April 21, 1921-January 3, 2011
Paul Soldner, artist and innovator in the field of ceramic art, passed away at the age of 89, at his winter home in Claremont, California, on January 3rd, 2011. His life was one of vision, inspiration and teaching. As a professor at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate University, and through workshops he conducted around the world, he influenced generations of ceramic art students who found in Soldner an artist who was both internationally acclaimed and personally accessible, a teacher who taught not by rule, but by example.
There are those artists who are born into a solid, well-ordered artistic tradition, and create entirely within it. Others deny tradition and work as idiosyncratically as they please. A few, the giants, go on to dominate the tradition they helped bring into being. Paul Soldner was one of these.
Accepted as a major force in the evolution of contemporary ceramic art, Soldner’s career was punctuated by important innovations since the mid 1950s. He is best known as the father of “American Raku” and for his innovation of “low-temperature salt fuming.”
It was Soldner’s openness to the creative accident that led him to the “discovery” of American Raku. “He was invited to demonstrate at a crafts fair in 1960. Using Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, as a guide for traditional Raku, a Japanese technique developed in the 16th century, he set up a simple kiln and improvised a few lead-based glazes. The initial results were disappointing but his fascination with Raku persisted, and Soldner continued to experiment [originating post-fire smoking artwork, now known as American Raku]. He gradually discovered he was more interested in Raku as an aesthetic than as a tradition. This attitude resulted in a much more playful approach to form, scale, function, and material.” (Garth Clark)
As Paul often said, “In the spirit of Raku, there is the necessity to embrace the element of surprise. There can be no fear of losing what was once planned and there must be an urge to grow along with the discovery of the unknown. Make no demands, expect nothing, follow no absolute plan, be secure in change, learn to accept another solution and, finally, prefer to gamble on your own intuition.”
Born in Summerfield, Illinois on April 24, 1921, Soldner hadn’t planned to be an artist: he started out as a pre-med student, then enlisted into the Army Medical Corps as a conscientious objector, serving with Patton’s 3rd Army at the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was one of the first to encounter concentration camp survivors fleeing the infamous Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria as the camp was liberated. Confronting the horror of the Holocaust face-to-face eventually ignited in Soldner a passion to create beauty through art. He started with an interest in photography, but at the age of 33, Soldner decided to become a potter. He headed for the Los Angeles County Art Institute, and became Peter Voulkos’s first student, earning an MFA in 1956.
At Otis, Soldner explored creating monumental “floor pots,” or sculptures, which stood up to eight feet in height, often with expressionistically painted areas on the forms. It was also at Otis that he designed and ultimately began the manufacture of the Soldner potters wheels and clay mixers that became Soldner Pottery Equipment Inc.
In 1957, Soldner began teaching at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate University, in addition to curating the now famous Scripps Ceramic Annual exhibition for 37 years.
Throughout his career, Soldner’s artwork often mirrored contemporary issues and ideas expressed by using culturally familiar shapes impressed on three-dimensional sculptures or on two-dimensional wallpieces. Soldner’s artwork has been collected by major museums worldwide and exhibited in the United States, Europe, Canada, Latvia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Australia.
In 1957, Soldner and his wife, Ginny, began building their home and studio by hand in Aspen, Colorado. The principle that architecture should improve with age directed his designs. To that end, he used rocks and wood native to the area. The Soldner compound was one of the first in the area to acknowledge environmental concerns by using the sun’s energy with solar power for heating. In the 1960s, while living in Aspen, he co-founded Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado.
Paul had a passion for life and enjoyed the pleasures of living, including making his own wine and jewelry, growing bonsai, and designing hot tubs for himself and friends.
He wrote numerous articles and two books, Nothing to Hide, and Kilns and Their Construction. Soldner has been the subject of three documentary films and is listed in Marquis Who’s Who in America, American Art, and the World.
Paul Soldner leaves behind his daughter, Stephanie Soldner Sullivan; his son-in-law, Garrett Sullivan; his grandchildren Colin and Madelyn Sullivan and his sister Louise Farling.
In lieu of flowers, please consider contributing to:
The Paul Soldner Endowment at Scripps College
1030 Columbia Avenue
Claremont, CA 91711
Paul and Ginny Soldner Scholarship Fund at Anderson Ranch Art Center
PO Box 5598
Snowmass, CO 81615