American Craft, October/November 1982
Text by Judith Dunham
Trusting intuition and learning from accident, he heas investigated unfamiliar paths in the ceramics field.
At Scripps College in late spring, nature displays its seasonal opulence in the gracefully weeping branches of the olive grove, the loquat trees weighted with fruit and the flower beds thriving under attentive care. This aura of productivity, typical of Southern California, is a fitting environment for Paul Soldner, who for more than a decade has presided over the ceramics department at the college in Claremont for the six months of each year when he is not in Aspen, Colorado.
Gentle in his manner, spare in his speech and movements though expansive in his thoughts, Soldner looks much younger than his 61 years. In the three decades since he began to work in ceramics, he has earned a reputation based on his pioneering work in raku and salt firing and on his influence as teacher, mentor and consummate technician.
Soldner's art comes from a combination of responding to intuition and learning from accidents on the one hand, and maintaining control and seeking refinement on the other. This synthesis, which is sought by many, be they painters, sculptors, or ceramists, is an approach integral to Soldner's personality and it is directed by his compulsion to change and grow. Impelled by both need and preference, Soldner has investigated unfamiliar paths in the ceramics field. His early involvement with the medium -the late 1950's and early 1960's -coincided with the youthful phases of modem American clay sculpture.
It is commonly assumed that Soldner popularized raku in the United States, and there is considerable truth in that. Yet it is not widely known that the techniques he enthusiastically propagated were more American than Japanese. Years after beginning to work in raku, Soldner went to Japan, first in 1971 and again in 1978. Japanese artists, Soldner discovered, do not post-fire their pots in water as he does; nor do they smoke their ware. Japanese blackware, in fact, had its origin in an iron-bearing rock fired at high temperatures, in contrast to redware, which is fired low.
When Soldner first experimented with raku in 1960, his only source was a suggestion in Bernard Leach's seminal publication, A Potter's Book. Initially unsuccessful with his stoneware raku firings, Soldner persisted until he reached the level of refinement, expertise and control that make his low-fire work of the 1960's and 1970's such an impressive achievement. Because little if any documented information was available on raku 20 years ago, Soldner's process relied heavily on creative exploitation of the accident. Researchers frequently ask Soldner for his bibliography on raku, lowfire salt or kiln building. "Sometimes they think I'm playing a game," he says, "when I tell them I followed nothing. There was just curiosity and observing accidents. Some of the effects that have now become understood were total accidents. I had no idea what was going to happen. I couldn't go to anybody and say, 'What's causing this?' It was a process of trial and error, and observation. The information is in the process."
Soldner admits that accidents in art do not evolve and flourish without guidance. "What one does with an accident," Soldner cautions, "is the important thing. If it isn't possible to see the accident in a constructive sense-that is, if one can't grow from it-it will remain an accident."
The years Soldner spent with Peter Voulkos at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles undoubtedly contributed to his trust of instinct and to the importance he invests in learning from process. After earning an MA in art education from the University of Colorado in Boulder under the GI Bill, Soldner wanted to broaden his limited experience with ceramics. On the recommendation of Jim and Nan McKinnell, University of Colorado students who had met Voulkos at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, Soldner sought out Voulkos. A relative newcomer to ceramics at the age of 33 -three years Voulkos's senior-Soldner arrived at Otis in 1954 to find one large room with no equipment other than a table and a sink. As Voulkos's first student there, Soldner helped set up the studio and build equipment, displaying a nascent ability that later led to a successful business that he still operates: Soldner Pottery Equipment, Inc.
As any glimpse into the history of West Coast ceramics must reveal, Otis was a nexus of activity for many artists, Soldner included. Using the facilities more as a studio than as a classroom -the approach Soldner uses now when he teaches -Voulkos worked side by side with the students in an environment that "gave everyone the permission," as Soldner says, to work unimpeded by limitations and constraints.
All the artists who spent time at Otis-among whom were John Mason, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston -chose to develop in different directions in the past two decades. So has Soldner. But he is one of the few who have remained committed to the vessel form, partly for its relationship to ceramic tradition, mostly for his fascination with its limitations. "If you want acceptance," Soldner believes, "it's easier to make a non-vessel piece than it is to make a vessel. I guess I love the challenge of taking something that doesn't have easy acceptance and elevating it, if possible, to a point where that is no longer important. You finally cease worrying about a platter being a platter. You look at it as an art object, an aesthetic object. Maybe appreciating it is different from appreciating a painting because you're involved with different criteria. You're involved with clay and fire, as well as drawing, form, line and all those principles. In a way, for me, it's like scale. I used to make large pieces and yet I firmly believe that the real challenge is to make a small piece so special that it demands equal time."
Soldner's self-imposed restrictions in format have not inhibited the extensive formal effects and wealth of expression he has gradually developed throughout his career in clay. Like much sculptural ceramics of the late 1950's, Soldner's works were large in scale. Usually begun on the wheel, the stoneware pieces were built in several modules. Then the forms were manipulated and the completed sections assembled into cylindrical vessels standing nearly six feet high. Slips and glazes poured over the surface, and areas occasionally glazed with painterly calligraphic brushwork, balance the dominant verticality and symmetrically of the forms.
But not until Soldner's more mature and fully conceived small-scale raku of the 1960's did his work gain a distinction that separates it from the muscular, somewhat ponderous stoneware forms to which many ceramists had become attracted. From the moment he decided to remove a group of pots from the kiln and reduce them in a bed of leaves, Soldner was drawn to the softened palette, complex textures and mottled surface that the raku process could achieve.
By his own estimation, Soldner has initiated at least half of his pieces on the wheel in order to shape them from the inside out, subsequently altering the forms by hand. Whether in the raku vessels of the 1960's or in the salt-fired containers of the past few years, the sequence of their making is revealed in their final forms and textures. Lifting from a base that is just substantial enough to allow the pieces to stand freely, the shapes grow irregularly and asymmetrically upward, culminating in natural-looking uneven rims. In recent years the lips are appended with rugged hand-built slabs that depart from the wheel-thrown rotundity of the primary forms, giving the overall pieces greater sculptural monumentality than they would otherwise possess.
Within his raku and salt-fired work, Soldner incorporates many other techniques and effects, usually overlaying one on another. Wall plaques, which now account for 50 percent of his output, and vessels, which he calls pedestal-oriented work, are washed with color and fused with images. They are like dimensional paintings. White slip lightens the surface of many pieces. Others bear iron and copper calligraphic gestures that are unmistakably oriental in feeling. The clay of one unglazed plaque from 1977 carries a drawing made with an acetylene torch. Like sculptural prints, the surfaces are often impressed with multiple textures and images. The tread of an athletic shoe brands many plaques and vessels, as do incised lines and patterns of uncertain origin.
Not satisfied to converse in formal language alone, Soldner also speaks with specific images. Applied with templates or stencils taken from magazines, the figures on both the vessels and the plaques simultaneously look modern, yet recall the silhouetted forms on Greek urns. Thanks to another accident, he discovered that exposing the works to oxygen at a particular stage in the firing produces white outlines on the metallic figures, creating ghostlike images around the darkened forms.
Yet another accident over ten years ago ultimately led Soldner to salt firing, which he has used increasingly in recent years. When a specially constructed kiln unexpectedly gave bisque-fired work bright orange spots, Soldner discounted the effects as undesirable. Years later, feeling a need to change his work, Soldner made a "subconscious connection," as he recalls it, with this earlier incident and learned to control and manipulate it. Glowing as if the heat of the kiln were still emanating from their surfaces, the salt-fired vessels and plaques seem to throw off their own light. The blush that sweeps across the clay gives it the tenderness and warmth of human flesh.
Evident in all of Soldner's work-the raku and the salt-fired, the vessels and the plaques-is a respect and reverence for the natural qualities of clay and a realization of their potential beauty. It is free of gimmicks, free of the quick joke so prevalent in contemporary ceramics. Although few artists have directly emulated his forms and specific effects, many have benefited from his philosophy of making art. A peek into the studios at Scripps discloses a diverse body of work ranging from traditional tabletop vessels to human-size figures. For artists who have studied with Soldner-including Jim Romberg, Joe Soldate, Philip Cornelius and David Middlebrook-their connection to him is a greater point of commonality than any shared quality in their work. Like him, they have found their own place in the world of clay.
"Rather than coming from a tradition," Soldner says, "we're making a tradition. We're still involved with making an American tradition in painting as well. A student asked me one day if I knew anything about clay history. I said I did. The student asked me why I didn't teach it. First of all, I'm more interested in making it. Although that sounds egotistical, I am trying to create something that will earn a historical place."
Judith Dunham is Associate Director of the World Print Council in San Francisco and a free-lance critic. She recently completed a book entitled New Bay Area Painting and Sculpture.