Contemporary Ceramics Collection Challenges The Notion That Form Must Follow Function

Contemporary Ceramics Collection Challenges the Notion that Form Must Follow Function

Who says that form must follow function? Certainly none of the artists whose handmade ceramics are set to grace the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts with their beautiful combination of useful practicality and wonderful originality. Beyond Function: Contemporary Ceramics from the Donald Clark Collection, opens June 21 through September 2, 2018, at the Springfield Museums.

The objects in the Beyond Function exhibit are gleaned from the collection of Donald Clark, a connoisseur of ceramics. Clark, whose Springfield home is filled to the brim with works in clay, is an avid and thoughtful collector. The objects in his care span decades and include many artists—both renowned and emerging. “This is a teaching collection,” Clark said. “It shows the breadth of contemporary ceramics and it explores in depth the progress of several people whose work caught my attention.”

The aesthetic of the objects follow several threads of visual, conceptual, and philosophical interest. The collection, as represented at the Springfield Museums, allows discerning eyes to see ways in which the art of working with clay has meandered as it has progressed from a teapot being simply a teapot to the heightened art of a teapot as a work of sculpture.

“I enjoy seeing how artists grow,” Clark said. “Michael Kline, for instance, developed a form called a pachyderm teapot. In this collection you can see how this form gradually became lighter.” The three teapots seen together do seem to stretch and grow in attenuation—sharing similar woodfire attributes in coloring while seeming organically animated in their juxtaposition. Trailing your eyes from one to the next to the last allows for an awareness of movement impossible to realize unless the objects were side by side.

The collection is connected not only by its medium—clay—but also by the community of people it represents. The people—the artists—are local, progressive, imaginative—many are world-class and some are just beginning (and important to watch as they continue to develop their styles). Clark has known many of them for decades. “The ceramics community in Western Massachusetts is very important,” Clark said. To describe their importance not only to the development of ceramics, but also to each other, he used the analogy of the wood-fired kiln. “You can’t wood fire alone. You need to work together. One person has the kiln, others gather the wood, everyone takes a turn stoking the fire.” Clark described a community rich in sharing ideas, training, and meals as well as the kiln in which they finish their clay work.

Clark considers his collection a way of telling the story of this community and of his own relationship to their work. “I could have chosen mugs or plates to collect, but I am drawn to certain forms and those forms help define my collection.”

The ceramicists in Clark’s collection approach their medium with practicality married to whimsy, functionality cavorting with fantasy, tradition tweaked on the nose by innovation. They also approach their work with a sincerity and intention that elevates their creations from craft to art.

Featured in the exhibition are a lustrous teapot by Beatrice Wood, a saké set with beautiful surface drawings by Akio Takamori, and innovative sculptures by Peter Lenzo and Sergei Isupov. Viewers might pay particular attention to the pachyderm teapots by Michael Kline, the evolving boxes of Michael Shapiro, and the stunning dahlia vases by Angela Fina. “She was a gardener,” Clark said. “She placed her wheel by a big window where she could see her garden filled with dahlias. Those vases are inspired by the flowers she nurtured. And she was a master at glazes.”

The second half of the 20th century was an era of unprecedented innovation, growth, and recognition for ceramics in the United States. Over the past seventy years, several generations of artists have contributed to the advancement of handmade ceramics, a movement that has earned clay arts a prestigious place in higher education and museum collections.

“The Springfield Museums have a long and strong history of exhibiting ceramics, from introducing viewers to the beautiful glazes of Brother Thomas Bezanson in 1980 and hosting a retrospective on the artist in 2001, to featuring clay arts from Puerto Rico and Japan, to displaying ceramic art from the collection of the White House. We are pleased to continue this tradition of celebrating exceptional clay work with Ceramics from the Vault and grateful to Donald Clark for his generosity in sharing his outstanding collection with our visitors,” said Heather Haskell, Vice President and Director of the Art Museums.

“We are so glad to work together with Donald,” said Maggie North, who is Assistant Art Curator for the Museums and the curator of this exhibit. “His collection displays remarkable range in style in the development of form.”

Varying in scale, shape, and color, the contemporary ceramics on view in Beyond Function represent different modes of creation that are thoughtful, vibrant, and artful. The display encourages visitors to consider the relationship between form and function; to compare shapes and glazes; to consider the master-apprentice relationship that is crucial to the development of this art form; and to enjoy the beauty of these spectacularly made pieces.

“In this collection,” North said, “shape, form, and surface are grounds for artistic experimentation and expression.”

Many of these pieces have never before been displayed. “The Springfield Museums is excited to participate in and generate conversation about the innovative work that is happening in ceramics today,” North said. “We look forward to sharing these beautifully made works of art with our visitors!”

Asked why he amass this collection? He says simply, “Because I could, I did.”

Related Programing: Museums a la Carte Lecture
The Sublime in the Everyday: The Donald Clark Collection and American Studio Pottery

June 21 @ 12:15 pm–1:00 pm
Cost: $4 | Cost for Members: $2

Handmade pottery exploded in America after WWII, with the establishment of individual studios, university programs, craft schools, and a vibrant scene that celebrated new directions and techniques. Studio potters, in dialogue with clay—the most primordial of natural materials—and in collaboration with the alchemy of fire, produced objects that embodied their unique individual voices, while serving as vessels for everyday sustenance. At their best, studio pots bring the sublime to the daily activity of eating and drinking. This talk will explore how the Donald Clark Collection illuminates the rise of the Studio Pottery movement as well as pottery’s dynamic presence in the local culture of the Connecticut River Valley.

Presented by Mark Shapiro, potter, writer, mentor, director of Apprenticelines, and founding member of POW! (Pots on Wheels)

The audience is invited to bring a lunch to enjoy during the program.
Free coffee available. Cookies provided courtesy of Big Y.