Mile High Fires

Denver's kilns are hotter than ever.

It seems like the entire art world has gone potty.

Denver's curators and gallery directors alike are crazed these days, since there are more than fifty local art exhibits in which ceramics take center stage going on right now. It's enough to make our heads spin like a kick wheel until we're groggy.

This clay commotion has been set off by the presence of the more than 3,000 ceramic artists and teachers in town for the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts conference. The shows are Denver's way of rolling out the sang de boeuf carpet for these experts, and the exhibits give everyone an opportunity to see historic, modern and contemporary ceramics from Colorado and the rest of the world.

"Abandoned Vestige," by Rodger Lang.
"Abandoned Vestige," by Rodger Lang.

There's no way for the conferees to catch all the shows, however -- even locals would need a couple of weeks of vacation to view more than a handful. To contemplate visiting only the best of the lot, then, is itself a daunting challenge. But take it up we must. After all, we'll never get another chance.

Colorado, given its sparse population -- until lately, anyway -- has played a greater role in the history of modern and contemporary ceramics than one might expect. It's surely this heritage that at least in part led to Denver being chosen as the host city for the NCECA 2000 meetings. And it's also perhaps one reason why the organization is negotiating a relocation of its administrative offices and permanent collection to Erie.

Our distinguished place in twentieth-century ceramics was the product of an 1890s clay rush, during which art potters and tile, brick and pipe makers were attracted here for the high-quality natural clays found on the plains and in the mountains.

Central Denver itself provides people with an ad-hoc exhibition that silently yet effectively underscores the importance of ceramics to the region. I'm referring to the many buildings that feature terra cotta ornaments, and to the elite few that are entirely clad in the luxurious material. Nearly all of the material was made by the Denver Terra Cotta Company, which was active under various monikers from the 1890s until the 1940s.

Check out the 1910 Insurance Exchange at 910 15th Street, a masterful early skyscraper, and the more vanguard 1916 Rio Grande building at 1531 Stout Street. Both Sullivanesque buildings are the work of prominent Denver architect H.W. J. Edbrooke. And don't miss two Art Deco gems from 1929, the Paramount Theatre at 1621 Glenarm Place, by Temple Buell, and the Buerger Brothers building, by Montana Fallis, at 1732 Champa Street.

Denver Terra Cotta dates back to the golden age of American art pottery, and a small taste of that proud tradition can be had at Colorado Kilns, which just opened at the Colorado History Museum. Organized by Moya Hansen and designed by David Newell, it is installed on the lower level of the museum. The exhibit leads off with several sculptural ornaments by Denver Terra Cotta, including a reclining lion sculpture that marks the show's entrance.

Also in the good, if somewhat sketchy, show is a spectacular "Despondency" vase from 1901 by Artus Van Briggle, founder of Van Briggle pottery in Colorado Springs, which is still in operation. It's a baluster vase with a nude male figure emerging from the surface around the rim. It is finished in a fabulous matte green glaze. Other spiffy Van Briggles in the show include several from his series devoted to Colorado's native plants. It's a real shocker that out of so many shows, no one thought to put together a solo about Van Briggle -- especially since he's as famous in Europe and in New York as he is in Colorado.

Other major art potters who were working here at the beginning of the twentieth century, including William Long of Denver Denura and Denver Lonhuda fame, and the father-and-son team of Frederick and Francis White of the famous Denver White pottery, are also featured in Colorado Kilns. There's one lovely turn-of-the-century Long piece, and a stunning green tea set by the Whites done around the same time.

Nearly forgotten modernist potters from the '40s and '50s, including Tabor Utley and Irene Musick, both of whom were active on the scene in Colorado Springs, are also represented here.

The show's only weakness is how over-represented contemporary pottery is compared with the older material. But it's a minor complaint when among the contemporary group are pieces like the masterful Paul Soldner sculpture.

Art pottery made outside of Colorado is the topic of another historical exhibit, this one at the nearby Denver Art Museum. The Clay Vessel: Modern Ceramics From the Norwest Collection, 1890-1940, on the second floor, may be small, but it makes a big impact owing to the quality of the inclusions. The spectacular Teco from 1910 by Charles Gates, and an unbelievable Grueby by George Kendrick, circa 1900, are two such examples.

On the fifth floor, DAM curator Ron Otsuka has put together another show, the compelling Takashi Nakazato: Contemporary Pottery From an Ancient Japanese Tradition. It's a solo devoted to a Japanese potter who comes to work at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village annually. Nearly all of the pieces in the show were made with Colorado clays and glazes and are distinct from the material he creates in Japan. Nakazato is known in his native country for fine, traditional tea ceremony articles, but here in high country, he's just as likely to make mugs. As an adjunct to the show, Otsuka has installed a small group of splendid pieces by Nakazato's Anderson Ranch-based colleague, Doug Casebeer.

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