Clay Feats and Printed Sheets

Betty Woodman does it all for the Mizel Arts Center.

The Mizel Arts Center at the Jewish Community Center is somewhat off the beaten path of the art world, and its fine art division, the Singer Gallery, is just a single room divided into a series of four small spaces. Despite these limitations, however, the Singer is often the place to see some of the most interesting and beautiful exhibits in the city.

The latest attraction, Betty Woodman: Pots Paper Prints, is a genuine triumph.

Organized by Singer director Simon Zalkind, who was also responsible for the exhibition design, this show is elegantly displayed and visually inspiring. It showcases the work of Betty Woodman, an internationally famous artist who spent the bulk of her career in Colorado.

"A Roman Interior," by Betty Woodman, color woodcut.
"A Roman Interior," by Betty Woodman, color woodcut.
"Pillow Pot," by Betty Woodman, glazed ceramic.
"Pillow Pot," by Betty Woodman, glazed ceramic.

Since Woodman's greatest accomplishments are in the field of ceramics, it's tempting to believe that Zalkind planned the show to coincide with the meeting of the National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts, which will be held in Denver in March. But when Zalkind scheduled the show, he was unaware that the NCECA was even coming to town. "It was completely serendipitous," he says. In fact, the show was originally meant to end on March 19, just before the conference is set to start. But once Zalkind realized the connection between the two, he extended Betty Woodman through March 24.

The prominence of Woodman's prints in the show, which far outnumber the ceramics, is another indication that Zalkind's effort was unrelated to the NCECA gathering. Zalkind had even considered excluding ceramics completely. "The prints had never been exhibited together before, which is amazing," he says. "It seems so obvious."

But as he points out, the prints are undeniably an extension of the ceramics, at least formally. "I was looking at the prints, making selections for the show, when I realized the prints were about the vases, and so the vases also needed to be in the show," he says. Zalkind also included several drawings, which, like the prints, are closely associated to the ceramics.

The prints were loaned by the world-renowned Shark Lithography, which has moved from Boulder to Lyons. They were all pulled by master printer Bud Shark, and all are for sale. The ceramics, on the other hand, are not, having been loaned by various private collectors from Denver and Boulder. The drawings, mostly working sketches of planned ceramic pieces, come from Woodman herself and are also not for sale.

Zalkind first became aware of Woodman in the late 1970s, right after he moved to Denver from New York. At the time, Woodman already had a fine reputation as a potter, having worked in the medium for many years, but she was just beginning to develop her signature sculptural forms that would soon bring her national and then international attention.

Woodman was born Elizabeth Abrahams in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1930. She entered the ceramics program at the School of the American Craftsmen in 1948, which, at that time, was at Alfred University in upstate New York. Alfred was, as it is now, a major center for American ceramics. Woodman completed the program in 1950 and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she set up her own ceramics studio; she has maintained one or more pottery studios ever since. She also used her studio as a classroom and immediately began to take students. One of her first pupils was George Woodman, a Harvard freshman. They fell in love and were married a couple of years later.

The couple moved to Albuquerque, where George earned an MFA in painting at the University of New Mexico, and then to Boulder in 1956, where he joined the fine-art faculty of the University of Colorado. Betty set up her pot shop almost immediately, and in 1957, she started working both as a teacher and as an administrator for the City of Boulder's ceramics program, where she remained until 1973.

American studio ceramics in the 1950s were dominated by the influences of Chinese and, especially, Japanese ceramics. The main current, particularly in academia, favored ceramics that featured simple shapes with simple finishes. Early on, Woodman's work fell right in step with this stylistic approach, and she typically created simple functional vessels in earth-tone glazes. But she soon fell under the influence of the alternate Italian tradition.

Woodman first visited Italy in 1951; she went back to live there for a year in 1959, then returned on a regular basis for extended periods of time.

Like Oriental ceramics, Italian pottery has a very long history, dating back about 2,500 years. Italian pottery itself had been revolutionized by Oriental styles, just as American pottery had, but hundreds of years earlier, in the 1500s. So the Italians had a lot of time to make it over into their own.

Woodman was apparently inspired, because her signature style melds Oriental concepts with Italian ones, not only in the nature of the forms used, but also in the glazes. Some of the earliest examples of this blending are her use of expressive and emphatic ribbon handles, which were first seen in the 1950s. These handles were made with rolled clay placed in a wide loop and were used on batter bowls, pitchers and even mugs. Woodman refers to many other ceramic sources as well, including African and South American traditions.

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