Vase with four bird sentinels, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, paddled, carved, and stamped porcelain, blue teadust and flambé glazes with iron oxide over them, fired to cone 9 reduction, at Peachblow Pottery, Delaware, Ohio, 2003.
A Personal Archive
by Patrick Taylor
Throughout his distinguished career Tom Turner has created porcelain vessels. An exhibition of Turner’s work recently held at The Bascom Center for the Visual Arts in Highland, North Carolina, revealed a continuous creative evolution of this major American potter. “Tom Turner: A Passion in Porcelain” was a 52-year retrospective that featured 129 selections from the artist’s massive personal collection. It was the first time this legacy body of work had ever been presented in a single exhibition.
The process of growing his collection, a life-long journey for Turner, became a methodical ritual embedded in his creative working process. In the infancy of his career, Turner embraced nourishing his aesthetic needs first, by retaining what he thought to be his best pots. The process quickly evolved to a point in which Turner would not sell his work directly from a kiln opening. Instead, his first glance into a newly fired kiln was the start of a meticulous process of observation and evaluation of the finished work. Consistently, Turner would photograph the stacked pots as they cooled together in the kiln. As each piece came out of the kiln, Turner conducted a detailed analysis and further photographic documentation of almost every piece. His personal archive of his works being glazed and fired, as well as the construction of his kilns and studios, remains intact at his studio home in Mars Hill, North Carolina.
In a series of interviews, Turner describes how he was routinely so disappointed about a firing that he followed the advice of his former mentors, legends like Don Reitz, David Shaner, and Vivika Heino, and left the studio for several hours to decompress from his heightened expectations. Once he returned to the studio, he had the psychological distance to re-engage with the pots with a new, albeit critical, perspective. He would then reassess the results of the firing for several days. From this arduous process Turner selected what he believed to be the best work from a firing and retained them for his personal collection.
Works in the exhibition came from distinct periods in Turner’s career, beginning with two examples from his high school ceramic classes. His work in undergraduate school formed another period, including a piece that was accepted in the historic exhibition, “Young Americans: 1969.” There were several works from the period when he was a drafted soldier working in the Army Crafts Program, including large salt-fired pots that were tribute works to his mentor, Don Reitz. Copper-red, salt-fired pots in porcelain created while he was a teacher at Clemson University highlight another important period in his development. Other periods in the exhibition include pots coming from his studios in Lake Mary, Florida, and from his well-known Peachblow Studio near Delaware, Ohio. The latest period, from his Mars Hill, North Carolina, studio includes copper-red porcelain pieces that were chemically reduced in electric kiln firings.
Porcelain gourd bottle, 12¾ in. (32 cm) in height, titanium micro-crystalline glaze over celadon glaze, fired to cone 9 in reduction, at Mars Hill, North Carolina, 2009.
Turner confesses that his long-term goal as a professional potter has always been to make unique, distinctive pots that no one in the future will have to speculate as to the potter who created them. As Turner has stated on numerous occasions, his deliberate intention has been to create the timeless pot.
Vase, 7¾ in. (20 cm) in height, porcelain, electric fired, chemically reduced, copper-red oxblood glaze, oxidation fired, 2013. Covered jar, 9½ in. (24 cm) in height, paddled, stamped, and fluted porcelain, turtle finial, copper red oxblood glaze, fired to cone 9 in reduction, Mars Hill, 2007. Bottle vase, 7½ in. (19 cm) in height, paddled and stamped porcelain, multiple crystalline glazes, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln, Mars Hill, 2012.
Looking at Tom Turner’s Work
by Don Pilcher
Even to the untrained eye, Tom Turner’s work is fulsome and exquisite. His work is conspicuously inflated and carries a signature style of abundance, generosity, and grace.
But to fully appreciate Turner’s work, and his uniqueness as a potter, one must attend to qualities which are eclectic, aesthetically nuanced, and deeply technical. Historically speaking, his production is tethered by the longest of leads to the finest and simplest Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Roman pots ever made. Within that quadrant Turner creates a personal expression of invention, atmospheric coloration, and seductive detail. All of these expressive gestures are made in both large and small scale, whether we look at the full arc of a piece—from tip top to the foot—or within a single plump appendage, in that half inch separating its beginning, middle, and end. He achieves this abundant sensuality by a compression of clay particles and an expansion of form; not a Botox expansion but the honest to God promise of a potent spring.
Porcelain teapot, 11½ in. (29 cm) in height, stamped and stretched, simulated ash glaze with glaze trailed dots, fired to cone 9 reduction at Peachblow Pottery, Delaware, Ohio, 2004.
What does this mean? How can a person speak through compressed particles and expanding form? In Turner’s case it’s his deep knowledge of ceramic science. In a quest of over 50 years, he has captured an aesthetic that is singularly dependent on clay particle size, saturation, lamination, vitrification, and purity. I doubt it, you say! I’d agree, but I’ve known him for over 40 years and I know how he studies, tests, records, and eventually solves ceramic puzzles that never even occur to most of us. He has spent a professional lifetime immersed in the literature and dust of thousands of combinations of kaolins, feldspars, fluxes, extenders, and plasticizers. His bathroom reading consists of material data sheets that describe the purity and modulus of rupture of many of the world’s kaolins. The results are his own porcelain clay bodies (sold nationwide) that usually exceed all others, particularly when one seeks a combination of whiteness, plasticity, and strength. This is Turner the ceramic engineer. Does it matter that he is the original source of such an important and popular commodity? No, if we are talking about getting into heaven. But yes if we are talking about receiving credit for making a truly great porcelain—and simultaneously enhancing the value of his own artwork.
Turner is more deeply attached to his material than most potters, and potters are notorious for their attachments. He finds his direction in the potential of a white paste to take form, give itself to fire, and become all but glass. It’s an orgy of process, insight, prestidigitation, and sequential chemistry. The detailed appendages on his work—like the rims and lips on every piece—roll, crease and extend as if they contained 65% butterfat. Look closely—that’s not an exaggeration.
Though he would never say so himself, his forms are created at the intersection of function and the lexicon of gl- words. This result is a body of pottery that demonstrates this aesthetic and linguistic array—globe, glaze, gloss, glass, gley, glamor, glint, glow, and wonderfully, even glop. Turner achieves these igneous effects by his rare ability on the potters’ wheel and the tedious composition and application of glazes, layering of glaze combinations, and specific, complicated firing cycles. The results are decades of pots that are respectful of tradition, uncompromising, complete, and personally branded. They are not the whole world of pottery making but they own a part of it and, as such, remain beautiful, instructive, and inspiring.
the authors: Don Pilcher is an artist and writer living in Champaign, Illinois. Patrick Taylor is a potter, educator, and administrator living in Highlands, North Carolina.