Updated: Apr 14
My dad was a gardener to the stars in Palm Springs, CA. At least half of his clients lived in the gated community of Southridge. If you've ever been to Palm Springs, you'll recognize the iconic Bob Hope UFO house (designed by John Lautner) perched on the side of the mountain. That's the neighborhood where Steve McQueen lived in this now-famous house, built in 1964, by architect Hugh Kaptur.
My dad and McQueen became acquainted, I wouldn't call them friends, but he and his then wife, Ali MacGraw, had dinner once at our house when I was about 14. We were Mormon and didn't drink, but my dad had a six pack of beer for our guests to wash down the tacos. After a few beers, Miss McGraw felt comfortable enough to give my dad a kiss on the cheek. I think it was the first and only time I saw my dad blush. There was some tension associated with that kiss that I didn't understand, and still don't.
Besides mowing lawns, pulling weeds, and trimming hedges, my dad was given the responsibility to check the interior of the house to make sure everything was running smoothly. When no one was home, which was most of the time, he checked the faucets for leaks and flushed all the toilets about once a week.
I remember my dad being upset when McQueen died. I'm not sure if it was because it meant that he lost a friend or a well-paying account, or maybe it was both. After he died, McQueen's friends and loved ones removed everything of sentimental or monetary value from the house, then they allowed my dad to enter the home and take what was left over. He came home with a truck load of items, including ceramic planters, tables and other mid-century furniture that would fetch serious money today. There was a steel chest that my sister still has that must have weighed 500 pounds. Somehow he was able to load it into his truck singlehandedly. It weighed enough that his Chevy gardening truck rode low as he pulled into the
yard. He also brought home two Hartebeest skulls that hung on one of the walls in McQueen's house.
Of the two skulls, I ended up with one and I've been hauling it around for years. In 2018, after living with it for more than a decade, I used it as a sculpture model. Once I figured out that I could recreate the likeness, I drew upon some existing imagery from my repertoire and wrapped a skinned rabbit around its horns. Every step of the way was filled with fear and uncertainty, but in the end, it turned out better than I could have imagined.
Is this how all artists create? That is, do all artists draw upon their history and experiences to tell a visual story? Is this what it means to make work about one's identity? How much skill and technical ability does it take to be able to express an idea?
As a beginning student, I'm sure there were throwing and hand-building demonstrations by professors, but I don't remember. I do remember the studio community, the help from peers and the trial and error of just making a lot of work. I started my artistic journey on the wheel, I wanted to be a potter, so I spent hundreds of hours just trying to figure out how to throw bigger pots. For the first several years, there was more failure than success, because I was always pushing my limits.
Now, as a professor of art, I give the demonstrations. It's a starting point for students, but the students who are successful are the ones who quickly forget about the demo and get busy making. I don't think art can be taught. The basics of technique possibly, but technique isn't art. I think art is taught on the periphery. Teachers facilitate learning opportunities by creating a curriculum that leads students down a path of ever-increasing technical and conceptual discomfort, a curriculum that begins to discard self-limiting beliefs and assumptions. In the end however, actual learning happens by making a lot of stuff, failing, getting dirty and improving.
In art class we talk about how form is an entry point into a larger conversation about our experiences, our history, our struggles and what it means to be human. The students who make the most interesting work are the ones who are very intentional about what they make. They're not making out of default, or making what's trendy, these students are drawing upon what makes them an individual. That thing, whatever it is, that makes them unique.
I wonder if there are young artists out there right now, who aren't on social media. If social media existed when I was coming up, I'm certain I would have put every underdeveloped and borrowed idea I made on social media and called it my own. I would have exploited my unearned, effortless, and youthful good looks, and I might have even gotten popular. On social media, I would have gotten locked into a style before I knew myself. The networks of my developing brain would have synchronized with the networks of social media. The tail of the social media dog would have wagged my artistic pursuits.
Even today, as a 58-year-old, I'm a dopamine-addled social media rat in Skinner's Box. The "likes" and positive feedback for the work I make keeps me coming back for more, but I was well into my 40's before social media took over the world, long after my prefrontal cortex was fully developed. Social Media came into existence after I spent years building my technical skills that I now use in an attempt to imbue meaning and narrative into my work. Will these imaginary young artists who aren't on social media emerge years from now with brains wired with just the feedback loop of trial and error? Will their brains have developed in the midst of a rigorous work ethic, informed by curated content, and a critical community of other young artists and mentors? Will they someday show up with art created without the influence of social media? Art that leaves us all speechless?
I hope so.
Part of becoming an expert is to know what to pay attention to. Early on there were art history classes, periodicals and art books, that began to open my mind to what's possible, so that when I finally enrolled a Pre-Columbian art history class, I was primed to take an interest in the various use of animal imagery by these early cultures (see below). I may not be making animals today if it weren't for this class. Today however, it seems that beginning students are referring to other young artists who are looking at what's popular on TikTok. They are no longer going to the source of history, or looking at the greats, or going deep into their own histories. There's little understanding of the history of ceramics and even our living legends are in the rear view and forgotten. It takes effort to reject the algorithm that bends to the lowest common denominator, and to seek out intellectually curated content. This means that there's a downward spiral towards a lack of understanding of the field, work that is mind-numbingly conformist, and work that is aggressive in its mediocrity.
This is my latest piece. For dozens of hours, I was riding the edge of doubt and wanting to quit. After multiple firings, it turned out great and I've been living off of a sense of accomplishment and well-being for weeks now. This sense of well-being is fleeting, because there's always the next piece that's going to be complicated and difficult and the cycle of self-doubt begins anew. Since I no longer have my youthful good looks, hard work and talent, for what it's worth, is my only medium of exchange. Overcoming self-imposed artistic obstacles brings me the deepest sense of satisfaction. One that an empty "like" can never match.
I doubt I would have made this latest piece or the "Hartebeest and the Hare" if I grew up on social media. The sculptural narrative of Steve McQueen, the formal qualities of his house, mowing lawns, the shame of being the son of a gardener in my affluent home town, that Ali McGraw kiss, and all the other subconscious metaphors that lie just beneath memory, wouldn't exist. I would have made work in response to the "likes" of the anonymous masses. This essay may just be the ramblings of an older person yelling "get off my lawn," and future art historians may celebrate the aesthetic construct of the current social media culture that we're in. Those bygone days when art was made in non-digital communities will be forgotten and social media-influenced art will be the norm.
But, I believe that in an ideal world young makers would stay off social media so they can take a deep-dive into self exploration. They should shun the "likes" until they find that thing that makes their work unique. Because otherwise, they/we run the risk of finding an audience for work that's not our own, and once you have a following, you're locked in.
Marilyn Levine was one of my early influences, I couldn't believe that clay could do this. When I started putting leather masks on animals, I looked at her work for inspiration.
I haven't thought about this artist for years until recently when I was having a conversation with my friend Ben Ahlvers about our influences and our shared experiences in ceramics. He asked "what ever happened to Ah Leon?" I used to pour over his images and even made several wooden trompe l’oeil ceramic pieces. I can imagine the possibility of folding his influences back into my current body of work.
"Astonishing trompe l’oeil works in the medium of clay, Ah Leon (real name Chen Ching-Liang) is regarded as one of Taiwan’s foremost ceramic artists."
I'm not sure if Richard Notkin is on the social media, I perceive him to be one of those artists who quietly goes about their business making art. Then out of nowhere his work shows up at a gallery and blows everyone away, tilts the earth on its axis, and changes the conversation.
This happened with the piece above when it showed up a few years ago at The National Council on the Education for the Ceramic Arts.
This is a ram skin stretched over the body of a Colima inspired dog. From here my work became more realistic and I folded other animals into my repertoire.
If you'd like to check out my colorful and juicy cups, candelabras and lamps, click here.