ART

ZAKIN%2C+MIKHAIL

ZAKIN, MIKHAIL
ZAKIN, MIKHAIL
NEW JERSEY
Until I met a potter, clay was simply, for me, a material that (mixed with olive oil to prevent drying) was used for armatures in the study of sculpture. It was a means to an end in bronze, stone or plaster.

I had worked with William Zorach at the Art Student's League learning to go directly to stone without an intermediate material. So what a joy it was to find in clay a material that was its own end, through firing.

Having been a sculptor before World War II, during the Great Depression in America - when artists were a separate community of "Us" and all others "Them" - I took a special delight in finding something sculptural that people needed and wanted in everyday life. I believed that a vessel was not separate from the world of sculpture, and when I studied the great vessels from the past I found a dynamic, in line and volume, that communicated energy and life force.

In the beginning, I was entranced with the wheel and concentrated on functional forms for cooking, using the newly found high-temperature petalite. MC Richards and I had discovered this material through the owner of Perrine Mines in Sayerville, New Jersey, and we brought it to Stony Point, New York.

Karen Karnes was my teacher at Stony Point. I loved her forms and was much influenced by her work and her life. MC Richards was also very present in those days, and there were many conversations, pithy and philosophical. David Weinrib was there working with slabs in a new personal way. This environment was entirely nourishing to a fledgling ceramist.

After about three years of working with Karen Karnes, I I built a soft-brick kiln (one of the first, designed by McKinnel) and was working in my own studio at home. Later we built a salt kiln at Stony Point. It was one of only two or three in the country in private hands. Byron Temple had one in Lambertville, and Don Reitz had his own; the others were at places like Haystack, Penland and Alfred University. For me the process was perfect. Since my primary interest was and is form, the intimacy of the vapor-glazed surface was very satisfying. I began hand building, using soft clay, trapping air, and working with inner pressure and outer force. Early box forms metamorphosed into blomorphic evocations.

Informed by nature, this became a very private obsession; at times, when everything was working just right, the forms seemed to flow through me rather than from me, and I felt and AHA! Each step of the way I was experiencing an organic progression from larval forms to land forms and anthropomorphic forms.

I was also entranced by the idea that the potter, by the nature of the materials and processes of the craft, becomes and alchemist. I was in live with the fact that, through fire, we who work in clay are duplicating earth processes - though earth's processes that billions of years. With fire, we are bringing about a disassociation and re-association of essential elements.

This was a long journey of exploration, and , when I cam to teaching (first at Greenwich House Pottery School, and then at the Brooklyn Museum Art School), I found that the developmental struggle and involvement game extra insight into other engaged in their won journeys.

Everybody was so busy mastering the craft - there is so much that is chemical, mechanical and technical to process, and so much subliminal conditioning from industrial production - that very often I found an absence of aesthetic thinking, a disconnection from history, a tendency to focus on externals - a "looking over there" for ideas. The excitement that was mine was contagious, and the self-actualizing experience of being "the maker" made the students feel connected to the history of human creative problem solving.

Perhaps because my educations was in “fine arts,” my approach and language were new to craft students, and the widening ripples of response were instrumental in the many invitations to teach and give workshops.

I loved the teaching, and came to feel it was easily as important, challenging and fulfilling as working with clay. I never wanted to teach out of “cold storage” and felt it was essential to be personally involved in the creative struggle, so as to be better tuned to the struggle of students.

The students who came into my life enriched and renewed me with their growth and blossoming, as they found their own infinitely unique voices in the material we each loved. Of course, all students did not go on to become professional potters, but they were forever attuned in their understanding, appreciation, and connection to hand made works and to the historic continuum.

In 1973, I was part of the founding of the Old Church Cultural Center (OCCC) and School in Demarest, New Jersey. My dream was to make a cultural resource center and art school, as a way of giving back to the community. This was a glorious undertaking, involving hundreds of people who willingly came forward to turn a derelict building into a fully functioning, not-for-profit art school. We had a mandate from the town to improve the quality of life through our educational and cultural offerings.

In 1976, Sarah Lawrence College invited me to join the faculty, where nor some years I chaired the Visual Arts Department and taught ceramics as a studio course with a historical component. My teaching also included the “Travel with a Focus” program that I initiated, sponsored by the Old Church Cultural Center and Sarah Lawrence College.

I was sure there mush be others who wanted to learn and experience travel within the context of an interest, so the focus of the first traveling seminar was “The History of English Pottery from Pre-Roman Times to the Space Age.” This seminar took us to Cornwall to visit those potters who came under the influence of oriental and medieval pottery through Bernard Leach, and to the Midlands to study the changes industry wrought on the lives of the country potters. We also looked at industrial processes in the making of clay insulators, paid a visit to Mick Casson who was consciously influenced by the Romans, and spent a day at Much Haddam with Henry Moore.

The following year the focus was Japan and “The Relationship of Craft to Culture Past and Preset.” We visited National Treasure craftspeople in pottery, weaving and paper-making. Later, we went to Mexico to study and document pre-Columbian pottery and techniques used in the central highlands.

I wrote articles on these seminars, which eventually let to another kind to travel experience. Through an invitation from the Duchess of Sutherland in northern Scotland, cam an opportunity to work in a nineteenth-century schoolhouse overlooking the North Sea on the Kyle of Tongue. Our participants were housed by the crofters who lived on the Kyle – the last of the Gaelic speaking people in that area.

So now we were to have a heightened sense of place though work. It was magical, with double rainbows, eighteen hours of sunlight, and everywhere, sheep grazing. We cam to experience time and space in a way our crowded lived did not ordinarily afford. The subject of the seminar was “Changing Landscape,” an apt focus for a part of the world where every hour brought changes. We used pinhole cameras to record our environment in black and white; we spun and wove fleece and bog cotton; and we fired primitive cooking pots in boulder-and-sod kilns, using peat for fuel. Then came an invitation from the Italian artist Osvaldo Rhight, who was restoring a twelfth-century castle village in Umbria. There we made paper out of local flora, wove silk to experience medieval time and worked in low-temperature clay in the Italian manner.

A return trip to Scotland was followed by a journey to China, a sojourn in a Dutch pottery in Utrecht, Holland, and five years of research and teaching in Korea. In 1990, I retired from Sarah Lawrence, but continued teaching and gave administrative guidance to OCCC.

After a hiatus of some years, the OCCC “Travel with a Focus” program was resumed and starting in 1997, trips to Morocco and Turkey opened a whole new world of interest. The focus is on the historic continuum in art, culture and traditional craft making. Such travel gives one a connection to the vast evidence of creative problem solving with clay and other materials and a greater appreciation of the innate creativity of the world's peoples.

I have lived long enough to see many profound changes in our world. I remember Charles Lindbergh's first flight of an American businessman. We now live in a highly technological age, and the amazing fact is that, especially in the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of people young and old making marvelous things by hand, leaving concrete evidence of being. There has been growth of art centers and craft centers serving our primal human need to create.

In the ninth decade of my life there are still worlds to discover and still lessons to be learned from people and from clay. I have been sustained by the love of dear teachers and friends, who opened doors and showed me the way, by students (who were also my teachers), who allowed me to share what I knew and who nourished me as they grew. I have felt privileged to play some small part in this great yearning for meaning in life though art and craft making.

I remember MC Richards' words: “The making of the pot is the making of the potter.” the process of making is, after all a celebration of life.

Mikhail Zakin