In the past 40 years the world of ceramic art has undergone a metamorphosis. In the 1960s every Berkeley housewife was a potter, producing clunky mugs and vases in the muted, often glassy, grays and browns of high temperature reduction firing. The influence of Bernard Leach was strong.
Beginning in the 1980s, gradually this mediocrity began a transformation into truly stunning work. Artists such as Gabrielle Koch and Ewan Henderson produced large, even larger than life, forms with resonant, integral finishes. This has raised questions. Is pottery, or ceramics, an art or a craft? If art is of a ceramic nature, what makes it different from the potter’s craft?
The Trax Ceramic Gallery at 1812 Fifth Street just north of Hearst in west Berkeley (where all the potters live) currently features the work of five artists working with clay in an exhibit that seems to straddle the art-craft divide without worrying about either side. Gallery owner Sandy Simon has a talent for attracting top names (such as Warren McKenzie) in the world of ceramics to her gallery. She is married to sculptor Bill Brady, whose fine figurative work in wood and metal can often be seen in the gallery. His clay figures are part of this show sculptures that although quite large, are more monumental in concept than in size.
These pieces elevate the argument of art versus craft to one in which concept becomes fundamental to the process of making art. Exhibitor Trent Burkett believes that both art and craft are part of this process: a good idea has to be delivered in a way that exhibits the poetry of the material that embodies it. This is a timely reminder that the word poet derives from the Greek for “maker.”
All the pieces in the show were fired in Scott Parady’s anagama kiln in Pope Valley. Anagama means tube kiln in Japanese. Such kilns are long, elevated either internally or against a hill, and wood fired. Mr. Parady’s kiln is sixteen or so feet in length. It takes over half a week to load, eight days to fire to 2,470 degrees Fahrenheit, and a week to cool. A crew of 20 people stokes the kiln day and night with pine and oak from dead or pruned trees. Needless to say, two or three firings a year are enough. When one factors in breakage, this is obviously a labor of love.
Technically (or should one say pyrotechnically) it is also a type of high temperature reduction firing, but what a difference in the end product compared with that of the 1960s. Here, the results are absolutely worth the effort. Because many of the pieces are hand made rather than thrown on the wheel, and because they are fired just once (bypassing the modern practice of a preliminary low-temperature bisque firing), thereby allowing the raw clay to be integrated with pigments and oxides, and to be flashed and even glazed by the hot ashes within the kiln, each piece has an antique quality, a depth and glow, sometimes crusty, always surprising, that is as unique as it is lovely.
Grand concepts are hard to find these days. We live in an era where heroes and gods have been replaced by terrorists and sociopaths. There are no pharaohs to immortalize, no natural forces to appease. Yet surely this holistic, indeed elemental approach to the process of producing art has a spiritual essence to it. After all, concept alone does not mitigate poor workmanship. And is a well made functional vessel “merely” craft? As Trent Burkett points out, in this kind of art, skill and idea constantly interweave as they reach for the same spiritual point.
Craig Petey and Tim Rowan are also well represented in the exhibit, which ends on Oct. 31.
Trax Gallery is open noon-5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. 1812 Fifth St. 540-8729.