Friday, September 26, 2008

A Beginners Journey ~ Beverly Archer

About a year ago I noticed a woman at the studio who looked vaguely familiar, but I just couldn't place where I knew her from. I was then further intrigued because I noticed that she was all ways making pigs. Big ones, small ones, standing, reclining, dancing and laying on blankets, but all pigs. I started hearing references to "the pig lady" while standing around the kiln room looking at the latest offerings from the kiln gods. Beverly Archer is the lady who was always making pigs. You may remember her from Mama's Family, Major Dad or a host of other television shows. Beverly was new to ceramics and decided to document the process of her learning with pigs. Xiem Clay Center, where both Beverly and I are members was recently voted "Best Pottery Studio For Amateurs" by Los Angeles Magazine. In that spirit Suzette Munnik, the creative director at the studio has decided to do a show highlighting Beverly's journey called A Year Of The Pig which opens Xiem Gallery on October 11, with a Gallery Reception from 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm and runs through November 1. Beverly is also owner of an antique store called American Street located in Pasadena California. American Street specializes in antique folk art.
As a beginner what is it about clay that drew you to it?
I thought I was searching for a new skill set but I found something more. I was in my third week of drawing class at a local adult ed. place but I was finding it rigid and unsatisfying. I read about Xiem and, since I live nearby thought I’d check it out. I’m not of a mystical mindset but I have to say that when I walked into Xiem for the first time I was instantly smitten. It was quiet, light and clean. There was only the whir of a wheel, the sound of running water, some soft conversation. It seemed almost conducive to meditation. Then, when I got my hands on the clay (even though my first efforts were worse than those of a 4th grader at summer camp) I was officially in love. I felt more able to approach the clay than I did paper and pencil. I don’t know why. My depiction skills are not fabulous but clay seems more approachable, more cooperative and more intuitive than two dimensional work. I can be pretty self critical and I surprised myself by accepting whatever the clay presented knowing somehow that it was going to get better. Or at least more interesting. I have to add that the encouragement one finds at Xiem from teachers, from Kevin, Junzo and Suzette and from other members makes every baby step something to celebrate.
I like that you have focused your learning the ways of clay with one subject matter and the documentation that allows, why pigs?
It was pretty arbitrary. I own a couple of 19th c. pig banks and I started by trying to copy them. I was learning to do pinch balloons and thought it was a good form to use. It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized all my 19th c. banks were slip cast! But by then I had seen a bit of improvement. It was pig #14 that spurred me to experiment with a year’s work. I was so startled and pleased by the look of that one I called it “Well, I’ll be Damned”. I decided to focus on one form which might give me a measurable means of seeing progress. Since I’d already done two weeks worth of pigs, I figured I only had 50 more weeks to go.
The idea of doing a pig a day seemed very symmetrical and tidy to me. I soon discovered how unrealistic that number was. But, that led me to experiment with greatly simplifying the form and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really, really liked some of them. So my unrealistic goal actually led to something I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Who are your favorite artists and why?
Oh, boy. I confess I didn’t pay much attention in Art Appreciation 101 which is pretty much my entire art background. The objects that draw my attention are almost always made by untrained hands. In my antique business I try to focus on folk art of all kinds but I’m a terrible dealer because when I find something I really like I can’t sell it.
Right now I have a collection of carved birds done by a man named Willy Stamp. He carved all of his birds in pairs because “that’s the way it’s supposed so be”. According to his son he had an ongoing argument with people from the Audubon Society because of the colors he used for his birds. They insisted he was taking too many liberties but he was just as adamant that his choices were the best and reflected the essence of the birds. That kind of passion is what elevates an object to folk art.
What turns folk art into Folk Art is, of course, debatable. Many 19th century itinerant painters were unschooled but not unskilled. It’s a gray area now especially with the dealer invention of Outsider Art entering the arena. I think I like what the American Museum of Folk Art uses. They call it vernacular art. This has become very personal to me because it’s my interest in folk art that enabled me to immerse myself in clay. I am not labeling myself a folk artist by any means but it’s that history of untrained people working from the heart that gives me the courage to create objects I find appealing. Especially after I read that fired ceramics last longer than pretty much anything else on the planet. If I let myself dwell on that I might have to stop!
In your antique business you deal with items that when made were artist creations that have gone on to take on new life years later. Today we have the “handmade movement” which tags along with the environmental movement. What are your thoughts on the handmade movement?
It’s fantastic and hearkens back to the 19th and early 20th centuries when hand made was the norm. Not everyone made their own plates, of course, or their own washtub or bridle. But they probably knew the person who did. We are nostalgic for that connection, I think. And, it ties in closely with the environmental movement. In the past they didn’t call it anything other than “thrift”. If you broke a glass goblet you didn’t toss it you made a new base of tin or wood and kept using it. You didn’t throw out old clothes, you made a quilt. And if you cracked a pottery jug or china plate you did your best to repair it with lead staples or tin straps. It was all about self sufficiency. Maybe that’s what we miss.
What inspires you?
Other people’s work. It’s one of the things I love about Xiem. Every time I go in I see something impressive and inspiring. The kiln room is always full of objects both interesting and instructive. It’s about seeing how other people interpret the clay and the world. How many ways can you decorate a plate? An infinite number, apparently. And the only way that is not satisfying is that which is mass produced or made by rote.
I got to go to Japan recently (thanks to Xiem) and one of the places that impressed me most was the pottery town of Onta. The work is all done in small, family owned shops and kilns. They adhere to many of the traditional ways including making the clay from a water powered pounder and drying it on top of special ovens. But almost everyone makes the same pieces with the same glazes and the same designs. You see literally thousands of pieces that look pretty much alike. Then you’ll see a piece that stands out from the rest. It’s as if you’re looking at a film of a huge crowd when suddenly the camera zooms in on one person. When you can identify the individual in the work it is always inspirational.
What is your favorite quote?
“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Yogi Berra (Maybe. He also said “I didn’t really say everything I said”)


Patricia Griffin said...

What an interesting interview! I can relate to her thoughts about "accepting whatever the clay presented, knowing somehow that it was all going to get better." Love the idea of ongoing development of one particular form (the pig) and being able to track progress that way.

Moogaboo said...

I've always enjoyed her work on TV, and I'm thrilled to see she's taken up art making. Looks like she has some talent, too. Good luck to her!

Chris McCormick said...

Got an email from Alice Simpson saying she was having trouble posting a comment, so here it is! Thank you Alice!
"Last year, I spent two days 'trying out' the Xiem Clay Center, to see how it fit this New Yorker considering moving to Pasadena. What a special place; it won me over. Especially watching Beverly creating her pigs across the way.

In August, I'll make my way across country, slowly on the train... maybe for keeps and look forward to days spent at Xiem and getting to know special artists like Beverly. ~ alicesimpson dot com"