Northwest Ceramics:
Still Alive in Our Affections

By Deloris Tarzan Ament

Northwest ceramics have been overshadowed by glass art, the art-world's new darling, in recent years. Glass is undeniably glamorous. But the rough, tactile skin of salt-glazed stoneware, the hallucinogenic luster of iridescent glazes, and the slightly out-of-round honesty of a hand-thrown bowl give ceramics in their infinite variety a permanent place in our affections.

"Northwest potters keep getting better and better," says Ruth Nomura, who for more than 30 years has directed the Northwest Craft Center, a primary showcase for their work. "If you compare prices with glass, ceramic art is the best bargain to be found in today's art market."

Despite having clay-rich soil, the Northwest had no indigenous pottery tradition. Local tribes carved wood and made baskets for uses Southwest tribes assigned to pottery. Not until the 20th century did ceramics of any significance begin to be produced in the Northwest. From the start, their character owed much to Asia.

The late Robert Sperry, long-time head of the University of Washington School of Art's ceramics department, and mentor to a generation of potters, underscored the link with Asia by studying with traditional potters in Japan. His ultimate aim was to use their time-honored techniques as a springboard for new directions in stoneware. In 1963, after spending three months with Japanese folk potters, he made a film, "Village Potters of Onda," which was hailed as a classic documentary of a vanishing culture.

Particularly in his later years, Sperry liked the strong contrast of black and white, which he felt lent a naturally abstract quality even to symmetrical, utilitarian work. That affection is shared by Reid Ozaki, whose white decorations on matte-black vessels and platters have the look of instant classics, and Paddy McNeely, who clings to satin black glazes for containers which lend elegant simplicity to arrangements of flowers and fruit. Sperry used black and white when he pioneered the use of ceramic sculpture for large-scale public commissions. In the 1980s, the large stoneware platters he had been making metamorphosed into round or square tablets, often mildly concave. Sperry covered the pieces with black stoneware glaze, fired them, then applied thick white porcelain slip by pouring, painting, or brush-mopping it on in calligraphic loops and splashes. When the piece was fired a second time, the slip shrank and crackled into crusty mazes that had visual kinship with Abstract Expressionist paintings.

Sperry's large ceramic murals are on view in front of the Safeco Building in the University District, the IBM Building, and the King Country Administration Building. New Seattle gallery, Howard House at 316 Federal E. (206/726-8754. Open Tues. - Fri. 10 - 6, Sat. and Sun 12 - 5) represents Sperry's estate.

Each generation of ceramists brings something new to the table. "The new in style seems to be wood-fired ceramics," notes Nomura. Because wood-fired kilns are expensive and time-consuming, and their use requires special expertise, they are the rarest kind in use. Vashon Island artist Eric Nelsen studied in Japan for several years before building a traditional sloping, wood-fired Japanese anagama kiln behind his studio. He stacks the long, domed brick chambers for the week-long firing process only twice a year, calling on all the help he can muster to keep the fire properly stoked.

Super-heated wood ash deposited on the clay bodies melts to a richly textured glaze, in that marriage of earth, wood, fire, and accident which makes wood-fired ceramics unique. Nelsen's heavily symbolic ceramic sculptures are represented by the William Traver Gallery, 110 Union Street (206/587-6501. Open Tues. - Fri. 10 - 6, Sat. and Sun. 12 - 5).

Ceramic sculpture, like that in any other medium, appears largely in special gallery exhibitions. But fine handmade utilitarian pieces are an ongoing staple of craft galleries such as The Clay Occasion, 1906 Pike Place. And any trip through the Pike Place Market will yield potters who sell their work at day tables at the north end of the Market.

"Most people are looking for utilitarian things," says Nomura, a walking encyclopedia of potters past and present. Since 1963, the Northwest Craft Center (206/728-1555. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.), in the heart of Seattle Center, facing the International Fountain, has set the pace for showcasing the best in Northwest ceramics. Fifty or more ceramic artists have work in the gallery at any given time - Ozaki and McNeely among them - while several of the artists are featured in regularly changing exhibitions.

Other places to look for Northwest ceramics: Phoenix Rising Gallery, 2030 Western Avenue. 206/728-2332. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Along with glass art, jewelry, and small custom furnishings, Phoenix Rising, a block north of the Pike Place Market, carries art by 30 ceramic artists, ranging from palm-of-the-hand-size jars to collector-level, drop-dead pieces. Prices range from $20 to more than $1,000. Look for futuristic raku- fired pieces by Kendell Coniff, and for Leslie Thompson's black-and-white porcelain pieces, decorated by carving through a black slip overlay to reveal the white porcelain body. Thompson, who grew up in the Northwest, now lives in Ojai, California. The gallery says a noted Hollywood producer built a wing onto his home to house her work.

Fortè Gallery, 1201 First Avenue. 206/621-1743. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon. through Sat., and noon to 5 p.m. Sun. This fine-craft gallery, poised on First Avenue about half way between the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square, puts emphasis on the colorful and the whimsical in glass, jewelry, and ceramics. Some two dozen ceramic artists, about half of them from the greater Seattle area, produce a range of highly individual functional pieces, from clean-lined classics to baroque wonders.

Pottery Northwest, 226 First Avenue North. 206/285-4421. Noon to 5 p.m. Tues through Saturday. Perched on the west side of Seattle Center, on a north-running one-way street, Pottery Northwest offers classes in all phases of ceramic art, and houses a gallery to show and sell work by the artists who work and study there. At any given time, the shop has work by some two-dozen ceramists, most of it functional ware.

FireWorks Fine Crafts Gallery, With locations in Westlake Mall (206/682-6462), Pioneer Square, (206/682-8707), University Village (206/527-2858), and Bellevue Square, 425/688-0933), FireWorks is very nearly ubiquitous. The range of fine craft artists represented at these shops is genuinely awesome. The predominant look of ceramics carried at FireWorks could be characterized as serious whimsy. But the range is so broad you're apt to find almost anything there.

Out of Hand, 2015 West Dravus Street. 206/285-4117. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wed. - Sat., noon to 4 p.m. Sun. The Out of Hand shop fronts the pottery studio and home of ceramic artist Terri Cody and her assistants. Cody produces dishes and serving pieces in low-fire earthenware decorated with women and flowers in bright, bold colors. Her sculptural ceramic fish heads, made to hang on the wall, are among her most popular pieces.

DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.
Kendell Koniff ceramic
Kendell Koniff courtesy of Phoenix Rising

Eric Nelson ceramic
Bust Assemblage: Tea Ceremony, Eric Nelsen, clay anagama fired, 24'h x 26'w x 14'd. Photo by Roger Schreiber.

Robert Sperry ceramic
Plate #924, Robert Sperry, 27'diam. x 24'd, 1991. Photo: Howard House.

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