By Paula Johnson
It started as a chance comment. Eight or nine of us had squeezed into a white van and headed over the mountains to Boulder's Shakespeare Festival to see Henry V. Local gossip prevailed during the drive. When the chat turned to art, photographer Doug Rhinehart noted Harry Teague's comment that everything in Paul Soldner's life was art, not just the ceramics he is famous for. In Paul's hands, bonsai, wine and hot tubs become aesthetic creations. This made me wonder: if you surround yourself with art, have you made life an art?
The question festered or flowered, depending on your affinity for philosophy. I had to know more, so I turned to experts in life: anyone who has been there and seemed to do it well. After asking people about life as art, it soon became painfully obvious that one man's art treasure may be in another man's garage sale. Defining art is as challenging as being the first in line at the gondola on a three-foot powder day.
I asked local CPA Reese Henry, whose opinion I have alway valued, what he though about life as art. Reese's father told him that he should accomplish two things: be a better man than his father, and leave the world better than he found it. To Reese, it is the gentle, giving, gracious souls on earth who better the place, who make life, art. Reese said that in creating art, "Some artists paint, sculptors sculpt and ordinary human beings give."
Artists who make a difference also give, but in another way. Paul Soldner has given to his art through innovations in his field. In ceramics, he is considered a pioneer in American Style Raku and Low Fire Salt Fuming (firing ceramics at low temperatures while adding salt to the fire to create colors and pattern on the ware). He has contributed innovative pottery equipment and a booklet on building kilns. He is credited with starting Anderson Ranch Arts Center, an enclave for visiting artists and students at Snowmass. It grew out of a co-op ceramic group that met in Aspen's old bowling alley. And he has given many students a sense of themselves as artists.
Soldner isn't sure that surrounding yourself with art makes life art. When people refer to things in his life as art, they are referring to his creativity, he thinks. Creativity, he says, is part of art certainly, but in some ways it's different. It can take courage to veer from a previously trod path.
Soldner, 74, hadn't planned to be an artist when he was young. He started out as a pre-med student, but three and one-half years of tending patients for the Army in World War II stunted that plan. He returned from the war to earn a B.A. in art and teach art in public schools for eight years. It wasn't until he was 34 that he knew he wanted to be a clay artist, and he headed for the L.A. County Art Institute. Even then, Soldner said, "I had a hard time thinking of myself as an artist and I still do sometimes."
Two things contribute to his occassional doubt. First, during the era in which Soldner grew up, it was considered that "real artists" created realistic art. Fox hunting scenes replicated nature. He doesn't feel he has that skill. Secondly, Soldner said, "I have a strong feeling that what is art and who is an artist gets sorted out maybe after you're gone, but certainly with time." Van Gogh is a well known example of an artist ignored while living, revered once dead.
Paul Soldner has lived his art. While producing his own work, he has taught ceramics for most of his adult life, including time at Scripps College and at Claremont Graduate School and other schools. He has found a way for the art to pay the bills.
Successful artists make a living from their art. I cast around for an example of someone outside the art field who had woven work with the art of life and thought of Caroline Christensen, who is living some people's dreams. For Caroline, creating the life she envisons starts on the inside. Caroline said her life is falling into place due to simple tenets. Be kinder. Pick the best path for yourself, yet do not hurt others. Be happy and it spreads. "It's all about relying on other people and also sharing and caring and love. That sounds kind of hippyish," she said, but...
When long-time friend, Joe Wilson, died, she asked herself, "What's the purpose here?" Instead of going for more awards, success, money, and volunteer hours, she started reassessing. She worked less at her real estate job, and worked out less at the gym. She was more balanced, joyful and happy when being true to herself and exploring her spiritual foundation. She has more free time now, more time for friends.
Now, for her, life's outward focus is travel. She teaches aerobics in Mexico and she works for the Golden Door on Cunard, a Norwegian cruise line. Starting May 1 she will be back on the ship where she can choose her own cruises and destinations. A lot of people tell her she has their dream job. They see art in living the life you really want to live.
Soldner also lives the life he wants to live, spending winters in Claremont, California. "It's difficult being a potter in the snow," he said. In California you can just walk to your studio and work. In Aspen you must first clear the snow. He won't be back to Aspen until the
dandelions start to bloom. Then he'll be out plucking the dandelion heads for home-made wine.
...I turn to Soldner for an artist's view of family. Soldner said, "When I wanted to pull up stakes and leave a comfortable teaching position, (my wife Ginny) was ready... She's been extremely supportive and encouraging." Soldner sees spouses as a potential problem for lots of artists. Understanding is required when working with nude models and for the independence of art. The creative, independent life can involve long, long hours working when you've touched inspiration. And he adds, "She's a damn good painter."
The creativity of his life is fueled by Soldner's interminable curiousity. He likes to figure things out. He has lots of hobbies and interests. Take hot tubs. "I try to figure out the concept of it rather than just the superficial outward appearance," and then he builds one. His design uses ferr-cement. He estimates there are at least 18 Soldner-design hot tubs between Canada and St. Louis.
This same cement finds itself in unusual places in Soldner's house.
He has precast overhead lenicular tresses, an outgrowth of his bridge-building days as a kid playing in streams. He would nail two boards together and force the middle open with another stick. He likes the shape, so he recreated it in his home. He used lots of concrete for beams, walls and tresses.
Figuring things out was also behind Soldner's foray into fermentation. He makes 40 to 50 gallons of wine per year that he uses for entertaining. He uses the fruits of Aspen's earth: dandelions, service berries, rhubarb and choke cherries. Here too, he learns the fundamentals of the grape and then expands and explores on his own.
Creativity and curiosity are key in everything. Sometimes artists will revere the tools too much, but it is the talent that really counts. In photography (another hobby) Soldner claims that equipment does not necessarily make the photo. Equipment doesn't make the musician either. If you give Itzhak Perlman a cheap violin and Paul Soldner a Stradivarius "Perlman could make you cry." Soldner might make you cry too, but not from emotional elation.
Patience is another key to art, and perhaps to life. It took Soldner 35 years to get his house just the way he wants it, and according to real estate appraisers, it's now obsolete due to its non-comforming techniques and hand-built style. The Soldners sleep in one building and entertain in another. A third, round studio building reminds some of an American Indian kiva, and Paul of a pine cone. An undergroup wine cellar is an eight-foor by 15-foot steel pipe that Paul bought in Glenwood Springs when a cement company broke up. Paul is still working on its embellishments, stairs, a gateway and a special wine-cellar ambiance. Paul can't settle for simple function.
The patience it took to create his living space is a requirement for art. After graduation school an artist may be in career limbo for quite a while. "If your own ideas and imagery are special enough," you'll enventually make it as an artist. Georgia O'Keefe is an example. Her early work was "unacceptable," Soldner noted. By the end of her life, everything was valuable. It's tje opposite of a life in business, where you reach a plateau fairly early on, then you retire. Artists never stop. "Most mature artists continue until they drop." At 74, Soldner is still working hard and he has work in galleries in Aspen, Florida, Beverly Hills, Scottsdale, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Portland.
Patience permeates his life. Soldner has been doing bonsai for 30 years. "I feel like I'm just beginning to understand the possibilities and potenial. I feel like I'm a kid just learning."
Another part of Soldner's art that ties metaphorically to life is something that according to Soldner sets ceramic artists apart from other artists, the unknown. "We expose out work to fire. We're comfortable with the unexpected results that fire is going to add. A painter would go right up the wall."
Perhaps to live a successful, art-like life one must be willing, even excited to see what the fires of life do to it, and to accept the results. Soldner notes that he makes a lot of mistakes and learns from them because of his experimental life style. Really touching life and being experimental "gets me in trouble sometimes," Soldner said. "It's also very satisfying. I've really done it. I'm not a voyeur."
After talking with Paul Soldner and others, I believe you can make life an art form. It certainly helps to have an artist's eye, but by employing lessons from ordinary people such as giving and sharing, being true to yourself and being active, with ideas from an artist's life, such as being creative and having the courage to trust it, having patience, experiencing rather than watching, not relying on having the best tools with which to create, having a willingness to accept the results after trials by fire and really understanding things around you, I don't think you can avoid a life that is truly an art form.
|DESTINATION, April/May 1995, pp. 18-20.|