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The American Museum of Ceramic Art

The new American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA), located in downtown Pomona--some 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles--is out to educate and excite the public about ceramics. One of the few ceramics museums in the country, and the first in southern California, this place has a mission: to serve as a community arts center, and show works from far and wide to audiences from far and wide.

"Our purpose here is to show the history of ceramics and the processes, and also to be an inspiration for young artists and for people who would like to have ceramics in their life as an art form," says David Armstrong, the nonprofit museum's founder, and a Pomona businessman and arts patron.

AMOCA opened in September 2004 with the exhibition "Inferno: The Ceramic Art of Paul Soldner." As a student of Peter Voulkos at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (later named Otis Art Institute), Soldner went on to teach for 37 years at Scripps College in nearby Claremont.

"It's a courageous thing by Dave Armstrong to take that on by himself," Soldner says of AMOCA. "I think it's a dream he's had for a long, long time. And if Dave decides to do anything, he usually makes it work. And it's getting quite a lot of interest in the ceramic world out here, because it was needed."

The exhibition was redolent with meaning for Armstong who, in the late 1950s, was a zoology major at Pomona College. Like Scripps, it is part of the Claremont College Consortium. "I came in wanting to be a curator for a zoo--my bent was zoological sciences. I really didn't like art that much; thought it was a sissy thing," he says.

Required to study art, he enrolled in Soldner's ceramics class and discovered a new world. By the time he graduated with his zoology degree in 1962, he had taken 26 units of ceramics, and was devoted to Soldner. In fact, Armstrong fondly remembers helping Soldner put on an experimental open-pit firing demonstration to help liven up the opening of one of Scripps College's Ceramic Annual exhibitions. This proved to be the watershed moment for "American Raku" as developed by Soldner, and, for Armstrong, was an inspiration to develop experimental and intuitive ideas, not only for the creation of his own works but later as an inspiration to create a place to celebrate ceramic art.

Armstrong estimates he spent $1 million purchasing and renovating an old brick building on South Garey Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare, into the spacious and airy 3800-square-foot gallery space. Foreseeing the pivotal role AMOCA would play in the arts community, the city of Pomona contributed $25,000 for the façade improvement. The museum now occupies the space that had once been a livery stable, an auto dealership, a pool hall, a bar and a pawn shop's storage facility. "Pomona at that time was struggling through a resurgence and I had a couple buildings downtown," he says. "I started renovating them to make attractive venues for artists and for artist lofts. The museum is my last completed project." He also believed Pomona, with its rich ethnic mix, art colony studios, local galleries and close proximity to fifteen institutions of higher learning, would be an ideal location for such a museum. The Pomona Valley abounds with the history of internationally recognized clay artists from the Arts and Crafts Movement, the 60's Clay Revolution, right up to today's influential clay personalities.

The new museum has availed itself of the opportunity to borrow a number of works from Scripps' permanent collection, home to over 3000 pieces of ceramic art. "To go down there (to Scripps' collections storage) and find this treasure is very exciting," says museum director Christy Johnson, a ceramics artist herself. Though Scripps College generously lends ceramic pieces from their collection to various institutions throughout the United States, its Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, itself, has limited capability for showing this enormous collection in an ongoing capacity. With the opening of AMOCA, it is hoped that the increased potential for people to view portions of Scripps' holdings will do a great deal to advance ceramic art education.

AMOCA has established an advisory board and has ambitious plans for the future of the museum. Already over 100 people have become members without an active solicitation campaign. "And just because we're called the American Museum of Ceramic Art doesn't mean we're just showing American works," Johnson says. AMOCA showed the work of Chun Wen Wang, a Chinese potter who lives in San Diego, this past spring. His work was shown in conjunction with ancient Chinese teabowls and iron glazed vessels. The second part of this two-part exhibition featured Temmoku glazes as rediscovered by Mel Jacobson and Joe Koons [see "A Collaboration in Temmoku," by Joe Koons, March 2005 CM].

So the future is bright for ceramics in southern California. "This (museum) is a great opportunity for the local and the national ceramics community to come together to appreciate the craft. We've had just an amazing attendance to date," Johnson says. "David and I have a lot of ideas for future exhibitions."

"Laying the Foundation: American Art Tile" will be on view at AMOCA through November 5, and a public reception will be held in conjunction with the Potters Council of the American Ceramic Society on October 8. For further information on this and other events, see www.ceramicmuseum.org.

PHOTO (COLOR): Diana Watson, of Native Tile in Torrance, California, created the AMOCA sign and logo specifically for the museum.

PHOTO (COLOR): "Kilnopening.edu," an exhibition and sale of work created by southern California College ceramics instructors and select students, was on view last winter. A percentage of the proceeds from sold work went to AMOCA to support their ceramics education program.

PHOTO (COLOR): During the above exhibition, "Women's Werk: The Dignity of Craft," the video screen in the gallery showed Marguerite Wildenhain throwing a spout for a teapot. AMOCA often uses this video screen in conjunction with a show or event to demonstrate to visitors the artist's history and how they created their work.


By Steven Rosen

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