Clay Culture: Making and Collecting

1 Claudia Tarantino and Bill Abright by the front door they designed, built by Michael Boch. Photo: Michael Fahey.

 

Claudia Tarantino and Bill Abright’s art collection has grown over time. Tarantino compares the growth of their collection to a garden: “filling all available spaces with rich visual texture.”

We never decided to be art collectors. It just happened rather organically, a trade here, a purchase there, an unexpected gift. First and foremost we are artists, sculptors, and makers. We live in a visual world. My husband, Bill Abright makes constructed figurative clay sculpture. I make porcelain trompe l’oeil still-life sculpture. I do not know many artists who are not also collectors of some sort.

Our collection goes beyond ceramics and our collecting goes beyond art. We collect that which inspires us. Bill has a scrap-metal collection he won’t part with, just because. I have a collection of nostalgic stuff I won’t part with, just because. The urge to surround ourselves with fascinating objects is not limited to fine art. It seems to be in our bones. In fact, we have a collection of bones—skulls of many animals, skeletons of critters and birds. Bill has a collection of taxidermied animals he rescued from a closing sporting-goods business. I have a collection of turtles made of ceramic, wood, ivory, jade, bronze, glass, plastic, and play dough. From Bill, I have a collection of 46 Valentines hand made by him in clay, wood, paper, toothpicks, and even Q-tips. He in turn has a collection of hearts from me—hand made, found, and purchased.

Our house is on a hillside with a large studio built underneath. Over the 46 years we have lived here, we have transformed it from a nondescript house into our personal art space. Nearly everything in our environment is handmade, from our front door and cabinetry, made by Michael Boch, to all that adorns our walls or sits on our shelves and tables. Bill loves wood almost as much as clay and has made most of the woodwork in our house. I made all of our bowls and serving pieces. We drink from glass tumblers made by Esteban Prieto, and glass goblets made by Steve Maslach and Guido Gerlitz. Our numerous mugs and teabowls were made by many different potters.

2 Living room case featuring works by Tom Rippon, Robert Rose, Jason Walker, James Tisdale, Kurt Weiser, Ruth Duckworth, Gail Ritchie, Joe Mariscal, and many others. Photo: Michael Fahey.

 

From the Beginning:

As young potters doing craft fairs in the 1970s we often met other artists who wanted some cups or bowls, a platter, or a casserole dish. In trade we acquired a ring or a necklace, a hand-stitched shirt, a leather belt, perhaps another artist’s pot. The first trades we initiated were for a watercolor by Kevin Elston and a drawing by Rick Dowling, both of which still hang in our home. We now own three of Elston’s paintings. As our own work changed to sculpture shown in galleries, we expanded not only our knowledge of contemporary ceramic sculpture, but also our personal friendships with other artists.

In 1985 we started an art-restoration business, restoring contemporary, antique, and ethnographic objects. This put us in contact with dealers, collectors, and many artists. Restoration became my full-time job when Bill’s part-time teaching position became full-time in 1996. This intimate interaction with art made by others increased our urge to live with more than our own art. Over the years we’ve traded, purchased, and received art as gifts. We love supporting other artists who are doing inspiring work. The two of us usually respond to the same pieces. Then we confer as to whether or not we really want it and, if so, whether we can afford it. We primarily have contemporary American art, but our travels have always added indigenous art to our collection. We have miniature ceramics from Thailand, Turkey, and Peru, Nayarit and Peruvian vessels and sculptures, Meiji plates from Japan, and four small ancient African Nok sculptures. Taking up one special shelf in our display are 15 Yixing teapots (see 2). Somewhere along the line, we realized we had over 150 works of art and we should start thinking of the collection as a whole.

Bill taught at the College of Marin for 40 years. He enhanced his inspiring slide lectures with objects from our collection. Often I would discover bare spots (with dust around them) because he had packed up pieces to take to the college to share with students. He had a locked display case and the work might stay there for a couple of weeks as reference for an assignment. Bill also invited guest artists from near and far and always asked them to bring a piece or two if they could. Some of these pieces were given to Bill, sometimes we bought them. In this way we purchased several pots by Jerardo Tena Sandoval and others from Mata Ortiz, Mexico. The pots lived at the college until Bill retired in 2015. Now they are home.

3 Living room view, in foreground Glen Takai (left), Richard Shaw (right), large Josh DeWeese vessel by the fireplace. Photo: Michael Fahey.

 

Living with Art

Each of our pieces marks time and each has a story that includes the maker, when and how we came to own it, and why we love it. Being surrounded by all this creative energy fills us with pleasure and inspiration on a daily basis. We have purchased directly from artists, from galleries, estate sales, and even flea markets and thrift stores. Placement is usually my job. Our house is small, yet I find the right spot for each piece. We have fun changing and switching objects from time to time. Wall space is really limited, so whenever we acquire a new two-dimensional piece I do a bit of rearranging.

So, whose work do we have? Among our ceramics we have pieces by our friends Robert Brady, Harvey Brody, Bruce Cadman, Scott Chamberlin, Randy French, Jon Gariepy, Evan Hobart, David Kuraoka, Kathryn McBride, Joe Mariscal, Gail Ritchie, Robert Rose, Keith Schneider, Richard Shaw, Sandy Simon, and Glen Takai.

I restored several Ruth Duckworth pieces for various collectors. I was privileged to know Ruth and work with her on some of her sculptures. I treasure my cup and blade sculpture by her.

Also represented are Shenny Cruces, Josh DeWeese, Bruce Duke, Viola Frey, Catherine Hiersoux, Ron Meyers, Scott Parady, Don Reitz, Hal Riegger, Tom Rippon, Nick Swartz, Akio Takamori, James Tisdale, Triesch Voelker, Jason Walker, Kurt Weiser, Sunkoo Yuh, and many more.

We have paintings and graphic art by our friends Chester Arnold, Harvey Brody, Rodger Jacobsen, Marc Katano, Jim Lewis, Avery Palmer, Michael Schwab, Helen Stanley, and our son Guston Abright. We also have several watercolors given to Bill by the estate of his colleague Betty Wilson. In glass we have sculptures by our son Oben Abright, Anthony Bianco, Emilio Santini, and Steve Smyers.

A shared life as artists making, showing, and collecting art, while raising two sons who are now also artists, has been a joyful adventure and one that continues.

4 Guest room featuring a wide range of functional and sculptural work by a number of different artists, including Bob Nichols’ lidded jar (left of the shelf) and Evan Hobart’s dinosaur skull (top shelf, right).

 

the author Claudia Tarantino and her husband, Bill Abright are both ceramic artists living in San Anselmo, California. Learn more at www.claudiatarantino.com and www.billabright.com.

Comments
  • Rhonda L.

    Proud to be a former student of Bill. Very informative writing, Claudia, amazing house! When I was there I could not stop looking at everything! Thanks for sharing!

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