Updated: Sep 13
The Main Gallery is relocating to Santa Cruz Avenue in downtown Menlo Park over the next few weeks. As we begin our new adventure, we wanted to reassure you that while the “house” is changing, the “home” is not. We remain a thriving, enthusiastic cooperative of peninsula-based artists who are quite passionate about the art we create, and the opportunity to connect with you in a shared experience of the world. We bring our stories with us wherever we go, and our Meet the Artist blog series continues to unfold.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?
I don’t remember not wanting to create. Ever since I was a kid I have enjoyed playing around with materials. Think cardboard box and kids. Where others might see the material itself, or the object it was intended to be, I wanted to explore what else I could do with it. I would take a note pad with a backing of cardboard. I’d fold it in half and tape it in the front and make a boat with seats going across. Then I’d take comic characters from the Sunday comics and put them in seats going in the boat. This was a first step to collage, followed quickly by using photos clipped from magazines. I was continually on the hunt for different materials to use. I was born in Scotland but grew up in Canada and lived outside Toronto in a new housing development. There was no back yard - just mud. Which naturally led to mud on plywood, shaped into volcanoes, surrounded by leaves from trees and plants.
What life experiences would you say have had the biggest impact on your art to date?
My Dad worked as an aircraft mechanic for Avro Lancaster, a British company in Canada who made jet engines for commercial aircraft. He brought the family to the US on a permanent residence Visa for a job at SFO around the time that jets were first being used to fly passengers on commercial flights. I graduated from Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto, after which I went to Foothill College for two years and then dropped out for a part time job. In the 1960’s I was drafted into the US Army. Back then the Army had a policy of not sending the oldest non-US citizen from an immigrant family to war, unless they specifically opted to go. So instead of shipping out for Vietnam, I was stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland, near Washington, DC. I completed a two-year stint, which gave me the chance to use funding from the GI bill to go to art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, CA. Ironically, my art classes would get so interrupted by students attending protests for Vietnam War in nearby Berkeley, that I ended up dropping out of art school to work as a visual merchandising technician in retail stores. I maintained lighting, window displays, and signs for walls for a string of popular Bay Area retailers like JCPenney, Sears, Hastings, Grodins, and Men’s Wearhouse. Understanding foot traffic patterns and being inventive enough with materials to solve three dimensional problems and create a strong visual narrative was key. My job was to display the merchandise in a milieu that brought out its most appealing features, one that naturally and seamlessly fit with the product. A lot of the same logistics apply to an art gallery. They are both retail operations. However, the difference is that the gallery product is one of a kind, made by an individual artist.
How did you end up getting into ceramics?
Toward the end of my career as a visual merchandiser I was responsible for fourteen Bay Area store locations for Men’s Wearhouse. Since I made my own schedule I was able to work in some ceramics classes. My wife and I decided to try a class at Skyline Community College in San Bruno, using low fire ceramics in an electric kiln. I took more classes at Foothill Community College in Los Altos, which was enough on my work route for me to stop by occasionally to get work out of the kiln. West Valley Community College in Saratoga had a foundry where you could cast metal, and I tried casting bronze in aluminum there, and eventually landed work as a teaching assistant.
Tell us more about your process. Do you have a favorite medium?
Ceramics are definitely my favorite. Just the material itself is amazing, as is learning through physics and chemistry to work with wet, damp clay to make something. Pieces will shrink as moisture is drawn out of clay. Put them into a kiln for an initial bisque firing and the remaining moisture is cooked out. Take a second lap with glaze, which is actually clay diluted with water plus some added mineral components, then put them in the kiln again. Those mineral components create color at higher temperature firing. There are endless recipes, combinations and variations on glazes, and there are different clay mixtures too. How you combine them creates really different results.
Which aspect of ceramics captivates you the most?
The most fascinating part for me is a specific firing technique called anagama, or cave kiln firing. Japanese, Chinese and Koreans and did it this way thousands of years ago. There is a place near the San Jose-Milpitas border that is called the Spring Valley Anagama, and it is the only high temperature source of firing that I have. Pieces must have completed the initial bisque firing in a moderate temperature electrical kiln before this high temperature round. The firing space is a long brick tunnel broken up into two chambers. It takes 3 days to load from the back, approximately 5 days of firing, and 3 days to cool down and then unload in a reverse process. Once started, the fire is stoked to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, and then maintained at that heat in 6-hour working shifts by artists who tend and stoke the fire through ports. It is an extremely labor-intensive process, but the physical nature of it is also really satisfying. There is a river of liquid fire swirling around the pieces, twisting, warping, distorting and transforming them in an elemental metamorphosis that occurs real time. In the simplest terms, we are playing with fire to manipulate creative outcomes. The chance and variability inherent in the process can create some exquisitely beautiful results.
What’s your favorite part of being an artist?
I enjoy being able to see things in a way that most people don’t. Artists have a different perspective on the physical nature of things within their own environment. I guess you could say I am constantly on the hunt to collect interesting things in the visual physical sense; it’s my comfort zone. I break things down into visual components every where I go, saving them up in my mind—or as photo or drawing reference. I use these images as an inventory to draw upon at a later point when I am creating something new. It’s like having my own personal kaleidoscope, one that allows me to pull beauty and form out of really unexpected combinations of things.
What are the most challenging aspects of being an artist?
I am trying to discipline myself to a point where I am actually concentrating more on refining methods for specific things made and sold in the past so that I feel I have elevated my work product to a “finer” level. This challenge of methods and process can be both a good thing, and a bad thing. It’s one thing to be fascinated with materials; it’s quite another to wrestle with being both captivated…and easily distracted.
How do you know you are done with a particular piece of work?
The first thing you learn is that not every thing you make is going to be perfect…even though you might like it to be. There are so many variables! Over time I have developed a sense of a certain set of basics I want to achieve in the initial form. For example, the shape and balance of the piece has to be right before you move forward. You can’t compensate with decoration on top of a form that isn’t pleasing in its elemental aspects. Success means the symmetry, or intended asymmetry, is appealing as well as consistent. If the piece is sculptural or decorative, the aesthetics have to be pleasing. If the piece is intended to be functional, it has to be exactly that. I know that sounds simple, but it’s easy to get caught up in the decorative embellishments and let go of functionality mid-stream. It’s way more satisfying to have the patience to get the functionality right before you proceed to the more ornamental details. I know I am done when everything about the piece is consistent, works well together, and is just about as perfect as it could be.
How has onset of the Covid-19 pandemic changed life for you?
I think it has changed all of our perspectives—perhaps permanently. People are staying in their own environment more, making do with what they have, getting back to earlier pastimes, hobbies, and interests. Many of us are simplifying, and rediscovering things we used to do as a family—and with neighbors. There was a group of us that used to meet regularly with each other at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. Now we are taking it to each other’s backyards.
What about its effect on your art career?
When Shelter in Place came down I was teaching a ceramic class at the Menlo Park Senior Citizens Center. It has a perfect studio space, and classes were small, maybe 5-6 people at a time. I was actually getting paid on top of that—a circumstance every artist both needs and appreciates! The pandemic ended it. My process is currently dependent on external kilns, and the ones in my local area are all closed. I was able to bring enough clay home to work in garage so I could keep going. I am currently exploring appointment-basis instruction with 1 or 2 people at a time, and working with 2-3 other teachers to create video demos to share with all of our students. Eventually I plan to rewire and vent my garage so I can set up a small electric kiln. This means I will have to finish work at a mid range temp instead. Actual glazes and clay are different for mid range temp, so I will also have to shift my inventory of materials and supplies.
How do you feel about risk and experimentation and failure?
I tend not to worry about it. With any art form you invest a lot in materials. There isn’t a one-to-one relationship between what you buy—and what you are able to successfully create. Clay has a shelf life, and creative expression on multiple fronts is hard to manage to a tight schedule, especially when you throw other life responsibilities into the mix. There is a tremendous amount of material waste when you also take into consideration that creating innovative work—or refining your work process—requires experimentation and the willingness to fail. Often I get an idea for a project and spend time on it…only to realize it’s not going to work. Either I didn’t plan well enough, or I didn’t execute well.
How do you stay motivated through challenges?
I usually manage that by moving on to other pieces. Typically I’ll have 5-6 pieces going on at different stages at any one time. It helps to get comfortable with the idea that some will end up working, and some won’t. Sometimes I come back to pieces that I temporarily set aside; sometimes I decide to scrap them altogether. Yes I have had my share of misses along the way, but the trade off is that I now have an underlying confidence that I can build anything with the right time and materials.
Have you ever had pieces you just didn’t want to let go?
Sometimes I keep pieces with the idea of making an improvement down the road. I have a high-heeled shoe made out of Southern Ice Porcelain clay body. The components are mined in Australia, and it is very expensive clay. I failed at the form of it, but the material itself is precious and beautiful. The material alone can be motivating enough to get you through all kinds of logistics and hurdles even though it’s hard.
Do you have to go to art school to be an artist?
No. Being one is all in how you see things, how you absorb your environment and work within it to produce the unexpected.
What words of advice would you give to someone who is considering pursuit of art?
Spend time observing anything that interests you. Look at everything. Get beyond what you expect to see. Give yourself time to notice and absorb. It is important to explore mediums. You need to find the one—or combination of ones—that work for you personally, that you really know you can handle, you enjoy. I dabbled with watercolor, oil, acrylics, silk screen printing, sand casting aluminum, plaster and wood carving before ultimately arriving at clay as the ideal medium for me. Contrary to popular belief, creative life is not all play. Sometimes it’s just showing up routinely and slogging through it. You have to put in the time and do the work. Art should be created for reasons other than selling. If it’s just to sell, you are at risk for producing things that don’t resonate for you. I have found that when I am moved by the making of the work, it ends up being much more appealing to viewers on the other end.