Lafayette Art Gallery's exhibit melds food, form and function
By Lou Fancher Correspondent
Food, form and function fuse into an artistic triad in the Association of Clay and Glass Artists juried exhibition, "Making the Everyday Unique: Functional Clay and Glass from ACGA."
Under the insightful eyes of juror John Toki, a renowned ceramic sculptor and retired faculty member of California College of the Arts, more than 85 works will be on display for the monthlong show at the Lafayette Art Gallery.
"Ceramics is in the forefront as fine art now," Toki said. "People don't think 'object' when they look at a piece, they think, 'art.' That's due, in large part, to artists in the Bay Area."
Toki's family has owned Berkeley-based Leslie Ceramic Supply since 1946. As a practicing ceramist and sculptor, he's poured his former track-runner's energy into developing tools and clays, many of which he refined with his students at several Bay Area colleges. Excited about the show's functional ceramic focus, he said his judging process involved imagining food on a plate, or a beverage in a glass.
"Would a restaurant use a certain platter? Would a vase suit a certain setting? Did the piece speak to fine art quality, to a soulful experience for the user?" he asked himself.
What he discovered among the entries from 20 Californians and one Washingtonian pleased him. There were diverse approaches to process; differing styles, including formal, geometric, Zen and more; techniques involving wheel-thrown, slip-cast from a mold, fused glass, hand-built, and others.
A lyrical, lively amalgamation of cultural influences emerged, he said, demonstrating a wide-open sense of thinking and freedom from specific, historic traditions.
"There are no rules in Northern California ceramics," Toki said.
Previewing a small sample of the art that will be on display in the gallery, it's easy to understand Toki's point. Portola Valley ceramist Jan Schachter and Jeannine Calcagno Niehaus, of Santa Cruz, create work evoking the spirit of acclaimed 20th century Japanese artist Rosanjin Kitaoji, who matched his restaurant's food with fine art pottery he created himself.
Teardrop vases from Avolie Glass in Mountain View and Doris Fischer-Colbrie's whimsical teapot suggest contemporary sensibilities. Each piece has a genesis reflecting its unique inheritance and a future purpose expressed in functionality.
With more than 500 members, the ACGA began as a San Francisco-based potters association in 1945. From grassroots-type sharing of glazing and firing techniques to juried exhibits, California ceramists established themselves as fine artists.
Glassblowers joined along the way, opening the organization's ceramic umbrella to encompass glasswork whose "incubator" was at innovative programs launched by educators like Marvin Lipofsky at UC Berkeley, and Robert Fritz at San Jose State.
A highlight of the exhibit will be a talk by Travis McFlynn, whose Flameware ceramics can be found in the kitchens at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, Oakland's Camino and Pizzaiolo, Bar Tartine in San Francisco, and more. He will discuss his process at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25.
The specially formulated clay McFlynn uses to create pots able to withstand heat expansion and contraction without cracking was designed in partnership with Toki, McFlynn's teacher at CCA and mentor. Toki said he worked on it for 10 years, then gave up.
Five years ago, he started in again and one day, holding a piece of Flameware he'd finished, McFlynn called with a problem. Chez Panisse sous chef Phillip Dedlow's comal (a flat cooking pan) had broken in half. Toki suggested McFlynn try making a replacement using his special blend.
"We dry mixed and made the prototype," McFlynn recalled. "It just happened."
Flameware's roots, however, travel to North Carolina's Black Mountain College and the 1950s, where innovation laid the groundwork for Toki's and McFlynn's breakthrough. And McFlynn's years of apprenticing with master ceramists fed his live-the-work philosophy.
"The best thing is actually doing it with your eyes closed, developing muscle memory," he said.
And an equal "best thing," for approaching a functional ceramic project, he said, is arriving with an unconditional "yes."