LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS
Passing on the art and craft of pottery
By Sandra Barrera
January 14, 2014
Jeff Oestreich is among the last of the studio craft potters.
A true artisan, the 66-year-old mixes his own clay, throws it on the wheel and then fire glazes the pieces at his studio in Minnesota country where he’s made functional pots since 1971 — all in keeping with the craft philosophy of Bernard Leach, regarded as the father of British studio pottery.
“A lot of it is just donkey work; it’s just nonstop, but I still love doing it,” says Oestreich, who traveled to England to apprentice with Leach after graduating from the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s.
He’s imparted the traditions, attitudes, studio and making practices, and aesthetic values picked up from his two-year apprenticeship to numerous ceramicists who have passed through his studio over the course of more than 40 years. Some of those potters’ works are featured alongside that of Oestreich in the exhibition and sale “Passing It On: From Bernard Leach to Jeff Oestreich to the Midwest and Beyond” now through March 8 at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles.
The exhibition is a takeoff from the PBS series “Craft in America” that featured a 2012 segment called “Crossroads” about Leach and his American apprentices, including Oestreich, who remembers his mentor as “critical,” “dogmatic” and ready to “turn his back on people working outside of the Leach tradition” of craft pottery.
At the same time, the then-young ceramicist was drawn to Leach’s craft philosophy and dark, quiet pots introduced through “A Potter’s Book,” published in 1940.
Oestreich read it while he was a college student in the 1960s, and it made a big impression.
The book gave a clear picture of what a self-supporting potter’s life was all about. It became a blueprint for setting up a potter’s studio, production and how to run the business.
In fact, it was popular in postwar America as ceramics programs born out of the 1944 G.I. Bill gave way to craft departments at universities, says Jenni Sorkin, assistant professor of contemporary art history at UC Santa Barbara.
“Ceramics, in particular, was considered to be manual arts training for veterans who had never had the opportunity to go to college,” she says. “They were directed into programs like ceramics because it was the pervasive elitism of higher education that felt veterans could only function in a manual arts setting. The reality was that it led to a lot of amazing, creative activity.”
Leach and his good friend, the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, toured the U.S. in the early ’50s giving ceramics workshops on craft pottery.
Clay became a medium that could leave craft and become more of an artistic expression because of people like Peter Voulkos, who in the 1950s taught ceramics at what became the Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. and then at UC Berkeley.
“Because of the experience of the war and the G.I. Bill and the idea that people could now go to college, a lot of people chose to take art and craft, and the colleges had great departments for ceramics,” says Carol Sauvion, founder of the PBS series and its Craft in America Center spin-off. “L.A. had Chouinard Art Institute, Otis, (and) UCLA that gave people the training and the artistic ability to conceptualize what they wanted to do in a very different way than had ever existed before.”
Voulkos resisted being lumped a potter. While he started out with traditional forms, he went on to create large-scale Abstract Expressionist sculptures.
“He created movement and action and gesture,” says Michael Hillman, who teaches ceramics at Citrus College and was selected as artist of the new Metro Gold Line station in Glendora. “Historically, he may have been the start of the whole Abstract Expressionist movement of New York City, which became the rage across the world.”
L.A.’s Ken Price was also received as a fine artist. His sculptures popped up in galleries and the collections of art patrons from early in his career, a decade before Oestreich set up his shop and began producing fire-glazed, wheel-thrown vessels made to be picked up, put to one’s lips and eaten off of.
“So much of what we were taught was how to respond to the clay as you’re working with it, like a dance,” says Oestreich, who studied under Warren MacKenzie, a disciple of the Leach tradition of craft pottery who passed on the methodology to his students at the University of Minnesota.
But Oestreich’s approach has changed with time.
The turning point came 20 years ago on a trip to New Zealand where in the town of Napier he discovered Art Deco architecture, which altered his work.
“Passing It On” features this current body of pottery, with its geometric detailing, soda fire-glazing and color.
“Really what I love more than anything is design; I always have,” he says. “It’s more thought out in terms of patterns and formal elements and principles of design. It comes from a different place than how I was trained.”
So what might Leach think of his work?
“I think he would feel like he failed,” Oestreich says, chuckling. “But what the hell, I found myself.”