Tea drinking in America is steaming up,
and so is collecting teapots
When the first teapot was fashioned centuries ago, the first collector couldn’t have been far behind. This charming, versatile vessel has a way of capturing our interest, not only with its promise of a steaming cup of tea but also with its seemingly unlimited potential for individual expression.
For the 21st century, interest in teapots is brewing stronger than ever, according to Leslie Ferrin, co-founder of Pinch and Ferrin Gallery in Northampton, Mass., and curator of dozens of teapot exhibitions since 1979.
“Several things have happened over the past few years to solidify and legitimize teapot collecting,” Ferrin says. “The Charles A Wustum Museum of Fine Arts in Racine, Wisconsin, received the 260-piece teapot collection of Donna Moog; the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., continues to acquire teapots and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art features numerous teapots in its ‘Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000,’ scheduled to open in June and tour the country.”
Every year, Celestial Seasonings, the herb tea manufacturer, sponsors a competition for artists to create teapots—and this year teacups—inspired by the well-known Sleepytime bear. Selections from Celestial Seasonings’ permanent collection are always on view at company headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. The annual show runs from June 22 to September 9.
Over the years, teapots have evolved from strictly functional to strikingly sculptural, giving rise to shapes and sizes as varied as the artists who make them. Ceramics will undoubtedly continue to dominate as the medium of choice, although silver, which throughout the Victorian Age equaled that of porcelain, is seeing a recent rise in popularity among artists and collectors. Although glass, wood and other metals are more unusual, they too are generating interest. With such a wide range of choices, it becomes more important than ever for collectors to focus their acquisitions.
“Listen to yourself and determine what works for you,” Ferrin advises. “Collectors shape their collections the same way that artists shape their bodies of work. Collecting is their creative output, so making those choices can bring a great deal of enjoyment. Some people focus on the narrative aspects of teapots. Abstract pieces appeal to others who are intrigued by the simple aspects of the form, such as the proportions of the various elements—spout, handle, body, lid, foot. Others will choose an area in which to install a collection and buy pieces based on how they work together.”
That’s what Sonny and Gloria Kamm did when they moved to their new home 15 years ago. They selected a few teapots from their collection and displayed them on shelves above the bar. “There were a few empty spaces, which created a vacuum that needed filling,” Sonny recalls. “It sort of ‘teaballed’ from there!” Today, they own a major collection of more than 1,000 contemporary and 3,000 antique teapots.
The Kamm’s collecting has been purely subjective as they explored the evolution of the teapot from early to contemporary examples. “We look for the same qualities that one would look to find in a painting or sculpture,” Sonny explains. “Artistic merit, excellent workmanship, proper scale—perhaps humor, a message or merely an eye-pleasing form.”
Functional teapots are a good place to start collecting, as they tend to be reasonably priced—under $400 and averaging $200 to $300. In addition to studying their strength of form and design, Ferrin stresses the importance of noting the balance of the handle, determining whether the spout drips and considering the scale—will it hold the amount of water you want?
When selecting sculptural teapots, attention shifts to the individual expression of the artist. For works in a series, prices range from $500 to $1,500, while one-of-a-kind teapots can start at $1,000 for emerging artists, range from $2,000 to $10,000 for more established artists and run more than $20,000 for seminal works from important artists of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Novice collectors would do well to follow emerging artists throughout their careers. “If you are starting a collection, look for artists at local gallery exhibitions, graduate school thesis shows and general ceramic survey shows,” Ferrin adds. “Learn all you can by reading books and magazines and seek out what interests you. At our annual show, I try to bring in four or five artists who we haven’t shown, and I often find them at graduate presentations. I look for their individual point of view and the strength of the shape, form, concept and, of course, a mastery of technique.”
New collectors may also want to consider acquiring a few pieces from established artists as an anchor for their collections. From her stable of artists, Ferrin recommends the latest series of such well-respected artists as Susan Thayer, Joan Takayam Ogawa, Deborah Groover, Geo Lastomirsky and Red Weldon Sandlin. “Their work continues to develop and their newest series are very exciting,” she adds. “Up-and-coming artists to watch for include Kathy King, Susan Beiner and Eunjung Park.”
As the new century unfolds, interest in teapots no doubt will continue to develop with both collectors and artists. “In the 21st century,” Sonny Kamm adds, “we’d like to see more artists, not just those traditionally in the craft field, use the teapot form as a canvas for creating wonderful sculpture out of diverse materials and more varied scale.”
This article appeared in AmericanStyle.
When I compare Daniel Brush’s artistry with that of the butterfly, it is with the sincerest respect for the process each undergoes to produce exquisite bodies of work. Both sustain extreme isolation in order to create astonishing beauty. Both take part in a metamorphosis that is at the same time of them and beyond them. And both, despite their magical, complex results, are simply the natural outgrowth of their becoming.
Brush, who only a few years ago emerged from a self-imposed 20-year exile, was the subject last fall of a 70-piece retrospective exhibition entitled Daniel Brush: Gold Without Boundaries at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. This was the first time the general public could view his work since the 1970s, when his paintings were featured in two solo exhibitions in Washington, D.C., at The Philips Collection in 1974 and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1977.
At the time, Brush was a tenured professor of fine art at Georgetown University, but in 1977, he moved to the Manhattan loft he still shares with his wife, Olivia, and their son, Silla. More recently, in 1988, his work was published in a lavish book by Harry N. Abrams which, though it shares the same title, is independent of the Renwick exhibition.
At the Renwick, Brush’s extraordinary work in pure gold, steel, fossil ivory, and gems was displayed chronologically, systematically documenting the various periods of his life’s work. But it is of deep importance to the artist that we try to look beyond the individual stages and view the objects as an entire body of work.
“It has been a 30-year journey of idiosyncratic identity with many turns, twists, and eccentric blossoms along the way,” Brush explains. “To focus on work that was done 20 years ago or to select work that favors a particular period only reflects personally selected taste.”
The eccentricities he refers to are his Etruscan-rivaling granulation domes that draw so much attention. And the distinctive Bakelite and gemstone creations that, when viewed in conjunction with the explanatory text panel, are captivatingly fun.
And those butterflies. The ones with delicate, gossamer wings made of hand-carved horn and pure gold adorning the fossil ivory, two-piece set Table Pomander (1984-85). And the ones of pure gold alighting on the undulating steel of Butterfly Box (1991-93) and the radiant gold of Butterfly Bowl (1991-1994), which seems itself to flutter under so many sets of wings.
In a text panel excerpted from Abrams’ book, Brush explains the importance of the butterfly in his work. “My son’s summer Monarch butterfly harvest started a collection of ‘remembered childhoods,’ ‘domestic scenes,’ ‘beautiful shadows,’ ‘adult proportions,’ ‘lyrical gestures,’ and ‘precious things.’ I traveled to see Chinese vases of ‘one thousand butterflies,’ and carefully read the haiku of Basho and Buson. Lalique’s brooches became as familiar as the science of flight in the Gossamer Albatross. The process that my son started flowed as the Tang dynasty poet Han-Shan described how ‘days and months slip by like water.’
“Quite unexpectedly, after 11 years, the collected bits fermented into the butterfly pieces. And the more that I accepted the referential context and the charm of the drama, the more abundant the production became. What I harvested was my uneasiness with the play. On one level I was making ‘butterflies,’ and yet on a deeper level I felt enlightened. I did ‘look out at all the young girls, dancing with golden butterflies swinging from their hems, and dream of the smell of the persimmon trees.’ It all removed me from the everyday. I am sure my work appears to be an uneven, eccentric journey, yet it is one that is unedited, with all the original momentum, pauses, and eccentric blossoms intact.”
So why does he object to my likening his long isolation and brilliant re-emergence to that of the butterfly? He explains that though the general public was not aware of his work, his body of work has been extremely well known by a few patrons for over 20 years. He is one of those unique artists who has been spared the commercial considerations of creative work, who, without making the first call, has been graced by the support of patrons.
“They do not just consume an object and take it,” Brush adds. “The people I have been lucky to meet are extremely courageous, very sensitive, and financially able to walk alongside. That has allowed me to be removed, and that removal has let me do the work.”
Okay, but metaphors by definition are never literal, and goodness knows there is nothing literal about Brush. Ask a seemingly simple question and expect a complex, roller-coaster-ride answer that loops up and down and around. Consider his response to why he chose certain gemstones:
“I saw the Australian pink diamonds when they first appeared in America, about 10 years ago. I was struck by the extremely charming, blushing youthfulness of the color. It coincided with the drama I was grappling with Zo, a female, near-middle-aged character in the Japanese Noh theater who inspired my paintings in the early ‘80s. She is described as being ‘troubled at the loss of her feathered robes.’ Yet with all her focused concern, she always exhibited yugen—extreme elegance. I searched for Zo’s robes as well as her troubled emotions . . . . Pink plastics, Australian pink diamonds, blushing pink woods, and Tang dynasty poetry pointed the way to her. I needed to understand ‘intensely charming,’ ‘aching smiles,’ ‘ferocious sentimentality,’ and ‘focused frivolity.’ Industrial plastics together with worldly vale and precious gems gave an edge to my understanding. What resulted are the Bakelite and diamond works. These ‘precious things’ are Zo’s drama . . . I liked the feeling that something was absolutely serious and yet extremely light in its touch and character. It’s that comfortable uneasiness I’ve looked for for years. If you can make something where it actually produces a drama that is both charged and subtle, I find that it pulls the viewers in, and the more the viewers are pulled in, the more they begin to create that work for themselves, and as they create the work, it becomes continuously fresh when I begin to see it in their eyes or mine.”
According to the Renwick’s Senior Curator, Jeremy Adamson, the Brush exhibition, more than most, has captured the imagination of the visiting public.
“What I find so rewarding about this exhibition is the degree to which large numbers of people have sincerely connected with the artist through the work,” Adamson says.
“Normally, people come and enjoy the objects for their aesthetic value, but here we have a much larger number of people who have been very deeply moved and fascinated by the character of the artist who made the objects. They have connected with their perceptions of him through the work and quotations on the wall.
“The exhibit is somewhat of a transcendent experience—out of the norm, outside the ordinary, and it answers what curators want to do, which is to provide experiences of the abnormal that point to ways that help us enhance visitors’ imagination.” A Sunday-afternoon lecture by Brush also attracted almost 500 people, one-third of whom had to be turned away; many lectures at the gallery attract only a fraction of that number.
After only a short conversation, it becomes obvious that Brush views his work as something that leads to a deeper level of understanding of life rather than something in and of itself. At times, this can mean sitting for hours looking out at the Manhattan water tanks as they change colors with the sky, working on vintage motor cars, or studying 18th-century French metallurgical treatises. In and around all of it, something called his art happens.
“There is a great nobility and courage required to work for a long period of time with the hope that through hard work, when you least expect it, you’ll hear a tiny sound of your own whisper,” Brush says. “I keep believing in that. Is it romantic? Of course it’s romantic, but I like that.
“I find that the subtlety and eloquence and abrasiveness of an idiosyncratic voice takes a lifetime to even come close to. I found that studying the nine Levels of Understanding for a Noh theater actor gave me some companionship. It’s about moving deeper and deeper into levels of understanding and profundity. But as I move deeper and deeper, I think I have come closer to understanding about divesting my ego and letting something pass through me. And that is when your touch becomes light, and you hopefully stretch toward some romantic and hard understanding of enlightenment.”
It could be argued that Brush’s body of work really began almost 40 years ago, when, at the age of 13, he visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Standing before a display case of Etruscan goldwork, his heart pounded in a way that he says had never happened before. At that early age, Brush was compelled to learn how it was made, and his parents generously guided him toward his won creativity.
His work becomes even more remarkable when you realize that Brush is self-taught, though that is like saying that Albert Einstein taught himself relativity one day on a moving train. When faced with technical problems, Brush has methodically devoured sources and information for the solutions. He taught himself to use 18th- and 19th-century English and French foot-powered lathes, one which some of his earlier works were turned. (He eventually amassed the largest private collection of antique lathes in the world.)
Brush spent days at the steel mills in Pittsburgh, the same city where he earned his undergraduate degree from Carnegie Institute of Technology, just down the road from Cleveland, Ohio—another steel town—where he was born in 1947. He worked as a machinist in New Jersey and earned his master’s degree from the University of Southern California. He taught himself to make drills that can accurately bore a hole smaller than the eye can see.
According to Adamson, this dedication runs deeper than mere obsession. Brush challenges the history of object makers and set out to understand and conquer.
“He’s not a contemporary artist trying to make things for sale,” Adamson explains. “He’s an individual who’s locked into a very personal journey in which he’s trying to come to terms with finding a means to create a unique, personal voice. He does this by examining and getting under the skin of diverse traditions and technologies, searching out the voices that others have used that have attracted him, assimilating them, and trying to get to a point at which he can honestly say that he has worked his way through history, come to an understanding of the ways and means that other cultures and societies have expressed themselves, come to terms with the magical properties of making objects, and found a way in which he can, indeed, be more comfortable with expressing himself. The harder it is, the more important it is [for him] to take it on, because the whole issue, gain, is not the making of objects for commercial sale but trying to work through problems that are of a personal, spiritual, and psychological sort so that he feels comfortable that he can, indeed, speak with a voice that is his own.”
The latest phase in Brush’s body of
work features steel-and-gold sculptures with such delicately carved,
curved lines you find yourself asking, “Is this wood or slate . . . or
maybe clay? Surely it can’t be steel.” But it is. First Piece (1997),
for example, was hand-wrought, line by line, plateau by plateau, using
only a hammer and chisel. Though Brush wears layers of protective
gear—goggles, welder’s boots, leather chaps and aprons—he says that
every day that he carves, his hands and chest are covered with steel
splinters and blood. The splinters as so fine that they can only be
found when the rust appears under the skin.
Through his hard work, introspection, and letting go, Brush has achieved a profound balance in his life. So what more does he hope to accomplish? “When I get up in the morning, and after I sweep the floor, and after I grapple with the same confusions I had when I was 20,” he says, ‘I now have those 31 years of distance that help me somehow move some of those clouds away. What happens next? I don’t know. I don’t know whether tomorrow I’ll be painting or working on gold or sitting and wondering about the color of the winter air. I do know I will keep looking and keep walking, perhaps for the longing of more understanding or clarity that is hopefully reflected in something I make.”
All sorts of stories circulate about Brush not selling to just anyone, how he refuses to engage in casual talk about the purchase of his pieces. He’s clearly not interested in those who can give him only money. He wants to sense a connection, what Adamson has witnessed at the exhibition, a shared understanding about the work and everything it stands for.
“More and more I keep finding that an emotional spirit is extremely important to me. If something I touch can somehow, with its own entity, touch someone else,” Brush says, “then art has become a great vehicle between people. It touches a spirit. It somehow says that if I get up, they get up. If I work, they work. If I keep pushing toward a further limit, maybe something continues that way. I don’t know. There’s a man who has become a very good friend. He is an important curator in Europe, and he has sat in my studio holding a piece, and he’s fallen asleep with it in his hands. I waited for the exact moment his eyes popped open, and I instantly asked him what he had been dreaming. Somehow I felt that the art had taken him into a place for himself, and when he then told me of his place, that let me move on to the next work.”
And thousands of butterflies gently stir the air.
This article appeared in Lapidary Journal.
Portraits of the Soul
Phil Borges’s camera captures the spirit of indigenous people, connecting us to them despite great distances and differences.
The magic conjured by Phil Borges’s camera reminds us why people once feared that photography could steal their soul. He has the gift of capturing people so naturally and convincingly that your hand involuntarily lifts to stroke a shaman’s glistening head or touch a young boy’s impossibly thin arms. So strong are his hand-colored images of indigenous and tribal people that their penetrating gazes make you look away momentarily, before irresistibly returning to stare at the cigarette-cradling nubs on a an old woman’s hand or the startling white bone that pierces a warrior’s nose and curves across his dark face.
Borges’s most recent body of work, entitled Enduring Spirit, includes a traveling exhibition of 50 portraits and a hardbound book of 80 portraits of individuals striving to uphold their cultural diversity in countries where basic human rights are threatened—from Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Tibet to Kenya, Peru, and Mexico. The book was published by Rizzoli International Publications in association with Amnesty International to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the international document that guarantees that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Although Borges describes his subjects as the “somewhat disenfranchised of the world; people on the fringes with no political or economic power in the modern world,” they do have power over us, the viewers. Captured in large-format prints, hand-colored with a sepia wash that lifts them off the flat surface, they engender a sense of oneness, a deep connection with people—the state that Borges purposefully seeks as the fruit of his own spiritual path.
“I define spirituality in terms of connections, a feeling of unity, of transcending the illusion of separateness,” Borges explains. “I’m always struggling with that in my daily life—all the interpersonal things that can trigger feeling separate instead of connected.” Borges, who came of age in the 1950s, personally experienced one kind of separateness that waged its war more blatantly then. His dark hair and eyes didn’t fit the ethic of beauty that confronted him when his family moved from a mixed neighborhood to a predominantly white town in the San Francisco Bay area. Eventually he found himself at odds with the blond-hair/blue-eye definition of beauty and with the culture that had so little tolerance for difference.
But today by immersing himself in indigenous cultures, Borges has a window into his own, one that allows him to step back and examine its strengths and weaknesses. “Obviously, what I have is all this material comfort and the freedom of choice and movement,” Borges explains. “What I don’t have as much, and what I see they have, is the personal connection to each other. When I compare it to the general lifestyle in America, we live a much more isolated life as individuals here. There, their very survival depends on how tightly knit they are. They don’t have day-care centers and old-age homes or 401(k) plans and stock markets. They only have each other and their relationships.”
According to Borges, laughter and humor help create that connection, galvanizing us even when the exchange of words is not possible. Borges tells the story of his meeting Biniban on a trip into Irian Jaya, the Indonesian half of Papua New Guinea where tribes still live beyond all contact with Western civilization. “I hired a guide and five porters to go deep into the jungle,” Borges recalls. “A couple of weeks into the trip, we came upon this groups of warriors marked for battle. Twenty years ago many of these people were still cannibals and headhunters, but I just did what I typically do when I meet people, which is to walk up to them and contact by putting my hand on their shoulder and looking them in the eye…. So I did that to one of the warriors, Biniban, and he just stood there, looking me up and down. Then, this smirk started on his face, like ‘My god, you are one weird-looking cat.” Of course, I’m looking him up and down as he’s standing there smeared with pig grease, with a bone through his nose, a penis gourd on, and feathers in his hair.
"That’s when we got this recognition going with our eyes and we started laughing, as if to say, ‘Look at us, look at this predicament we are in.’ It was like going to a Halloween party, seeing some weird costume, and then recognizing it as an old friend you hadn’t seen in a couple of year. That’s the kind of connection we had.”
Still, Borges admits that on his early journeys he carried along prejudices that are easy to have until you actually know someone. For example, seeing all the things indigenous people lacked, he sometimes felt that they were to be pitied. He also witnessed the other side of that prejudice: the view that indigenous people are completely in tune with nature while we dig ourselves deeper into our technological purgatory.
“That is a fallacy,” Borges says. “Things like ecological awareness aren’t even in their thinking, because first, they don’t have all the things to pollute the environment and second, because you have to go through the process of polluting the environment before you can be conscious about how you treat it. I also saw how some of the tribes, even though they are spiritual and connected with their own members, are at war with neighboring tribes. Their circle of compassion is relatively small.”
It was a simple bumper sticker—Free Tibet!—that eventually led Borges in 1994 to look deeper into the plight of the Tibetan people and to travel three times to India and Tibet. Forty of the photographs from that body of work were reproduced in his first book, Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion, which won first place at the 1996 Banff Book Festival. In the process, Borges experienced firsthand the living truth of Tibetan Buddhist principles. For example, late one afternoon in Dharamsala, India, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, as the sun was setting on his best shot of the spiritual leader, the photographer had a crash course in equanimity. “The Dalai Lama was holding an audience with about 400 people,” Borges recalls. “It ran late, and I was on the rooftop waiting for him, thinking, ‘Oh, man, I’m not going to get this shot.’ When he finally came up the stairs, I felt fidgety. As I stuck out my hand to shake his, he tickled me in the ribs. It was his way of saying, ‘Okay, everything is fine.’”
Although Borges may have forgotten that day to trust that things work out as they should, most days he lives life with a strong faith that allows him to take extraordinary risks toward realizing his dreams. He has lived close to street gangs, plunged deep within jungles, climbed high atop mountains—all for the love of photography. Perhaps his greatest leap of faith came in 1989 when, at the age of 45, he turned his back on a successful orthodontic practice in San Francisco, moved to Seattle, and started life over.
“I had what most people would consider a good life,” Borges says. “I had a big practice. I made my own hours. I had all the money I wanted. But for some reason, something inside of me wasn’t satisfied. I felt this inner angst, this gnawing away. I had fallen in love with photography back when I as in dental school but put it aside. Later, when my son, Dax, was born, I pulled out the camera again and started taking pictures of him. I got into it more and more and decided to go for it.”
It took a year before the hard reality of living the dream sank in, three more of making little money and struggling to find clients. Commercial work paid some bills but did not sustain the artist within. “It was nerve-wracking when I let it get to me, but I just kept doing my own projects. I am persistent, and I don’t give up easily. I have that type of faith in myself. But,” Borges adds with a deep laugh, “this did push it to its limits.”
Although he continues to sell images through the stock agency Getty Communications, Borges no longer needs to do commercial work. He now earns his living primarily from the sale of his prints, which are exhibited worldwide in museums and galleries. His wife, Julee Geier, serves as his business and marketing manager.
Borges’s photographs span distances, keeping us in touch with what he calls “the diversity that has given our species its creativity, resilience, and strength.” They serve as windows to our world, illustrating our differences and at the same time our similarities, most notably a basic human dignity that is our birthright. That is what attracted Amnesty International to his portraits almost three years ago. The organization used Borges’s images on its Web site and in public service announcements, and then selected his works to accompany the UDHR celebration. Says William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, “These photographs allow me to be in touch with people and societies and life situations that I otherwise simply never would be able to meet. They remind me in my own work, which takes place mostly here in the United States, why I am attending all these meetings, rushing around the country, raising money, talking to reporters, and all the other things I do. They help me recapture the sense of the individuals on whose behalf I am struggling.”
Ironically, Borges’s portraits capture the diversity of world cultures through strong images of individuals. Whether adorned by elaborate beaded jewelry or dressed in simple clothing, they stand before us as unique personages, private souls. In turn, their proud presence evokes questions about the role and responsibility of the individual both inside and outside the collective. In her forward to Enduring Spirit, Isabel Allende, the acclaimed author from Chile who how lives in California, delves further into the complexities of this modern dilemma. “I come from a large family in which interpersonal connections are very strong,” she writes. “…It was expected that each member of my family would be responsible for all the others’ that no one would move up without helping those left. Now that I live in the United States, I can see that this is now always an advantage. To develop my personality fully, I had to abandon my ‘tribe’ and my ‘village.’ …During the time that I was watched over and directed by my relatives, always fulfilling my duties as a daughter, mother, wife, sister, even as the eldest grandchild of my grandfather, I could not really break loose and fly. Despite my rebellion against the patriarchal system into which I was born, I would never have cut myself off from my family voluntarily. It took a military coup that unleashed brutal repression to cause me to leave my country. Alone, without roots and in a foreign land, I tested my creativity for the first time and found within me a strength I did not know I possessed. My calling as a writer was born of exile.”
Through his travels, Borges, too, straddles both worlds and tries to find a way to balance the benefits that both collective living and individuality offer. “In these tribal groups, they have very definite rites of passage,” he explains. “They know basically what they are going to be doing in each stage. They don’t have the responsibility—or freedom—of making that choice. That’s the negative half. The positive half is the whole thing of being together, the family units and the community. That’s something that we all need. As we evolve as a species, we have the ability to pick and choose between the positive aspects of any situation. Hopefully, we can evolve to a point where we have our individuality but also that closeness.”
That is perhaps the real gift of Borges’s photographs. These images not only capture enduring and endangered cultures, but also remind us of what we have given up and challenge us to do something about it. Looking back with such uncompromising dignity, people we will never meet raise unsettling questions about who we are as a culture and as individuals—like Dimicia, the little girl from Chahautire, Peru, sitting atop a dry-stone wall (see top of page). She is only seven years old, yet her gentle, curious gaze emits an ancient wisdom that seems to know what we have forgotten. “You have so much already,” she appears to say. “All that we have could be yours too, if you’d only try. What are you waiting for?"
This article appeared in Common Boundary magazine.
Michael Sherrill muses on the dance between artists and galleries,and between galleries and collectors
Every morning, weather permitting, Michael Sherrill raises the industrial-size door to his studio by pulling, hand over hand, a hefty chain. It’s not surprising it’s such a large door. That’s the way Sherrill thinks—big. Over the past three decades, he has built a career from “nothing”—a young man in 1974, newly married, setting up a simple studio in the mountains of North Carolina to make functional saltware—into one that last year saw four major museums acquire his work: The Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.; the Mint Museum of Craft + Design in Charlotte, N.C.; the Wustum Museum of Fine Arts in Racine, Wisconsin; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California.
But thinking big, when talking about Sherrill, means more than ambition or aspiration; it also refers to a natural generosity—with his time, his talent and his temperament. This quality has contributed to the lasting relationships he enjoys with collectors, gallery owners and museum curators, a complex interactions he refers to as a “dance.”
And the word fits. Dance is a mix of technique and artistry that can be both exhilarating and exhausting. It requires skill, flexibility and syncopation of effort, something Sherrill has found in partners, such as Leslie Ferrin (of the Ferrin Gallery, formerly of Northampton, Mass., now in New York) and John Cram (of Blue Spiral 1 in Asheville, N.C.). Together they have moved in wider and wider circles, which has provided him a stronger economic base. This, in turn, has led to better working conditions, such as his new 5,000-square-foot studio near Hendersonville, N.C., which allows him to create work that draws greater acclaim.
“When I got into this studio, something started happening with me personally,” he says. “The natural world, the banks of rhododendron, they feed me. They moved me toward a more natural approach. Over the years, I realized that it was not being a potter that I was so interested in—it was communicating. Hopefully, these pieces stay transcendent enough to ‘talk’—not about themselves, not that they become a precious icon—but about ideas. That is the important language that we’re trying to express when we make visual things.”
This dance, this intermingling of talents, requires something different from each partner. As an artist, Sherrill is responsible for the photography, for meeting reasonable deadlines for shows and for doing his best work. He honors what gallery owners do for him and won’t go behind their backs. Even in gray areas, such as a client he personally developed, he keeps the galleries involved. He comes by this naturally, a mix of personal ethics and business experience, which includes having owned a gallery in Hendersonville in the 1980s.
For their part, gallery owners need to work for their artists, developing contacts and making opportunities. They must look for artists who can generate enough work to pay for the space they are given. And they need to keep responsibilities clearly defined.
“Installations, for example,” he adds. “It’s not “I said you’d come by and help install,’ but rather, ‘Could you go over and help out?’ It comes down to personal etiquette. Cooperation is very important over the long-term relationship. There has to be a sense of commitment. You’re providing the best work you possibly can, and they’re doing their best to sell it.”
Loyalty comes into play, too, when sales slow or work changes. For years, Leslie Ferrin developed and maintained a strong market for Sherrill’s teapots. When sales leveled off, she stuck with him. “She offered new opportunities, such as SOFA, and every time she did, I tried to do my best,” Sherrill adds. “Slowly but surely, things have come full circle. My work is much more exciting and more sought after right now. That relationship played an important part. She had faith in me.”
And last year, when his work took a radical new direction, Sherrill’s long relationship with John Cram eased the transition. He admits he was worried when Cram came to the studio—work scattered about, nothing much completed—but it all came together in a successful exhibition in September 1999 titled “The Natural Response,” where a remarkable 36 of the 51 pieces sold.
His new work draws its inspiration from the lush North Carolina landscape of dogwood, buckeye, even spiraling tendrils of the lowly greenbrier or curling shapes of fallen leaves just beyond his studio windows. It beckons him outside, where he picks up a poplar leaf—waxy yellow, orange bleeding from its veins, black dots of decay inspiring new life in the hands of an artist.
“Until I moved into this studio three years ago, I considered my work to be post-modern. I used beautiful barium glazes, but they were nothing like this,” he says studying the leaf. “I went on a hunt for this surface, and it moved me back to a higher kiln temperature, thinking of color in a different way. I’m taking the layers of material and working back through them, like carving clay, moving my material around. My glazes now are very much like photography; when fired, they develop and expose themselves. It’s not like any other painting art—there’s a serendipity that you hope will happen. This suits my temperament; it’s the way I like to work.”
Collectors have responded enthusiastically to his new work, and Sherrill is glad. It’s part of the dance, he says, to move forward while maintaining a connection with your partners. “I want to take my audience along with me. I don’t want to make the work to please them, but I want them to have access into this new work."
Of course, not all relationship have flowed this smoothly. Sometimes he has felt manipulated by gallery owners or been treated with disrespect. “But overall I see a brighter picture than that,” he adds. “I see very decent people who really love this movement, people who are excited about supporting the artists through exhibiting and collecting and supporting the museums by endowing collections.”
As commissions take on increasing importance in his career, Sherrill is faced with a new partner—the corporate art world. There, committees representing the image of an institution with responsibilities to shareholders take the lead. “I realized that I’m not sure how these committees make decisions,” he explains. “I’m learning what they are looking for, what kind of reassurances they need before they can sign off. If they need drawings or maquettes, for example, I want to give them that. They are seeing my work through a certain set of eyes, and I want to understand so that I don’t create obstacles.”
More than all the owners and collectors and committee members, though, the most important partners in Sherrill’s life are his wife and children. His older children—ages 23, 21 and 19—grew up in the studio. His son Mica sill works with him to supplement his budding career as singer/songwriter.
Michael and Margery, who married 10 years ago, have two children, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery and one-year-old Atticus. “They come down all the time,” he adds, smiling. “Avery spends the whole day here. My youngest daughter, from the time she was quite little, spent every afternoon with me. I love that. Trying to be a dad, friend, husband—it’s not easy being an artist, but it’s lent a quality to my life that is important. I heard a great saying: Every healthy organism wants to reach out and be inclusive. I’d like to think that’s the direction my life will continue to take.”
His latest work conveys that message. The years of experience, the long hours of carving through layers of surfaces have led to fascinating patterns and textures. They emit a warmth that invites viewers to touch and to tap into something deep within themselves.
That’s what I’m trying to bring back into my work—what I call soul. That is the language I want to include, and I feel I am getting closer to it in my new work,” he says. “There’s a subtext, something beyond the visual surface. Tactile objects. That’s something very important that our movement has to offer.”
What, then, about the future for sales through the web, where touch is impossible? “I don’t know how all that will shape up,” Sherrill says. “The human side of the Internet is exciting—galleries interfacing with collectors, clients sending me emails about how they love the way the piece looks in their home and sending emails back—it offers a connection and integration that is central to my mission. But as to how to sell tactile, personal objects through a flat medium like the Internet, I don’t know. I do know that once people know your work, they can follow up on the Internet. In their mind, they understand the quality and what the physical piece is like.”
At day’s end, sometimes long after the sun has set and the mountain mist has begun to cover the valley for the night, that big door comes down again. Sherrill says he designed the tall door and lofty studio in order to capture the natural light, but you can’t help but think he was also planning for the large commissions, the big dance, he seems destined for.
“I’d like to be unleashed. I’d like the scale of my work to go from the personal and collectible to institutional,” he says. “I’d like to make a large statement and still have the work just as strong. I know people who feel frustrated that life is narrowing for them, but for me right now, things are widening. And I hope to stay that way until I am a doddering old man.”
This article appeared in AmericanStyle.
Valerie Hector's small, still voice within was neither small nor still during her graduate studies at the University of Chicago during the early 1980s. Knowing that beadwork, rather than a Ph.D. in anthropology, was her destiny, a small voice kept making a ruckus in the library no matter how hard she tried to shush it. “I knew it was a bad sign when I'd put in my required 10 hours a day in the library, but I was often in the stacks looking up beadwork. That was not what I was supposed to be doing. Of course,” Hector adds with a chuckle, “I did develop an excellent beadwork bibliography that way.”
Although she officially traded in anthropology in 1985 to pursue jewelry making and beadwork, she never really gave up her interest in other cultures. Now, instead of sneaking a peak at beadwork books during her anthropological studies, beads inspire her studies of people and their cultures, especially Asian nations, such as Borneo and Sumatra, China and India. Hector's voice takes on a soft reverence as she describes her collection of beaded panels from the Dayak peoples of Borneo, featuring talismanic motifs believed to protect children's souls from harm.
“I see them as acts of devotion or faith in something larger,” Hector says. “They represent a religious impulse, a prayer to the guardian deities to protect this new life. I am attracted to them, too, because they are for the most part the work of women, anonymous and unrecognized, who have created incredibly beautiful things. I do wonder, though, why they want to bother with beadwork. It is so difficult to connect those hundreds of thousands of beads to create dragons. Why do they do that? They have to be highly motivated and believe that they are powerful, that they can create a prayer that the gods will hear and answer. Some of them believe that without this, the child literally will die. It brings up questions about human nature that I can't answer, and that interests me, too. It makes me very happy to try to piece together a whole out of all of these parts, to understand the traditions and see the scope of human effort in this area.”
Hmmm. Sounds like an anthropologist to me. There's no question that beadwork is the focus of Hector's life, but the work seems strongly influenced by something much deeper. So much so, it makes me wonder what we would discover if the tables were turned. What would we learn about this complex and thoughtful artist if an anthropologist from, say, Borneo, came to America to study her?
Our anthropologist, let's call her Buah from the Kenyah peoples of Borneo, first flies into Chicago's O'Hare airport, then travels to the suburb of Evanston, where she finds a 5-foot-10-inch-tall, blond-haired, 39-year-old subject who, for the past 12 years, has dedicated her life to creating intricately beaded jewelry and wall pieces. Buah writes in her journal that the subject begins each day with strong coffee and repetitious movements on something called “StairMaster.” (Note in margin: “Curious contraption. Does this small staircase symbolize walking up temple steps? Must ask.”) Inside the sunny and spacious 800-square-foot studio, she notes that the native bead artist likes to work in a slightly messy environment, presumably to pay homage to the bead Muses, and prefers to work surrounded by trees. Buah later traces those trees, especially the winter ones with their graceful shapes exposed, to some of the artist's most fascinating work.
One such piece is Ship of Transition. “Everyone was asking me why I was spending days and weeks on it,” Hector recalls. “I had no other explanation other than, 'I have to do this.'” The inspiration for the title comes from Indonesia, specifically Sumatra, not far from Borneo.
“There is a tradition in beadwork and textiles on the island of Sumatra,” Hector explains, “where ships of transition are important symbols depicted on clothing worn at ceremonies and rituals of transition, such as marriage or death. For me, that piece felt like a ship and also like a tree, a blossoming force, traveling away from the past at that time.”
First presented in September of last year, these works represent a new direction for Hector, compliments of the bead Muses who did, indeed, visit her studio. “A few years ago, I noticed how beautiful all the tiny pieces of beadwork lying around the studio looked as they spilled out on the desk, how they fell together in beautiful patterns. I wanted to capture that in my jewelry. I kept trying and trying, but I couldn't make them come together.” Then, one day, the answer came in a sudden burst of inspiration. “I created a metal armature with bars to support the pieces of beadwork. I turned the 1/4-inch squares into tubes by stitching the seam, which makes them easier to support and allows the piece to become a more coherent structure. I saw how they could be durable and colorful, unusual yet consistent with my style.
“Many of the pieces I design are very functional, designed with feedback from my customers. They're constantly telling me what they'd like to see, and I am constantly trying to give them that in a way that pleases me. I have found that they don't want me to go too far off the deep end with my designs - they want to be able to look at something and see that it is a Valerie Hector. That took me a while to understand, and now that I do, I am happy with it.” Though Hector prefers making one-of-a-kind pieces, she also produces an impressive and varied line of production jewelry that includes beaded earrings, necklaces, pins, bracelets, and an occasional beaded collar.
Those intuitive tugs keep life interesting, and Hector says she has begun to pay more attention to them. Honoring calls from the Muses, though, also means accepting a certain amount of uncertainty between messages. In the same way that both notes and intervals of silence are needed to make music sonorous, both the stimulation of inspiration and the quietude of inactivity are vital to the creative process.
“Everything has its time. I try to let things take their own course,” Hector explains. “When I try to force things, I'm usually not very successful. I tend to leave things until they are ready. The tiny bits of beadwork sat around for years until I could understand how to make them come together, though I suppose that something was working inside of me all along.”
Hector is self-taught in the grandest way -- through world travel to such exotic destinations as Egypt, China, and, of course, Borneo, as well as through the study of beadwork at some of the world's finest museums. She has received permission to study behind-the-scenes at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, two museums with fine collections of Indonesian beadwork reflective of the colonial Dutch presence in Indonesia. Other study sites include the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
What anthropological field report would be complete without a listing of the subject's preferred techniques? Some favorites include universally popular methods such as peyote and ladder stitches. Hector also incorporates modern bead-weaving techniques such as Ndeble herringbone, quadruple helix, and polygon weave, which she believes orginated within the last century in South Africa. Until recent Western publications, these three techniques were largely unknown outside that country.
“I'm interested in using techniques that have not been used too much by American beadworkers,” Hector says. “I like to study the techniques of other cultures as well as those from our culture's past, learning and understanding how they work and then sharing them with other people. We need to keep challenging ourselves to discover other techniques — where they came from, who used them, what was made with them — and then do our own thing with them.
I would like to know what the ancient Egyptians would think of what we are doing today, our raw experimenting, going beyond what's been done. It's curious that this huge movement of beadwork that has arisen in the past 10 years seems to be isolated to this country and in Europe somewhat. When I started, there really wasn't much going on. There certainly weren't so many publications dedicated to beadwork, and there were vastly fewer books than there are now. Everything is blossoming.”
The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but life never seems to pay much attention to that sort of thing. Besides, it's the zig-zags that make life rich and interesting. Consider what happened a couple of years ago when Hector wanted to escape the tedium of production jewelry by creating beaded wall pieces. Not being one to rush the creative process, it took her a year and a half before she understood how the wall pieces should go together. Again, the Muses dropped in.
“One day last summer I was in Chicago near a gallery that I'd never been to before,” Hector recalls. “I was getting ready to move to Evanston, and I thought, before I leave this city, I've got to go in. It is devoted to Asian art, and as I walked in, I spotted this series of screens - four giant Chinese embroidered screens from the late 19th century. Even though they were so meticulous, they weren't static. They were beautiful and full of interest. Standing before them, I suddenly understood how I wanted my series of wall pieces to go. After that, everything just fell into place. It took more than a year of randomly creating small beaded textiles and jewellike elements in various shapes and sizes before I began to assemble them into a series of six vertically oriented panels. For inspiration, I looked not only to the Chinese embroidered screen panels, but also to Asian beaded textiles and the mandala, the multicolored, intricately structured designs that Tibetan Buddhist monks fashion with great care to facilitate meditation and transcend everyday life. In so doing, I hoped to appropriate aspects of all of these traditions.”
As things turned out, Hector's wall pieces were more like an 18-month vacation than a new vocation, somewhere to rest and revitalize her talents and energies. She thought she was consciously breaking away from jewelry and from the past, using more beads and techniques to do something radically different. By the time she was done, she found that, like it or not, she was still very much a jeweler.
“I started out to make something more textilelike, but I found that I was approaching the wall pieces as a jeweler might. As a result, they brought a fresh vitality to my jewelry making. It was a dialectic I have experienced before, one about using the past to go forward and at the same time getting pulled back toward the past. I didn't expect that. I didn't expect to return to jewelry, but I now have this renewed interest to keep pushing forward through my new work.”
Another offshoot of the wall pieces is a line of jewelry in which the small pieces of beadwork are set in bezels. The beadwork captures the essences of the Chinese characters, a regular motif in the wall pieces. “I am fascinated with script rendered in beadwork,” Hector explains. “It just seems so strange, so other, because a lot of times the script is not well rendered. It can't be. The beads go one way, and the letters go another. I was interested in creating little ideograms in the pieces that would contain messages in their own right, but ones that are very difficult to decipher because they were not true ideograms but, rather, creative variations.”
In other aspects of Hector's life, Buah finds someone not unlike herself - one who has a deep connection to home, prepares savory meals at home, regularly visits with parents and brothers and sisters, and dotes on her 14-year-old Samoyed, Snowball. Buah also finds a community of four women who work in their homes yet enjoy the security of the payroll and benefits that Hector provides them in exchange for their help with her bead business. Three faithful employees have stayed with her for seven to 10 years, and one joined the group last year.
“Subject leads a seasonally nomadic life,” one journal entry might note. Between retail craft shows across the country and a busy lecture and teaching schedule, Hector spends the equivalent of three months away from home. Too much time, says the admitted homebody. “A few years ago I stopped selling to stores and decided to focus on selling directly to customers,” Hector says. “I don't have the income from stores to count on, but, on the other hand, I don't have the worries and aggravation, either. I am happier in many ways, but I find it hard to travel so much. But I do enjoy traveling to such interesting cities - Baltimore, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco - so there is a certain amount of sight-seeing and museum visits, eating out and having fun.”
Buah has completed her research in America and is heading back to Borneo to file her report. On the long flight home, she jots observations in her journal while they are still fresh in her mind. “Subject tells me she is the happiest with her life right now, that her life has come so far, brought her to understand so many more things. She has found ways to make her business work and keep herself invigorated and challenged. Although she is first and foremost a bead artist, she continues to research and collect from other cultures (with astonishingly good taste in Asian beaded textiles!). I was touched yesterday when she told me how grateful she is to have this life, how incredibly lucky she feels. I didn't know Americans could appreciate their good fortunes! But I believe this one listens deep within herself, connected to her inner life and her Muses. She seems most sincere in her dedication and has proven an honest and worthy subject for our study.”
This article appeared in Lapidary Journal.
Contemporary Art Furniture
Fine art or craft? Artists, dealers, and curators
voice their opinions
Arriving at an exact definition of the medium is difficult. By its nature, art furniture is a loosely structured movement, a sort of Chippendale-meets-Chip ‘n' Dale style that mixes tradition and whimsy, function and fancy. As a result, art furniture has prompted contention about just which category it belongs to: art of craft? Fine or fun?
Ask Wendell Castle or Judie McKie, two artists widely recognized as leaders of the movement, and you’ll receive an emphatic answer that furniture artists should be given the same respect as fine artists. Visit our nation’s capital, and you’ll note that the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution, often features art furniture. Still, many other art museums across the country reject art furniture as craft.
Kenneth Trapp, curator-in-charge at the Renwick Gallery, defines art furniture as furniture that goes beyond function. “As a curator, I look for furniture that is visually commanding and well-designed,” he says. Trapp points to a colorful, intricate chest with 16 small drawers. “What makes this piece a work of art?” he asks. “It’s functional, yes. But the artist has decorated and colored it, so it becomes fine art.”
“Art furniture is an extension of other mixed-media work,” says Steve Parks, owner of Parks Gallery, Taos, New Mexico. “Whether a piece has a storage function or simple hangs on the wall and give me joy when I look at it doesn’t make any difference.”
Parks represents artist Jim Wagner, who is as well-known for his paintings on canvas as he is for his furniture. “I see Jim’s furniture as art first and functional second,” says Parks. Wagner now lives in Colorado but for 30 years called Taos home. In 1980, he took a break from nearly four decades of painting on canvas and started painting furniture. He regularly builds traditional trasteros (Spanish for “chest”) and paints them with angels, fish, and birds in bright colors reminiscent of the 18th-century Spanish Colonial style.
"Anything can be a piece of art if it is done well and holds up over time,” Wagner says. “I try to make furniture both functional and artistic so that you don’t know whether to sit on a bench or just look at it.”
Ron Gremillion, owner of Gremillion & Company Fine Art, Houston, Texas, holds a more traditional view of fine art. “I believe that the creation of art is the highest achievement of man—that we are really touching the gods at that point—and I don’t believe that functional art can reach that level.”
Despite that viewpoint, Gremillion is an art-furniture enthusiast who see the medium as a good buy for collectors. “Art furniture is an area where you can put together an excellent collection for very little money,” Gremillion says. “Collectors can acquire some of the best pieces being produced in the country by top-rung artists for as low as $4,000.
Last year, Gremillion added 6,000 square feet of space for art furniture to his gallery of paintings and sculpture. The Annex, as the space is known, opened with an American Society of Furniture Artists national invitational show and a Wendell Castle exhibit. The Annex regularly features works by Russell Buchanan, a Texas-based architect/furniture designer; Peter Dudley, a former apprentice to Castle; Paul Freundt, an award-winning Georgia artist who works in stainless steel and sheet bronze; and Keith Kutch, a designer who creates whimsical wood tables.
Judith Lippman, director of Meredith Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland, and author of the forthcoming book Furn-art-ture, has followed the art-furniture movement since it began picking up steam in the 1970s. In the courses she teaches on collecting, Lippman advises her students to follow the old who-what-where-when-why formula. “Who did it? What is it? When was it made? How does it compare to something done 50 or 100 years ago? And why was it done?” she asks. “These are the questions collectors should ask about art furniture. As with all fine art, go with what you like, but also learn everything you can about what is currently out there. Educate your eyes. The more you see, the more you can compare.”
Lippman suggests that collectors start with a quick walk through a gallery, taking note of their gut reactions and asking gallery staff for information about the pieces and artists before going back for a more careful review. She recommends trying the drawers, sitting in the seats, and feeling the curves and corners to make sure the pieces are sturdy and well executed.
Another vocal advocate for art furniture is Doris Littrell, owner of Oklahoma Indian Art Gallery in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Littrell’s gallery features painted benches by Virginia Stroud of Muskogee, Oklahoma. “Stroud is highly imaginative,” Littrell says. “She builds her own benches and considers them just another kind of canvas.”
Stroud, a Cherokee-Creek traditional artist, has been painting for 37 years—since she was 10 years old. She began embellishing furniture in 1987 following a visionary experience she had on her way home from an exhibit in Phoenix, Arizona.
“I heard voices in my head telling me to take my figures from the canvas and let them go onto a different kind of canvas—a wooden bench,” she says. Stroud’s benches often feature women sitting together, their backs and legs intricately cut out and painted. “When you sit down on the bench,” Stroud explains, “you are sitting on the women’s laps, so to speak, signifying how close we are to our helpers, or what some people call angels or guides.”
Discouraged by museums that rejected her benches as craft, Stroud stopped making them for eight years. But two years ago, when art furniture had gained more public acceptance, she decided to try again. Since then, her benches have been popular with the public, with prices ranging from $4,200 to $20,000.
As recently as last September, however, a regional museum denied Stroud’s application to one of its competitions, stating that the benches were craft. Stroud is disappointed and somewhat surprised. “I haven’t broken any of the rules of traditional Indian art. My work has no perspective—it’s flat and two-dimensional. The only difference is that it’s not painted on canvas.” The museum’s board is reviewing her application.
Another promoter of fine-art furniture is two-year-old Pismo Contemporary Art Furniture in Denver, Colorado. The gallery represents artists from across the country and focuses on furniture that is contemporary and colorful, says Director Beth McBride. “We have large pieces that are original and handcrafted, including an array of mirrors ranging from formal wood mirrors to hand-painted ones with rabbits leaping off the frame.”
The gallery’s biennial show, Sit On It, opened in October and features benches and chairs made of aluminum, steel, salvage, wood, stone, metal, and glass. Among the featured artists in Santa Rosa, California, furniture designer Charles Cobb, who has been making fine-art chairs for 20 years.
“It’s a challenge to create a work of art that is both functional and sculptural,” Cobb says. “My chairs are primarily pieces of sculpture with seats attached to them.” Cobb also creates mantle clocks, entry-hall tables with mirrors, and table and chairs with thorn-like embellishments.
“People are often surprised at how comfortable the chairs are,” Cobb adds with a laugh. He is also building a reputation for his teapot boxes—functional boxes that look like teapots crafted from maple, walnut, and Hawaiian koa wood. “The boxes started out as timid little things, something you could fit only a couple of rings in, but they have grown into larger, more functional boxes. They’re fun to make and fun to look at.”
Amid the ongoing controversy of fine art vs. craft, art furniture continues to develop in maverick directions. Along the way, it offers us art, function, accessibility, and fun. And in the finest tradition of 20th-century art, art furniture will continue to challenge conventions and stretch definitions well into the next century.
This article appeared in Southwest Art.