AT THE ASPEN ART MUSEUM
ARTIST TO ARTIST: Former
director Brad Miller tells us about the life and
In these busy times, many of us find our lives divided. Over here is what we do for work, and then over there is real life. But that's not the case for Paul Soldner.
During the years I've had the pleasure of knowing him, I've always been struck by the seamless integration of Paul's life and work. As I've observed him constructing his pots, teaching workshops at Anderson Ranch, and building his home and studio, I've seen the numerous facets of his busy life given the same attention and care - not hurried, but rather enjoyed as each unfolds.
This creative soul, who is one of Aspen's last true eccentrics and who lives a quiet life in his handmade house at the edge of Aspen, is widely recognized in the art world. The New York Times once credited him with "claiming for ceramics the same concern with pure esthetics and freedom from function that sculptors have long enjoyed in marble. Directly responsible for the introduction of the Japanese ceramic firing technique known as raku to this country, Mr. Soldner has been one of America's most influential ceramic artists."
How did he come to be such a leader in the field? In 1954, Paul began working on his master of fine arts degree with the dynamic and spirited Peter Voulkos at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis Art Institute/Parsons School of Design). Those very early years at the Art Institute saw the beginning of the California clay movement, when the ceramic arts exploded with new raw energy - energy that influenced artists and craftspeople around the world, wityh reverberations felt even today.
For Paul, begin at the Art Institute at that time was like being in the center of a nova: "At first all the energy is out there but it is dissipated," he explains. "Something brings it together and that coming-together is very hot, and it becomes very brilliant for a short period of time, and then it dissipates again."
It was the er aof abstract expressionism, of beatniks and coffeehouse jazz. It was a time to challenge convention, and young ceramic artists like Paul reveled in new ways of thinking, particularly Eastern philosophy and Zen.
Paul points to several dozen handmade, soft-cornered and freely brushed ceramic tiles he made for his Aspen kitchen, and remarks that the variations in the tiles would not have been acceptable to him before he was exposed to Zen and other ways of Eastern thought. He would have seen them as "out of control." In his California student years he first began to see the value of "going with the flow" in his work and life.
Paul left the Art Institute in 1956 to join the faculty at Scripps College in Claremont, where he taught full-time for almost ten years and part-time for another twenty years. It was here that he experimented with new techniques and artistic directions, most notably raku. The Japanese word originally described a technique of making bowls for tea ceremonies, but Paul expanded the technique and took off in different directions in his creative experiments in firing, finding unorthodox uses for stains, oxides, and smoking to blacken or leave patterns.
Paul's expansion of traditional firing techniques infused his work with the spontaneity he was searching for, and potters around the world adopted his methods in the seventies and eighties. In recent years, Paul says, he has come to think of raku in broader terms - as a description of not only a process, but of a feeling or a philosophy. As he wrote in a 1990 essay, "In the spirit of raku, one must embrace the element of surprise. There can be no fear of losing what was once planned and there must be an urge to grow along with the discovery of the unknown.
Another one of Paul's own discoveries - finding his home in Aspen - also took place back in the early fifties. He and his wife, Ginny, were headed for Mesa Verde on a mid-summer break from studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder when they passed through town. "We had coffee at the Epicure, took a few pictures and went on," he recalls. "Only in retrospect did we begin to appreciate what we had seen." They returned the next year, and the next, and by the end of their third visit had bought "this little triangle out here" - a meadow on Stage Road.
In 1956, the Soldners began building their home here - literally. Over the next ten summers they constructed the cluster of buildings that lie hunkered down in the sage-covered pasture across from what is now the Maroon Creek Club. With walls recessed into the hillside and a parade of solar panels, the Soldner compound harks back to Aspen's age of experimentation. "We lived in a tent on the property with our young daughter." recalls Ginny. Adds Paul, "One summer we'd build a wall or put on a roof - whatever we could do in just a few weeks.
It would be nearly impossible to get a building permit for such a piecemeal house today, Paul laughs. He considers his home to be continually evolving even now. "Time and use can mellow and give patina," he says. "The idea is now beginning to actually materialize. I can see lichen growing on the rocks and I can see the wood becoming beautifully colored from age. That is totally different from the way houses are normally built. Normally, the best the house ever is, is the day you move in.
In 1965, the Soldners made Aspen their permanent home. Paul spent the spring sememsters away teaching at Scripps, while Ginny ran Soldner Pottery Equipment, an enterprise they started back in the fifties when Paul designed an improved pottery wheel. The business once offered a wide range of Soldner designs, but today it concentrates on his clay mixers that are manufactured in Ruilson, west of Glenwood Springs.
Paul hadn't lived in Aspen long before he was approached by a group of locals who wanted to learn ceramics. "I told them, "You find the place and I'll do it." We built a pot shop in the Tennie's Cafe building and bowling alley, where Boogies is now." Soon Paul was at the heart of a clay cooperative that included locals such as doctor Bill Murray, Chart House founder Herb Balderson and his wife Marcie, and artist Tom Benton. "Just working around Paul was fun," recalls Herb Balderson. "He's enthusiastic, gets people stirred up, and makes you want to push yourself beyond where you might go on your own."
In 1966 the potters' cooperative was offered more spacious quarters by developers of the young resort of Snowmass. "The James Corporation said they'd let us use any of the abandoned farm buildings," Paul recalls. "We picked the old Anderson Ranch homestead because it had the most character."
The Center of the Eye photography workshops were also looking for a home at that time, and director Cherie Hiser moved them in next door. "I decided to call our program Center of the Hand as a complement to Center of the Eye," says Paul. It was meant to be a full-time "alternative to graduate school: just as intense, but without academic degrees." Students lived and worked with the faculty, making artwork that was sold to defray costs. A few years later the artists' colony became known as the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, with Paul serving as its first director.
It was an exciting format, but running such an ambitious program brought inevitable headaches, and in the mid-seventies Paul withdrew from his administrative role. Anderson Ranch continued to grow, evolving into its current format of summer workshops and residencies for working artists.
But the artust remains involved with the Ranch even today. "At this point I mostly feel like a godfather out there," says Paul. "I show up to kibitz, or do a workshop, or see what's going on." He's looking forward to a session at the Ranch next June that will reunite him with "my guru Peter Voulkos, and some other friends who were around at the beginning of the clay evolution."
Young ceramicists are eager to work with Paul in his annual Anderson Ranch workshops. In addition to digging clay from nearby hillsides and firing their works, they always spend an afternoon picking dandelions to make a batch of dandelion wine that the next year's students can enjoy. Later that day, they relax in the Soldners' solar hot tub and sip the previous year's fermented brew.
Many successful artists who've received the recognition granted Paul Soldner would be content to spend their days strictly on their own work, forsaking the demands of teaching. Yet even though Paul retired from Scripps two years ago, "I continue to do a lot of lectures, demonstrations, and workshops around the country, almost every weekend." Lately he has been criss-crossing the United States following the retrospective exhibit of his work to a dozen or so ventures.
He also works at his home in Aspen, concentrating on clay sculpture and some work in bronze. "Somehow the days are way too short," says Paul, I cultivate bonsai, make wine. I didn't even get out to look for mushrooms this year; I was so busy."
Despite his busy days, in all his endeavors Paul seems to consider time a friend: Wet clay ages under the floor planks of his studio, and homemade wine mellows in the cellar. Paul's demeanor and his teaching style send the subtle message that being present for the journey, any journey, is important in living a full life. If a good product is the outcome of one day in the studio, so much the better, but it is not the only, or even most important, part of a productive day.
"The intuitive ideas and the curiousity and the discovery, and the unknown, the questions, are more important at the beginning of the process than knowing how it's going to be," Paul explains. "If I knew how it was going to be, I wouldn't bother to make it."
Around the grounds of the Soldner compound more
than a dozen bonsai trees are slowly and methodically being formed under Paul's
careful watch. The Japanese art of cultivation depends on controlled and unhurried
growth over decades. Paul initially surprised me when he said that bonsai has
been as strong as any influence on his artistic development. But when I look
at his work, the connection is unmistakable. Many of the ceramic pieces Paul
has produced over the last ten years are large winged vessels with small bases
that have to be bolted down, or "rooted," to keep the pot stable.
The bonsai and Paul's ceramic work share a strong element of "asymmetrical
balance" - they are at once balanced and dynamic, like Paul himself.
ASPEN MAGAZINE, volume 20, number 1, holiday issue 1993/1994, pp. 158-160, 217, 219.