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Ira Winarsky: vessels of light and landscape.

And the rain's comrade, the bow of Iris, wove her many colours into a rounded track and shone bent under the light-shafts of Helios the Sun opposite, mingling pale with dark, and light with rosy." ~ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 2. (Translated by Rouse) (Greek epic C5th AD.)

A DECEPTIVELY CALM CERAMIC FORM RESTS DORMANT outside Ira Winarsky's house of glass as the sun appears as a sliver over the horizon. The humid air feels heavy as clouds crowd the sky overhead. Slowly, the darkness thins out and, like parking-lot motor oil transporting the broken concrete to a galaxy of colour, the iridescent bowl wakes up, a thumping pulse of life held together by unbroken surface tension. The glaze drips over voluptuous curves sodden with colour, the complexity of surface transforming the subdued lines of the vessel like a skin pulled taut over a rippling orb of tonal mercury.

The damp heat rises from the verdant surface of 15 acres of land in Gainesville, Florida, US dubbed 'Iraland'. An unexpected flash of lustrous colour appears as 20 peafowl roam the overgrown area, tending to their own business while a German shepherd, affectionately known as Rosie, diligently stands by. The environment births an appreciation for regional colour in Winarsky's work. As we psychologically absorb the pallette of the spaces in which we exist, so Winarsky has collected the sticky, iridescent, scintillating sweat that drips under the heat waves of the wetlands and projected it onto his vessels.

Winarsky's interpretation of forms using lustre and iridescent glazes can be described as an ongoing study in the chemistry of light. Early works in fluorescence and phosphorescence, later departed from because of their toxicity, marked the beginning of a journey into experimentation with metallurgy and its interaction with light. Winarsky graduated from the sculpture program at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he was exposed to both the old traditions of sculpture and new technologies. The similarities of his glazes over opaque clay, to the look of radiant moulten metal in casting, is uncanny. Additionally, his early work revolved around programming sculptures to interact and move to the action of the viewer, this interactive quality of his work has been maintained throughout his career.

Winarsky claimed that he was forever changed after seeing one of Beatrice Wood's works in person and identifies that experience as the spark for a lifelong investigation. "When I saw Beatrice Wood's art at the Garth Clark Gallery in New York City, I was 'blown away'. Her art used more than lustre glazes; it also used iridescent ones. 1 knew at that time that an iridescent glaze was possible. Wood, however, never disclosed the formulae and other processes for creating her art."

Living a double life as an architect and professor by day and 'mud slinger' by night, Winarsky applied the same methodical and analytical process of designing buildings, including his own home/ studio/gallery, to ceramics and glazes, albeit on a smaller physical scale. Just as we interact with the designed spaces we occupy, Winarsky's landscape vessels engage the viewer, with their uniquely radiant coloration and through their reflective natures. Winarsky demonstrated a commitment to controlling the ephemeral interaction of light on the skin of his forms through the rigorous calculation and testing of ceramic materials. "My passion for the last 20 years has been to discover the iridescent glaze secrets and to use them to create a rainbow of colours of new iridescent glazes for my art. Because there was almost no literature on the subject, I had to start my research with the basic chemistry and physics of light." His alchemy, beginning in 1988 with his first successful iridescent vessel, has been a lens into the secret life of light.

His warm, avuncular voice over the phone elaborated on the sophisticated process of creating, glazing, firing, documenting and 'grading'. The glazes and forms, like malleable students awaiting their report cards, are evaluated on their successes with As, Bs, Cs, Ds and the occasional unfortunate F. Winarsky, however, describes the glaze as only a "small part of the whole result".

Generally speaking there are three photographs taken of each piece at different stages. Winarsky stated that "Each firing ... includes documentation of the firing program, the plan of every kiln shelf, the glaze formulae and application methodology and more than 30 other significant elements of data." Three or more sprayed layers of glaze on each piece are formulated from some 400 ingredients found in his glaze lab and these were the building blocks of his extensive colour palette. The colour wheel range includes the more common copper to silver, blues, greens and coveted golds, pinks and purples. The fact that Winarsky completed about 300 glaze firings and documented more than 3000 test glazes with 20 plus pages of documentation per firing, makes the binders of details, drawings and snapshots a monumental work in themselves.

Though over the years Winarsky generated a variety of structures--experimental, sculptural and rigid--to display his fluid lustres, the vessels though were a constant companion in his studio. Conscious of the context and history of the vessel within the ceramic arts, he utilised and commented on the interior and exterior nature of the vessel as a contemplative and expressive canvas. His thicker-than-expected vessels elbow the anorexic aims of the ceramic world's obsession with thin walls. Winarsky separated himself from the ornamental tradition of service ware and the questionably functional by minimising the figurative constraints of foot, lip, shoulder and belly. Purely decorative, his forms are like a single droplet that has just crested the surface of a still pool before the water rushes back to fill the void: rounded, fluid, an encapsulation of movement. What was changed with glazing and surface treatments over form was an intentional catching, bending, distortion and manipulation of light. Winarsky's goal was to transform the interaction of the viewer into a complete sensory experience.

His vessels are transcendent landscapes. Topography was a key topic for Winarsky. An ongoing interest in rock formations was embedded in his works, including his vessels. In abstract forms he captured the essence of shifting waters, sands, cleaves, crests and valleys that constantly alter and flow from plane to plane.

Winarsky referred to these vessels as "ground up landscapes" an odd description with double meaning that plays on the origins of materials used in the field of ceramics. This is no coincidence, as Winarsky was a specialist in ecological design who taught integrative ecology at the University of Florida. Integrative ecology facilitates a positive exchange between the design of structures and the living environment. His vessels, in a similar manner, are integrated into their visual and physical environments without disturbing the delicate balance between them, occupying places within the environment but also offering their own unique interpretations and contributions. He elaborated on the cultivation of his domain 'Iraland' a vivacious wet prairie and the push and pull as two dominant forces sometimes find themselves at odds. Just as we clear the land to make way for inhabitation, the foliage and other living organisms of Iraland alter the impressed human paths and dwellings. Winarsky jokingly spoke of this tug of war in reference to his sometimes impenetrable mile-long driveway of lush wilderness. His relationship to the place was deep, beyond sentiment, an understanding of the symbiosis of the man-made and natural.

The hues of Winarsky's glazes were based on the dynamic iridescence found in the natural world. He then iterated this connection on the surface and solidified it by reflecting the terrain around it. These surfaces were constantly in flux, much like the shifting tectonic faces of our planet, at the mercy of natural forces, above all the sun and its influences as a heavenly body. The artist completed these photonic connections with titling such as Vernal Equinox #1232 #5, a vessel like a red moulten pool of bronze with a seductive golden drip protruding from its core."

Winarsky carefully documented these landscape vessels in photos taken outside so that lithe trees appear rooted in the surfaces, while the metallics ripple outward, reflecting water and sky. The surface varies from textured grit to smooth glass, like crags encircling an oasis of sweet pulp. The vessel surfaces create clear hues and foggy mists as light funnels down into centres that are like black holes, sucking the viewer into their vortices.

The works are highly interactive, picking up every nuance of the surrounding environment of Iraland. In order to remove his reflected presence Winarsky wore what he described as a "black ninja costume". Red skies and dark masses travel along the surfaces as the shutter snaps open and closed, removing the definite boundaries between object and surreal environment. There is a trilogy of captured light: from landscape, to glaze, to film.

Of course these pixelated versions fall short of the viewer's experience of occupying and interacting in the same space. Winarsky's self-described claim to fame was having the largest collection of Ira Winarsky artwork. He insisted on living with his work in an intimate way, as his studio, gallery and home were all one. "My property, its landscape and house, studio, plants and wildlife, are the essence of the inspirations of my art," he says. "I personally designed and built the house to be in harmony with the surroundings and then did the same for my studio." The walls of glass were intentionally fabricated as only thin, permeable membranes separating him from his artwork, living quarters and the landscape around him. "I prefer to work on my art outside, under my studio roof," said Winarsky. "More often than not a group of peacocks will sit nearby watching me work."

Winarsky understood the best conditions for experiencing the artworks and what makes a piece 'wake up'. "First take it outside on an overcast day. Direct sunlight will bleach out the iridescent colours, but will not hurt them. If it is sunny outside, look at it in the shade. Do not look at it under a roof that blocks the view of the sky. Look at it and find your reflection. Note what you are wearing and look at it again with different clothing. Notice how the vessel reflects the environment and note the many iridescence colours. Turn the piece and see how the colours appear and disappear and change with your angle of view. Turn the vessel over and note the iridescence there as well."

Following his instructions outside on my second-floor landing on a dreary day in Kansas, I had the privilege of handling one of his works: a ripe green-hued vessel that pressed into my hands with a satisfying heft that matched the metallic essence of the glaze. The thin prismatic surface began revealing the world around it with stunning clarity, a multihued polarised reflection painting that any canvas collector would envy. The curves compressed the colours into tight bands before sending them racing across the edges like particles on the event horizon of a black hole that has dropped into the cradle of the interior. My fingers trailed across the skin, mottling the surface, as the oil from my fingerprints became islands on the bright watery sheen. My reflection distorted itself in a spectral way. As Winarsky observed, "I am creating ceramic art that interacts in harmony and with the person viewing it and with its environment. The art pieces possess the qualities of sensuality, intimacy and time because they respond to one's presence and to one's environment. Each piece changes each time you see it; the colours and iridescence are never the same."

Winarsky self-published three books on his work, and was working on one more which he dangled tantalisingly as a no-holds-barred account of his long relationship with lustreware, a mammoth task. Winarsky described this forthcoming publication as "a detailed primer on the technology used for the creation of iridescent glazes, including my secrets for the glaze formulae and the processes required for making them".

Little accurate information has been published on the subject, though the tradition of lustreware can be dated back to the 9th century. Past figures such as Beatrice Wood, Wedgwood, George Ohr, Takuo Kato and Vivika and Otto Heino have taken their secrets to the grave, "adhering to a centuries-old tradition that required that the formulae and processes required to make iridescent ceramic glazes be kept secret, as they were considered a type of alchemy. The alchemists, and artists using these glazes rarely disclosed how they made them." Now Ira Winarsky has done the same.

Sarah McNutt is a ceramics artist currently pursuing her MFA at Kansas State University. She has exhibited nationally and explores topics in psychology through the use of figurative sculpture and video projection (
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Author:McNutt, Sarah
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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