Martz Memories, by Stanley Lee                                                                 Tale #8


Form, decoration, and Peter Voulkos


    Completing the harmonious proportions of the form is important for the potter. Without a pleasing shape, the end result becomes little more than a joke.  I never saw Karl Martz encourage the use of grotesque forms, although they were not forbidden.  One student, who showed little skill at pot throwing, made a sculpture of a pile of collapsed pots.  Few others ventured into this field of absurdities.


     We do know that when Peter Voulkos began making pottery, he threw classical, delightful, and exquisite forms.  These were made between 1948 and the mid-1950’s.  Then, influenced by European abstract expressionism, he turned from the earlier forms and became America’s supreme iconoclast.  Rose Slivka, Editor-in-Chief of Craft Horizons, wrote an article about him.  It was called, “Erasing the line separating the arts from crafts.   She observed, “[As a] thrower of imaginative pots, and plates, Peter Voulkos is an artistic force.”


      However, not all critics accepted this modern artist and his “artistic force” with such a welcome.  A sculpture, commissioned for San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, was called an “abomination” by police officers, who much disliked it, but to no avail.  In 1971 the sculpture was put in place.


       This modern artist was also a hero.  During World War II, he served in the Air Force as a nose-gunner.  The military discharged him in 1946, and he went back to college on the G.I. Bill, and enrolled as an art student.  That was at Montana State University, where he studied to be a painter.  In the year before graduation, clay work interested him strongly.  Pete became “hooked on mud”.


     Continuing his academic studies, Voulkos received his MFA degree from the California School of Arts and Crafts.  Following this, he earned a living working in a Montana brickyard, although he also ran a pottery, where he gave workshops for students.  Painting was still thought of as his primary art field, so he kept on painting.  However, he was becoming known for his versatility.  As a result, he landed an administrative position in Los Angeles.  There the Otis Art Institute decided to form a new ceramics department, so they asked Pete to organize and run it.  As Karl Martz had done nine years earlier for Indiana University at Bloomington, Pete had to start from scratch. 


     At this time, Karl Martz was already aware of the Voulkos reputation as a proponent of the “art of imperfection.”  He also knew of the huge volume of work the man produced.   Writing in Craft Horizons, Rose Slivka wrote of Voulkos, “From 1955 to 1960, he produced more than 5,000 unique pieces, many in the form of plates ‘with holes for people who don’t like soup, bowls, pots, and vases to put your old socks in’, and more than 200 pot forms or sculptures under four feet high.”  This artist’s work was now internationally known. 


     In Paris, 1959, at the bicentennial, the Rodin Prize Award went to Peter Voulkos.  That same year he transferred to the University of California at Berkley. 

Berkely bestowed on him the rank of Full Professor.  His work continued apace.


     October 1974, found Rose Slivka delighting her magazine readers with an article called “The New Clay Drawings of Peter Voulkos”.   Color plate photographs on both front and front covers of that issue were of ceramic plates by Voulkos.  We should remember, Craft Horizons, was a prestigious magazine. 

It measured 9 ¼ inches by 12 ¼ inches, and sold for three dollars a copy.  I still have my copy of that issue.


     While it is hard to imagine Karl Martz demonstrating how to make Voulkos-type plates, I had less compunction.  Part of my responsibilities as Art History and Art Education professor at Indiana University, Fort Wayne, was to enlighten my students concerning modern trends.  To students in my classes, I had already shown some life-size, abstract expressionism, head-and shoulders-sculptures, and they had seen my large plates.  Would the production of a Peter Voulkos-type plate prove difficult to make?  Such a plate could be taken to class and circulated.  To see and feel a sculptured plate would be more meaningful than looking at a picture.  It was worth a try.  To the studio I went and started. 


     I threw a twenty-two inch plate, and allowed most of the irregularities to remain.  That was hard to do.  Pete had said to his work-shop students, “If I start thinking and planning, I start contriving and designing.”  Already my hands and my thinking had been programmed to react to an imperfection and correct it.  I needed to think and act against my programming.  “Work on it,” I said to myself. 


     Once the plate was off the throwing bat, I began to slash and gash.  Finger holes were poked through.  I tore out “soup drainage holes”, and added white clay where it didn’t belong.  I left rim deformations as they were, or exaggerated them.  Coloring oxides were applied without consideration for accepted design.  Somehow, the inharmonious appeared to be in place.  The plate was a mess, so I dried it and fired it.  When it came out of the bisque firing, it looked worse!


     It was a successful Voulkos-type plate, yes, but I wasn’t pleased.  I had only copied another man’s work.  It was not what I considered to be my creation.  My next reaction was to saw the bisqued plate in half.  I did not want my students to think I was going to exhibit   this monstrosity, but I did glaze it, and took it to class with the 1974 copy of Craft Horizons.  There was still a lesson to teach. 


     Introductory comments were presented, and the Voulkos--style plate halves were passed around.   They added the desired interest, and the pottery came back to my classroom desk.  Picking up the halves, I slowly bent over and lowered them into the waste bin to indicate I was done with Voulkos. 


     But Voulkos was not done with me.  Almost thirty years later, in March 2004, while writing this Martz tale, I envisioned a conversation involving the Pete Voulkos plate I had made.  The imaginary conversation seemed quite clear. 


     Pete-“So you’ve made an abstract-impressionist plate.  Good so far.  You’ve only five thousand more to go.  We’ll let you off with five hundred because you’ve also two dozen Earth-sculptures to make.” 

      Stan-“But I’m not one of your students.” 

     Pete-“Of course you are.  How else could you have made the plate?   You don’t have to be in a class to study a man’s work.”

     Stan-“I’m a student of Karl Martz.”

     Pete-“Good for you, but didn’t you ever try to imitate the forms and decoration techniques he showed you?”

     Stan-“I suppose that’s what I’ve always done.”



     Pete-“That’s what pottery teaching is about.  The teacher demonstrates, and the student emulates as best he can.  To be true, within those confines you follow your main interests, but the teacher may lean in another direction.  You may use similar materials to those he uses, or not.  In my case, I branched off into bronze casting, but a lot of my students continued working with clay.  They explore different and various ways to make their pottery.  We all adapt the lessons we have learned to the task s we wish to perform.”


     Stan-“That is true. I remember using some ways of working with clay that I “invented”.  The art of one-handed throwing was one way.  I wanted to show those who had only one hand available, that they also, could throw shapes on the potter’s wheel.  The article, “One-Handed Throwing”, with its seventeen photographs, appeared in the Ceramics Monthly issue of February, 1974.”


     Pete-“Much of what we use, is what we learn from others, but we can learn from the environment around us.  The nature poet, William Wordsworth, put it well.  He wrote, in part,“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

                                      Getting and spending we lay waste our powers:

                                      Little we see in Nature that is ours:

Nature is a great teacher. 


     Through this imaginary conversation with the abstract impressionist master I learned much.  May I continue to learn from teachers such as he is.