Mastering the challenges of clay takes a lifetime

Artist Rich Claxton was setting up the solo showroom at the Yukon Artists at Work gallery, surrounded on all sides by dozens of his expertly crafted…

Artist Rich Claxton was setting up the solo showroom at the Yukon Artists at Work gallery, surrounded on all sides by dozens of his expertly crafted clay creations.

Cups, vases and mugs stood perched in various stages of organization on perilous columns and rickety tables.

As the photographer lined up for a shot, his elbow caught the edge of a large vase.

Reporter, photographer and pottery artist all held their breath as the vase rocked ominously back and forth before, and at long last, coming to settle safely.

The fragile menagerie is all part of Gathering to Centre, the fruits of four months of Claxton’s creative labours following a journey to Japan.

It may be only four months worth of pottery, but the work is imbued with a lifetime of clay-working experience.

“Bob Archambeau, who I studied with, when asked how long it took him to make a cup, he would say, ‘five minutes and 28 years,’” said Claxton.

When Claxton had first entered art school at the University of Manitoba, he had ambitions of becoming a painter.

But after his first pottery class he was hooked.

“It’s limitless potential because the clay can take almost any kind of form you want it to,” he said.

And unlike a painted canvas hanging on a wall, pottery retains a sense of charming usefulness.

In the Gathering to Centre showroom, almost every piece has an ulterior non-art usage, whether as a vase, a plate or a drinking vessel.

“I like the practical aspect of dishes, I like the idea of art that you can hold in your hands and drink out of,” said Claxton.

He held up a Japanese tea bowl — an oversized tea-cup meant to be held by both hands. The large size approximates the feel of drinking from a stream with both hands.

“If I have a really great piece that I really love to drink out of or eat off of or use some way I look at it more,” he said.

The idea of art with a practical purpose fits closely with the Japanese aesthetic, said Claxton.

“I’ve hear stories of tea bowls that have been given to galleries and the person who made them came back and found that the tea bowl wasn’t being used and so they took it back again,” said Claxton.

It seems counterintuitive that mere dishes should be imbued with such artistic attention, but even though Claxton’s pieces may be mere conveyances of food and drink, it is clear that each is a labour of love and skill.

Claxton picked up a cup and pointed to its exterior design of jagged, vertical marks.

When the clay is just at the right consistency, and with the right kind of knife, the blade can be made to bounce along the spinning clay surface — etching the unique pattern.

A stylized depiction of a dragon graced the side of a nearby vase. A series of cups in the corner were imprinted with a dragon-skin motif — a trademark for Claxton, who has always held a soft spot for the mythical beast.

In Japan and China dragons are not merely regarded as mythical creatures, they are a force of nature, something that brings a storm or causes lightning.

“It’s a benign force of nature for me,” said Claxton.

For any pottery artist, Japan remains a mecca of clay and ceramic art.

“They have an unbroken tradition of pottery making, whereas in most of the western world pottery making kind of fell away when industrialization came along,” said Claxton.

Handcrafted pots and dishes quickly lost favour in the face of mass-produced 50-cent coffee cups — yet in Southeast Asia the tradition stayed strong.

However, it was not pottery that first drew Claxton on a springtime sojourn to the shores of Japan.

Instead, he had come to test for, and ultimately obtain, his third-level black belt in the Japanese martial art of Aikido.

For someone who must harmonize with their dirt-based artistic medium on a daily basis, Aikido (the way of harmony) was a perfect fit.

“The approach of Aikido to an attack is that ‘this person is not your enemy’ and they’re not separate,” said Claxton.

“It’s not a matter of fighting them. You enter into the attack and you harmonize with the energy that’s coming toward you and then steer your partner to a peaceful place like pinning them or grounding them,” he said.

The intent is not opposition, but oneness, a philosophy that jives well with the fickle medium of clay.

Just as an attack cannot be forced upon an Aikido partner, a shape cannot be forced onto clay.

“Clay seems to have, I don’t know if you would call it a personality, but it has certain characteristics and so it can move in a specific way,” said Claxton.

“You may have a form in mind, but depending on the clay, you either get it or you don’t,” he added.

“If I try to go someplace and (the clay) not going, I have to change my intention,” he said.

And even with 28 years of experience, clay still harbours a certain unpredictability.

“There’s a transformation that takes place in the kiln — you can put all your intention in there and then still, what you get isn’t what you expect,” said Claxton.

Claxton’s best work is way better than he hoped, but every success has arrived on a road paved with unexpected cracks, fissures and bends.

In a world of ever-expanding artistic mediums, there is some pride in staying close to one of the first.

“Seventy-five-million-year-old rock that’s been weathered, gathered someplace and then you put it back together in a shape and fire it up back into stone, it’s pretty neat,” said Claxton.

With its long history as an industrial and house ware material, clay has had trouble getting its foot back into the artistic realm, said Claxton.

“Clay hasn’t been considered art in the Western world up until very recently, and a lot of people still don’t even think of it as art,” he said.

“I don’t really believe that the medium determines what is art. But if you make pieces out of gold people are going to look at them more closely than if you make them out of dirt — it just depends who’s looking I guess,” he said.

Gathering to Centre opens at 5 p.m. on Friday at the Yukon Artists at Work art gallery. The show runs until September 30th.