Mud and Guts

More than any other medium, ceramics has achieved a high level of artistic development in Colorado.

The glorious early history of ceramics here was partly determined by the availability of high-quality clay. Beginning in the 1890s, potters from the East and Midwest migrated to Colorado in a kind of clay rush.

Several established studios in the state and some artists, notably Artus Van Briggle and Frederick Long, went on to worldwide fame. Even in contemporary times, though, when dry industrial clays are the standard and a ready source of natural clay is a useless anachronism, Colorado continues to attract first-rate ceramic artists.

Given the sophistication and deep roots of the local ceramics scene, it's not surprising that one of the only meaningful annual exhibits in the region is dedicated to the work of Colorado's ceramic artists. That exhibit is Colorado Clay.

For more than twenty years, Golden's Foothills Art Center has presented Colorado Clay in one form or another. The first show, called Vessels of Clay, was held in 1977, with renowned Colorado ceramic sculptor Rodger Lang serving as juror. It was in 1985, reflecting the decline of the vessel among ceramicists, that the exhibit was retitled to be more inclusive. This year's show, officially called the Colorado Clay Exhibition 1999, is now more than halfway through its six-week run.

Sadly, if you're hoping to see at Foothills an astute look at the condition of ceramic art in the state, as was possible last year, you're in for a profound disappointment. Many of the selections this year are goofy, and some are even amateurish. There are some great things in the exhibit, but they're harder to find than in the past.

The show was put together by world-famous potter Jeffrey Oestreich, who served as the sole juror for 1999's Colorado Clay.

Oestreich has a long list of distinctions and accomplishments, including an apprenticeship in the 1970s at England's Bernard Leach Pottery. His work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and New York's Cooper-Hewitt. Although Oestreich's studio is in Taylor Falls, Minnesota, he has taught many classes in Colorado, both at the highly regarded Anderson Ranch Art Center outside Aspen and, last summer, through the auspices of the Boulder Potter's Guild.

But a top-notch artist is apparently not the same thing as a first-class juror. Just for fun, take a look at the single, marvelous example of Oestreich's ceramics on display, "Pitcher (Accordion Series)," a hand-built vessel with an elongated spout stylistically reminiscent of traditional Middle Eastern forms. Now go through the show and notice how many artists Oestreich has included who are doing exactly the same thing as he is, complete with those signature spouts. This feature reveals that Oestreich has stumbled into the biggest pitfall for an artist who is called on to be a juror--what might be called the "do it my way" approach. Oestreich has an aesthetic point of view. For an artist, this is a strength. But preconceptions are a weakness in a juror. Oestreich should have set aside his viewpoint and instead evaluated the proposed submissions for Colorado Clay using a big-picture strategy.

Even worse is that he filled out much of the rest of the show with a confusing array of work reflecting various levels of technical accomplishment, much of it unworthy of Colorado Clay and seemingly serving only to make Oestreich's piece, and those of his fellow travelers, look all the better.

That said, however, there is still a lot about Colorado Clay to recommend. With more than 25 artists represented, the show is large enough for viewers to find many fine things on display. In fact, visitors can quickly make their way through the show--which fills all the galleries at Foothills--by sprinting from highlight to highlight.

In the Metsopoulos Gallery, just inside the entrance, are eight vessel-based sculptures by Vicky Hansen of Penrose. The sculptures, which are displayed on low risers set against the wall, are from Hansen's "Canyon Series" and are superbly done. Hansen, who has exhibited in Colorado Clay in previous years, teaches ceramics at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo. Before coming to Colorado, she studied with the legendary Angelo Garzio at Kansas State University, where she received her MFA in 1993. Hansen has written that her travels in southern Colorado's canyon country provided her with the inspiration for this aptly titled series.

The "Canyon Series" fits an established tradition long embraced by many of the most important artists in the history of Colorado ceramics: the alteration of conventional vessel forms. Hansen loosely and gesturally throws pots on the wheel and then smashes them before the clay hardens. Her finishes feature the natural effects of the firing, and thus her palette is limited to earth tones ranging from a rich charcoal gray to creamy beige and brown. As demonstrated in this show, Hansen is equally proficient at a variety of ceramic techniques, including stoneware and the less-expected porcelain.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia