of efficient production time had me covered.  Budgeting for failure led to my most important developments over the years:  side-firing; fast-fossils-saggar-firing, unconventional ultra-long 15-day near-solo wood firings.  And the same could be said for the new triplet-glaze-series to which I’ve already devoted two year’s worth of exploration.  The cups in this exhibition are a result of this process.

The “near” element is tied to my having been diagnosed with a terminal illness some years ago….long periods of being out of the studio for chemotherapy, transplants and recovery;  the loss and sale of my production studio and gallery.  Being left with only a 200 square-foot home studio with little-to-no energy to use it.

During the intervening years, I’ve experienced a quite remarkable recovery and remission.  Initial diagnosis was more than a dozen years ago.  I’m healthier now.  I’m able to work.  After I sold my studio and spent several years out of production, when the time came to start over, I promised myself that I would try to commit to making only what I really wanted to make.  For me this meant trying to cram the “rest of my career” into a “brief and uncertain timeframe”.  And that is what I’ve done.

That commitment has a cost to it:  because I’m naturally curious, my work over the last 5 years has not been single-minded, consistent, predictable;  it does not have these qualities which most galleries require from their suppliers.  It’s meant that my work has been rejected from galleries that had previously courted my work.

But giving myself the freedom to emerge, re-emerge, start over has held wondrous benefits as well.  First of all, it keeps me from competing with anyone but myself.  It helps me focus on MY work.  It scratches MY itch.  And it offers me the opportunity to invite others into this adventure.  To join me in seeing things we’ve never dreamed of…..and in learning to make the things I have no idea how to make.

Eric:  Many from my generation, myself included, are equally curious and cynical about chawans and yunomis being made by protestant white folks from middle America.  I think it’s fair to say that your generation of American potters has been significantly influenced by Asian ceramics….perhaps even overly influenced.  I wonder what sense can we make of Caucasian Midwestern Christian potters chasing the aesthetics and practices of Asian Eastern Buddhist makers.  You’ve been to Japan on multiple occasions and those experiences have shaped you…you’ve written quite a bit about it. Through all of it your work rings sincere. How do you decide what you take with you and what you leave behind?  How do you to make it your own?”

Dick:  My generation of potters – and the one before me –  seemed to inherit an uncritical indebtedness to Japan, in particular.   It can be traced back to the American GI forces returning from the second world war.  The GI bill pumped untold millions into the American higher education system.  Schools flush with money jumped to expand their offerings by which to lure students.  Arts education benefitted from the gusher of dollars.  Clay programs, particularly at community colleges, absolutely flourished.

Add, now/then, the “Gospel proclamation” from Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, about the truth and wonder and clarity and vision of Japanese ceramics (….how interesting that these clay-crazy GI’s just back from giving Japan a “ come-up-ens” in the War, now kneeled before the altar of Japanese ceramics).  Leach and company began traveling to the US, visiting colleges and universities, proclaiming the vision, “rescuing” a ‘dying-and-almost-dead’ studio pottery movement here in the US, and generally making converts.  Just look at the decades of brown simple pots that reflected their effect and influence.  It was (almost) the duty of every American potter to make that pilgrimage to (Mecca) Japan to drink from the fountain of the masters there.

Enter my generation of clay artists:  we inherited an unquestioning embrace of all things Japanese.  We, too, wanted to make a pilgrimage.  I was no exception.  I did.  And I’m the better for it.  But somewhere about then… let’s say… in the mid-80’s-ish, we American potters began actively wondering if it was time to look more inward….away from the strict, inherited, restrictive, exclusively linear Japanese way….toward the options, innovations, development, rule-breaking, emerging, revolutionary-thinking that had come to characterize America. We wanted our own voice.  And there came a time where contact with the East came to be looked upon with suspicion;  a time when it was better to lay low and just not admit that you’d made the pilgrimage —  so’s not to have to wear the scarlet letter “J”.  And god-forbid if you admitted to making tea bowls…….

And, unfortunately for some of the most conflicted and insecure among us, there still exists the “gotcha” urge:  last autumn while participating in an international collaborative woodfire workshop, several of the (perhaps over-intellectualizing) participants lobbed the ‘loaded softball’:  “Do you make tea bowls?”…….just waiting for someone to take the bait so that they could be strung up, flayed and dried.  Then the question was more pointedly directed at those of us who’d spent time in Japan……  “do you???…make tea bowls?????”  Of course the question eventually came to me (what it’s exactly trying to prove or expose, I’m still not quite sure)….”Dick, do YOU make tea bowls?”  (Perhaps…..”Dick, are you…still…. overly-influenced by Japanese ceramics?…are you an easy target?…are you a Nihon-ophile?”) At that point I imagined the flexed biceps of criticism and the tightly clenched fist of “gotcha” being wound up behind the back of the questioner:  “go ahead….admit it…..I’m gonna pounce on you and beat the Japanese out of you”.

I suppose I may be credited with deflecting, if not diffusing, this one incident.  I said, “I make bowls.  Sometimes people use them to make matcha tea.  So…..yes….I guess that I do make tea bowls, when people choose to use them as tea bowls.”

Do I feel some…..what?….empathy, sympathy…pity… for the conflicted and over-intellectualizing questioner?  I suppose I do.  I can admit to being – at least at one time of my life – an unswerving, captivated and unquestioning ‘Nohon-ophile’.  All things Japanese were unquestionably good.  But that was then.  It’s part of my journey to now.  Anyone who knows me realizes that I don’t try to make “Japanese pots”.  I’m not culturally or artistically naive.  I’m quite happy in my own skin.  I don’t mind acknowledging all of my influences – Japanese included.  And I don’t mind disappointing old Mr. Matsuyama sensei – teacher of one of my teachers – who while visiting my exhibition in Japan, pointedly reminded us when referring to a kake hanairi (wall vase) that was only slightly more than completely understated:   “Always remember,” he said, “always remember that the vase is for the flowers.  The flowers are not for the vase.”  

Ok, I get it.  Let’s not overpower the flowers with the vase. (But remember, “quiet beauty” is only one of the Japanese aesthetics….can you say Kutani ware?)

So:   I cannot – will not – stop making those beautiful, colorful, complex, nuanced, detailed, sophisticated, overstated….yes…even loud shapes and surfaces – even on wall vases –  if it means suppressing my commitment to continually starting over, seeing in new ways, enlarging my visual literacy.

Each of us finds our own way from/through/out of the sphere of influences that have made us.  We stand on them…we stand on their shoulders.  With luck, we surpass them.

Eric:  Your last show with us was almost 2 years ago. Of the 40+ pieces in that show (December 2015) you included 3 cups with boxes.  Those pairings were captivating, and in the conversations leading up to this exhibition, I asked if you’d like to show a large series of them. What can you tell us about the history and importance of these boxes?”

Dick:  Paulownia wood is the wood of choice for Japanese boxes.  It’s a fast-growing softwood.  In Japan the use of Paulownia boxes is not limited to housing clay works.  They are used to store, house, and present a wide variety of important and special objects that could be made from glass, bamboo, lacquer, metal, and fabric.

 

Usually called the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree, its soft wood makes sense as the storage material of choice in earthquake-prone Japan.  Many a boxed clay piece has jostled safely off the shelf during an earthquake.  The insulative compression strength of the wood has saved lots of important fragile work. But more, the wood is an insect-deterrent, much like American cedar used in storage chests.  In addition Paulownia is flame retardant. It grows fast; is invasive; and isn’t picky about soil.  (In fact it has been classified as a “persistent exotic invasive” here in the United States.)

My friend, Mr. Kanzaki told me stories of fires that happened in the homes of some of his collectors.  The fire department arrived and watered down the place.  Because of the flame retardant nature of wood, the boxes were slow to burn.  And when wetted, they expanded to further protect the precious goods inside.  $9000 tea bowls:   safe!

In Japan, these boxes are referred to as “kiribako”….the box made of “kiri” wood…from the kiri tree:  the Paulownia tree.  Boxes made of “kiri” have been used to protect items of importance for long years in Japan.

In addition, it’s undeniable that boxing an important piece, elevates the piece’s value and stature.  Not just anything gets boxed.  The most important things get boxed.  It’s a way of calling attention to the piece:  “This is important and valued.”  And the boxes themselves are most-beautifully-made, and tied shut with a silk-woven ribbon/fukurohimo.

For some years I’ve tried to make/find/commission an “American box”…a box that would include the very best traits of the Japanese boxes:  protection, beauty, and elevation, while using/exploiting the very best of American lumber, craftsmanship, joinery and hinging/closing hardware.  To date I have neither found nor developed such a box.  So for now I continue to appropriate boxes from Japan, where there is an entire industry developed around the production of such boxes.

 

Eric:  What additional insights can you give us into this most recent series of cups?

Dick:  This last autumn and winter I again had a long stretch of illness.  I’d not fired the kiln for almost five months.  I’d been away from making and from active use of my glaze-triplets for just as long.  I was, in fact, a little intimidated by the challenge of starting over:  starting over with respect to making, glazing and firing.  So it was such a great excitement to open the kiln and find all these cups.  Certainly, it was one of the most memorable and among the finest overall firings from my career.

This series also highlights my newest efforts at making the cups that are fully and ergonomically hand/mouth-friendly.  It’s quite a challenge – with the wide variety of hand-sizes to make a cup that fits all sizes and that is also ambidextrous.  Pick them up and find the one that fits you best. I hope that the progress I’ve made on this will be noticeable and satisfying the moment you unpack your box and try the piece out for the first time.

-Dick

View Dick Lehman’s solo show  HERE.

 

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A Conversation with Benjamin Cirgin

CG: We’re fascinated by this series of work. The references to rock faces, tectonic plates, and graffiti are evident. Could you speak to the origins of this body of work and your thoughts behind it?

BC:The Uncertain Image series began as a limestone sculpture and has since moved in and out of my mixed media ceramic work and functional pottery forms. In 2010 I installed Fount Solace; 26 pieces of limestone hung horizontally on a gallery wall using the linear core marks to compose the form. During a conversation my father at the opening reception, he told me how his father used to work at the same mill where I collected the stone. Having never been too close to my family due traumatic events, this news connected my labor in the trades to my grandfather’s labor which I knew little of. A simple idea: my grandfather and I could have labored in the same quarry, which felt immediately reverent in a way that was strange yet curious. That evening my father spoke of growing up around the many mills telling stories about late night fishing trips to the quarries deep water. Using these fragmented histories, I developed several bodies of sculpture and functional ceramic work using a reductive cleaving method to create stone like textures from black clay. Bright bands of color circled around each functional form add layers of information taken from contemporary graffiti found on the stone walls of the quarry.

BC: In this most recent series, Uncertain Image, a portion of the story has changed creating a new layer of confusion. I decided to call my father to re-live these experiences seven years later, hoping to find new information about my family history. Instead, my father now tells a different story; one that does not involve the same kind of work that my grandfather did in the quarry, with a completely different location where they would go fishing at night. I immediately felt disgrace, like I had made work about a fictitious event claiming it was real. Did I tell myself these stories as a way to deal with or explain previous trauma? Could my father have told me these stories, beginning to now suffer from the same Alzheimer’s that killed his father? Tim Obrien writes about a set of stories told by soldiers, explaining the same events from the Vietnam war. As the stories unfold they are told with vastly different accounts for the same event. I know that my history does not compare to the traumatic events of the Vietnam war. Yet I am unsure how I interpret information, such as personal stories, news, and other forms of “reliable sources”. This recent turn in the story has changed the forms of imagery that I place on the cleaved, functional ceramic forms. Each imaged section starts as an unclear, thin line, dividing sections in the wet clay. After bisque firing, I apply glaze to the sections of the form inside the thin lines. Post firing each glazed image shows up in unexpected ways, mimicking my uncertain view of the convoluted stories that I hear, read, tell, and remember.

Click HERE to view available works.

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Featured Artist: Dick Lehman

Dick’s work and writing have been published in 9 international ceramics publications since 1985, and he has had 50 of his articles published. He exhibits in national and international ceramics exhibitions each year, having participated in more than 300 invitational exhibitions both nationally and internationally, and has offered workshops for colleges, universities, and regional potters guilds both nationally and internationally.

Here is a word from Dick about this collection of work…

As a much younger — and may I say, more naive — potter I held, in my creative imagination a future that included a life-capturing Retrospective exhibition of my work. Perhaps you know the fantasy: major museum, mountains of pieces, monumental promotion, major collectors, millions in sales………..oops, stop the tape.

 

The genuine, and more satisfying reality is to live the life-centered life….to make, with some regularity, life-capturing work…to share with others, life-enhancing moments. I believe that this is as good as “it” can get….and too easily missed if one gives inappropriate energy to naive fantasies….and so easily found and realized if one’s eyes are open, sensitivities expectant, and gratitude the prevailing wind of the soul. This collection of work is not that imagined Retrospective. Nor is it a cohesive body of work. Neither is it a comprehensive or exhaustive collection of my life’s work. But it is a glimpse at what has given meaning to my life and some of what I’ve enjoyed exploring over the years: works that might happily insinuate themselves into the daily lives of the users; explorations with tools — what can cheese cutters, stamps, and fingernails create; reimagining how can wheels be used to make things that aren’t round; what fun might be found in an extruder; imaginings with glazes — “What might happen if….?”; exploring firing methods — can I do something new with wood-firing, saggar-firing, side-firing?; finding and making the “indigenous” pot — how can my back yard, my neighborhood, my friendships, my travels, make their way with integrity into my pots?

 

These are some of the foci that have given meaning to my making and to my life.

 

I trust these might inspire you to find the foci that give meaning to yours.

 

Dick

 

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Valentine’s Day Show: Preview

Only 10 Days til Valentine’s Day! Flowers and chocolates, right?

Imagine those flowers in a hand carved porcelain vase by Kelsey Nagy…or a single stem in one of Bill Wilkey’s Wildflower Vases. Imagine those chocolates in a handmade bowl or one of Rothshanks’s coffee cups.

We are excited to announce our 5th Annual (Pre)Valentine’s Day Show. On view will be functional and decorative pottery by 10 nationally recognized ceramic artists. There will be scores of handmade coffee mugs, tumblers, teapots, serving bowls, vases, baskets, pitchers, bakers, and platters available. Love someone? Give them pots.

Friday February 6th: 11am-7pm

Saturday February 7th: 11am-6pm

The Companion Gallery is located at 3638 East Mitchell St, Humboldt, TN (behind the Crown Winery)

 

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Featured Artist: Bill Wilkey

Our Featured Artist for February will be Bill Wilkey from Helena, Montana. Bill’s work speaks of edges, angles, volume and contrast. All the work featured is wheel thrown and altered white stoneware, fired in a soda kiln. Soda firing is a process in which a Sodium Carbonate and Bicarbonate solution is injected into the kiln at the height of firing, approximately 2400 degrees F. The sodium vapor moves through the kiln and reacts with the silica in the clay and slips, resulting in a sodium-silicate, or glaze. The effect is striking, often producing dramatic and subtle flashing on the same piece.

Wilkey was chosen as one of Ceramics Monthly’s Emerging Artist of 2014, and his work was featured on the cover of Pottery Making Illustrated’s Nov/Dec issue. Bill is currently a long term resident at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena.

These pots are made with the human hand in mind, and we hope one finds a home with you today.

 

See the Show Here

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Matt Schiemann Workshop

We are thrilled to announce…

Botbyl Pottery & Companion Gallery will be hosting Matt Schiemann for a 3 Day Pottery Workshop in May of 2015.

Join us for this fun, educational, and inspiring weekend!

Hands On Workshop: May 7th & 8th

  • Spaces Available: 7
  • Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Fee: $250 Includes both days, unlimited clay, and multiple firings

Demo Workshop: Saturday May 9th

  • Spaces Available: 15+
  • Skill Level: Any
  • Fee: $55

 

Matthew Schiemann is a second-generation potter that grew up watching and helping his

dad create ceramic works.  This early exposure taught Matt to appreciate the handmade

object and eventually to choose the field of ceramics for himself.  He received his

Bachelors of Arts in Sculpture and Ceramics from Ashland University in 2005 and his

Masters of Fine Arts in Ceramics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 2009.

While in graduate school, Matt worked as Harris Deller’s personal assistant and as a

Teaching Assistant for the wheel throwing and industrial design courses.  During this

time, he began building his own body of work focused on functional pottery fired in

atmospheric kilns.

After graduating from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Matt was accepted as an

artist in residence at the St. Petersburg Clay Company.  Shortly after being accepted as

A.I.R. Matt became an adjunct professor at Eckerd College for PEL program’s ceramics

department.  In October of 2010, Matt became co-owner/director of the St. Petersburg

Clay Company. Matthew is now currently the manager for the St. Pete Clay Artist in

Residence Program at the Morean Center for Clay and is an adjunct professor at St.

Petersburg College.

Botbyl Pottery & Companion Gallery are located behind the Crown Winery in Humboldt, Tn. The gallery and studio are nestled among 25 acres of rolling vineyard. Join us for this inspiring weekend of art and education. Call Eric at (731)267-7784 or email at botbylpottery@gmail.com (subject: Schiemann workshop) to book your spot now.