All Fired Up

Only a handful of Colorado artists are genuinely famous--unless, of course, we're talking about artists who work in ceramics. In that field, Colorado can point to a tradition that has produced many important figures, several of whom are known around the world. Think of Nan and Jim McKinnell, Paul Soldner, Richard DeVore and, the Queen Mother of Front Range pottery, an artist who has maintained a studio in Boulder for decades (along with one in New York and another in Florence, Italy), Betty Woodman.

An exhibit focusing on Woodman's career is coming to the end of a nearly year-long run at the Denver Art Museum, though visitors to the museum may have missed it if they blinked. The show is tucked into the closet-sized service-elevator lobby on the mezzanine (unconvincingly redubbed the "second floor"), an area that has been dedicated to regional artists and new accessions. Architecture, Design and Graphics department curator Craig Miller has assembled seven ceramic vessels by Woodman that are displayed in four perspex boxes. A handful of pots stuck in a niche--doesn't sound very promising, does it? Well, that's what I used to think.

Instead, Betty Woodman: Evolution in Clay, 1958-1991 demonstrates how Miller is able to get the most from the least. Because in the five minutes it takes to look at the exhibit, viewers will get a sleek encapsulation of the issues Woodman has addressed over the years--issues that essentially mirror the vanguard currents in American ceramics over the last half-century.

The oldest piece in the show is a lidded earthenware jar dating from 1958 that has been mislabeled as a "Soup Tureen." In this piece, the influence of Japanese functional pottery--the big story of 1950s ceramics--is readily apparent. The jar's bowl shape and expressed pedestal foot recall traditional Japanese pots, as does the glazing, which ranges in color from a gun-metal gray to a tobacco-spit brown. Around the waist of the piece is a repeated decoration done in a wax-resist that reveals the reddish-brown clay underneath. These decorations are the work of Woodman's husband, the painter George Woodman.

One of Betty Woodman's great breakthroughs was the merging in her work of the influences of the Orient with those of the Mediterranean. Even the title of the 1966 ceramic "Italian Urn" (this piece was also decorated by George) lets us in on her goals. The rims, the interior and the handles of this piece are detailed with black and white glazes, and it's these elaborate handles--two sets of three on each side--that anticipate Woodman's signature work from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Another, more significant milestone was Woodman's interest in making reference to abstract-expressionist sculpture. This can be seen in the 1979 ceramic "Mussel Server Centerpiece," the oldest work in the show that expresses Woodman's mature style. The centerpiece is all loopy and soaring ribbons of clay; these are attached to the vessel with elaborate clay buckles that stand as evidence of Woodman's technical virtuosity. The glossy glazing (now her own work, not George's) is a blotchy expressionist pattern featuring lyrical colors such as pink, cream, lavender and brown.

Viewers may be tempted to bow their heads in homage to the magnificent porcelain "Kimono Pillow-Pitcher" from 1985, the only piece included that is not the property of the museum but instead was lent by the Woodmans themselves. This thing will take your breath away. As its name implies, the vessel takes the form of a pillow with the neck and handle of a pitcher. Hand-built with slabs of clay, it incorporates a thrown and altered element in the neck, which is trimmed with coils of clay. Though Woodman has gone on to other things, she has never topped the "Pillow" series.

The newest pieces in the show are a pair of 1991 "Diana Vases," which anticipate Woodman's 1995 "Balustrades" in the terminal at Denver International Airport. For these vases, Woodman started with a loosely thrown baluster vase to which flattened thrown slabs of clay have been applied so that they fly off the surface like wings.

There's no easier way to appreciate Woodman's influence on other artists than to seek out Colorado Clay: 1996 at Golden's Foothills Art Center. Not only has Woodman endowed one of the show's prizes, but most of the best things in this juried annual are related to some phase of her work. Indeed, little of value would be left in Colorado Clay if all the Woodman-related vessels--or the even more Woodmanesque pieces in which handles are used as a key design element--were eliminated.

Renowned Kansas City ceramic artist Jim Leedy is this year's celebrity juror. Leedy, who has written that Colorado is among the nation's top ceramic art centers, selected 25 potters and sculptors, who each submitted up to eight examples of their work for the exhibit. About a dozen of these artists come through with riveting pieces that gracefully express their virtuosity with the medium. But even those who don't can't distract us from the many kiln triumphs on display.

Talk about triumphant: Skeff Thomas's thrown and altered stoneware and porcelain jars, teapots and butter dishes are out of this world. Of course, it's hard to imagine actually using them, but who cares? In "Covered Jar," Thomas reveals his debt to early-twentieth-century studio pottery, in particular the work of Adelaide Alsop Robineau. The decorations in the piercing and in the hobnail relief recall Robineau, as does Thomas's formal regard for the classic components of the vessel shape. Thomas summons up a far different set of sources for the compelling teapots and butter dishes--including, according to his written statement, Chinese bronzes and old steam irons. The glazes Thomas uses, the product of multiple firings, are also remarkable. His surfaces are scabrous, each featuring several different shades of the same color--either a vivid Egyptian blue, a deep electric purple or a luxurious copper luster.

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