Spider Shadows, 16 in. (41 cm) in
porcelain with flashing slip, 2007.
Raven Vessel, 251⁄2 in. (65
cm) in height, unglazed, wood-fired porcelain, 2007.
Golden Fish Vase, 26 in. (66 cm)
white stoneware with lustered
copper and manganese
Raven Vessel (detail), 251⁄2
in. (65 cm) in height, unglazed, wood-fired porcelain,
Spawning Salmon Vase, 10 in. (25
cm) in height, porcelain with polished celadon,
As poetry is to language, pottery is to art.
As you trust poetry to say more than one thing,
you trust artful pottery to elaborate on its sources.
The pots in this exhibition represent a river through a
valley of fire. The image is dual, but quite literal. The
way the kiln works is riverine, and these pots reflect their
creators’ homes. Frank Boyden lives on the Salmon
River estuary near Otis, Oregon; Tom Coleman lives on the
desert in Nevada, an hour from a place called the Valley
of Fire. The geographies and the men combine to make a ceramic
art as grounded in the senses as are the best of poems,
and as clearly focused as a poem whose multiple images are
gathered and fired, finally, at a point in the deepest part
Coleman and Boyden once lived near each other in western
Oregon, where as young artists both men established reputations
for craft and unique artistry. Even then, Coleman was a
potter renowned for the nearly impossible perfections of
his work as well as for his glaze mastery and his ability
to guide a ceramic pot to anti-gravitational heights and
thinness. Boyden, who turned to ceramics after he began
to teach painting and drawing, made pots whose forms show
pressures from their own interiors—wings and fins
pushed out from within—and whose surfaces Boyden incised
with images of his river’s estuary animals.
In these creations, soil, wind and flame combine in the
most fundamental way—the way that has made the craft
and art of pottery the archetype of the human and the divine.
Boyden and Coleman work with the river and the sea, and
with the very desert where, for centuries, the rain and
wind have formed small bellies in the rocks, necks on stone
columns, feet on the sandstone pedestals. Boyden fishes
every day; he walks among owls and herons, among the bones
of deer on the river bank, the bones of salmon hung in the
scrub of a receding river. Coleman lives just south of Las
Vegas, in a home and studio he built right on the sand and
rock. If you put these places together, they would hiss.
Boyden and Coleman’s collaboration is rooted in faith,
because each man at first feels the labor alone. The verb
“to labor” means to hurt, to suffer. Labor is
as gritty as it gets. We may cheer another on, but the one
whose muscles are burning is the one who gets things done.
But when each pot is born of two men working together, something
indescribable happens; the lineage is out of either artist’s
hands alone and the mix becomes the subject of speculation.
How did that happen? Who did what? It’s archetypal.
Do you have your father’s nose? How did her lyrics
influence his tune? Who raised the barn? Who sailed the
ship? Who wrote the law?
It is important to remember that free collaboration, the
unforced shared labor of two people, is risky, because collaborators
see each other sweat and worry. What is it to collaborate?
It is to do more than one body can do, more than two bodies
alone can do. Collaboration assumes each laborer cares as
much as the other. That’s the faith of it. The sum
of this effort, at its best, is what each artist hoped for.
Some of the pots in this [exhibition] were made more than
twenty years ago, when Coleman lived near Boyden in Oregon.
The men built their own tremendous kiln, near Willamina,
Oregon—the East Creek anagama, styled in the ancient
Korean tradition, an immigrant from Oregon’s far-eastern
neighbor. It was a wood-hungry giant, with its rear on the
valley floor and its head pointed way up the mountain. In
1985, with the first firing of the East Creek kiln, Coleman
and Boyden declared their trust in each other; each acknowledged
that neither would love a lousy pot—that the hammer,
the hard floor, the toss in the ditch, the drop off the
cliff was what they would inflict upon the imperfect pot.
What seems most sure and most ancient about this collaborative
work, what brings out comparisons with the archetype, is
the way both artists attend to those fundamentals that grow
toward art only through talent that becomes genius with
study, practice upon practice, hard work and care. In their
collaborative work, both men draw and incise on the pots.
At their first collaboration, back in 1985, Boyden and Coleman
approached the project with some hesitance. They felt a
little stiff. Coleman thought Boyden was wonderful with
tools on clay, but Boyden didn’t throw the larger
shapes as well as Coleman did. Each man so respected the
other that each was afraid to screw up. The 2007 collaborations—some
wood-fired in Al Tennant’s Coupeville, Washington,
kiln, some gas-fired in Coleman’s Henderson, Nevada,
kilns—illustrate how maturity has guided the artists
recently. Coleman says, “Since we worked together
in the 1980s, our pots have changed a lot—his drawing
and my throwing. Frank’s so good at the wood firing.
He knows how to control the fire to let the wood do all
the subtle decorating. He’s a master at that. I don’t
know how he does this, but then, when Frank saw a couple
pieces I’d done in the gas kiln, I saw a look on his
face, too.” Boyden’s drawing had to change for
works made in Coleman’s gas kiln, where glaze makes
its own highway of color. Boyden’s drawn lines, so
active and full of rhythm, compete against the direction
of the glaze sometimes. Submitting the pot to the fire is
such a big chance anyway, and the art of putting a piece
in the right part of the fire is a practiced skill. Boyden
knows the smoke of wood firing intimately. Coleman knows
the cleaner gas fire. The process of working together, of
putting a pot in the other man’s fire, made this art
even more exciting.
If we want to understand how the pots evolved, this shared
insider knowledge they have can be frustrating for us. Writers
about art often assure us of an artwork’s superb qualities
rather than permit us to see how the artists achieved those
qualities. Unfortunately, such reverential writing downplays
what is resistant about art, what is cussed, unexplainable
and hidden, for cussedness, in technique, in content, in
style, is an honorable and sometimes necessary way for artists
and art to behave. We assume that an artist’s work
is often deeply personal, obsessive even; the technical
hand, the expert eye, come forth from untraceable, deep
roots the same way a musician’s or a poet’s
gift might. A person who works life-long at themes of terror
or Eros or animals or a particular magical color probably
does so because he or she obsessively hopes to understand
or, perhaps, deny a fundamental fact. Boyden and Coleman
don’t collaborate purely out of intellectual interest,
or for some kind of special recognition in the marketplace.
They have spent their lives collaborating with others for
a reason. Whether it stems from early loneliness or from
early confidence, collaboration is as much a drive for them
as competition is for others. They are driven to be closer
to something. They know that, in collaboration, it’s
possible to listen and look until something terribly intelligible
happens—perhaps after a long time, but eventually.
Both Boyden and Coleman are in their early sixties. Each
has seen his father die, his mother grow old. The back door
is opening. Both men talk about their families. What is
the role of biography in art? Potters, like architects,
need seasoning, which takes time. Additionally, ceramists
endure physical stress—turning, pressing, bending
over, looking in and breathing the chemicals and smoke.
Autobiography works its way into the image.
In this ceramic art, that sublime fall from perfection happens
in concert with the elements. There’s nothing to be
called perfect in nature; yet, as Alexander Pope observed,
“Whatever is, is right.” Nature changes to fit
opportunity or loss—it’s sure not static rectitude—and
it will do what it wants on anything from your singlewide
in the hurricane to your mansion in the wildfire. You can’t
really do anything but plan for the event you can’t
predict. Describing a recent collaborative piece, a long
cylindrical pot, Boyden mused: “Sometimes you get
these pinks—with iron, usually you get orange—but
these pinks, I don’t know where they came from. I
just don’t know.” With the kiln, you’re
down to doing fire dances, calling on higher powers, seeding
the clouds. Add some fuel for nature to work on, and the
most essential form of collaboration happens. The form is
in the formulas, because you can’t predict how much
water is left in the wood, how much ash-melt will settle
where. You can plan but you can’t be altogether sure.
. . . It’s not really that the artists cast their
art to the fire god of accident; rather, it’s that
the artists can’t claim credit for everything. If
they were merely guiding the natural to do as they wished,
they would be excellent craftsmen, perhaps, but not artists
who recognize the wonder of forces that work with the artists
and without them. Afterward, you can sit in the parlor,
like survivors in an Agatha Christie story, and decipher
what happened. You can expertly pick the pieces you like
best, though their real mystery remains.
This article was excerpted from the book On the River Through
the Valley of Fire: The Collaborative Ceramics of Frank
Boyden and Tom Coleman, published by the American Museum
of Ceramic Art (www.ceramicmuseum.org)
in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title. A selection
of works from that exhibition will be presented in the lobby
of the Wyndham Hotel in Phoenix during the NCECA conference,
April 8–11, 2009.
A documentary of Boyden and Coleman's collaboration is also
available on DVD. Check out Collaboration: The Ceramic Art
of Tom Coleman and Frank Boyden.
the author Daniel Lamberton directs
the Humanities Program at Walla Walla University in College
Place, Washington, and is a visiting professor in the Department
of History at the University of Washington.