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Steven Colby.

During the course of the last couple of decades, the studio pottery field has grown exponentially in terms of variety of processes, quality, and sheer number of excellent potters. Amid an admittedly diverse field, one prominent contemporary pottery trend exemplifies tour-de-force technical proficiency and apparent mastery of material and process, regardless of type of clay, firing, etc. Delineattions between studio pottery, industrial or commercially produced pottery, and high design, are becoming blurred. The mysteries of clay and kiln are becoming less mysterious, or at least it seems so to me. This mastery is not limited to the making of pottery, but extends to professional presentation, self-promotion, and all around business savvy. Potters emerge from their training, whether academic or apprenticeship, highly sophisticated, and develop resolved signature work earlier and earlier in their careers.

There is a wealth of clever pottery, but to my mind clever doesn't always provide sustenance. I've begun to wonder if an older, pre-internet paradigm provided a catalyst for an admittedly slower, but deeper investigation and personal evolution of work. The best I can describe the quality exuded by what I consider to be the greatest pots, and what I miss in some of the most polished contemporary studio pottery, is a sense of humanity born from the accumulated experience of the potter. Certainly, I am impressed to bewilderment at times by masterly control of material, as well as the technology that makes new things possible, but in terms of soulfulness, not as much. I wonder if a 3-D printed pot feeds the soul as well as a 3-D printed sandwich feeds the body.

For me, Steven Colby's pots provide a welcome antidote for the malaise of the soul evident in the trends described above. Upon my first encounter, his pots literally stopped me in my tracks, and it was as if I had blinders on concerning the surrounding work. It was during an NCECA event, and often in such cases things start to bleed into one another, and I'm sure I miss many great pots. These particular pots were a couple of footed, handle-less cups, and they just knocked me out. Decorated in multiple layers of slip and glaze, with a vaguely floral motif, the cups just vibrated. Without doing anything particularly drastic or breaking any obvious rules, these pots killed. They didn't seem to have been made with any pretension to current fashion, and though they recalled plenty of historical antecedents and world pottery traditions, from Japan to Mexico, they were self-possessed and self-assured. Unfortunately, but not uncharacteristically for the time, I did not possess the dough to buy the pots, and probably they were already purchased, but it would sure be nice to have them today to give my reflections greater clarity. Instead, I'm left with impressions rather than specifics, but I clearly recall the feeling.

Doing my best to nail down and describe the evasive quality of Colby's work, I think it is evidence of a sixth sense ability to stop at the right time, retaining the life of the material in the 'finished' pot, a sense that cannot rely on formula or pre-planning. Colby's finished pots maintain the tension they originally possessed during their forming on the wheel, and as a result remain untamed. Mastery of a rote skill or process may be just as detrimental as insufficient technical development, and over-mastery can result in the death of the soul. Colby knows when to let his pots alone, but there is a risk inherent in this willingness to work with pots in their non-domesticated state. Some of them might run away and return to the wild from whence they came. I'm reminded of a statement that Tom Waits made in reference to the process of songwriting. This is a rough paraphrase, but Waits said that you can't chase after songs with a butterfly net or try too hard to catch them. To get the good songs you've got to amble up sideways, only looking at them out of the corner of your eyes, or wait until they come to you; more like fishing than hunting. My sense is that Colby stalks his pottery with the same light touch.

Colby's pots maintain a lively dialog with their diverse historical predecessors, at times recalling Oribe ware, British medieval folk pottery, Shigaraki pottery, Mexican folk pottery, Delftware, and more--but without mimicry. Regardless of his background and academic training, Colby's pots exude the authenticity of having emerged from the folk tradition; not in the sense of Bob Dylan strumming guitars or cracker barrel neo-country-fried, but personifying unassuming, salt-of-the-earth honesty. His pots are never submissive to any dogma or particular tradition, and, perhaps counter intuitively, manage to come closer to the spirit of these old pots than is ever managed by slavish imitation. Colby describes a particular epiphany he experienced early in his pottery career:

A connection was struck the day I happened upon a grainy black and white photograph of a medieval Syrian pot that bore a striking resemblance to something my fresh and sophomoric hands had made earlier that day. Just a sloppy little form with ambiguous anatomy, a wobbly foot, a lumpy belly, a twisted neck, finishing with a pouring edge raised by the happenstance of an imperfectly pulled wall. In that moment I reached across an ocean and thru time to make a connection with this Syrian potter and his lumpy little pot made a millennium ago. Imagining the longevity of the lumpy little pot in my own studio and its potential to communicate with others I felt that I had become part of something large and important My investigation as a maker of pottery continues to be informed by this experience ...

In further describing the relationship of his work to historical pottery, Colby identifies certain key aspects that transcend barriers of culture and linear time:
   ... The pots I make today wink and nod
   at pots from history. As I chase after a
   personal expression of beauty I find myself
   vindicated by the pots throughout history
   that seem to have followed similar impulses.
   The sancai wares of Tang Dynasty China
   explore a breakdown of spotted pattern
   in yellow and green glaze sliding as they
   melt over a swollen belly. Frozen moments
   of tension and release, chaos and control,
   play in harmony. A 13th century English jug
   carries the casual confidence of its maker.
   Momentum recorded in the transition from
   volume to cylinder to spout seems to occur
   in a single breath. A handle added in just a
   few gestures, springing from and sinking
   back into the body proudly flaunts a secure
   attachment. The ragged foot informs the
   body that its symmetry arrived from an
   unwieldy lump. In my own work I celebrate
   these uniquely ceramic moments where
   material meets process.

Truly, Colby's pots don't seem new, and I'm not referring to the fact that I once purchased a cup that sported residue of a certain yeasty beverage. Regardless of their factual age, the pots seem to have developed characteristics that should rightly be the result of accumulated time and use. This is an aspect of his pots that Colby has carefully considered:
   ... Add to this the acquired experience of
   these old pots and my working process
   begins to come into focus Pots in use enter
   into an immediate state of devolving. Stains
   will form, lips will chip and glazes will dull
   as a functional pot serves its purpose. A
   good pot that cries out for use is a profound
   thing. Sipping from a well-loved mug feels
   like slipping into an ageing pair of shoes. The
   comfort and familiarity are earned. I try to
   give my work a head start on this path ... My
   pots are meant to look used, carrying the
   evidence of my experience with them as an
   invitation to commit them to service.

In observing Colby's work since I first encountered it, I'm most impressed by his bold spirit of experimentation, playfulness, and seemingly devil-may-care attitude towards polish and gloss. Though many artists at his stage of development tend to regularize, standardize and settle in, Colby is full of surprises and doesn't balk from showing the roughest of experiments. Some of his pots appear to have been self-formed, the material expressing itself. I was curious about this counter-conservative evolution, and cite Colby's explanation:
   (This) has to do with a growing degree of
   trust. Trust in my research, my dedication,
   my intentions, my practice, my curiosity.
   ... Bringing a growing sense of trust to the
   wheel--with the clay--has opened up the
   pots ... So with the 'trust' detachment from
   control is only natural ... This is a gradual,
   growing, developing process--a practice.
   The objective results from the studio--the
   pots--illustrate this development and help
   feed the trust.

Not coincidentally, Colby's Buddhist aspirations provide a catalyst and inspiration for studio practice. He notes a particularly applicable stanza from his daily recitation, "Whatever arises is fresh, the nature of realization."

In considering the overall effect of Colby's pottery, I'm reminded of a statement attributed to Hamada who, when presented with the off-kilter early attempts of a student potter, supposedly paused thoughtfully and said something to the effect (another loose paraphrase at best), "Years from now when you make this pot again, you will really have done something." By allowing the material to speak for itself, and having the good sense to know when to back off on the control, Colby really does something.

When I first became acquainted with Colby's work, his surfaces were multi-layered, colorful, floral and painterly. He has more recently honed his decoration process to the bone. His current surfaces are subtle exercises in restraint, reflecting the limitless interaction between sparse elements. He informally referred to this current approach as "jeans and a t-shirt". A Delft White glaze in particular exemplifies the subtle complexity he favors. Some pots sport text identifying the intended function of a given pot, providing poetic or humorous accompaniment, or documenting the potter's thoughts. One of my favorite examples is a plate covered in white slip through which the following words were scratched, 'Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger', and 'Just as I am'.

Another idiosyncratic piece One Tang Poem, which constitutes a small wheel-thrown jar attached to a pile of, what appear to be, trimming scraps, warrants illumination from the artist.
   I suppose it is a different piece, inspired by
   the work of a living conceptual artist rather
   than that of some dead potter. QiuZhijie is
   the artist and his piece 300 Tang Poems,
   Xieyang Island, 2000, was the inspiration.
   The artist found an old Tang water jar and
   read 300 poems into the jar--then cemented
   the pot to a bit of coastline where the tide
   would overtake the jar each evening revealing
   the pot each day--carrying the
   poems contained in the jar into the great
   ocean. My piece One Tang Poem was a
   reaction to his piece, a piece of art that to me
   has real value.

   The piece by Qiu was deep in my mind
   when I stumbled on a poem by Basho, a 17th
   century Japanese master poet, that moved
   me deeply:

       Awakened at midnight
       by the sound of the water jar
       cracking from the ice

       --Matsuo Basho

One Tang poem is a functional pot for me--an incense burner, and it is in keeping with how I work from direct inspiration. In this case it is just a mix of contemporary conceptual art and old poetry that serves as my jumping off point, rather than an orvieto jug mixed with a Peruvian cook-pot with some Cy Twombly thrown in--which is maybe a more standard place from which I've made my work.

Colby's blog may provide some clues towards illuminating the complex personality of both potter, and his pots. From one entry to the next, one is as likely to be treated to Charlie Brown comic strips, music of all description (including the Bangles, incidentally), goofy photos, sacred texts and examples of material culture from diverse traditions, and just about anything else you can think of. And of course there's pots: old pots, new pots, pots from around the world, pots from contemporary potters and pots by Colby himself, at all stages of process and development. His blog demonstrates the same ability to syncretize as his pots, demonstrating a facility to make cohesive, lively sense out of diverse and previously unconnected material. It is unique amongst the many pottery-themed blogs presently active, and provides an insightful window into the active mind of a quintessentially contemporary potter: eminently versed in and respectful of history, vitally engaged in the present, possessed of quick wit and deep intellect, boldly expressed in a constantly evolving body of work that is living, breathing and, above all, soulful.

I return to Tom Waits for a final analogy: my wife has astutely referred to Waits' music as being "like the compost pile." It's not always pretty, might smell bad at times, but is ultimately rich, complex, and though it may be harder to grasp upon initial superficial interaction, imminently more sustaining than plenty of stuff that is prettier. This could as well describe Steven Colby's pots.

More information

Adam Posnak holds an MFA from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and a BA from Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, has held multiple solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group exhibitions. In 2013 Adam was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship by the Arkansas Arts Council, and in 2009 was a Resident Artist at Tainan National University of the Arts, Tainan, Taiwan. Adam is an occasional Adjunct Professor at the University of of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and his home and pottery studio is in West Fork, Arkansas.

Caption: One T'ang Poem. 2015, wheel thrown earthenware, slip, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, 15x15x15 cm. Image credit: Lydia Clark.

Caption: Nine Plates. 2015, wheel thrown earthenware, slip, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, 10 cm each. Image credit: Lydia Clark.

Caption: White Candle Stick, 2015, wheel thrown earthenware, slip, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, 10x7.6x23 cm. Image credit: Lydia Clark.

Caption: Cream Jug, 2015, wheel thrown earthenware, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, 12.5x10x15.25 cm. Image credit: Lydia Clark.

Caption: Right: Willie Nelson Just As I Am, 2014, wheel thrown earthenware, slip, glaze, fired to cone 1 in an electric kiln, 15 cm. Image credit: Lydia Clark.

Caption: Below: Punch'Ong Bottle, 2014, wheel thrown and altered earthenware, slip, glaze, salt fired to cone 3, 23x12.5x18 cm. Image credit: Lydia Clark.
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Author:Posnak, Adam
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Apr 1, 2018
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