For his morning cup of coffee, Peter Beasecker usually reaches for a porcelain cup. It’s his personal preference for drinking and also for the functional work that he makes. “I have just always been attracted to the depth that a glaze has over porcelain,” he says noting the quality of the color that can be achieved. “It’s a silkiness.”
Based in upstate New York, he is currently a professor of art at Syracuse University, having joined the college in 2009 after teaching at Southern Methodist University since 1992. He maintains a studio in nearby Cazenovia, New York, where he is currently developing three bodies of work. “I definitely separate out the work according to the venue and the intention of the audience,” he says. For an exhibition in a more formal setting, he would likely show his Carrier pieces or his String Series tablets, which lend themselves to a greater consideration of concept. But for a pottery sale or craft fair, he would bring his everyday functional work.
This multi-avenue approach was inspired by what he saw painters doing— switching between a still life, a portrait, or something abstract as they were moved to do so. Beasecker asked, “Why do they have the license to traverse all these different genres, but when it comes to craft-based materials you’re really pigeon-holed?”
His answer was to give himself license to develop different ideas alongside each other. The variety keeps him interested in the studio, and for him that’s the most important thing. “They’re saying something different,” he says of his three bodies of work, “and I’m okay with that.” Reconsidering, he muses, “They might be all saying the same thing at the end of the day, but they approach it so drastically differently.”
Functional pots have been a mainstay throughout his career, and they are currently what he’s working on in the studio. “It’s pretty central to everything,” he says. He sells this work out of his home studio and at pottery sales such as the Flower City Invitational in Rochester, New York, or the Annual Pottery Show at The Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey, both of which he was preparing for when we discussed his work.
Noting the capacity to alter a moment, he gives a nod to what he refers to as standard ceramic rhetoric, explaining it this way: “When you start reaching for an object because of the way that it ignites your imagination, then that object becomes integral to your domestic ritual.” He cites the statistic that the average person only spends eight-seconds in front of a painting. In contrast, with a ceramic mug, he says, “You have the ability to have a conversation with somebody over a half hour while they drink their morning coffee.”
This sense of altering a moment is integral to another set of Beasecker’s work. Referencing concepts of community, his Carrier works are large holders that contain a set of cups. The genesis for the idea came from a vintage flea-market find, but the implementation of it brought about more potent concepts. He references a moment that occurs when someone is about to lift a cup from the carrier. “You have to pause before you make a decision and to me that’s an important moment,” he says. Calling himself “a symmetry freak,” the works often have a formal bisection as a way to call attention to the center. “Basically what that does is it slows you down,” he says.
The series dates back to 2001, and he remembers struggling to get back into the studio in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. But through the creation of the quantity of cups that he needed for the pieces, his thoughts naturally turned to a sense of community. “There was a coming together of people who normally didn’t come together after 9/11,” he says. “Community engagement reached another level.”
Contrasting with the porcelain cups, Beasecker turned to dark stoneware for the carrier forms. “If I were to make those out of porcelain and just glaze them brown or black, then it would just be a contrast of color and value, but not of mass.” They are left unglazed so as to be known for what they are, without a skin covering the forms.
Yet the weightiness of these dark, sweeping forms takes a cue from a much larger scale of work that has been imprinted in his aesthetic—Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses. Beasecker has seen Serra’s works many times over the years, and he had the good fortune of being at one of the sculptor’s exhibitions when Serra himself happened to stop in. “Gagosian [Gallery] had just opened up in Chelsea, and the work had maybe been there a week. There was only a card table there and one worker.” Beasecker watched Serra as he walked through the show, paying close attention to how the artist engaged with his own pieces. “His hands were just stuffed in his front pockets, and he walked the entire exhibition looking up at the work. It looked like he was looking at it for the first time.” More than just taking note of the massive space-altering forms, Beasecker gained insight into a new way of seeing. “Watching him observe his own work really had an impact on me.”
While he often cites his artistic mentors as ceramicists Jack Troy, Richard Roth, and Val Cushing, he adds “I don’t give my mother enough credit as a mentor.” She was a teacher who was also a knitter. “I cannot remember a night that my mother did not knit,” says Beasecker who grew up in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. “Everybody in the extended family would get one sweater a year.”
Watching her was a lesson on the practice of making as a daily act, as well as the care of getting it right. He remembers times when she would drop a stitch in her knitting, and would then proceed to tear out two or three nights of work. Back then he would wonder, “Really, you couldn’t just hang with that little bit of an imperfection?” But now, “I find myself being as anal about my work as she was about her work,” he says.
Playing with the dedication to getting it right while also dancing with the edge of the unknown, Beasecker’s String Series tablets are footed forms with a line drawing portrait that is abstracted during the piece’s firing. The face is unrecognizable. In fact, abstraction is the goal; any resemblance renders the piece unsuccessful. “I like that thing between known and unknown,” he says noting that “it went in as one type of drawing, and then it completely transformed into something unpredictable in the kiln.”
The forms point to the weight of history with their tablet-like heft, referencing the first written media of stone, but also Beasecker’s personal history growing up with Life Magazine in the house. He recalls his own political awakening in 1968, and the graphic photos that the magazine contained. Referencing this, the portraits on these works include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, Lyndon B. Johnson, and others. Acknowledging these pivotal figures, the abstraction presents an opportunity for deeper inquiry by preventing the viewer’s consideration from ending at recognizing the likeness of the drawing.
Treating the surface as though it were a periodical, Beasecker marks half of the tablet with a swash of color, and on the other half he creates the portrait using cotton string that has been dipped in cobalt sulfate. In developing the technique, Beasecker did an extensive experimentation, playing with the cobalt sulfate using different thicknesses of string, a variety of materials like polyester, cotton, or hemp, using it on glazed and unglazed surfaces, and even sandwiching the string between thin slabs so as to get a ghost of an image. After this exploration, he settled on a method, but the gestural quality of the result doesn’t hint at his painstaking process that goes into its creation.
“I soak [the string] in cobalt sulfate. And then I suspend it from a high point and put a weight on it so I get a very straight line, and it has no memory any more of being on a spool,” he explains. Drafting a continuous-line portrait on the tablet, he maps the placement of the string, which is followed by “going through the nitpicky stuff of putting little pieces of tape down so that it doesn’t move, and then once the drawing is finalized, going in with tweezers to remove the tape prior to the firing. It’s painstaking. The drawing goes into the kiln as a recognizable portrait, then the string burns out in an unpredictable way, leaving behind only the cobalt blue lines,” he explains.
The disjointedness between the technique and the result is appropriate to the goal of the in-kiln abstraction. And yet, Beasecker is satisfied with the process being a mystery to the viewers. “I’m very aware that in this day and age of Instagram everyone loves process photos. I really don’t like all of that because to me it kind of undermines the power of it,” he says.
Studio Rhythms by Peter Beasecker
Work in the studio is often deadline driven. I am quick to fall into a rhythm of making; however, carving out time for play unfortunately gets shorted. I find the shift from the larger works to the more everyday pieces to be the most challenging. My making intelligence is slower to develop and not as agile in these instances.
My present studio is relatively new to me; it has been five years since relocating here with my family (my wife, Liz Lurie, who is also a potter, and my nine-year old son Cy). It is a converted 700-square-foot detached garage and is definitely the most ambitious space I have had the fortune of working in. Additions to the structure have been built to accommodate a 45-cubic-foot gas kiln, 140-cubic-foot train kiln, wood storage and a showroom. Setting up shop is an on-going process with constant organizing and refining. It has been a busy five years getting the major components of a working studio in place, but we finally feel as though we have turned the corner.
A typical studio day is difficult to map out, but I do find the late-night hours the most productive. I don’t allow the tethers of house projects or electronica to extend into this time, a time I keep luxuriously uncommitted. While I am working, I prefer listening to conversations, particularly interviews, so I gravitate to podcasts or the web. Like music, I’ll repeat the good ones several times to commit them to memory. I generally work alone, hiring assistants only for the glazing cycle, and with that, mostly for latexing. My wife and I are still deciding upon whether to have an apprentice or not; we know we have a lot to offer, but not sure if our need for privacy is stronger than our need for help.
the author Steph Guinan is a freelance arts writer living in Penland, North Carolina. For more information, visit www.FlapjackMedia.com.