My wife and I went to Granada, Spain primarily to experience the Alhambra, which is a vast, sprawling site consisting of multiple gardens and buildings from different eras. The Alhambra is amazing and well worth a visit, and that visit can consume a couple of days. We took another day to explore some sites in Granada apart from the Alhambra.
One interesting spot was the Archaeological Museum. It’s small and very approachable, which frankly is a blessing after pounding around the Alhambra for a couple of days. The museum showcases a limited number of items from their collection, but each item is of very high quality. The museum also provides excellent background information on exhibited pieces in both Spanish and English.
I found examples of ceramics from the Iberian peninsula dating from 4,500 BC forward. An example of Neolithic pottery is shown immediately below. Ancient people developed pottery in Neolithic times (6000-3000 BC), and this particular innovation was significant in that it allowed for cooking, preserving and transporting food.
The displayed items included ceramics from Phoenician and Roman times, as well as these three jugs from the 5th century – the Visigoth era. They were thrown on a wheel, which represents another innovation in human history of the time (along with iron metalworking, minting currency, and improved cultivation of olives and grapes).
There were other examples of ceramics (and other media) from history in the museum – again with interesting background information. Here are two examples.
Apart from individual pieces, I really enjoyed the overall display of items in a beautiful architectural setting. The museum is housed in an the Castilian Palace, built in the mid-1500s. Just walking around the facility is a pleasure – interesting details everywhere.
The second place I must mention are the ancient baths in Granada. Apart from ceramic plumbing used to distribute heated water through the bath complex (not visible), these baths don’t have much to do with pottery. But they are such a cool built environment that I really want to encourage anyone citing Granada to visit them.
Natural light pours into the baths from star-shaped holes cut into the ceiling. It’s amazing to wander the rough the light and space, listening to sound echo off the stone and brick walls. Wow!
I won’t attempt a fully researched post here as I’m on the road, digesting as much as I can after a full day walking around the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I will just attach a few images of the ceramic tile work that I’ve seen. Just gorgeous.
The tile work is amazing, of course. But really what stands out is how well the builders integrated all elements of this place: tile, carvings, woodwork, bricks, colored stones, etc. On a bigger scale, the disparate buildings and architectural elements are intertwined with gardens. Individual elements are united into a whole.
One might even say the garden setting is the dominant theme, incorporating space, plants, water and light in ever-changing variations. Buildings wind within that overall garden environment, and components of the buildings (stone, brick, tile, wood, etc) wind across the building structures. Reflections of architecture in pools of water also add to the unifying effects. It is engrossing.
Kudos to the Phoenix Airport for displaying the work of multiple ceramic artists. One group of work stands out for its monumental scale: a collection of large-scale sculptures by Jun Kaneko entitled “Dangos.” They are dated 1991. Here are a selection of images showing these objects.
These sculptural objects remind me of Neolithic standing stones I’ve seen near Evora, Portugal (images below). They are about the same scale. I must admit I do not know the origin or inspiration for Kaneko’s objects.
Pináculos de azulejos are ceramic finials that decorate rooftops of many buildings in Seville, Spain. They are delightful, usually colorful, fluffs of decoration that surround rooftop edges.
I’m told by a local ceramics expert that these types of ceramic decorative pieces were made in large numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when ceramic producers thrived in Seville. I saw examples on rooftops everywhere in Seville (some colorful, others a more modest white or blue-on-white).
The culmination of this ceramic production was incorporated into the Plaza de Espana, built for the 1929 Iberia-American Exposition.
After the 1920s, decorative ceramic production in Seville began a slow descent. Large-scale ceramic factories closed, one-by-one. Now none are left, although individual potters are again sprouting up in Triana (a district of Seville).
Wandering through the Cathedral in Sevilla, Spain, this week, I came across a remarkable ceramic relief sculpture of a woman with a baby in her arms entitled “Our Lady of the Cushion.” The work is attributed to the workshop of Andrea della Robbia.
Andrea della Robbia was an Italian Renaissance ceramic sculptor who flourished in Florence, Italy, during the late 1400s. Most of his work is in or near Florence, so I was surprised to run across an example in southern Spain.
Andrea della Robbia was the nephew of Luca della Robbia, also a ceramic sculptor, and Andrea first trained under his uncle’s tutelage as a stone sculptor. He later worked extensively in glazed terracotta, carrying on certain stylistic traditions of his uncle. Andrea was so successful he, in turn, hired assistants (including 5 of his sons) to handle a large number of commissions for these types of relief sculptures around Italy.
This particular relief sculpture is placed on a plain gray stone wall of a side chapel of the Cathedral. It would be easily overlooked in this immense interior space (the Cathedral of Sevilla is the largest gothic cathedral in the world) except for the lighting. However, the cathedral staff has pointed a light down upon the wall highlighting the piece. My photographs don’t do this justice, but the light focuses one’s eye on the relief sculpture, picking it out from the general gloom. It glows.
An exhibition entitled “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” has just closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Although I wasn’t able to attend this show, I did uncover some very interesting virtual resources relating to the show. French Rococo ceramics were prominent visual references in many Disney films.
There is an overview video that’s short and a fairly good quick overview of the exhibition. It quickly highlights how Disney’s experiences in Europe shortly after WWI, particularly his observations of French decorative arts such as ceramics, furniture, textiles and painted interiors worked their way into numerous Disney feature films such as Cinderella, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast.
A few screenshots from this video may demonstrate these explored linkages more clearly.
Better in my mind is an audio guide to the exhibition that provides more detailed information about specific items on display, and how French objects like these inspired Walt Disney in his animation efforts. Although images of most of the items discussed are small, I was able to zoom in to them sufficiently to enjoy the discussion.
Once you listen to the audio guide, it’s quite interesting to rewatch the first video (above). You’ll definitely see more linkages between French decorative art and Disney animation cells, and realize how inspirational some pieces were in the oeuvre of Disney animated films, from characters to sets and backdrops.
There is a lengthy video that explores the connections between visual references of French decorative art and Disney films more thoroughly. It’s amazing to see how ideas first crafted a century or two ago are brought to life in the animation of Disney films.
Eddie Dominguez is Professor of Art at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who does a significant amount of creative work with members of the community (or, I should say, members of different communities). I first encountered one of Eddie’s pieces when travelling through the Phoenix airport a month ago. The piece is entitled “Collaboration” and is a mosaic composed of ceramic pieces. I was intrigued enough to seek out Eddie to ask him more about his work.
I had a wonderful conversation with Eddie about his collaborative work with community members across the entire span of his long career. Eddie was honest and sincere about his passion for this aspect of his creative work. I found him inspiring and refreshing.
JW: When did you first involve the community with your creative process?
ED: When I was a youngster in a small town in New Mexico, I committed to myself that if I grew up to be an artist, one of the things I would do is pay back. I would find some kids or someone else who needed some mentoring or guidance or inspiration. That has always been in the back of my mind. I studied how to become an artist, and while I was doing a visiting artist residency at Ohio State University one of my classmates was doing art in the schools. She invited me to go to a small town on a project.
Through that experience I became more interested and reminded myself that one of my primary goals in life was to bring art to people and try to make a difference through creative work. I’ve done it ever since, over and over. It’s really my preference. I don’t care to make public art that is about me or my philosophy. I prefer to make public art that’s about a place, about a community, and a group of people.
Over the years I’ve been privileged to work with people who were dying of AIDS in hostels, kids at risk, incarcerated children, old folks in nursing homes, grade school and high school kids, the whole range. My work with the community has been about what I feel – a passion, a sincere passion. I am an artist and I do creative work and I like all of that. But I genuinely enjoy reaching out to the community and working with people who will have me.
JW: Can you give me some examples of how you “involve the community”?
ED: I’m involving people in the process. I picked a discipline that is accessible. I do mosaics. That’s something that anyone can do. You don’t have to be an artist or even have to have made art before. I’ll describe a nursing home situation. I went in there and there were people who had stokes and Alzheimer’s and whatever. We brought them into an area that would be considered for recreation and we made a mural that we put on the wall, called “Hearts On The Wall.” I also brought in kids from a daycare center to that location so there would be children working alongside the elders. It was just a beautiful thing to watch and be a part of. I don’t claim any of that. I’m just there to facilitate. I’m there to motivate and help, and to show the technical stuff – basically to guide them in their creative pursuits. For the moment, people are making art, and I’ve always felt very passionate about making sure that art was presented and became part of their facility or in their hallways or living spaces.
Over the years I’ve become better at this, being able to create a quality image, with whatever situations I’m engaged in. I try to empower people working with me and not make things overwhelming or difficult. I encourage people to be fearless, and make their work possible and visible. That’s really important to me. I rarely go into a place and just have an experience. I really want there to be evidence of their effort.
I’m not really an activist. But I may sound like one when I talk about this kind of work because I’m passionate about it. It’s as big thing as anything that I do. I teach, I make art, and I think about public art works. I’ve done a project almost every year for all my life.
JW: How do these events come to be? Do you just walk in to a place and say, “This is what I’d like to do”?
ED: Ha! Well, there have been times that I’ve done that. But usually I’m invited. There was a time when I was just volunteering, trying to get my foot in the door. I wanted to see if I could motivate a group of people to do some creative thing. It was easier in the schools because schools have creative programs and you can work with a group of kids and a teacher who is interested.
My practice in this area has led to opportunities. I’ve been funded, sometimes with a little, sometimes with a lot. If I get a lot of money I can do a very large project. But even if I don’t get a lot of money, I can still do a pretty large project. When you involve community, you have a lot of hands, and a project can become monumental fairly quickly. It’s really great.
JW: What do you get out of these projects, on a personal level?
ED: On a personal level, I just feel lucky. Lucky to be working with people, strangers. It enriches my world. It’s not about profits. It’s not about reputation. It leaves all that stuff behind. It is a time of making. And it’s wonderful to witness. I feel awake. I feel driven. I have all the energy I need for it. It makes me feel….worth. I don’t always feel uplifted when I sell a cup or plate. You know. I don’t feel that.
I remember doing a project in a local school in a pretty devastated area of Albuquerque, New Mexico. All those children were at risk. Even though it’s trying and it’s difficult and you wonder, “Really, Eddie? This is hard. Is this worth it?” But at the end I remember asking a girl who worked on the project, “How do you feel?” And she said, “Important!” And that is what I needed to hear. That’s what I want to hear: “I feel good about myself.” “I feel proud.” And this is coming from children that don’t have a lot of access to anything. They don’t always feel pride. It was a moment of realization for me, that the work I’m doing with these people is affecting them.
JW: You mentioned a project that you’re working on now. Can you tell me about that?
ED: This is a commission work here in Lincoln, Nebraska: a public art project that’s a celebration of first responders at two local hospitals. One object will be a planter at a hospital that you can sit at. The other piece will be 3 columns that you can stand by. I’m getting information from many different people who want to participate. I’m collecting stories. These stories will be transcribed and I’ll go to the facility and work in the rec room. The language will be put into cloud forms on one side and incorporated into a garden on the other side. There will be flowers and vines and animals from all around Nebraska in the garden. If people want to drop in and see me at work, or help me work, that will all be part of the project. I’ll have them make a flower for the wall, things like that. I’m very excited about it. I want it to have community involvement, not just the words of different people. I’ve hired 4-6 students to help on the project so far. So there’s already a community forming. And I’m working with engineers and architects. They’re excited about making this too.
I don’t usually apply for commissions. I did one commission before, in Arizona. I worked with over 1,000 people putting a mural on the side of a Martin Luther King apartment complex. It was my first time entering the whole world of involving community. Over 1,000 people came into my life. Some just came for a day, others came back and worked on it multiple days. At the end we had a big dinner and I cooked for people. We made art. It was wonderful. In the end, that mural is owned by those people. It’s been up there for 32 years.
JW: Are there any suggestions for other artists who might like to involve community in their creative life?
ED: I talk about volunteerism in my classroom, and how that’s important. I talk about giving back to the community so you become an active member in it. I talk about my experiences. I think if a person is interested in community-based work, they kind of know that. I knew it. I had a feeling about it. And I thought about it. There was a connection between the heart and the mind. Some students weren’t interested at first but then became interested. They needed permission to try this. And then they became engaged. It doesn’t have to happen fast and it doesn’t have to happen right away.
JW: Any final observations about how you’ve managed to do so much community-based art work in your life?
ED: I’ve felt lucky. I understood what my goals were and what my dreams were and I did them. I did them all so far. And I’m not dead yet, so there are still a few more I’m going to do. I don’t know what they are yet. They’ll reveal themselves to me. As I get older I’m starting to reimagine some things that I didn’t have time to do before. I will definitely do more volunteering. My students ask me all the time: “How do you make a living as an artist?” And I tell them, “There’s making a living and there’s living a life. You’ve just got to decide how you want to live your life and you’ll make a living. I tell them, ‘It’s not just a job – it’s a lifestyle!’”
Five years ago to this day I was in Kiev, Ukraine. Two things struck me even then. First, the enormous suffering that has visited – and continues to visit – Ukraine through modern history. In the downtown area by my hotel was a long wall holding hundreds of photos of men who had recently died along the eastern border, fighting Russian separatists. The battle situation had devolved into trench warfare. It was ugly and raw. Flowers and candles sat below photographs; women wept before images of their fallen men: husbands, sons, and fathers.
Around the corner from my Kiev hotel I saw memorials to Ukrainians who had been shot by army snipers during the revolution exactly 3 years before, in 2014, when widespread riots broke out leading to the downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yankovitch and the overthrow of the government.
The recent loss of life in the past 8 years wasn’t unique. During that trip to Kiev I also visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (which we refer to as WWII). Ukraine incurred the greatest number of casualties on the Eastern front during WWII, with an estimated 8 million people dying (5.5-6 million civilians, and more than 2.5 million combatants on the front lines). This loss of life followed an estimated 3.5 – 7 million Ukrainian people who starved to death in the 1932-1933 “Holodomor” (literally “death inflicted by starvation”) holocaust, a man-made famine engineered by the Soviet government of Joseph Stalin, targeting rural farmers and villagers. The pain and death of millions of Ukrainian people in modern history is simply staggering.
The second thing that struck me about Ukraine was the deep spirituality of the people. I witnessed Russian Orthodox church ceremonies and also walked with believers deep into the Kyevo-Pechora’ka Lavra caves holding candles to illuminate my way.
I feel for the Ukrainian people who, once again, are facing the terror and destruction of war.
The online collection is nicely done, as would be expected from the Smithsonian Museum. Clicking on any particular object displayed in the overall grid leads you to more detailed textual information on the particular object.
Clicking on the photo in the individual page gives you access to high quality photographs of the object (typically from multiple sides) that allows a viewer to drill into detailed areas.
The sinuous forms and delicate colors of Ryan LaBar’s industrial-like sculptural work immdiately attracted my eye. Through a conversation, Ryan told me how he came to his process through coursework assignments while earning an MFA at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He also told me about his studio set in the thriving art community of Jingdezhen, China, where he has been a working sculptor since 2015.
JW: You evolved from a maker of functional vessels into an abstract sculptor. Will you tell me more about that evolution?
RL: Evolution is the correct word, and I remember the day that was the spark to the fire of the new direction. I entered graduate school at UNL (University of Nebraska at Lincoln) with a portfolio of functional pottery and was excited to study under one of my favorite academic potters, Pete Pinnell. UNL has a 3-year program and I was nearly half way through my first year. There was a heavy John Dewey philosophy there and in short; I use an analogy of an artist on his horse. In the first year of the program the artist is knocked off the horse he came in on. The second year he walks alone, searches for another horse, or attempts to get back on his first horse. The third year is a manifestation of the second year’s path.
In that first semester, I was being knocked off the horse I road in on when my professors asked me to throw away all the pots in my studio. Defiantly, I didn’t throw them away, and instead, packed them up in a box set for storage. When I was packing the boxes, I was simply placing the dejected teapots on top of each other in a disorderly manner, I saw something in that pile and decided to not store them and instead, wire and fire them together in a pile. That was the spark to the fire that I continue to stoke daily, 12 years later.
JW: What drove you toward abstraction?
RL: In my opinion, abstraction allows more room for interpretation. Art elicits experience and in order to do so, it should transform the viewer into artist, transitioning the viewer into a creative space allowing for interpretation through experience. I am not saying only abstraction can do this, but it equals the playing field a bit more and rather than interpreting a story through recognizable narratives, it has more opportunity to carve out new interpretive and creative territories of experience.
For me, abstraction allows materiality, phenomenology, and process to speak louder. Content becomes interpretive for both audience and artist, equaling the playing field, as viewer becomes artist.
JW: From what I can tell, your process involves throwing circular bands, bending them into unique shapes and sometimes carving out geometric shapes from the clay bands. Then you assemble the finished clay “parts” into an assembled sculpture. How did you come up with this overall process?
RL: Actually, most of my thrown parts are not bent after throwing them; however I do make a series of wall compositions of thrown and altered bands. I fire the almost honed parts to bisque temperature and build with those parts, supporting the base at certain points with various soft brick constructions. The parts interlock and when subjected to heat, bend, warp and connect through pyroplasticty and the melting of glaze. This process came about as an evolution of trial and error, and I liken it to learning a language.
In pottery, the firing process is somewhat hidden and its action is muted. Any movement in clay or glaze was often considered a fault, where material’s voice was silenced as the object was sent to a seconds pile. I was interested in glaze flow, material softening and bending in the kiln, and decided to let the kiln finish the works and become sculpture.
JW: Have you always worked on a large scale, or has that changed over time?
RL: Actually, I don’t predominantly work on a large scale. I wish I could, but logistics of moving the work prevents such undertakings. I prefer to be in control of all my process from beginning to end, which means, I make work that I can handle by myself. When I have access to larger kilns and assistants, I really like to build large, as scale can create more moments of intimacy.
JW: How carefully do you work out your sculptural designs? Are all these interlinked shapes planned in advance, or is your process fairly spontaneous and intuitive as you work?
RL: Again, I will defer to my process like the development of a language. I create a library of parts. The library contains parts that provide separate duties. Some parts are connectors, some are foundational supports, and others can be used only compositionally. I like to amass a large library of parts before I begin to build my sculptures.
I build somewhat spontaneously, or I prefer to say, intuitively. I liken my process to that of a painter who subconsciously reacts, laying down color and then stepping back to consciously interpret the layer. I will build a sculpture of stacked and interlaced bisque parts and then tweak it at the end to ensure that the imagined movement and connections will orchestrate in a desirable manner. I will then color code each part and deconstruct the sculpture one piece at a time, taking pictures throughout the deconstruction. Then I will glaze according to code and reassemble follow the map of pictures.
I also sit down at the wheel and make parts in a somewhat random and intuitive manner. My library of parts can dictate what I make. If I am out of small cylinders, I make a batch of small cylinders…I never weigh out clay or preplan parts. I let process guide me. It’s a dialogue, a back and forth, between the clay and I. I work best when I am somewhat distracted, listening to a tv show for example, flowing with the direction the clay and my hands want to go. Too much intention is dangerous.
JW: I’m guessing there is some interplay between building your particular vision of a piece and, in firing, the destruction (or at least modification) of that vision as the clay softens and changes shape. Do you find yourself tugged toward one side of that equation or another?
RL: More control / less control? This is a good question and I have to say that there is a balance of courting expectation while leaving room for happenstance. Leaning towards one way or the other will create a sculpture that looks too tight and controlled on one side or too loose and discordant on the other side.
I believe every true creative process carries a space where the creator must let go of conscious control to let the system unfold naturally to become what it is to become. Magic happens in this space. It’s the space where the composer lets the orchestra play the music or the director lets the actors become the story. The artist must leave room for moments of a natural unfolding, and to me, this is the dance and unification of parts under under high heat within the kiln.
JW: I’ve seen color make appearances in some, but certainly not all, of your series. What drives those decisions?
RL: Color, like form, shadow and space, can guide composition. Sculpture has 360 degrees of compositional viewpoints, as opposed to one with a painting. I must consider all angles and their transitions. This is a constant consideration that requires some compromise. Again, it’s a balance. I may be drawn to a color or certain glaze effect on its own and desire to explore it as a contributor to my sculpture’s composition. I guess it depends on the day and mood too.
JW: I understand that you relocated to Jingdezhen, China, in 2014 and set up Lab Artz, your studio and innovation center. Will you tell me more about what you’ve set up there? Are you able to do things in Jingdezhen that you may not be able to do elsewhere?
RL: I was invited to Jingdezhen to make work in the fall of 2015. I was at a new art center and was one of the first artists there. The center wasn’t fully operational at the time, so I couldn’t fire during my first visit. I had to return early 2016 to compose and fire all my parts, and at that time, I had created a large library of parts. I ended up making many sculptures through a longer than expected duration of time. Because I stayed longer, I was introduced, via Instagram of all places, to some hopeful young entrepreneurs who wanted to build a workshop space for tourists. I partnered with them and designed and built Lab Artz.
For the first three years we worked together, and I ended up buying them out in year four, at which time, Lab Artz became my personal studio. My studio is at the heart of Taoxichuan, which has been described as a ceramic Disneyland. I believe it’s the largest art park in the world, as it is still growing (there is phase two construction outside my back door as I type). The campus is filled with studios, galleries, restaurants, hotels, and education centers. A new state of the art glass studio has recently been finished, along with a new materials workshop. You have to come here to see it, as it still blows my mind to this day.
Jingdezhen is the porcelain city. It’s where it all began. The second language is porcelain. I have access to all things clay and for anyone working in porcelain, it’s a mecca. China also has energy and can do attitude. There is a deep connection and appreciation for ceramics. The market for my work has been supportive, as I have placed my work in many collections and site-specific projects. The cost of living is next to nothing and the international community (pre covid) has been stimulating. I recommend anyone who has a love of clay to visit Jingdezhen…Let’s hope the world opens up soon.
You can see more of Ryan’s work on his website. Spend some time here – it’s a wonderful place to get lost.
I’m also linking you to a video of Ryan, showing some of his work process: