The sky as an inverted bowl, a vast concavity beneath which life plays out moments of triumph, pathos, and the prosaic alike, is an ancient metaphor that is as useful to reflection on the multiple functions of pottery as it is to characterization of human conceptions of space and the events unfolding within it. For Julia Galloway the metaphor has been especially productive. In her work of the past five years an implicit conflation of vessel interiors, architectural domes, and the overarching presence of the sky has provided the basis not only for a refined aesthetic—with its roots in a consonance of nature and culture—but also for elucidation of some of the properties of functional pottery that can make it a unique blend of utility and art. For more than 25 years as a potter, Galloway has contemplated the conceptual functions of pots as well: the ways in which they define universes large and small, make history tangible as concrete links between generations, and contain and convey the stories of their users.
Change of Scenery
Galloway’s recent works draw upon experience in both senses of the word: experience as the accumulation of insight and as a specific instance in which insight was acquired. In this case the latter proved to be a trigger. A simple change of scenery sometimes has been known to crystallize inchoate thoughts into artistic insight even more effectively than effort expended in long and disciplined investigation. For Galloway such a change came in 2009 when she left her position as chair of the School for American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Upstate New York to fill the role of Director of the School of Art at the University of Montana in Missoula. “When I first got here,” she remembers, “I was finishing up previous work involving all the birds of North America. There was about a year when I didn’t know what to make. Then I noticed that I spent a lot of time here looking up. So much of the time on the East Coast you spend looking down, and I realized that I was looking up at the sky all the time.”
Evidence of this realization in Galloway’s vessels emerged first in terms of surface detail, both the specific representation of clouds and a more general feeling of ethereality generated by color. In the Searching for Skyline series, for example, the warm hues of soda-fired porcelain—blooms of orange and ochre over an off-white ground—were paired with patches of celestial blue to convey the impression of earth and sky. The series was more than a consequence of inhabiting Big Sky Country, however. In January of 2009 Galloway had led a study-abroad trip to Istanbul and Rome and been struck by the similarity between gazing at the sky and “walking into those old mosques, temples, and churches. You walk in and you look up instantly; you just physically respond. I became interested in why that was.”
Other inspiration from Galloway’s travels originated in historical pottery. In Istanbul she observed numerous examples of Iznik tiles and vessels, with their cool-to-warm palette of cobalt, cerulean blue, green, and the distinctive orange-red of heaped Armenian bole. These colors, complemented by gold and silver lusters that recalled the glistering of Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul and the dull glow of gilt stucco in the lofty domes and vaults of Roman churches and cathedrals, were employed in the tumblers, creamers, sugar bowls, and pitchers of Galloway’s Searching for Skyline series in the dual contexts of landscape and architectural representation. On most pieces, incised clouds—some highlighted with a raining of streaky cobalt and others filled in with opaque ecru glaze or flat and dully reflective silver luster—drift over some sides of a vessel while the columns and pointed arches of Gothic and Islamic architecture, picked out in lines of cobalt, spread like blueprint elevation drawings over the remaining sides.
Perhaps the most complex blending of architectural and landscape elements in the Searching for Skyline and Dreaming from Garden to Sky series can be found in the water ewers: handleless vessels with curving gutter spouts reminiscent of those on Islamic coffee pots and semi-spherical lids that serve as cups. These cups—inspired by the clerestory windows at the base of such domes as those of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Hagia Sophia, the colossal Byzantine-basilica-turned-mosque, in Istanbul—are pierced with rows of tiny holes filled, as in plique-à-jour cloisonné enamel, with transparent glaze. “When you’re done drinking,” Galloway notes, “you look into the cup and the effect is not unlike looking into those big domed ceilings. The ewers are meant to sit by your bed. You’d get up in the morning and you’d hold the cup; there’s an intimacy to that act that makes the bottom of the cup, with its piercing, so important.”
If the ewer cups produced the effect that Gaston Bachelard (author of The Poetics of Space) famously described as “intimate immensity,” the impact of Galloway’s experiences with big skies and colossal domes would be played out on a larger scale as well, specifically in the 2012 installations: Dreaming from Garden to Sky and Sky Vault. Both built on the precedent set in previous installations of employing functional vessels as chief components specifically for experience-based discovery. “I feel that by installing my pots I set them up in a way that helps the viewer to understand the ideas in the pots,” Galloway explains. “The display helps the viewer to see how rich and complicated they are. I’m not trying to deny the function of any of those pots. After the installation is taken down, the pieces are sold separately and used.”
Pottery and Community
Facts of which viewers of Galloway’s installations are immediately reminded are that functional pottery is rarely designed to be autonomous and that it generally benefits, both practically and aesthetically, from its employment in groups. Dreaming from Garden to Sky also implicitly emphasizes the nomadic nature of functional pottery: its tendency to move in space rather than be tied to a single location like a monument on a plinth. Inspired by the motifs of Iznik pottery as well as by its diagnostic color scheme, the vessels composing Dreaming from Garden to Sky—an array of pitchers, teapots, and tumblers on short, black shelves and a scattering of rimmed, pentagonal plates above them on the walls—suggest a floral garden beneath a sky of drifting clouds and rising birds. Though ceramic vessels are composed of earth, Galloway seems to suggest that the sky—in a perpetual motion of birds and clouds as well as falling precipitation, rising convection currents, and floating pollen, dust, and seeds—is a more effective metaphor for the active environment of functional pottery than is inert ground.
8 Three views of a small covered pitcher with blue and white flowers from the Still Life series, porcelain, slip, glaze, 2014.
The conduciveness of functional pottery to community, in addition to its general gregariousness and inherent nomadism, is a tacit theme of Galloway’s installation Sky Vault, in which scores of white, concave, and irregularly shaped dishes bearing cobalt-outlined motifs of cumulous clouds are suspended by ribbons from a blue-painted ceiling. The effect is not illusionistic but rather—like the famous sky-colored barrel vault of Giotto’s Arena Chapel—analogistic. In the analogy, the sky that overarches the amphitheater of daily life is compared to the ceilings of spaces in which more formal ritual is enacted. Like a church, Galloway tacitly argues, a dining room is the site of repeated events that bind familial groups together and tie one generation to the next. In a domestic space, functional pottery plays as material a role in that process as voussoirs do in maintaining the integrity of architectural vaults.
The importance of functional pottery as a catalyst to social bonding is stressed by Galloway in her two most recent series, Still Life and Talking. In the former, still life imagery has been painted or incised on the exteriors of pitchers, tumblers, mugs, and bowls in such a way as to be fully comprehensible to a viewer only when the vessels are raised and tilted in use by another. This subtlety is a reminder that unlike sculptures, functional pots contain information only knowable through use, but it also constitutes a form of sharing that, as in a tea master’s presentation of bowls during the tea ceremony, could be considered a mute version of conversation. Such conversation is perhaps the most complex of pottery’s many functions. More literal conversation is invoked by the series Talking, in which functional vessels have been stamped like cuneiform tablets with letters that seem to march in ranks, swarm in the manner of insects, precipitate like drops of water, or tumble and accumulate as if they were grains of sand in an hourglass. In some instances the letters actually convey coded messages. Inspired by Galloway’s reflection on the volume of communication—oral, written, and digital—in which she had engaged over her ten-year career as a higher-education administrator, the series tacitly expresses the conviction that pots function as natural repositories for communication. “When you use pottery,” she observes, “it brings meaning to situations and events, and those situations and events in turn bring meaning to pottery. It becomes part of your story.”
the author Glen R. Brown, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.
Subscriber Extras: Extra Images and Archive Article
Click here to read the archive article, “Glaze Crawling: Causes and Corrections,” by Jeff Zamek, which originally appeared in the September 1999.
Click here to read the archive article, “Intimate Interactions: The Vessels of Julia Galloway,” by Kate Bonansinga, originally appearing in the October 1999 issue.