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.


Soldner came late to ceramics. He was over thirty when in the mid-fifties he became the first student of Peter Voulkos, arguably the single most influential figure in the development of modern American clay work. Soldner encountered clay in the exciting intellectual climate created by a heady mix of abstract expressionism, existentialism, jazz and Zen Buddhism. Association with iconoclastic, energetic and freewheeling West Coast, the Otis group of potters gave him first hand experience of the liberation of American ceramics from its previous reliance on European example. However, throughout the following anti-pot atmosphere in American clay during the sixties and early seventies, and unlike many of his Otis colleagues, he maintained a constant affinity with the vessel. Throughout his career he has continued to make thrown vessels intimate in scale and domestic in context. Thrown elements of his later Raku constructions and current work are used to impart the unique dynamism and energy which throwing imparts on clay. Similarly the quality of brushwork on more recent pieces recalls the loose, flowing calligraphy, which decorated the monumental stoneware vases, often thrown to six foot in height, made in this period. Pictures of these pots, I think in one of Daniel Rhode's books, were my first encounter with his work. It was only much later when well into my own work in Raku that I became aware of his later Raku pieces.


It is this middle period work in Raku which at present, at least on a technical level, is his most pervasive influence upon studio pottery in the U.K. His first encounter and subsequent development of Raku is well known and described in detail elsewhere. (E.g. Raku: Christopher Tyler & Richard Hirsch, American Potters: Garth Clark). But few facts are relevant. In the early sixties, using as a guide the description of Japanese Raku to be found in Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book, Soldner experimented with low temperature Raku in a demonstration workshop. Disappointed with the results and working on a "hunch" he drew some red hot pots from the kiln and smoked them in nearby dried leaves. The strong reduction softened the garish glaze quality and gave more sympathetic results. As so often in ceramic history mistake rather than necessity was the mother of invention.


This event led to a major expansion of surface possibilities obtainable from the Raku process: the results of this innovation are still being worked out today, over twenty years after the event, by potters like myself. More subtle, but for me equally important, is that careful reading of the event reveals an overestimation of the role accident in Raku. Many description of Raku have been couched in terms of "chance" or "serendipity". However, Soldner now plays this down emphasizing that in hi "hunch" he drew heavily upon previous experience of reduction processes modifying surfaces, albeit at high temperature. It was also crucial that he had sufficient experience and sensitivity to respond in a positive way and realize the potential of his discovery. As with many other ceramic processes the potter has a choice of how much accident to allow into his work. It is significant that Soldner quickly abandoned the tea bowl format as having a questionable role in a society where the ritual of tea drinking was not as central as in Japan. Equally interesting is to see how this process, initiated and used by Soldner as a vehicle to continue his break with European sensibilities, has now been adopted and modified by myself and other U.K. potters to emphasize classical qualities of symmetry, proportion and restraint that he sought to reject.

 

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.


This selection and control in the reactions of different strengths of vaporization upon the clay body and colored slips, combined with areas of carbonization, unite to adorn the form with a seemingly limitless tonal range or earthy color. Soldner's command and orchestration of a wide range of variables in decorating and firing enhance his articulation of the plasticity and responsiveness of clay in the incisive record of human, mark-making activity. These objects carry layers of meaning and reveal a masterly synthesis of process and content. They exemplify his concept of Raku as transcending technique to achieve excellence and a sense of spirituality. As witnessed in Wales last July the pots, like the man, are imbued with a warm humanity. Let him have the last word:
"… yet somehow so apparently easy that we forget for the moment the discipline, the endless training, the pain and the focused dedication that made it possible. If the performance attains that level of effortlessness, it transcends the process of making to uplift the observer and to give meaning to our human existence. It is, in that moment, I think, that we experience Raku at its very best."