I spent two days with John Glick at his home and studio in Farmington Hills, Michigan, to begin researching an article ostensibly about an upcoming retrospective exhibition; however, it was obvious there was another important story here as well. How does a ceramic artist wrap up a long career with the same intelligence and creativity as everything preceding it?
Glick is one of the most documented potters anywhere, with many articles written by and about him. He considers himself an Abstract Expressionist. But unlike most such ceramic artists, he wasn’t influenced by Peter Voulkos. Instead, Glick was influenced early on by Helen Frankenthaler and later by Kanjiro Kawai, a potter I consider the first ceramic Abstract Expressionist even though Kawai wouldn’t have used that title for his own dynamic decoration.
Over Glick’s 50-year career, he has been among the most generous in sharing everything he learned about process, tools, and philosophy, so you may have heard the myth that he always kept the best piece from every firing. It is true that over the years he saved about 1000 works, but not from every firing. In a way, what he did was better. Only when something was truly special did he put it away, often with mixed feelings.
“I grew used to saving pieces that were hard to keep because they should have been out in the world. These were pieces that I would have easily sent to an exhibition.” And they were set aside for some future purpose whether that would be legacy, documentation, study, a retrospective exhibition or a retirement of sorts. To put these 1000 in context, Glick calculates he’s made around 300,000 pieces to date. “I’ve been prolific,” he says, “but never got into mindless production. People burn out doing that.” Instead, he built his direction “on the thrill of following ideas that would take me to the neighborhood of other ideas. It [was] joyful and delightful.”
To select from the 1000 pieces for the upcoming exhibition, “John Glick: A Legacy in Clay,” he worked with Jo Lauria, former curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and now an independent curator. She came to the studio and spent a week making selections. There was a good bit of labor just handling this much work physically, so he enlisted the assistance of his former residents Julia Walther and Adrienne Chevalier, along with Michelle Perry, a graduate student in ceramics from the College of Creative Studies in nearby Detroit. The three also added their own thoughts to the decision-making process. In the end, they assembled a collection of 278 pots and sculptures representing the best of the best from each decade of his studio work. That’s less than the top tenth of a percent of his output.
The first presentation of this collection will be in the spring of 2016, at Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. From there the show will probably travel to two other venues to be announced. Included are eight of Glick’s works from his graduate years at Cranbrook Academy of Art, one piece from his undergraduate study at Wayne State University, and the remainder from the 1964 start of his full-time studio practice to the present.
While talking with Glick, I wondered where he got the idea to collect his own best work in the first place. He said it came from a local collector he’d visited. She loved the work of Mary Chase Perry Stratton, principal of the famed Pewabic Pottery in Detroit. The collector, who was the wife of Ms. Perry’s doctor, realized that this artist was too busy with her ceramics to collect her own legacy. So began the collector’s passion, acquiring Pewabic works to protect the legacy herself. She advised Glick to do the same with his own work and he took it to heart. “The momentum of setting pots aside was there from then on; from the beginning of my studio.”
Up until now, the 1000-piece collection has served as a private tutorial for the 35 apprentices/residents Glick has had over the years. They could see in his development an encouraging revelation of their own potential progress.
The exhibition also marks a major transition for Glick. He’s selling his Plum Tree Pottery studio and moving to Rossmoor, a large retirement community near Walnut Creek, California, northeast of Berkeley. There, Glick and his wife Susie Symons, a psychologist and counselor, have some of their grandchildren, and at this point their life emphasis will turn toward family.
Downsizing and Shifting Priorities
How do you retire from ceramics? Do you retire from ceramics? In the nearly religious myth of our field, potters don’t retire. I imagine the proper thing is to drop dead at the potter’s wheel, face down in the last casserole dish. And when you come to think of it, every one of us who makes work in clay will face a decision, if we are lucky, to retire when we have done our work, when health limits it, or when we just know it’s time. And like all the other things Glick has shared, he’s willing to share their family’s retirement process, too. Of course it’s as thoughtful and intelligent as all his approaches to the studio.
A few years ago, Glick and Symons began thinking about their need to downsize everything, from their substantial collections and personal belongings to the large studio. Symons particularly wanted to move to California to be closer to family, for better weather, and to lessen the burden of everything that had accumulated around their lives. Glick says he was, “slow to the party,” particularly the idea of shutting down the studio. Nevertheless, on his own, he began selling pots from the collection as “prime of their time” works, noting the decade when each was made. But as for many facing the need to de-accession, the job became overwhelming and consequently, little got done. Their predicament reminds me of something potter/author Susan Peterson once told me, “You spend 50 years of your life acquiring all these wonderful objects, and the rest of your life trying to get rid of them.”
Glick continues, “We were talking a lot about the move, but nothing was happening.” In response, they hired a “project manager,” someone who had helped many others with life transitions and downsizing. She spent four hours with them the first day, asking questions like, “What is the best outcome for your property?” The answer was, “Sell to a potter.”
Glick says they could have done what the project manager did, but it would have been far more time consuming, painful, less organized, and more stressful. “She helped us to [see the] big picture.”
The project manager began by looking around and listening to anything they had to say about their needs. Then she broke them down into five smaller problems: 1. Disseminating the collection of 1000 plus pieces. 2. Reducing the contents of the house in order to go from 2500 square feet to 1200 square feet. 3. Spending time in the California condo to make sure it’s the right fit. 4. Selling the studio contents. 5. Selling the home and studio property.
Then each of the five was broken down into sequences of many small tasks on secondary lists. For example, mounting the legacy exhibition was part of the secondary list for disseminating the collection. It involved determining what to do with the 278 best pieces after the tour. The decision made was to sell or grant works to the exhibiting institutions, then sell any remainder either privately or through an arrangement with Schaller Gallery in Saint Joseph, Michigan. Glick explained that he chose the gallery because, “Anthony Schaller has a keen awareness about pot making and the motivations of an artist. I appreciate being in the company of other artists at his gallery whose work I admire. He took on the probable management of the remaining pots from my retrospective exhibition when it concludes . . . and appreciated the chance to be involved at the final phases of the 50 year long career I have enjoyed.” For the rest of the 1000 pieces, the plan is to sell through the studio’s website and have physical studio sales with the possibility of giving some to appropriate people or institutions. The remainder will go to Schaller Gallery.
With these detailed lists, each of the tasks seems to be moving along with the hope of completing everything no later than the end of 2016. The project manager calls in regularly to see how the work is progressing based on a list of accomplishments. Beyond that, she made it clear that getting the most value out of everything is the best way to get nowhere. Time is now the dear quantity, not dollars. This concept confounds many retirees. Nevertheless, there’s pain in retiring from a large studio and moving across the continent, even with the recognition that it’s ultimately for the best. “Books, furniture, everything that you own has to be culled.” In the end, things need to be sorted into four categories: keep, sell, give away, or throw out.
Glick often thinks ahead to a new life in California, “I have clear visions of being there and never again making work . . . There are plenty of days when just the idea of travel seems wonderful. The big struggle for me, looking back at hundreds of firings . . . it’s a high, seeing the best parts of that. It’s very much a seesaw thing.”
Yet there is a bit of letting go that’s not there yet. There’s the 2200-name mailing list that he’s keeping, “Just in case. After we’re settled, if I’m able and if the inspiration is still driving me, it may be I’ll have a shared space. I like being around young artists . . . as a colleague. I’m not going to start a large studio again. While part of me does not want to stop, a big part of this [move] is to grow and nourish a slice of my life that has nothing to do with the studio; things like family.” And family, not pottery, is the central theme of Glick’s life to come.
the author Bill Hunt is an artist, author, and curator who divides his time among Delaware, Ohio; Traverse City, Michigan; and Fort Myers Beach, Florida. He was on the Ceramics Monthly staff from 1974–1994 (serving as editor from 1984–1994).
Reflecting on a Career
by John Glick
Mid 1960s to Mid 1970s
Early in 1964, I was just back from the US Army, trying unglazed, earthy, quasi-sculptural things, tentatively starting to decorate on glassy surfaces with modest oxide-wash markings. In reflection, it was surely a result of an attraction to brushwork on Japanese pottery of the 1800s and 1900s, particularly an admiration of Shino and Oribe wares.
I made my first handbuilt lidded boxes and slab vases with thrown parts; some large, sculptural forms; along with a rapidly growing body of functional ware, especially dinnerware both for retail sale and commissioned orders. Typical work sessions included series of teapots, jars, pitchers, plates, bowls, goblets, mugs, dinnerware, trays, boxes, and more. All of these were made in a varied scale and with an increasing range of glazes.
With a handbuilding helper who worked off site, I could extend my interest in the series approach, using the soap dishes, lidded boxes, and jar forms she made from my various templates and wooden molds. I employed one person at a time consecutively for a period of eight years.
During this period, I made substantial technical advances through a commitment to experimentation with process, studio tool making, and acquiring various power tools. The result allowed me to become increasingly independent from normal potters’ tools and supplies. I built three kilns: a 60-cubic-foot catenary arch, 27-cubic-foot catenary arch and a 50-cubic-foot sprung-arch crossdraft.
In addition, I began to have apprentices from time to time; mostly for a year each. The idea of having an apprentice reflected my interest in the Asian and European apprentice systems that had attracted me even though I myself never apprenticed. I was particularly attracted to the system of students being trained in the West German factory school system I’d observed while stationed during a two-year army service near the Westerwald district in Höhr-Grenzhausen.
During this decade I also began to be asked to give demonstration workshops locally and regionally.
Mid 1970s to Mid 1980s
There was a huge blooming of ideas leading to an investigation of clay extrusion, and publication of a major article, “Extruder as Design Tool, An Expanded Usage” (1978), in Studio Potter magazine that clearly energized my interest in this technique. The wide and flexible uses of extruded parts became a major theme in my workshops.
During these years, I built three manual, and two very large hydraulic extruders, the largest capable of extruding 26-inch widths. I used countless variations of extruded parts: teapot spouts, sculpture with altered extrusions, small to very large trays of altered and assembled parts, and an always-changing series of many lidded boxes.
I followed a profusion of surface techniques centering around an increasingly varied manipulation of slip, including using mouth blowing or directed compressed air to create ripple patterns in the fresh, wet slip. These became a basis for glazes that would partially or fully reveal the patterns below them.
During the mid 1970s, I took part in an invited artist program called the Syracuse Clay Institute run by potter Margie Hughto at Syracuse University where I made large, painterly slab wall panels.
Ten years after the Syracuse Clay experience, I began a very long-lived wall series of painterly landscape panels. All were hydraulically extruded (some hollow for reducing weight). Their scale was from 8×8 to 24×24 inches and some much larger by collage or joinery.
Also during this time I had yearly on-site assistants who were encouraged to make their own pots as well as participate in all aspects of running a studio.
Mid 1980s to Mid 1990s
Dinnerware commissions (which consisted of groupings of pieces similar in size but diverse in surface, to keep my interest level high, as I love to decorate, make marks, and play with color) continued, with every six- to eight-week work cycle including at least one large or two smaller sets. I always made about 30% excess of all the pieces to give the client extras to choose from and also to keep the studio showroom supplied for those who were accumulating more casual dinnerware groupings.
I continued to give about two to four workshops yearly, both nationally and internationally. I was very conscious about not accepting all the invitations that came, because continuity in the studio was of major importance.
I also began a strong commitment to learning digital photography and offered workshops for potters in this skill set. For about four years I posted a photography blog called Fresh Plums relating to my studio name.
Wall panels evolved into the Mantle series, which incorporated groupings of clay objects like vessels, fruit, and letters often made of porcelain and arranged on platform portions of the Mantle pieces.
My relationships with new residents in the studio deepened as I became more of a mentor, while so much sharing happened in both directions. Now in the emerging web-connected ceramics community, it made me especially grateful to be working with a generation who found digital skills to be so natural.
Mid 1990s to Mid 2000s
By the 2000s, I had a compelling interest in creating patterns of every description, embossed on the surfaces of the semi-stiffened clay/slip, especially on dinnerware, trays, or plate forms. Many days were increasingly sprinkled with frequent visits to the studio’s tool room to make new texture tools, like wood-burned patterns, plastic surfaces engraved with drilling, mixing wood burning with plastics, and more.
I made steel tools to imprint glued-up, end-grain wooden panels, then constructed an extensive series of embossed wooden mold pieces for rolling semi-dried slabs. I used these on partially dried slip surfaces. Then, more than ever, I was grateful for my undergraduate- and graduate-school experiences in metalsmithing (forging, welding and more), which informed the tool making.
The integration of glazing techniques over these new surface textures became the compelling symphony of decorative techniques that flowed over many series of work.
By the mid 2000s, Internet sales became an important component of my studio practice. The online sales gallery has become a welcome addition to the studio showroom to reaching a broader audience.
This was the end time for my resident program, and Julia Walther, the 35th resident, stayed for a two-year period from 2012–14 that suited us both very well. I thrived in my relationships with 35 apprentices/assistants/residents (as the names evolved) over a 50-year span. We shared music, humor, food (including my wife Susie’s chocolate sauce), tough times, illness, and support of all kinds going both ways on a daily basis. Most of all, watching one another’s work grow over time was a rich vein of learning, deeply shared and treasured.
My early dreams of connecting deeply with people who used my work have born fruit on so many levels. How could I have known that I might have such deep affiliations with as many as four generations in many families?
The rich flow of personal stories, children growing up in families where handmade daily-used work was the norm; all are part of the magic that would weave itself around this 50-year journey.
As this long expanse of my making has ended, I am enjoying frequent gifting to my clients and my friends. It is a natural way to continue to say thank you!