AN EXCERPT TAKEN FROM Stirring Embers:
A Workbook for a Life of Making
DD: Describe some of your studio collaborations with Ray.
JG: After retiring from PSU, Ray was focused on two things: throwing wonderful shapes for our collaborative black pot project; and brush painting on more functional tableware. The black pots evolved out of the first firing of the completed Gilgama kiln, which was a very communal activity. During the first fire, when they achieved temperature, the firebox was filled with fresh wood and all the ports sealed. For three days it sat smoking and carbonized everything black as coal. Ray and I loved the black and started burnishing pot surfaces, the very fine particulates in the slip achieve a high gloss. Ray applied the slip and burnished. I carved symbolic images into the unfired pot. We built on the other’s work — a stepping off point to the next stage. During that period, I was intrigued by the ancient labyrinth patterns of the early Greeks and the mythic images of water I saw during our month long travel in the Mediterranean. So, these burnished pots became my canvas, and the Gilgama kiln became the fire that rendered them to stone.
DD: Did collaborating on the Black Pots lead to other projects you worked on as a team?
JG: Yes, and I can think of one in particular. In 1992, John Gray called up Ray and invited him to propose a major sculptural work for his new lodge [Skamania was under construction at that time] in Stephenson, Washington. And while he was really flattered to be asked, he had some initial hesitation to take on a clay project. At that time he was shifting his work to other materials like glass and mosaic [Ray had developed asthma as a result of breathing clay dust for thirty-five years.] But, we were really excited about the opportunity because the setting was magnificent from a geologic standpoint and Ray was fascinated with the landforms. We proposed a collaboration to Gray and he thought it was a great idea.
At that time, I had a clay studio in the Thurman Street Co-op so we hatched a plan in which I could execute the clay work with his guidance, while he did all the glass mosaic work, the mounting of the pieces, and the patina work on the brass backgrounds. We met John at Skamania Lodge when there were still open studs and construction debris everywhere. John’s first thoughts were bas-relief work applied to upper level walls in the main lobby. We wandered through the large spaces and turned to the open breezeway leading from main lobby to conference center where we saw the lengthy eye-level wall.
We sat down at home (sketch pads everywhere) blocking out the proportions of the space. Our drawings lowed from thinking of a single massive central figure to making a series of plaque that echo the vast length of the Gorge. Well, smaller scale and in fired clay! (Laughs) During the design process, we learned of the legend of Tamana, the Chinook story of the Bridge of the Gods.was excited about carrying an ancient story into the project and into the Lodge. The clay was fired in the Gilgama kiln at George Wright’s place and then Ray applied the glass mosaic and patina. The collaboration was complete.
I actually don’t think there was ever a time we weren’t collaborating, on art and in life. What I most appreciated about every project that we worked on together is that is it was a true partnership of equals — two professional artists, parents, and community members working together to get things done.
DD: Let’s talk glass for a bit.
JG: Ray became fascinated with glass. Fred Heidel was doing some fused glass sculpture, he was going to Amsterdam to execute glass sculpture.9 He and Ray had such a wonderful relationship. Fred was working in glass and Ray was paying attention and either Fred or Beth Fagan [The Oregonian art critic] became aware of what was going on in the workshops in Toledo, [Ohio] with Harvey Littleton [University of Wisconsin-Madison art professor.] Beth was friends with many in the Portland arts community. She was a very important piece of the whole puzzle. And so Fred got a grant for Ray from PSU to attend one of these important glass orkshops. When Ray returned in 1967, he set up the Glass Shack at PSU behind the gymnasium using materials he could scrounge. There wasn’t a lot of money for this type of project in the art department, so it was largely built and operated by students. Everyone was learning by doing. Thus began one of the very first hot glass studios in Oregon.
DD: And this is pre-Tacoma [Pulchuck Glass Studio] right? There was nothing happening at Tacoma at this point?
JG: All those people — Marv Lipofsky was in the same group as Ray — all went and set up glass in the departments where they landed. Tom McGlauchlin gave workshops for Ray when they got a few things going. Then Dan Schwoerer came from Wisconsin.10 He had worked with Harvey and he was a graduate student, so he helped build a lehr [a temperature-controlled kiln for annealing objects made of glass]. Nobody would let that happen now. (Laughs.) He had non-registered people there. They didn’t pay any tuition. They didn’t register. Fred put up with it, and Ray encouraged it.
DD: What do you think Ray’s legacy is in the Pacific Northwest?
JG: Ray was not a self-promoter. He was a collaborator. That is why he brought so many important clay artists to this area. Peter Voulkos, Daniel Rhodes, Paul Soldner, Mutsuo Yanagihara, Peter Lane all came for one- and two-day workshops and opened up those workshops up to the community to attend. The greater legacy is his teaching. I was thinking Ray and I were both middle children (I think birth order is pretty important). Somehow middle children to me say “collaborators” — for survival. He grew up in the middle of this herd of people and I think that the class or the teaching setting was kind of natural for him. It was hard for him because he struggled academically growing up but I think the reason he could get beyond that was because of the energy and excitement in the collaborative setting of the group of students.
DD: Looking at contemporary art in Portland or the way that Portland art has manifested, do you see some of the foundation that you and Ray helped lay?
JG: I’d like to think that Ray and I have contributed to the vitality of the artisan community in this region. I think Ray’s teaching style and his passion for making are woven into the fabric of this place. We try to be resourceful folks who don’t need multi-national corporations to make the things we need, and that is the definition of a sustainable, artisan community. I think this is alive and well in Portland today.
A RIDE OR WALKABOUT Most learning happens outside of the classroom. Field trips build group bonds and open up students to peripheral experiences. Use the journey itself for studio thinking. Ray often took his class on long bike trips to do pit fires. The ultimate goal was to get to the site for firing. Riding a bike in a group is part of the learning. Take your class on a long bike ride or if that’s not possible a long walk. (Perhaps you can combine this with a pit firing or a clay dig?) Have students work in teams to gather materials for the destination. Make site specific sculptures at your destination