Elan, v. 3, n.10, November 1990

Paul Soldner, who says "mistake rather than necessity, was the mother of invention;" has demonstrated the success of this philosophy by his remarkable career as a ceramic artist and teacher over the past 30 years. Contrary to the general idea of success in the western world where mistakes are to be avoided, Soldner puts them to work for himself. In an age where many people allow technology and science to dictate the course which they should follow, Soldner prefers intuition, chance and serendipity to chart his path. This philosophy catapulted him to the forefront of ceramics where he remains today.

Soldner has been instrumental in creating many changes in the field of ceramic art since the 50s when he became part of a group of talented ceramic artists who were studying with Peter Voulkos at the Otis Institute in Los Angeles. Each of these artists assumed the role of teacher and student, thus all learning from one another.

The group, subsequently known as the Voulkos group or the Otis group, opened new vistas for nonfunctional form in clay which were not available before. Soldner and his colleagues started a movement which, as critic and author Garth Clark observed, succeeded in "expanding the parameters of the pottery aesthetic and in so doing placed American ceramics on the map for the first time."

Soldner has gone on to institute a series of major changes and small revolutions in ceramic techniques and methods since his days at Otis. He is now known as the father of American Raku. Raku, which was developed by the Japanese in the 16th century, is a quick firing method. Soldner, not knowing how the Japanese used it, developed his own aesthetic. He traveled and generously gave lectures and workshops, and taught others what he had learned from his experience, and soon he was the leader of an American revolution of clay. We were no longer tied only to traditional European pottery techniques and functions.

A natural extension of Soldner's work with asymmetrical Raku, or smoke-fired pieces and periodic salt firing, led him to the development of Low Salt Firing. Glazes are not used in this firing, but the pattern of the flame is controlled so that the salt and chemicals combine and leave remarkable deposits on the surface of the clay. Once again, controlled spontaneity comes into use.

His inventions and development of ceramic equipment have revolutionized the studios of many potters throughout the world. This is a natural outgrowth of the theory that mistake is the mother of invention as well as his need to develop equipment for his ground-breaking work.

Soldner, who has been Professor of Ceramics at Scripps College in Claremont, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate School since 1969, is not averse to study and education but he prefers to use experimentation in the process of doing his work as well as in his teaching.

'I love experimenting;' he said, "I learn more from experimenting than I do from studying."

This philosophy forms the cornerstone of Soldner's teaching philosophy. Students come from around the world to study with Soldner because of his reputation as an artist, and his effectiveness as a teacher.

When teaching, he places the responsibility for learning on the students. Rather than having the teacher pass information down to the students, Soldner believes in having the teacher set an example while the students observe. All the while, he encourages the students to participate in a non-judgemental environment that allows them to respond to their own curiosity.

"If you can make the students curious, that's half of the importance of being an artist - curiosity, the other half is to have the courage or security to go ahead and act on their curiosity, not wait for the teacher to tell you its a good idea or a bad idea - to get permission from somebody. Take it yourself ...Some students profit from an experience, others get a grade.'

This philosophy also calls for the teacher to share everything he or she knows. There can be no secrets. Soldner credits Peter Voulkos for instilling this attitude in him. Soldner said that Pete once told him "You can't worry about someone copying you or taking your secrets because you've got to be ahead of them anyhow...By the time you teach them your little success or give that formula, you should be on to the new work."

Soldner has obviously taken Voulkos' advice to heart in setting his own agenda; he has continually moved into new areas and eagerly sought change as a means of furthering his development as an artist. This willingness to challenge himself and to risk making the mistakes from which he learns, have been hallmarks of Soldner's style.

Soldner describes his work as falling into ten-year cycles. First were 10 years of producing stoneware and functional work. Then came 10 years of experimentation with Raku, a period when the forms he worked with were more organic and asymmetrical. Finally there were 10 years of working with Low Salt fired pieces, which involved a different way of achieving color.

Now he is into another 10-year-cycle which will include bronze casting and printmaking. This latest phase of his career began several years ago when Soldner was invited to participate as an artist-in- residence in the metal casting studio at Southern Illinois University. He has since been invited to participate in printmaking studios at Westminster College in Pittsburgh.

Having proved what he wanted to prove with respect to clay being accepted in the art world as an art medium, Soldner feels comfortable in setting out on a new and seemingly very different path. As he points out, bronze casting and printmaking have some similarities to working in clay. Both mediums are process-oriented, and are responsive to textural application, and they represent a challenge. These processes are also subject to serendipity and surprise. People often ask him if he knows how something is going to turn out when he starts a new piece.

 

"I hope not. I'd be bored if I knew how it was going to turn out. I'm far more interested in the unknown and the question."

Soldner will take advantage of his next exhibition at The Art Works in Riverside to present his etchings and monotypes to the public for the first time. The exhibition, which will begin on November 15th, will also feature his recent work in bronze, together with examples of the ceramic works for which he is so famous.

In addition to this exhibition, we can look forward to many new activities from Soldner as he prepares to close his career as a Professor at Scripps College. Invitations to teach at the Chicago Art Institute, workshops in London, or Portugal, exhibitions around the world and a book on his contributions and lifestyle are all in the planning stages.

Retirement from full-time teaching will give him more time for new ceramic pieces, additional work in bronze and new experiences in printmaking. We should all be prepared for more surprises from this renaissance man.

Connie Ranson is the owner of The Artworks, 4649 Brockton, Riverside, Calif. She is also a sculptor.