Andree Singer Thompson

Cross Currents, Ceramics: Art and Perception No. 41, 2000
Andrée Singer Thompson

In June 1999, an exhibit entitled "Cross Currents" was presented at the Catharine Hiersoux Gallery in Berkeley, California. It featured the work of Korean ceramic artist, Kyung-Hee Lee, and included works of American artists Catharine Hiersoux, Gary Holt, Mary Law, Neil Moss, and Andrée Singer Thompson. The origins of the show are perhaps as significant as the work exhibited, and the title makes reference to the currents of information and ideas about ceramic art that flow across oceans and national borders. The currents that led to the 1999 show began in 1986 when Japanese potter Kenichi Saito proposed to American potter Gary Holt that they initiate a cross-continental series of reciprocal exhibitions. The two artists, both children during the war, shared not only aesthetic interests, but also felt strongly about the importance of exchanging cultural ideas as a way of fostering peaceful ties between nations.

The first shows were so well received that Saito suggested expanding the format to include other California potters. Since then, Holt has been involved in facilitating cultural exchanges that have provided opportunities for ceramic artists from both sides of the Pacific Rim to take part in solo and group exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations and university visits. (See Arts and Perception No.17 "Cups as Cultural Ambassadors ." )

With the help of his Korean wife, Yon Soon Yoon, the exchanges spread to Korea and resulted in an exhibition, "Six California Artists" at the Tho Gallery in Seoul, in the fall of 1995. The Tho Artspace Gallery director, Mr. Byung-tak Woo, and Hong-Ik University’s Professor In-Jin Lee, selected an interesting range of American ceramists: Catharine Hiersoux, Gary Holt, Mary Law, Neil Moss, Andrée Singer Thompson, and Jeff Zigulis. Four of the six went to Korea where the artists were wined and dined in true Korean hospitality, taken to ancient sites as well as university and contemporary studios. Holt had the opportunity to work with Professor Lee in his studio. Catharine Hiersoux and Andrée Thompson gave a slide lecture at EHWA, the Women’s University, where they witnessed the beautiful punchong decorating technique so characteristic of Korean inlaid celadon porcelains (known as mishima in Japan). The two women journeyed on to Tokyo to have tea with Mrs. Joan Mondale, herself a potter and curator of the embassy collection in which Catharine is substantially represented. (Mrs. Mondale is also,incidentally, wife of the then Japanese ambassador and ex-vice president, Walter Mondale. In 1977 she invited 40 American craftspeople to make dinnerware sets for the White House and Catharine was among those represented. )

The work in the Tho Gallery show ranged from refined functional pieces to one-of-a-kind vessels to abstract/figurative sculptures, including wood-fired, raku, and stoneware. Mr. Woo’s intent was to help bridge the gap in Korea between traditional functional ceramics and more experimental sculptural forms, by presenting a sampling of American views. The American spirit of experimentation, long developed from the Voulkos’ influence, reflects a freedom of personal expression that is sometimes inhibited by long-held traditions. At the same time, traditions in older cultures nurture a cultural identity and a highly developed aesthetic and public appreciation (sorely lacking in the US) that is still honored in Korea and Japan. This continuing discussion about traditional functional work and more individualistic expressive
"free" forms often emerges at these shows; and while they may often seem opposed, one attitude does not necessarily negate the other. Traditional and experimental thinking can coexist within an artist as it does within a culture, like yin and yang. Many of the works of the Tho Gallery artists were examples of this union. While reactions to the show varied, it
was well attended and there was always a lively dialogue among artists, teachers and visitors about these issues.

The Korean connections led to several following "crossings": a graduate of Hong-Ik University, Hun Chung Lee, came to be Gary Holt’s studio assistant, and after receiving an MFA at the SF Art Institute, won awards on both sides of the Pacific and is now becoming well known as a ceramic and installation artist in Korea, the US and China.

Professor Kyung-Hee Lee, from Silla University in Pusan, shared Holt’s studio in March, 1999. After seeing her work, he suggested featuring her in the Hiersoux Gallery show. Professor Lee’s sensuous, undulating, flowing forms echoed the spirit and energy of the show’s title "Cross-Currents." Informed by clouds and water, these double walled stoneware containers are rooted in familiar Korean dolgelgus, vessels used in the countryside for pounding peppers and grain. The work is handmade and well crafted yet exudes a poetic simplicity that transcends the laborious process. It is as though Professor Lee uses this forming method as personal meditation, the calm and inner investigation of which is reflected in many of the pieces. They are works that exemplify the
integrety of their source in purely functional (traditional) forms, but which have become more
expressive of the philosophical and poetic content as "function".(picture)

Other works of interest in the Cross-Currents show were dynamic new wood-fired forms by Catharine Hiersoux: very large, beautifully textured globes,(picture) as well as a few lovely "prayer" bowls, also double walled, that were longing to be held. Holt was represented with several of his more stunningly luminous glazed stoneware platters (picture)(being the luminous glaze king that he is) and a few elegant simple vases. Mary Law’s enchanted covered "house" jars were present with rich warm-colored, textured woodfired dressings. (photo) Neil Moss’s interesting (also double walled) forms were an innovative extension of earlier works; still one of a kind vessels, they were more sculpturally abstract, with a rich textural vocabulary. (photo) Finally, the whimsical work of Andrée Singer Thompson provided a light and sometimes humorous touch, with fantasy figures and sculptures of raku-fired metal and clay combinations, fired together. (photo)

Most of these artists established their reputations with beautifully crafted functional works. Here, however, was an opportunity to see examples of work evolved into a more personal poetic vision that both includes and transcends pure function. How do we evaluate such rich artistic exchanges? We could focus on the work, which grows and changes, reflecting new influences. But the long term effect on artists, students, and audiences is much farther reaching than stylistic and aesthetic differences. Such exposure, encouraging one on one interaction, provides us with the opportunities to become more aware and understanding of our historical, philosophical and cultural differences. Hopefully, we can come to appreciate that the process of creative artmaking is an important global and spiritual human
experience shared by all cultures.

As for the dialogue between traditional function and individualistic one-of-a-kind vessels and sculptures, it is a continually evolving discussion--one we have all confronted early in our ceramic educations in the US, and more often when we visit older cultures where there are more established ceramic traditions. Once in art school (Cleveland Art Institute in 1956!),
Toshiko Takaezu was demonstrating one of her ripe oval narrow-necked forms to her ceramic students. As she narrowed the neck, the opening hole closed off. She left it. What ensued for weeks was discussion as to whether or not this object was still a "pot" now that it could no longer hold a flower, although it still "appeared" to be functional, or did it become a sculpture? Is it important what we call it or how we categorize it? The form was beautiful. It had
simply transformed from being a pot, to a "pod", a poetic statement in itself. Still clay, still holding a pregnant space, still an expression of Toshiko’s skill and vision, its "function" had changed from holding something physical to holding something "spiritual" and poetic. I hasten to add: That is not to say that functional work is not poetic. Thinkwabe-sabe, teabowls, and some of the above mentioned works. The world is a very big place. One of the wonders
of this life is that each of us is unique, with our own aesthetic adventure and creative ideas to discover and express. There is room for all of us to have a relationship with this ancient earth, clay, that is itself loaded with information and energy with which to dialogue in any way we can. There is room, if we try to understand through exposure and tolerance, for all varieties, styles, traditions, aesthetic disciplines and philosophies, to exist side by side,
enriching all of us in the process. With thanks to all those who help to make the crossing of such currents possible.

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