Recap: Wood Fired Kiln Catalyst for Collaboration Artist Panel

May 10, 2017 | Branden Schwab

Springfield Art Museum

March 4th, 2017, 1:30-2:30 pm

Artist Panel:

Kenneth Baskin
Keith Ekstam
Jeff Johnston
Scott Meyer
Priscilla Mouritzen

“Like a pinhole in a card turned towards a solar eclipse, the Artist Panel collects and gathers disparate backgrounds and influences, allowing observers and participants to focus on a specific shared moment from a perspective that challenges how we view the universe, our place in it, and the realities shaping our lives.”

There’s a special type of magic that happens when creative hands, hearts, and minds get together to experiment and create. Certain individuals have an inkling of what a future collaboration might look or feel like, but it can be admittedly difficult to envision or predict the subtle (and surprisingly resilient) linkages that connect artists through the act of creative collaboration. For one such individual, Curator Sarah Buhr of the Springfield Art Museum (SAM), moderating the Artist Panel was the conclusion of an exhibit planning process, years in the making:

SAM Newsletter Cover

“…we generally work three to four years in advance so there is nearly always a multi-year process from the inception of the exhibit idea to the actual opening of the exhibit. This particular exhibit took a lot of coordination since it involved seven artists from various locales in the U.S., nearly all of whom were firing and making new work throughout the process. At its core, I’ve always felt that this exhibit was about community and collaboration so culminating the show with the artist panel did feel like a really nice ‘send-off’ so to say for the exhibit.”

Early on in the panel discussion, I recognized what I know now was more than just professional courtesy. As each of the artists presented on their influences and work, it became evident how close knit the group had become. Nodding heads, ad-libbed ribbing and assistive and complimentary word choices demonstrated a cohesive group, familiar with each other’s idiosyncrasies and well aware of how best to engage one another.  Outside, the sun of early spring fell upon the warmed bricks of the museum’s exterior. Inside, the auditorium pulsed with a warmth and rhythm emanating from this dynamic group of local, regional, national and international ceramicists, brought together by this Catalyst for Collaboration.

As Museum Director Nick Nelson points out, both at group kiln firings and in subsequent gallery exhibitions, collaboration is key. As common and diverse influences swirl together to create an elixir of inspirations, a recipe is defined that is altogether unique to a specific moment and place, yet unmistakably timeless. Instantly recognizable as legitimate and worthwhile, these creative exploits can often be a reward in themselves. And, when the conditions are right (and with materials shaped by the right hands) natural beauty, in its infinite complexity (and often baffling simplicity) can be brought into being.

SAM Newsletter Excerpt

For potters and ceramic artists, periods of intense collaboration can be few and far between. Large firings are elaborate and complex, often concentrating energy and resources (and months-to-years of planning) into a short time span. But each time they happen, an undeniable sense of discovery emerges as subtle lessons are learned and skills are honed in that mystical space existing “between chance and design” (Check out Exhibiting artist Scott Meyer’s book, With Fire: Richard Hirsch A Life Between Chance and Design, available for purchase locally in the Springfield Art Museum Shop, or online).

Priscilla Mouritzen, a Danish ceramicist born in South Africa, acknowledges (with tongue-in-cheek) her departure from, and opposition to, the stereotypical Danish preference for a lack of ornamentation and straight lines. Her cups and small bowls, which are decorated inside and out, are elegantly misshapen with thin, undulating walls. Their softness and delicateness harbor a powerful haptic quality that is equal parts unassuming and irresistible. Shades of pinkish-brown terracotta swell behind white, gray and black tones, eliciting wisps of bluish-green hue.

Image courtesy of Oxford Ceramics Gallery

Image courtesy of Oxford Ceramics Gallery

When placed on a table, it’s easy to imagine one’s hand reaching for and finding these storied surfaces, almost unconsciously, while listening intently to a friend and sipping tea. Employing a language of ridges, grooves, depressions and edges punctuated by ticks, spots, dashes and hatch, Mouritzen crafts delightful accompaniments to daily rituals that elevate and memorialize simple (yet rich) moments.

Jeff Johnston, currently a professor at College of the Ozarks, touched on another important aspect of group firings: Trust. Slightly smaller in frame than many of his peers, Johnston is often entrusted with loading and final placement of pieces in the kiln. Like a coal miner in reverse, Johnston explores the cavernous interiors of kilns, seeking out ideal locations for specific pieces that are often shaped by hands not his own. Identifying hot spots and areas for optimal firing while conceiving of “kiln as paintbrush”, Johnston tests theories based on sophisticated manual, spatial, and temporal knowledge honed over decades of working with his hands and firing in these kilns.

Ozark Folk Bridge by Jeff Johnston. Wood, salt, oxidation fired stoneware. Courtesy of Jeff Johnston.

Ozark Folk Bridge by Jeff Johnston. Wood, salt, oxidation fired stoneware. Courtesy of Jeff Johnston.

Keith Ekstam on the left, Jeff Johnston on the right. Courtesy of Jeff Johnston.

Keith Ekstam on the left, Jeff Johnston on the right. Courtesy of Jeff Johnston.

“While all works show a varying degree of flame, ash, and mineral deposits on the body, those closest to the fire will receive the heaviest coats.” – excerpt from the SAM Newsletter.

In larger kilns, like the nearly 90’ long Shueili Snake Kiln in Taiwan, firings can take several days, requiring artists to work in shifts, parlaying their own ideas and forms into a kind of group authorship. Constructing and maintaining the kiln, tending to the flames, venting, and even re-situating pieces “on the fly” contributes to the sense that every fired piece is the result of a collective effort, rather than one individual. Mastery in collaboration requires patience, understanding, compassion and the ability to actively negotiate while constantly observing and weighing the consequences of those negotiations.

In an introduction to his previous installation “Core”, Scott Meyer (University of Montevallo) paraphrases Huston Smith: “the path to universal truth originates with the particular”. Meyer goes on to acknowledge that “all kilns are fossils of fleeting moments as the wares are produced.” The Crucible Project (a collaboration of Ken Baskin, Scott Meyer, Rick Hirsch, and Michael Rogers) explores artifacts used in foundries through fascinating, other-wordly assemblages. Observing the ethereal impermanence of the flames during firing and the relative solidness and permanence of the resulting forms, Meyer & company toy with concepts of movement, change, spontaneity and experimentation.

From The Crucible Series. Courtesy of Scott Meyer.

From The Crucible Series. Courtesy of Scott Meyer.

Inspired by and incorporating artifacts of Industrialization and commercial agriculture, Kenneth Baskin explores the kinetics of mechanisms from a bygone era while challenging us with scale. Baskin introduces us to massive, yet historically hidden, elements from factories of the past, perhaps asking us to reexamine the processes by which we build our cities. Baskin’s presentation (included below) tracks his early influences, like Claes Oldenburg (also notorious for dramatic scale shifts), and leads us through past projects like his Anchor Series of works produced in Taiwan.

Courtesy of Keith Ekstam

Courtesy of Keith Ekstam

Keith Ekstam, ceramics professor at Missouri State University’s Art and Design Department, contributed a number of memorable pieces to the exhibition. I’ve known Keith’s two sons (Carl Joseph and Leland) for some time, but finally met Keith for the first time at Brick City as our tour group meandered through his studio in Fall ’15. At SAM, Keith’s altars are a surreal and playful counterpoint to Baskin’s machine-age assemblages and Baskin/Meyer’s crucibles. Storybook narratives bubble to the surface as Ekstam balances ducks, buddhist figurines, and cows heads on robust plinths and chunky teeter-totters. Check out Keith’s slideshow below for images from his travels, collaborations and firings.









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