Elbow Deep

 

1 Intersections, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, terra cotta, glaze.

Wayne Perry’s decades-long ceramics career has been characterized by an unwavering determination to create authentic work in keeping with his beliefs and principles. One of the noteworthy aspects of this Los Angeles–based artist’s multi-faceted career is that it was largely unplanned and rather serendipitous. He explains, “I never set out to be a ‘Black potter’ or a ‘Black artist’ in the same way that I never set out to be a ceramic artist, but here I am, elbow deep in clay.”

Making a Discovery

Painting was Perry’s first flirtation with the arts, a skill that still remains part of his practice. His first exposure to clay came several decades ago during an internship with Peter Shire at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, California. For the fifteen years following his internship, Perry worked alongside Shire, receiving a solid grounding in ceramic sculpture, production pottery, and ceramic murals. As Perry began to find his own voice as a ceramic artist, his work gravitated to social and historical constructs that were pertinent to his own identity and those of his community at large. Perry discovered in clay a vehicle through which to explore his place in society and a means by which to express his thoughts on issues pertaining to inequality, racism, greed, family, and the persistence of unchallenged historical tropes.

Perry is uncomfortable with labels and steers clear of trends in favor of creating work “that makes people feel.” He draws inspiration from artists like Samella Lewis and Betye Saar, whose work consciously addresses the transmitted burdens carried through generations and the need to control one’s destiny. The titles of exhibitions including his work are revealing: “Bodies of Color Unveiled,” “Melting Point: Movements in Contemporary Clay,” “Things change…but the money stays the $ame,” “Bowls of Color,” and “Blackness.”

2 The Space Between, 18 in. (46 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, altered stoneware, white roses.

3 Blackness Lidded Vases, to 20 in. (51 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, unglazed stoneware.

The Role of Pottery

A recurring motif in Perry’s work is the classic vase form, a shape that invokes antiquity’s devotion to perfection and symmetry. At the same time, vessels remind us of clay’s origins as a raw material that was harnessed to serve early civilization’s most basic functional needs. Perry reshapes Eurocentric history by radically flattening, distorting, and altering his large vessels, placing them in spatially unexpected arrangements—hanging from ceilings, squashed into cubes, or cascading down walls. Just like the earliest potters, Perry’s clay of choice is terra cotta. He possesses a wondrous appreciation for pottery’s role in human advancement and, consequently, a deep respect for the production potters around the world who are most often represented by the lower classes in society.

Perry’s reverence for what he calls the “working man’s clay” and his jaundiced view about what he describes as  the “hierarchy of clay” (with terra cotta at the bottom and porcelain at the top—despite the fact that toilets are made exclusively of porcelain!) bring to mind the work of Mexican conceptual artist, Hector Zamora. Zamora’s large-scale installations play upon themes of humanity and the abuse of history. He has recently created several installations whose basic building block is the lowly terra-cotta brick, which he describes as an “artificial rock created by literally cooking soil.” Zamora uses low-fire bricks to represent the building blocks of society and culture itself. Like Perry, Zamora holds in high esteem the brickmakers whose artisanry is often passed down from one generation to the next.

4 Things May Change But The Money Stays The Same (studio installation), terra-cotta vessels, earthenware piggy bank.

Connecting with the Community

One of Perry’s significant formative experiences in clay was his time working with the late master production potter Benigno Barron. The latter hailed from Guanajuato, a province in Mexico where Perry has traced his own roots going back 1000 years. “This period of my career served as extensive training both technically and artistically. I felt influences from both Mexico and Modernism, tied together with my experience as a Black person in Los Angeles,” Perry explains. Barron’s natural talent for storytelling awakened Perry’s love of teaching and inspired his mentoring work with Chicano muralists, offering advice on the use of ceramic materials and techniques in the creation of ceramic tile murals.

Perry’s connection with community runs deep. A vital aspect of his practice is his commitment to bringing ceramic art to teens and young adults in underserved populations. This stems from his own experience of having had very few, if any, encounters with clay artists that “looked like him.” Aside from his musician father, there were no other role models in his immediate environment who operated within the art world. Despite Perry’s successful career as a ceramic artist, this feeling of exclusion carries over to the present. “As a young adult, visiting the big art institutions of Los Angeles was a daunting experience. To this day, in the back of my mind, I expect someone to ask me to leave.” When Perry takes his potter’s wheels out into the community, he wants to awaken in others the same sense of magic that he experienced the first time he witnessed a lump of clay miraculously transformed into a functional object.

5 Wayne Perry in his studio with his bisque-fired terra-cotta vases.

6 Terra Cotta Modern Planters, to 12 in. (30 cm) in height, unglazed terra cotta.

7 The State of Housing, to 14 in. (36 cm) in height, slab-built terra cotta, clear glaze.

The “post-Black Square” era has been a difficult one for Perry to navigate within his ceramic practice. He initially avoided creating work in direct response to the hurt and outrage sparked by the tumultuous events of the past year. Instead he used the time to reflect and immerse himself in the US’s racial history. He began working again after resolving to embrace a path of healing. His latest project consists of multiple terra-cotta bowls that will ultimately grace the walls of galleries—an homage to the unsung heroes who make the essential, but under-appreciated, terra-cotta roofing tiles, flower pots, and sewer pipes.

Social media has in many ways been a game changer for Perry, who, like most contemporary artists, has had to fill the role of gallerist, writer, and dealer. He is pleased by the attention and recognition he is receiving, but ruefully observes that he’s “finally an ‘emerging’ artist at 50.”

8 Untitled, 5 ft. (1.5 m) in diameter, various unfired terra-cotta and stoneware vessels. Evolving installation for the “Melting Point: Movements in Contemporary Clay” biennial at The Craft Contemporary, Los Angeles, California.

9 Wayne Perry’s Sorting Out the Chaos, studio process shot in preparation for the “Melting Point: Movements in Contemporary Clay” biennial.

The current mood of the nation calls for healing and Perry is determined to be a part of that healing process. But his path will be his own—neither regurgitating popular opinion within his community nor bending to the pressures and expectations of administrative boards at major institutions. Perry is optimistic about humanity and its interconnectedness; he believes in the transformative power of pottery—it has, after all, been our constant companion over millennia.

the author Lilianne Milgrom is a multi-media artist, writer on the arts, and award-winning author of L’Origine. To learn more, visit www.liliannemilgrom.com.

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