A Marriage Made In Earth
By Tom Wachunas
“Clay. It’s rain, dead leaves, dust, all my dead ancestors. Stones that have been ground into sand. Mud. The whole cycle of life and death.” - Martine Vermeulean –
“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it’s an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.” - John Updike –
It’s taken me a long time to nurture anything approaching genuine reverence for ceramics (aka stoneware or pottery). My own experience as a practicing ceramist lasted just two quarters during my college years. Then, my mastery of “throwing” pots (i.e., forming clay vessels on a potter’s wheel) was limited to disgustedly dashing many if not most of my finished wares against the unforgiving concrete floor of the student ceramics studio. The few clumsy – make that ugly - pieces that survived my sophomore tantrums ended up as a “gift” to my parents, which they quickly and understandably packed away permanently.
Out of sight, but not out of mind. For, despite my fledgling failures with the medium, a seed of appreciation for the unique challenges of the potter’s craft did survive. Gradually, and with a modest bit of research and intentional observation, I’ve come to have real respect and even affection for those masterfully thrown vessels that transcend the ordinary.
More than 20 truly extraordinary vessels are currently on view at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) until July 22 in the show, “Journey in Clay: The Colemans.” CMA Curator Lynnda Arrasmith has been fascinated by the married couples she’s met who work together as ceramic artists, and this is the inaugural exhibit in a series that will spotlight such couples. Tom and Elaine Coleman, husband and wife from Nevada, have been working together for more than 35 years. Tom’s special expertise is in throwing large porcelain pieces, while Elaine’s is in carving and glazing, with an acute mastery of celadon glazes.
In general, many of the tapered bottles and circular platters here share the same physical form. But the artists have imbued their respective forms with a distinct surface identity and individualized aesthetic. Comparatively speaking in this context, and at the risk of oversimplifying or stereotyping the elegant uniqueness of these vessels, I do think his look like a he made them, while hers look like a she made them.
Tom’s matt glazes are like abstract paintings with undulating colors and visual textures that lend his forms a quiet yet muscular volatility. Quieter still, but equally stunning, Elaine’s celadon gems glow with a stately, sleek linearity, delicately incised with marvelous, fluid drawings of birds or leaves. The subtle but vibrant complementary relationship between the his and hers – the beautifully articulated point-counterpoint of individual approaches – makes this show richly unified.
I’m also reminded of the appeal, indeed the potency of clay itself to conjure deeply poetic, archetypal connections to the planet. Rebirthing clay - that viscous, timeless reliquary of all things earthen - into vessels as beautiful as these is very much an act of practical magic.
Photos: Top two: “Raised Lines Platter” and “Loose Bottle” by Tom Coleman / Bottom two: “Iris and Leaf Platter” and “Parrots and Leaf Bottle” by Elaine Coleman. All works are thrown porcelain. On view through July 22 at the Canton Museum of Art.