"Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby" at Renwick Gallery

Photo: R. H. Hensleigh

During a 1963 tour around the world, Higby discovered Minoan pottery in a museum on Crete, which led to “Inlaid Luster Jar,” 1968. Its swirling spirals evoke Minoan octopus motifs. Such pottery “still informs the basis of my personal point of view and passion for ceramic art,” says Higby. Collection of Ford & University Galleries, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Robert Hensleigh.

 WASHINGTON, D.C. — Wayne Higby, recognized worldwide as one of the most innovative artists of the post-World War II American ceramic studio movement, has created a stunning body of work over his 40-year career. His vision of the American landscape appears in ceramic forms running the gamut from vessels and structures to architectural installations. In his artworks, Higby, professor and Robert C. Turner chair of ceramic art at the New York College of Ceramics at Alfred University in western New York, has melded forms and surface decorations in new and influential objects.

“Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby,” on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery through December 8, is the first major exhibition to offer a comprehensive analysis of his ingenious works. Featuring more than 60 ceramic objects and drawings from the Arizona State Museum (ASU), plus other private and public collections, the show examines Higby’s forms, techniques and firing processes. Specific attention is focused on his pioneering work in raku earthenware and his later works in porcelain.

The show is organized by the ASU Art Museum Ceramic Research Center in Tempe and compiled by curator of ceramics Peter Held. Renwick chief Robyn Kennedy coordinated this second stop on a national tour.

“Higby has refined the medium of ceramics and influenced a new generation of artists with his imaginative and evocative landscapes in clay,” says Smithsonian American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun. Adds Kennedy, “Higby has the remarkable ability to express an immense concept, such as an entire landscape, as an intimate work of art. The exhibition showcases artworks that embody the natural beauty of the West, as well as Higby’s explorations of the interplay of art and the natural world.”

Born in 1943 and growing up amid the craggy topography, canyons, mesas, caves and majestic views of Pike’s Peak around Colorado Springs, Colo. — much of it observed on horseback — Higby developed a lifelong love affair with the vast landscape of the American West. Rather than following his father into lawyering, young Wayne majored in art at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

A junior year, six-month tour to Japan, Southeast Asia, India, Greece and southern Europe, filled with epiphanies about humanity and the wider world, ignited an enthusiasm for pottery. “My entire life was changed as a result” of the trip, he recalls. Specifically, viewing Minoan pottery in Crete shaped his career — “On that day I became a potter.”

Back home, Higby focused on ceramics in his last year (1965) at the university and was exposed to the emerging West Coast ceramic movement, especially the work of Peter Voulkos and Henry Takomoto. “These artists made things with their skilled hands via processes that transformed materials of the earth into poetic, sympathetic objects,” he says.

In 1966, he married childhood sweetheart Donna Clare Bennett, also a BFA graduate of the University of Colorado, who became his muse and “my chief critic” prior to her death in 2004. They had two children.

While a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Higby delved into historic pottery, developing an interest in raku-firing and experimenting with means to integrate surface and form. “Visual beauty, a term many artists shun today, was embraced by Higby as he infused the past as he developed his own individual artistic vision,” observes Held.

During teaching stints at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Higby continued to experiment with a variety of ceramics. As Held notes, “This was an ideal time to be an emerging ceramicist, and Higby’s work gained widespread recognition and acclaim.” His work was displayed in prestigious exhibitions, providing “validation and exposure for the artist,” says Held, and “cemented his passion for teaching.”

A standout work from this period, “Inlaid Luster Jar,” a raku-fired, copper-green glazed earthenware, reflects Higby’s affinity for the swirling spirals of Minoan motifs he had seen in Crete. Soon after, a trek through the Southwest, West and Plains states resulted in series of architectural boxes, such as “Partly Cloudy,” decorated with what he had seen — clouds, mountains and sea — natural imagery that remains intriguing to this day. Even more eye-popping is another raku-fired glazed earthenware object, “Triangle Springs,” 1972, with a solid wide cloud topping a rugged topographical base.

Higby has been fortunate in his longstanding professorship at Alfred University, which academic Ezra Shales describes as “an Olympian perch because it is one of the few places in the world where ceramics is a school’s raison d’etre and not merely a course of study.” After joining the Alfred faculty in 1973, Higby began to work with large bowls that offered opportunities to showcase the interplay of real and illusionary space. He developed landscape imagery for the interior as well as the exterior of his bowls and other objects, thus creating the illusion of depth and distance. “Return to White Mesa” and “White Terrace Gap” demonstrate Higby’s predilection for bowls with two picture planes, one outside and one inside the object. They convey the continuity of inner and outer landforms and pose fascinating perception issues.

In the mid-1970s, he created small lidded bowls decorated with intriguing color patterns and images drawn from nature.

Exposure to the rocky shoreline and turbulent sea of coastal Maine while associated with the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts offered new and different topographical and oceanic subjects. In “Chimerical Bay” and related bowls, Higby conveyed his reactions to the solidity of coastal rocks and the movement of ever restless water.

In works like “Yellow Rock Falls” and later “Temple’s Gate Pass” and “Pictorial Lake,” Higby again utilized a horizontal format consisting of a series of boxes with a blue lake in the center.

A visit to China in the early 1990s stimulated Higby to use, for the first time, porcelain with celadon glazes, creating thick “rocks” drawn from nature. One result was a series about Lake Powell, replicating the deeply mottled canyon walls incised by floods, the whole glazed in celadon. They “integrate the artist’s aesthetic concerns: an alignment with earth and sky, matter and spirit,” says Held. Higby has spent considerable time in China, teaching, observing and building friendships with fellow artists.

In the Twenty-First Century, the ceramicist has executed several ambitious, large-scale architectural relief murals that are documented by maquettes and photographs in the exhibition. Three have been commissioned by Alfred University and Higby’s benefactor, Marlin Miller, in buildings designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects of Boston.

“While these public works took the artist out of his former routine,” notes Held, “he was able to continue his lifelong investigations of distilling the essence of land with all its visual potency. Linking the ceramic vessel, architecture and landscape come full circle, resulting in the synthesis of Higby’s artistic vision.”

The first architectural installation, “Intangible Notch,” 1995, constructed for the corporate conference room of Arrow International headquarters in Reading, Penn., consists of glazed raku-fired, rust-colored tiles attached to a wall, 11 feet high and 10 feet wide. Cascading down the wall is a vertical band of white sky that reaches a swirling body of blue water and gray shoreline at the bottom. “The narrative topography of ‘Intangible Notch’ — the themes of deep canyons and precipices of the American West —  is rooted in the terrain of the artist’s life,” observes Alfred University art history professor Mary Drach McInnes in her catalog essay.

Next came “SkyWell Falls,” 2009, measuring 40 by 22 feet, in the Miller Performing Arts Center in Reading. This immense ceramic tile tapestry comprises white lines suggesting a waterfall and white dots representing the fall’s spray set against a crimson background of 352 tiles. “Higby, using only the basic elements of point, line and color, provides us with a fantastical realm,” says McInnes.

Higby’s most ambitious project, “EarthCloud,” 2006 and 2012, was commissioned for the Miller Performing Arts Building and Miller Theater at Alfred and took the artist a decade to complete. The first part in the Performing Arts structure is made of approximately 6,000 hand-cut, celadon-glazed porcelain tiles and stands 30 feet high and 60 feet wide. The second phase, finished six years later, consists of another 6,000 tiles on the wall of the theater. Together, the two-part installation works as a single unit, encompassing a total of around 5,500 square feet, connecting the two buildings. An aesthetic tour de force and awesome fusion of art, architecture and landscape, “EarthCloud” is a spectacular sight by day and even more so when lit up at night.

“It will likely remain the major and perhaps defining work of my career,” says Higby.

These three large-scale, fixed installations “are the culmination of the artist’s professional life” thus far, observes McInnes, continuing Higby’s “early and abiding connection with the landscape and a transformation of this connection into a subjective reading of the natural world.” Still a disciplined, inquiring, imaginative artist at 70, it seems certain Wayne Higby will continue to create groundbreaking works in the days ahead.

As Held concludes, “Higby has consistently mined landscape as subject, creating work that is unparalleled in the annals of the American craft movement. Through constant investigation and reinvention, he has extended the definition and potential of both the vessel and architectural site works in the ceramic arts.” It will be interesting to see what comes next for this unique, fecund, trailblazing talent.

 The exhibition debuted at Arizona State University Art Museum and after Washington travels to Reading (Penn.) Public Museum (February 8–April 11), Philadelphia Art Alliance (May 15–August 3), Racine (Wis.) Art Museum (September 21–January 4, 2015), and Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) (January 24–May 29, 2015).

The 216-page catalog contains insightful essays by Held and other experts and beautiful photographs of Higby’s artwork. Published by Arnoldsche Art Publishers in Stuttgart, Germany, it sells for $85, hardcover.

Also on view at the Renwick through December 8 is “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets,” which showcases the gift of 79 baskets by collectors Steven R. Cole and Martha G. Ware. Made during the recent revival of traditional basketry, 1983–2011, the trove documents the enduring traditions of African and European basketweaving in the United States.

The Renwick Gallery is on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW. For information, americanart.si.edu or 202-633-1000.

Editor's Note: Due to the federal government shutdown, the American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery are temporarily closed; all daytime and evening events at the museum are also cancelled.

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