Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Despite drenching rains (geez, what next, a plague of locusts?), the Big Creek Pottery show went on at the MAH over the weekend. Settling in for a four-month run (through july 17), the exhibit features 70 gloriously functional pots from Bruce and Marcia McDougal's personal collection—their own work (like Bruce's pitcher, right), an abundance of student work, and several pieces by the master craftsmen and women who taught workshops at their school over the years. These include diverse work from such iconic ceramicists as John Glick, Michael Cardew, Warren McKenzie, Toshiko Takaezu, John Reeve, Jim and Nan McKinnel, Michael Casson, Karen Karnes, Cynthia Bringle, and a few other names I'm sure I'm forgetting.

While personal styles vary widely, what all the pieces in the show have in common is their functional aesthetic. Insisting that their students learn the basics of pottery-making—from building their own kickwheels to throwing and glazing clay, to a variety of firing techniques—the McDougals and their guest instructors promoted the ideal of beautifully hand-crafted work wedded to utility. The work in this show is a testament to that ideal, a happy blurring of the distinctions between humble pottery and "fine art." These wonderfully glazed platters, jars, bowls and covered pots, elegantly shaped pitchers and vases, command as much respect as any other artwork you'd find in a museum gallery, yet they're just itching to hop down off their pedestals and get to work in a functioning kitchen.

(If I had to pick my personal best of show, it would have to be Bruce McDougal's playful pair of goblets. They're about 8 inches tall, wide-bowled, and glazed in deep midnight blue, but Bruce has unleashed his inner cartoonist with the stems: two sturdy little figures bear up one goblet bowl; the other stem is a jaunty little robed wizard.)

Visitors should also prepare to be amazed at how the Solari Gallery has been transformed with a few new coats of paint, in colors personally selected by Bruce and Marcia. Gone are the plain, white gallery walls, replaced with a palette of the vivid, earthy, folk art colors—curry, deep brick, pea-soup green, aqua—that the McDougals surround themselves with every day.

These colors not only provide a suitably warm setting for the pots, they make an effective backdrop for the 140 vintage black-and-white photographs from the heyday of the school (open from 1968-1983) which is really the heart of the show. Simply as a time capsule of '70s-era commune life (not to mention the hairstyles and clothes), these photos would be worth the price of admission! Kudos to guest curator Karen Thuesen Massaro for amassing this wealth of material (including a display box of old BCP flyers, brochures, and several other pieces of fascinating paper ephemera, as well as correspondence from some of its esteemed visitors) into a coherent, thematic, and relatively chronological exhibit. Check it out this week on the First Friday Art Tour.

The flyer that launched a thousand enrollments

(My only suggestion: move the identifying labels to the front of the pedestals. Too many of them are posted around on the sides, which makes them harder to see, especially if there's a crowd in the room.)

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