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Clay Feats and Printed Sheets

"A Roman Interior," by Betty Woodman, color woodcut.

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.

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.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Woodman was also a vital part of Colorado's sophisticated ceramics scene, and her work from this time should be seen in this context. Other cutting-edge ceramics artists in the area included Paul Soldner, Richard DeVore, Gene Lang, and Nan and Jim McKinnell.

In 1976, Woodman joined the faculty at CU and began to move away from strictly functional vessels and toward sculptural forms based on utilitarian shapes. It was at this time that she made the first vases and ewers in the pillow form, which would quickly find a ready audience -- not just with private collectors, but also with museums.

Woodman had also been exhibiting in the craft division of the New York art world for several years, so she and George bought a loft there during the '70s and began to spend part of each year living and working in the Big Apple. As a mark of her considerable accomplishments, her work was included in one of the most important shows of the time, A Century of American Ceramics, which was presented in 1979 at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, the nation's premier institution devoted to ceramics.

Fame and fortune came in the 1980s, when the highly regarded Max Protetch Gallery became her exclusive representative. The backyard pottery sales that she had held annually in Boulder since the 1950s came to an end, and the prices for her ceramics took off, going from the hundreds of dollars to the thousands and even tens of thousands. Her success allowed her to consummate her love affair with Italy, and the couple purchased a farmhouse in the Tuscan town of Antella, outside of Florence.

But despite their far-flung real estate, the Woodmans maintained their home and studio in Boulder until they both retired from teaching in 1996. They sold the home and now divide their time between New York and Italy. (Woodman is set to make a rare local appearance on March 19 when she presents a gallery talk at the Singer. She will be joined by printer Shark.)

Zalkind conceived of the exhibit as a thoroughly aesthetic experience. And in that, he's been quite successful. But there's a shortcoming to this approach: There's too little information about Woodman and the course of her development. There are no didactic panels, for example. The pieces have not been arranged chronologically, and, in fact, works from two distinct periods are all mixed up together. The ceramics date to the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of Woodman's most innovative periods. The prints and other works on paper are newer, the oldest dating from the late 1980s and the newest from 1997, another creative peak for the artist.

Zalkind has installed the show so that each piece has plenty of space around it. He has arranged the prints into several small groups with the ceramics, on sculpture stands, interspersed throughout. Visitors may want to pause as they enter, just to take in how stunning the show is, before beginning a more careful look at the individual pieces.

One of the first prints is "Balustrade Vase H," a color monotype with collage from 1993 in which highly abstracted forms in muted colors seem to vaguely refer to vases and pitchers.

On one side of "Balustrade," a similar, if smaller, print has been hung; on the other, on a stand placed flush with the wall, is the first of the truly fabulous ceramics on display. The untitled vase, glazed an off-white, has been thrown in two parts, which were joined before firing. The two shapes, an altered cylinder placed on an inverted bell form, suggest the figure. Following the contours of the piece, Woodman has applied ribbons of clay to serve as handles, more in a symbolic sense than a usable one.

Continuing down the wall, a breathtaking group of functional pieces are installed in a Plexiglas showcase. This group, which features luscious glazes, especially the delicious blue-green, is called a bread-dipping set and features a tray, a pitcher and a bowl dating from 1980.

Across from these pieces is a discrete space created by a pair of walls set at an angle to one another. Here Zalkind has placed a pair of matching ceramics among a group of boldly colored prints. The ceramics are a "Pillow Pitcher" and a "Pillow Pot." Both are finished in spattered glazes of green and light brown with the raw, buff-colored clay body showing through in places. They combine thrown and altered pedestal feet with slab-built vessels that look like pillows.

 

The prints in this section are literally still-life pictures. In "A Roman Interior," a color woodcut with chine collé from 1995, a plate, a cup and flowers sit in the corner of an ancient room. A striking feature of this piece is the juxtaposition of bright colors with pale ones, such as vibrant red against soft pink and lavender.

Winding back around the corner, the show continues with an unusual color monotype that looks like a painting on paper. "Oribe Tray/Classical Pitchers," a color monotype and collage from 1988, is one of the oldest prints in the show. Silhouettes of pitchers, mostly in white, are set in front of a pattern of rectangles in gray and blue.

Near this print is an untitled, wall-mounted ceramic sculpture from the late 1980s. It is formed of three parts: a bracket, a vase, and a slab-built bouquet. This is an odd form that converts the vase into an entire still life, but it's not the only unusual thing in the show. In the back corner is "Mussel Pot," from 1980-82, a glazed ceramic made of a tray joined to a deep bowl connected visually by large ribbon handles. Heading back to the front is another, "Pillow Pitcher," from 1980 to1982. Beyond that is "Stretch Pot," from 1979, a centerpiece similar in form to the "Mussel Pot."

Stylistically, Woodman's pots are both similar to and different from her prints. The ceramics refer to the history of clay, while the prints mostly refer back to the ceramics. Putting the two together, as Zalkind has done, makes for a revelation. Betty Woodman is one of the best of a raft of shows in the region, many already open, that are highlighting the art of ceramics, and regardless of Zalkind's intentions, it will surely attract many of those conferees from the NCECA.


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