About Me 
   

HISTORY


My grandparents emigrated from Russia to Africa to escape persecution. My father was an evolutionary biologist working in South Africa with Louis Leakey and Raymond Dart in the study of human origins. My mother was a ceramicist who introduced me to my medium as a young child.
In 1960 my parents moved to Australia to avoid Apartheid. In Sydney I was introduced to an oppressive colonial school system where I was punished and ostracized for my cultural differences. Moving to the United States in 1965 – a time of vast social change – I experienced liberation, and I began making pottery and sculpture in my mother’s studio. But in 1970, just as my new life began to feel real,my parents moved to Perth, West Australia. I was angry. 
I attended two years of college philosophy and psychology at the University of West Australia, scraping by for a couple of years. Then I dropped out with the intention of becoming a farmer, but I supported myself by making pottery. Soon I moved to the Leschenault Peninsula near a town called Bunbury, a place so isolated that it was a six
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​                                                                                                                                                        mile walk just to get to a public road. I didn’t own a car, a jacket, or even a pair of shoes. I built a house and a studio by the water, made of discarded lumber with a brick floor, without running water or electricity. I grew and caught my food. I began digging clay from a pit in the forest, throwing on a kick wheel, and wood firing pottery.

I spent five years in my studio beside the estuary modeling vessels on the wheel, seeking that perfect inflated shape that would stand as metaphor for a spirit I was trying to rebuild in myself. I needed to start at the beginning – a simple, pure, full form – like an egg.
In the forest I found a part of a life I wanted, but I still remembered my time in the U.S. as a time of freedom, so in 1979, at age 26 I moved to Los Angeles. I arrived with nothing. I lived in a garage at first, working as a laborer, but soon found work in a pottery factory, throwing mass-produced pieces.


As a profession wheel-throwing is very specialized. Once I’d mastered a production technique, I quit and went to another studio, and another. A year later, I was able to buy a wheel, build my own kiln, a rudimentary studio, and begin an exhibiting career once again.

LEAVING LOS ANGELES


In 1991 my father sent me an academic paper on “Idealized Human Habitats.” The author showed images of tree canopies, elevations, proximities to water, densities of forest, to people from different places. Whether those people were Inuit from Alaska, or stockbrokers from New York, or New Guinea highlanders, there was a significant commonality in preference for specifics of an ideal environment. It all resembled the African savannah.


It seems that there’s an imprint within us for an ideal environment, one that’s rich in diversity, close to water, offering maximum potential for hunter-gatherers. Maybe when that interfaces with the creative part of us, we make gardens.


L.A. had been very kind to me. I found my identity in art, and built a career. But I felt estranged from the natural world, and my own essence as a person. When my new daughter Monique was three years old I moved to Hawaii. The east side of the Big Island is rainy and gloomy, perfect for gardening. I thought I could make the transition.

WORKING ON WAR SONGS

At the tail end of my time in Los Angeles I’d been writing a series of stories about my friend, Eduardo’s family, and their lives in and around the Aliso Housing Projects. One story I’d never completed was about his brother Victor who was a Vietnam veteran. The grief over his brother’s death had unleashed the buried pain of his war experiences for Victor.

He told me how his life had changed during his time in the Vietnam War, where he’d been ordered to fire on children. I wanted background for the story but he would say no more.

I was searching for someone to talk to me about what it was really like in Vietnam. Finally, I asked my L.A. art dealer, Grady Harp, who I’d known for many years, if he knew anyone who’d been there who might talk to me.

To my surprise he told me he’d been a surgeon in Vietnam. He said he’d send me some poems he’d written. Two weeks later, here in Hawaii, I found myself on my way back from the post office, reading his poignant works, tears pouring down my face…

Grady visited for a couple of weeks, and over the coming months I generated a huge body of work. War Songs toured a dozen museums across the country.
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TRANSITION

The most immediate effect on my art of moving to Hawaii was a change in the relationship between my work and my writing. In L.A, my writing led the way for my sculpture. I’d published a few small books, and been asked to write movie scripts. My last major exhibition had been framed around the collection of short stories I’d written about the AIDS crisis.
I arrived in Hawaii with my four-year-old daughter, Monique who’d been diagnosed with AIDS at birth. To my astonishment she was rejected from pre-schools because she had HIV. I realized I could no longer use my work to speak openly. I needed to protect her privacy. I felt gagged.
My text-related work in clay ended. I wrote two books during my first years here, one compiling the children’s stories I’d written for Monique (which I didn’t release in Hawaii), the other a collection of fables based on my father’s work in evolutionary biology.
When I returned to clay, it was, for the first time in years, without text. I had to discover new techniques, new processes, and new glaze surfaces, all to reflect my new relationship with my work – one that didn’t involve words but could still speak. It took two years to develop.
When I was eight years old in Australia I would wander off into the bush. I would tie a rope to a tree and climb down cliffs, get lost in the scrub, cross rivers on fallen logs, stay there for whole days. I found peace and safety. There were poisonous spiders and snakes, but I found it much safer than being around people.
The information that nature offers is massive, complex, diverse, but it made sense to me even then. I never understood people well, the way they ostracize and hurt others… The garden is a place I feel safe and normal. The first thing I did when I arrived here in Hawaii, was to start gardening. I never stopped.
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From the series ​​​Buterfly



For Monique      Stephen Freedman

Watch her as she plays!
In the grass she finds
her waiting fingers…
In her eye
all the sorrow and joy
poor flash can contain.
 

THE GARDEN

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Sculpture takes its place in my garden the way iconography in a church finds its place – to create an experience. There is a certain height, a specific location, you pass it on your left or right, you get a certain feeling when you see it there, it becomes enshrouded by nature but not suffocated by nature.

When a piece gets broken by natural events like trees falling, the shards remain in place. I like seeing moss growing over them. Once in a while something really beautiful gets destroyed. Lightning struck a big tree in the front of the garden. One of my best black and white pieces below it was destroyed.

There was some sadness about that one. But I’ve come to embrace the process. There’s a dialectic between the amounts of work I make, what I lose in the garden, and what it costs me to live. I think it works out as a nice zero sum proposition at the end of it all.

The paths through the garden remind me of paths I followed into the forest as a kid. You descend into a valley. At the bottom of the valley there’s a river. You find a tree that’s fallen across the river and you climb across. You follow it down to a pool surrounded by mossy rocks, shaded by a cliff. You sit down and whisper to yourself, “This is what I will call home.”
    
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SURFACES

   

The Song Dynasty Chinese potters made some of the earliest waterproof, vitreous ware. Glaze and clay became impervious. The aesthetics and function were integrated. There was a sense of permanence to the work, contrasting the earlier brittle, fragile earthenware. I was drawn to that integration.

Metaphorically, if the vessel is body, then the glaze is skin. Unglazed clay is vulnerable. For the In Vitro series, when I removed glaze from the fired clay, the Plexiglas boxes became glaze, skin. The glaze is also a window to look “through a glass, darkly” to memory, childhood…

The glazes I was drawn to most were not really about color. The Chinese celadons and ice blue Chuns had an opalescent or translucent water-like quality. The crackle patterns suggest that they are fragile, though hard. The copper reds read as blood.

Those glazes reflect my early belief in perfection, a Platonic ideal of form for all things. When I began altering my forms, pulling, tearing the clay, embracing accident, it was the beginning of a loss of belief in static form. Japanese glazes, particularly Shino, which crawls and shivers to reveal that which is below, then became more interesting.

The layering and combining of Japanese and Chinese glazes was a technical puzzle. It took years of experimentation to solve the chemistry concerns and firing problems. While the Song Chinese sought an idealized perfection, the Japanese Zen-influenced tea masters of the sixteenth century were interested in transience and accident.

As the tradition and techniques of Song stoneware traveled from China through Korea to Japan, clays and glazes changed. When work emerged from Japanese stoneware kilns of the Momoyama period, what might have been perceived as flaws in the ancestral Chinese type glazes, instead were embraced by the Japanese tea masters, generating an aesthetic that has remained vital for hundreds of years.
What attracted me to Song Dynasty glazes initially was that they invoked subtle characteristics of light absorption and reflection. On occasion I came to use metallic glazes to deny the medium. I have nothing against pottery, just sometimes it’s not the reference I want for a body of work.

The processes of making, altering, adhering, drying, glazing, and firing generate a sense of historicity for ceramic works – the feeling that events that led to its current existence happened in time.