Late in life, molding a collaboration in ceramics | AspenTimes.com

Late in life, molding a collaboration in ceramics

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesCalifornia ceramists Joyce Newman and Henry Mead examine the dragon pole sculpture they installed this past week at the Aspen Emporium & Flying Circus.

ASPEN – Joyce Newman was outside the Aspen Emporium & Flying Circus this past Tuesday with her fellow ceramist Henry Mead, installing three of their sculptural “dragon poles” and gushing over the compact tube cutter they had used to cut the pieces of aluminum that serve as the skeleton for the art.”It’s a loo-loo. It’s a dandy,” Newman said. “It’s a piece of cake, and it comes out real smooth.”Which shows that, in their mid-80s, Newman and Mead can find new things to get excited over, and don’t shy away from new tools and techniques to use in their work. But a new tube cutter isn’t the most notable breakthrough for the couple, who live together in Pasadena, Calif. After being mutual admirers of one another’s work for decades, Newman, 85, and Mead, an 84-year-old who lived in Carbondale from 1972-’92, have recently found a way to put their creative minds together. The dragon poles feature Mead’s functional pottery stacked with Newman’s sculptural ceramic work, and each pole is topped by a dinosaur-ish head made by Newman. The overall effect is like a totem pole that lost a lot of weight and was transferred to a different medium; Newman is toying with the idea of calling them “ceramitops” for the resemblance to dinosaurs.”This is new,” Newman said, noting that neither she nor Mead had ever done collaborative work before. “This is a real integration of our two works. It’s not one person’s decorations on top of someone else’s.”Newman and Mead had brushed artistic elbows before, in what Newman calls “the distant past.” The two knew one another in the late ’60s, when Mead was based in Castle Rock and Newman was living in Denver. Mead let Joyce, who had made a career switch from biochemistry research to ceramic sculpture, work some in his studio, and taught her how to fire a kiln. Newman moved to Southern California, while Mead divorced, remarried, and settled in Carbondale. The two stayed in touch on and off.In 2002, Mead’s ex-wife died, and his children contacted Newman, to ask her to create a memorial piece. Newman made the piece, which is on display at the Douglas County Public Library in Castle Rock. Around the same time, Newman’s husband of 52 years died, and Mead, again divorced and living in Oregon, made a condolence call. They talked, then visited, then fell in love. In 2003, the two moved in together in Mead’s Pasadena home. In the ceramics studio out back of the house, the began a tentative, small-scale collaboration: Mead would finish a bowl or mug, and Joyce would add a sculptural element to it. “But they were always something he made, and I did something to,” Newman said. “I’d say, ‘Oh Henry, make me a pot and I’ll put figures on it. Once in a while we’d do that.””I’d make the pot, hand it to her and say, ‘OK, now do something with it,'” said Mead, who plays the quieter sidekick to the more voluble Newman.But the two had other thoughts kicking around their respective minds. In the early ’70s, on a trip to the north of France, Mead had been attracted to the ceramic poles with animal heads on top that he saw installed at various homes. One day, during the trip, driving through the countryside of the Normandy peninsula, he spotted a pottery center. “No chance a ceramist is going to drive by that,” he said. Inside, he discovered this was the place where the ceramic poles had been made.More recently, Newman visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles to see what she calls “the world’s best dinosaur show.” The impact on her was similar to what Mead had experienced with the work in France – impossible to ignore.”There were these dinosaur skulls. I said, ‘Nothing you made up could be half as absurd, half as amazing as these natural things,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s make some of them.'”Last September the two got busy as full-on collaborators. They meticulously plan the arrangement of Mead’s thrown, glazed pots and Newman’s rougher sculptural pieces. “We got all the elements, got a pole, banged it in the ground, put it all together and voila – we fell in love with it. The first one was great,” she said. “And we’re having such fun doing it. But it’s serious in that we subject the individual pieces and the collection to sharp criticism. We take a lot of time looking at them, fitting them together.” The couple has sold two of the poles, and made another eight or so, three of which are being exhibited at the Aspen Emporium. They also have the elements made for several more poles.Mead said he doesn’t know what kind of artistic breakthrough the poles represent, or if there will be another significant step forward in his ceramic work. “I’m 85. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have thoughts that this is our last hurrah,” he said. “But maybe there’s something else. You never know.”If Mead happened to decide to take a step backwards, and focus again on his functional pottery, that would probably be OK with Newman. Over the years, even before they became a couple, she amassed a big collection of his work. She believes her partner is one of the greats of ceramic pottery.”I’d hold up his work and say, ‘This is what a pot is supposed to be,” she said. “His work is all about form. Form is what appeals to me as a sculptor.”stewart@aspentimes.com