Sunday, January 9, 2011

Paul Soldner (1921-2011): "the discovery of things not sought"

"... To work in the future, we must let go of the past. Don't value too much what was so painstakingly learned. The wisdom of this was made clear to me many years ago by a drawing teacher. It happened in the last week of the semester. After complimenting me on having achieved a high level of proficiency and mastery of the drawn figure, he added, "Now let's see what you can do with your other hand"; keep searching for every question; don't trap yourself with mere facility! Walk that delicate line between knowing what one is doing and going beyond to explore the unknown.

In this connection, it is helpful to understand the Zen-like state of emptiness. Or, putting it differently, clear your mind of preconception, which can be likened to erasing a chalkboard before new information can be written on it. In the field of science, the ability to leap from a known concept to an unknown idea is called invention. In the field of art, when the same leap takes place, we call it creativity. ..."

("On Art," Paul Soldner)

(Pink Vessel, 1979)

Paul Soldner has died at the age of 89. Here is an excerpt from his January 8 obituary in the New York Times by William Grimes.

...In 1960 he began experimenting with the 16th-century Japanese technique called raku, which is used to fire the vessels for the tea ceremony. It was little known in the United States, but Mr. Soldner’s curiosity was aroused by descriptions in “The Book of Tea,” by Okakura Kakuzo, and “A Potter’s Book,” by Bernard Leach.

He constructed a makeshift kiln from a 50-gallon oil drum lined with concrete, fired a small bowl and ran to a nearby pond to cool it. “It was the ugliest piece of ceramics that you ever saw,” said David Armstrong, one of his students and the founder of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, Calif.

(Pedestal Piece, 1989)

Undeterred, Mr. Soldner fired another bowl, but this time he accidentally dropped it in a pile of pepper-tree leaves, which burst into flame. The resulting smoke imparted a gray-black, crackled finish to the glaze.

Exposing raku ware to combustible material in an oxygen-deprived chamber, rather than letting it cool in the air or water, opened new possibilities that Mr. Soldner explored relentlessly, developing new textures and color effects in pieces that placed a premium on spontaneity. His technique became known as American raku, which he described as “pottery made within a mental framework of expectation, the discovery of things not sought.”

(Photos of Soldner ceramics from American Craft magazine, October/November 2009.)

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