Soldner's sculpture leads the show
by Mary Eshbaugh Hayes
Paul Soldner is part of a revolution.
It's a revolution that says that clay is as important an art medium as painting or sculpture.
Soldner's current exhibition of monumental clay sculptures at the Patricia Moore Gallery shows that he is in the front lines of the revolution.
"We have gotten past the idea that clay is utilitarian," exclaims the Aspen artist.
"We have gotten past the idea that clay is just for functional pots.
"Clay is being accepted. Prudential Insurance Company recently bought a sculptural clay piece. This wouldn't have happened 15 years ago."
Soldner joined the revolution when he studied with Peter Voulkos at the Los Angeles Art Institute.
"It was a small revolution," says Soldner. "It lasted from about 1954 to 1960. I can look back on that period. It was like the Bauhaus. We broke with the idea that clay was utilitarian.
"We said . . . here we are taking art history, drawing the same nudes, taking all the same classes as the painters and the sculptors. "Why not think of clay as another art medium. Once the barriers were down. . . the future was wide open."
Soldner went with the idea. He led the way. Over the years his work has not been what you would call utilitarian and practical. It is not something you would stick flowers in.
It is not what you would serve tea with.
The show at the gallery is dominated by giant sculptures.
There are a few wall pieces. All are unmistakably Soldner, with silhouettes and figures and faces pressed and burned into the clay. The figures and faces are from photographs of friends or pictures from newspapers and magazines that somehow appeal to Soldner.
The figures and faces often blend together, they play with double meanings, they melt into the shape of the clay piece.
"I don't title the pieces," says Soldner. "People find their own messages. My work is connected to our society but I don't like to preach.
"I am more involved with the joy of the piece and its aesthetic content rather than its message."
Soldner says he does about 50% pedestal pieces and 50% wall pieces.
"The pedestal pieces are more sculptural and the wall pieces are more painterly," he remarks.
However, even if you wouldn't fill them with flowers, there is still the hint of the vessel in the large sculptural pieces.
"The vessel still remains of interest to me," says the artist.
"The vessel form is 8,000 years old; it is still a challenge. There is room to explore new ideas with it.
Soldner spends six months out of every year teaching ceramics at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School in California.
He has taught all his artistic life except for a few years. Then he found he had to go back to teaching. "I have often said," he muses, "That if I didn't work with students, I probably would have more difficulty, with new ideas and
new trends. I learn so much from my students. I get caught up with their ideas."
Every year when Soldner starts his classes, he starts his students with functional pieces. He teaches the basics. So there are always a few teapots and mugs around his house.
"I don't believe in burning bridges," he says with a wry grin. But once they have learned the basics of clay, he lets his students go.
His philosophy of teaching is that he gives permission for students to be what they are . . . rather than him telling the students what to do.
It is teaching by osmosis.
"In my class, I begin with a short lecture and demonstration. Then the students are on their own and I'm on my own. We learn from each other, by osmosis."
An interview with Soldner is always a lesson in philosophy.
Lean, wiry, barefoot and elfin, he wraps his long arms around his knees and discourses.
He will discourse on wine making (he makes at least 50 gallons of homemade wine a year), or he will discourse on kiln-building, or any kind of idea that crops up.
He has been thinking lately about how the life of an artist suits him.
"People who go into the business world start of well (making money), they climb quickly to the top, but are washed up and finished at 65," he observes.
"Then there is the artist. An artist comes out of college. Nothing happens for a long time, there is a plateau. But then in mid-life you start pulling ahead. You get better all the time. You can just keep going up."