Ceramic Review 109, 1988, pp. 34-39
Paul Soldner Magic Potter by David Roberts
Paul Soldner, an American potter with an international reputation, is famous for his liberated approach to making clay forms; processes involve throwing on the wheel, hand forming, raku, salt firing, fuming, and so on. Reluctant to make pronouncements because "they often come back to haunt one, or are taken as absolute truths", he prefers to deal with 'emotional recognition'. Last July Paul Soldner was one of the potters demonstrating at the International Potters Camp Aberystwyth, mixing showmanship with professionalism, skill with ingenuity, expertise with existentialism. David Roberts, fellow raku potter and long-time admirer of Paul Soldner's ceramics, watched him at work and here assesses the potter and the pots.
Towards the end of the Welsh international potters' camp a raffle of pots made by the guest demonstrators was held. My wife bought two tickets. One was lost. The other was the first to be drawn. She chose as her prize a pot donated by Paul Soldner. The pot now in front of me is small, about twelve inches in height. It is made from a thrown and flattened cylinder surmounted by two heavily textured slabs of clay joined at the edges and precariously balanced on a hand formed, hollow pedestal of clay. The surface is covered in thin washes of slip releasing tones of ochre, pink and turquoise; colors resonant of the desert landscape of southern California where Soldner works in the winter months. It is very different from my pots. At first glance informal, almost casual in character, it later reveals a skillful choreography of technique and a highly sensitive awareness of the expressive potential of clay. This seemingly paradoxical combination of informality and discipline has come from over thirty years innovation at the center of American ceramics. His approach to clay has been disseminated widely during his remarkable career as both potter and teacher.
During the sixties, through constant experimentation, Soldner developed a highly idiosyncratic repertoire of forms and surfaces. Heavily worked slabs of clay were assembled onto thrown forms, which eventually became vestiges in increasingly asymmetrical and voluminous compositions. His work showed an effortless freedom and freshness in the handling of clay and firing processes. To render more contemporary relevance later pieces often carried representational and figurative imagery in the form of stenciled silhouettes drawn from magazines of the period. Surfaces were invested with rich modulations of tone and color derived from his inventive use of post-firing reduction processes. Simultaneously he enlarged his narrow technical definition of Raku to embrace a wide concept indicating an intellectually flexible and responsive attitude to clay and life. His undoubted talents as a potter were augmented by considerable abilities as teacher and communicator.
Through many lectures and workshops his enthusiasm transmitted this creative treatment of Raku throughout the U.S.A. and abroad. The rich, expressive qualities of Soldner's Raku were intensified by further innovation in the early seventies. Building on previous experience of bisque firing in a kiln containing residue from salt glazing he again expanded the Raku process to include low temperature salt firing. Initially salting was followed by post-firing reduction, the results of which were modified by the different reactions of smoke to the various strengths of salt vapour penetration on controlled areas of the surface.
Current work to be shown at the Craftsmen Potters Shop and demonstrated at Aberystwyth Arts Centre last July relies widely on the control of vaporization and combustion taking place within the kiln. Despite blowing up some of his pots during the Aberystwyth workshop the pieces on show bear testament to Soldner's use of the kiln as a highly tuned instrument. The pots and wall pieces are constructed from an asymmetric but finely balanced composition of deeply impressed and incised slabs of clay added to severely twisted and distorted thrown cylinders, vases, and bowls. Curves of tension and play of stresses between these disparate formal elements begin to be resolved by the application of poured areas of overlapping, watery slips. The slips, made up of equal parts of ball clay, china clay, silica and gerstley borate (calcium borate frit), are stained with different strengths of iron and copper oxide. The areas of slip are sometimes supported by judiciously placed marks and strokes of pigment made by iron and copper oxide in equal parts. This is applied by homemade brushes of animal hair, which gives a personal signature to the calligraphy. The personalization of the pieces can be extended by the apparent random application of hand and fingerprints stained with pigment.
These deceptively simple decorative techniques are augmented by careful exploitation of differing strengths of vaporization and localized reduction in a low temperature salt firing (cone 010, 910† C). Firing takes place in either oil or propane fuelled brick kilns. As in any fuel-burning kiln, a major variable in the direction of flame patterns and vaporization is tightness and arrangement of stacking. Intense spots of color result from small pads of clay embedded with lumps of rock salt being temporarily placed on selected areas. The salt fuses to form highlights of glassy color. The pad of clay acts as a mask, which in turn further tempers the strength of vaporization. The clay pad is removed upon cooling. Additional levels of variation are introduced by positioning sheets of colored magazine paper in between tightly packed pots. The paper ignites during the firing, where there have been insufficient oxidation tones of gray and black carbonization stain the surface. Because of the china clay content in glossy magazine paper a further semi-masking and dilution of vaporization takes place. An efficient initial vaporization is encouraged by placing rock salt directly in the path of the burner flame.