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Potter: Past and present
The meaning of life in Liz Vigoda’s ceramic creations
By MOLLY BELMONT, life @ home First published: Wednesday, March 25, 2009
"Thwack!"Artist Liz Vigoda throws a lump of gray clay against the wheel with surprising force, demonstrating how to center a pot properly. It's Vigoda's Thursday evening pottery class for adults at her Delmar studio, a place where enterprising potters can come to practice and learn.
"Some people come because last fall was their time to try cake decorating, and now it's pottery, and next week it will be skydiving," Vigoda jokes. "But most people who come, keep coming."
The five students gathered tonight have been attending classes for a year or more, and each works on her own individual project, with Vigoda spotting as needed. In another part of the studio, another student, Beth Sweet, bends over a wheel, using a small, scalpel-like tool to trim clay from the bottom of her bowl. As she works, clay spins off the edge of the bowl in long neat curls, and collects in the bottom of the basin. Finally, Sweet holds up the work for Vigoda's careful inspection. "What do you think?" Vigoda asks. "Tell me first." Sweet appraises her work, and decides that the bottom is still a little thick, and perhaps the base could be a little taller, and Vigoda agrees, adding some tips for maintaining balance.
Vigoda's evening courses are usually six weeks long. Beginners start with cylinders and bowls, and then move to more complex pieces with handles and spouts and lids. At the end, Vigoda fires the finished pieces in her kiln, and everyone learns how to glaze their work.
Vigoda also teaches Raku classes, an ancient Japanese technique where fired pieces are glazed, most often with metallic materials, and then thrown into a barrel of sawdust when they are still white hot. Raku is an exciting technique for her students because it's so much more unpredictable than traditional pottery, and also because it's more instantaneous. She indicates a Raku pot. "This, from the time you glaze it, and put it in and take it out, it's like three hours," Vigoda says enthusiastically. "So this is much more exciting. And it's flames and smoke and all kinds of stuff, so the students really enjoy it."
Vigoda approaches her own work with the studied appreciation of an anthropologist. She studied ceramics at London's Sir John Cass College of Art, but her first degree, from the University of Chicago, was in anthropology, and her work, with its hand-painted designs based on collage and medieval embroidery work, continues to address that same intersection between materials, culture, and history.
Three years ago, when Vigoda's Albany studio was sold to make way for a charter school, she moved from doing wholesale shows and made-to-order dinnerware to creating more one-of-a-kind pieces that showcase her own artistic explorations. One icy afternoon, she gives a tour of her home and basement studio. Recently, she has been assembling collages, layering photographs, drawings, and textures with paint, and she held up one of the stoneware bowls she created based on some of the same principles. The surface is decorated with African fabric art designs and quirky stamps, which work together to create a dense and arresting effect: "The amalgam of the various images…have a message that's kind of subliminal almost," Vigoda says.
She also holds up a piece from another series, the black-and-white wildflower collection, which is based on 17th Century crewel embroidery work, featuring dramatic botanical patterns that look almost like woodcuts. Vigoda finds textiles a rich and inspiring field for her designs. Her own living room and dining room are decorated with an array of colorful woven rugs, embellished embroidery work, and a large collection of pen-and-ink drawings she did of water rushing over rocks. Fiber arts achieve an intricacy through the weaving together of various threads and colors, a process that mimics Vigoda's own development as an artist. "I think people draw from their own experiences, and then you find broader meanings as you kind of think about it and mature," she says.
For this potter, teaching and pottery go hand-in-hand, and she's been an instructor for 30 years, offering private instruction at her studio, alongside her classes at Sage College of Albany and the Albany Institute of History and Art. Vigoda teaches her students how ceramics became part of our cultural history, and the evidence they provide about our past. Using real objects like cooking pots, oil lamps, tomb guards and chamber pots, she asks her students to imagine how people must have lived and shows them that even in trying times, people were compelled to embellish their surroundings. Then she has her students make their own objects — lamps, pots, and even scenes that represent their lives — warning them that these pieces may very well be examined by future generations.
"We're living in a unique time now, Vigoda says, sitting on her couch, because for the first time in history, ceramics don't provide material clues about who we are. "I don't think our civilization will be able to be understood by our ceramics the way others were," Vigoda says. This phenomenon coincides not just with the trend away from handmade crafts, but with the industrialization of the craft trade itself in the last decade. The economy started to slump around the same time that commercial ceramics started looking more appealing, ("I think because Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn and all those other places started producing actually nicely designed things," Vigoda says.) and the growing import market swamped crafters, forcing many to shut their doors, Vigoda says.
Today, in spite of the worsening economic climate, Vigoda remains confident that handmade pottery like hers will weather the test of time and that discerning customers still recognize its value. "Quality over quantity, that's what makes individual things special," Vigoda says. "People are going to be looking for meaning, and I think things that are handmade, made by people with their own two hands, will come back."