Breaking the clay mold
August 17, 2006
When Paul Soldner arrived in Los Angeles, in 1954, he knew something about clay.As a kid, Soldner was introduced to the material by a Boy Scout leader, who led him to a creekbed full of moist clay. The group fired a kiln with kerosene, and Soldner says, “I remember listening to that thing roar.”At Ohio’s Bluffton College, which didn’t offer its 200 students the option of a ceramics class, everything the undergraduate Soldner learned about clay was self-taught. At the University of Colorado, he first made the acquaintance of accomplished and serious potters, including the Scottish ceramist Katie Horsman. Soldner’s studies were not concentrated in ceramics, but his master’s course in art education allowed him plenty of time around the potter’s studios, and his attention was fired.Horsman, said Soldner, “approached clay as an art, rather than as a hobby. She had all the skills, a philosophy, technique. I got turned on as soon as I got into her class.”Still, when he got to L.A. as a 33-year-old, most of what Soldner knew about clay was that Horsman’s attitude was anomalous. In virtually all corners, ceramics weren’t taken seriously as an art form. “At best, it was functional – bowls, cups, bottles. It was a skill,” said the 85-year-old Soldner, in the one-of-a-kind house, with concrete walls and ceiling trusses, he began building in 1955, decades before his neighbors included the Aspen Golf Course, the Maroon Creek Club, and the massive construction project that will soon be the Burlingame housing complex.Soldner’s time in southern California would go a long way toward undoing that view of ceramics that had been entrenched for centuries. After earning his master’s in Boulder, Soldner quizzed people on where they would go for advanced studies in fine art, assuming money was no object. (Soldner, who had served as an Army medic in Europe, was himself a beneficiary of the GI Bill.) He received a range of responses, but the name that popped up most often was that of Peter Voulkos, who had recently moved from his native Montana to start a ceramics program at the Los Angeles County Art Institute. Soldner sent Voulkos photos of his work, expecting little.It was “pretty shitty stuff, now that I look at it,” said Soldner. “But he accepted me.”
Clay as artSoldner, who has lived mostly in Aspen since the mid-’60s, has a show of recent works opening Sunday, Aug. 20, at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery at Highlands Village. The pieces bear little relation to the traditional notion of pottery, those functional bowls and cups. The pieces are sculptural, abstract and dynamic, even sensual. Some of them are bronze sculptures made from molds of his ceramic art, a technique Soldner has been using the last decade or so. Leafing through “Paul Soldner: A Retrospective,” a 1991 catalog of works dating back to 1941, it is apparent that Soldner has always seen in ceramics the potential for experimentation and expression. The work is marked by color, abstraction, the use of the human figure, and even pop-culture references – all long considered outside the domain of pottery.
Soldner traces the pioneering work to his time with Voulkos, who was as unconventional in his teaching methods as he was in his approach to pottery. Soldner received no grades, no assignments; the one time he was critiqued by Voulkos, he didn’t even realize he was being critiqued.”He wasn’t a teacher; he was more of a friend,” said Soldner, who was, in fact, three years older than Voulkos. “He was an inspiration to find your own way. He never taught me anything; he let me figure it out, which was the best way.”It was Soldner’s good fortune that Voulkos was new to L.A., and didn’t have a private studio; all his work was done at the Art Institute, where Soldner could observe everything. And, thanks to Voulkos’ recent arrival, Soldner was his only student.”I was blown away by his skill, and his aesthetic eye,” said Soldner. “He could use a potter’s wheel better than anyone I knew of. He would go farther with it – alter it, change the shapes so it wasn’t just symmetrical. He quickly moved his work from functional, traditional pottery by altering it into sculpture. Clay as art. With him, it was another art medium.”Soldner, it turned out, was an excellent student in the school of breaking with traditions. When he didn’t like the equipment other potters used, Soldner invented his own wheel and mixer. Voulkos, who had invented a wheel so enormous it couldn’t be moved, liked Soldner’s small, lightweight wheel so much that he ordered eight of them from his student.”If you understand the concept, you can make your own rules,” said Soldner, who founded Soldner Pottery Equipment, which he ran with his late wife, Ginny, who was a painter. “If you understand what glaze is, you can use it your own way. Too many times, people are taught rules, and they don’t think beyond that.”
Pop art and pedagogyAmong Soldner’s contributions to ceramics is his use of the figure, which seems entwined with his confessed love for women. (Soldner is also a fan of nudity and hot tubs. At our interview, Soldner instructed the photographer to take a picture of him, naked, in his hot tub, then instructed a female guest to strip and join him for a photograph in the water. This is nothing new. Soldner’s principal marketing strategy for his company were posters featuring Soldner and various females, unclothed, in hot tubs. The company was sold some three years ago, but the latest poster is a photo collage of recent nude images of Soldner and a collection of women forming a bigger image of the ceramist smoking a cigar.”One of the things that influenced me was the use of the figure,” said Soldner. “Most cultures left examples of how they were living, what they were thinking. Greek pottery is history – everything from making love to fighting. I liked that idea: What can I leave behind that will say something about our culture? What were we doing? I almost ended up making pop art.”Some of it is indeed pop art. A 1969 wall piece features an iconic image of John Lennon and a nude, who is reclining Playboy-style. A 1985 work has the image of the Marlboro Man. Soldner has pressed his clay with manhole covers and automobile tires and used newspaper cutouts as stencils.Soldner was reluctant to recite the other contributions he has made to ceramics, possibly because of the amount of time that would have been involved. He said I would have to ask others, which turned out to be an easy task. Sitting at Soldner’s house was Alleghany Meadows, a former student of Soldner’s at California’s Claremont College, an associate at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, and co-owner of the Harvey/Meadows Gallery.Meadows pinpointed three areas where Soldner’s influence has been greatest.First, Soldner has been a force in teaching ceramics. Soldner taught at L.A.’s Scripps College for decades, and traveled the world giving demonstrations. He continues to teach; Soldner leads a workshop at Anderson Ranch, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 19-20.
Second, Soldner is credited with bringing Raku, a Japanese pottery tradition used in making tea ceremony ware, to the West. Soldner not only introduced Raku to a new world of potters, but also reinventing the technique with a method that involves pulling pots out of the kiln at its top temperature, placing it in a garbage can full of leaves, then squelching the resulting flames with a lid. The method infused the ware with smoke, giving the pieces a unique finish.One category that didn’t make Meadows’ top three was Soldner’s impact on ceramics, and art in general, in the Roaring Fork Valley. Soldner’s biggest legacy in the valley is Anderson Ranch, of which he is a de facto founder. In the 1960s, Soldner was asked by a group of local ladies to lead a ceramics group. When the group lost its lease in Aspen, in the space now occupied by Boogie’s, one of the women told Soldner of the impending development of Snowmass into a ski resort. Soldner was invited to take his pick of old ranch lands; he chose the old sheep and cattle ranch operated by the Anderson family, and founded what has become a leading visual arts institution.”Everything Anderson Ranch has done has been a spoke out from what Paul did,” said Meadows. “And everything in the arts in the valley has come from Anderson Ranch.” Soldner’s impact can be felt in Aspen (the current show at the Red Brick Center for the Arts has a show by two sculptors, Nancy Lovendahl and Sara Ransford, with ties to Anderson Ranch), Aspen Highlands (both Sam Harvey and Meadows of the Harvey/Meadows Gallery have been associated with Soldner) and, of course, Snowmass Village.The last contribution of Soldner’s that Meadows listed was the same one Peter Voulkos had made. Soldner refused to accept the age-old wisdom that ceramics were on a different plane than other media.”He’s pushed what is acceptable as ceramic sculptures – his work in general, his sculpted forms, mixing wheel forms with sculptural forms,” said Meadows.”Now we can make anything we want,” said Soldner. “Now it’s easy for young people in clay. We’ve broken the barriers.”Paul Soldner shows at the Harvey Meadows Gallery through Sept 4.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org