Article by Glen R. Brown
10 Ceramics: Art and Perception No. 56 2004
A ring of stones rising from the plain like an array of broken teeth in a massive unhinged jaw; an immense tattoo elaborated on the face of the earth with all the care of a symbol designed to give voice to the dumb; a pair of colossal earthen mounds that swell from the nurturing body of a terrestrial mother: since the earliest efforts in the obscurity of prehistory, the marking of sites has reflected an intense desire to humanise the daunting vastness of the landscape. To be adrift on a silent unbroken expanse is apparently intolerable to the mind. The sea and the desert have been known to cause madness, and it is no coincidence that science’s most convincing explanation of infinite outer space involves a form of self-centrism, a universe doubling back upon itself. The need to personalise space and, above all, to compel it to speak in human terms, has never faded from consciousness. The utilitarian aspects of our highways, bridges, dams, stadiums and skyscrapers may blind us to the metaphorical function they serve in reconciling us with immensity, but we do not fool ourselves into believing that we can dispense with them psychologically. Whether revering it in the silence of a spiritual embrace or dominating it in the interests of an abstract idea of progress, the human inclination is to mark the earth, to disrupt its alien continuity by imposing the physical evidence of human values on its previously uniform countenance.
Canadian-born sculptor Robert Harrison has reflected upon this apparently primal impulse for more than 25 years, studying ancient monuments from Stonehenge to the pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá and designing his own site-specific works to acknowledge patterns in the heavens, respond to environmental forces, and converse on visual terms with the surrounding landscape. Early in his career, he formed the kind of personal bond with the earth that is common in the experience of potters, thrusting his hands into mute but malleable clay and drawing from it products of human design. Between the completion of his undergraduate degree in the mid 1970s and the earning of an MFA at the University of Denver six years later, he concentrated his efforts exclusively on the vessel, resisting the nascent impulse to explore a broader space through his art. The 1970s, however, witnessed a level of sensitivity to ecology that was unprecedented in the modern age. From the introduction of Earth Day to the founding of Greenpeace, the focus on environmental issues early in the decade exerted a profound influence over the art world. For many artists the result was a determination to ally their work with nature and to take advantage of the potential it represented for exploring themes such as ephemerality and regeneration. Harrison found himself increasingly tempted to abandon studio-based work in order to test his creative energies through more monumental tasks.
The opportunity to pursue this inclination came in 1981 when Harrison was invited to work at the Omaha brickworks in Nebraska. Expecting to utilise the large beehive kilns at the site, he impetuously changed his mind and, in two days of feverish digging, created a colossal recessed X in an eroded bank of a clay pit. After laying within it a uniform floor of freshly extruded brick, he carefully documented the excavation in photographs in the manner of earthand-site artists such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson. Only six weeks later, as subsequent documentary photographs attest, rain and wind had made a considerable effort to restore to the space its prior continuity – an anticipated consequence that confirmed the primacy of nature over the aspirations of human beings. Buoyed by the success of this experiment, Harrison soon undertook a far more labour intensive earthwork in the hardpan shale of the Montana hills near the Archie Bray Foundation, where he was serving a two-year residency. Although the experience of excavating these natural sculptures contributed significantly to his ability to plan and execute monumental works, more consequential for the development of his subsequent site pieces would be the knowledge of masonry techniques that he acquired at the Bray.
These techniques would be first applied on a large scale in Harrison’s earliest incorporation of architectural allusions in a site-specific work, the famous Potters’ Shrine, which was constructed at the Bray Foundation between 1985 and 1987. This melange of cromlech, courtyard and crenellated wall was conceived not only as a monument to Bray-whose rugged bust, sculpted by Rudy Autio many years earlier, was set within a loggia-but as a testament to the history of the Foundation as a former brickworks. The connection between this quasi-architectural piece from the mid-1980s and the idealist underpinnings of earth and site art in the 1970s was made explicit through the deliberate use of 100-year-old bricks that would otherwise have been destined for a landfill. Recycling has, in fact, characterised aspects of Harrison’s method in the majority of the large public works that he has since produced at dozens of locations in Europe, North America and Australia. Whenever possible, he has attempted to utilise locally obtained resources such as abandoned brick, surplus tile, or even obsolete columns, giving them new life within an unexpected context.
Linked to the concern for recycling, but ultimately more overt and pervasive within his characteristic structures of the past fifteen years, is Harrison’s deep affinity for historical architectural forms, particularly those of the ancient Roman world and their atavistic descendants in Palladian design. Alluding only in the most abstract of terms to the columns, capitals, arches and pediments of this lineage, however, the elements of Harrison’s architectonic compositions cannot truly be called neoclassical. In fact, formal analysis of his work is more likely to conclude that eclecticism is the primary impulse rather than any desire to preserve the integrity of a given historical style. Bicoloured arches suggest Moorish inspiration while downward tapering columns recall Minoan conventions. Mosaic surfaces seem to allude to the interiors of Byzantine churches, and spiralling fluted pillars are evocative of the columns of Venetian palaces. Mingling without losing their identities, these references to the past together constitute a historical pastiche, and consequently can be linked most closely not to any tradition from a distant age but rather to the tendentiously postmodern attributes of 1980s architecture. Interestingly, the very traits that seemed so disconcerting, even frankly bizarre, in the first heady days of that sweeping influence on design have now become historical to the point where they are tinged by nostalgia.
Nostalgia, however, can hardly be characterised as an unexpected consequence of Harrison’s montage mentality. On the contrary, it is courted openly through his paradoxical construction of disintegrating form. His site-specific sculptures, after all, do not fully achieve the status of architecture, since they never become truly inhabitable. To see the architectonic in them is to recognise their status as fragments of imaginary wholes, larger structures of which they are merely signifiers. Moreover, they are implicitly indices, like the ashes of a fire, remnants of wholes rather than components from which more complete entities have yet to be constructed. They cannot escape their fundamental identity with decay even during the actual building process, since the concept that they materialise is already a ruin. Even in this they are nostalgic, since Harrison has drawn inspiration from the late 18th-century fashionable innovation of garden follies: sham ruins constructed between the copses of English gardens to impart to the experience of strolling the grounds the bittersweet scent of dusk in a fantasised Golden Age of Man. Like those eccentric Georgian examples, Harrison’s ersatz ruins are most loquacious on the subject of desire in the present. In fact, they seem openly to disclaim any objective grasp of history.
Nostalgia can be a very personal emotion, associated, for example, with the loss of one’s youth, ideals, dreams, or sanguine vision of abstractions such as human nature. It can also, however, constitute a broader cultural condition-as some have argued is the case for our contemporary “post”-plagued (postmodern, post-industrial, and so forth) context. When a condition becomes a part of a collective experience, regardless of any value judgements that may attach to it, it is especially serviceable within systems of communication, providing the impression of a common framework, a vernacular format, within which meanings are more readily understood. Harrison’s works seem to strive for this vernacular-not, however, by presenting the viewer with the emblems of a common cultural heritage, or even the fragments of a globally comprehensive history, but by striking a deliberately nostalgic chord. The specifics of that nostalgia, as it turns out, are far less important than the general impression, which is more readily ascribable to a common contemporary experience. Harrison’s works could be called, for that reason, socially oriented. There is no question that the public presentation of his work makes that a desirable quality.
There are clearly other common grounds that Harrison aspires to encompass, one of which is not immediately obvious but nonetheless central to the development of his compositions. Despite the ambiguous suspension between sculpture, landscape and architecture, he considers his works to be fundamentally tied to a ceramics discourse. If his walls form tentative enclosures, their implicit potential for containment is something he attributes to the sense of volume that he acquired through his early work as a potter. He has, in fact, characterised some of his recent sculptures as vessels, specifically bottles. The fact of their material construction from ceramic – whether in the form of pre-manufactured or handmade brick and tile – is one of the more obvious links to the concept of pottery which still includes in its definition the requisite of a composition from clay. By continuing to work primarily with objects made of fired clay, Harrison cannot, in fact, be easily excluded from ceramics discourse, although he can certainly be marginalised, especially for his deliberate and conspicuous incorporation of non-ceramic materials such as steel culvert pipe into his constructions. The margin, however, is precisely the location that he would select for his work. If he seeks a common cultural ground on one level, his intent on another-that on which medium is fundamental to meaning-is to press the boundaries.
The boundary of one field always implies another, and Harrison’s brick-constructed works are perhaps most interesting for what they suggest about the spaces beyond a studio-ceramics discourse. Chief among these is a field that shares a common bloodline with contemporary studio ceramics and has only been separated from it by modern notions of the disciplinary distinctions between art and science. I mean, of course, industrial ceramics. If Harrison makes works that are shaped by the concept of a ceramic bottle, he constructs them equally from the engineering principles, specialised masonry skills, and above all modules (bricks) that are associated with that other ceramics field-the one disclaimed like an embarrassing relative from the working class whenever ceramists are in conversation with “fine” artists. Harrison’s works are a reminder of the shared lineage of the contemporary branches of the ceramics tree, and the nostalgia that they inspire is no doubt for many ceramists linked to a longing to recognise the part of the past that is largely invisible in museums of ceramic art and the pages of books on the history of pottery. Harrison’s works openly acknowledge that discretely concealed past, and, like any frank confrontation with the repressed, can therefore be considered a healthy counter to the status quo.
Dr Glen R. Brown is Associate Professor of Art History at Kansas State University, USA. He is a regular contributor to Ceramics: Art and Perception and other art journals.
by Rick Newby
Published in Ceramic Review (London, United Kingdom), Spring 2000.
For more than a decade, from his home base near Helena, Montana, USA, ceramic sculptor Robert Harrison has explored—in a series of subtle and imaginative variations—a set of forms that, even today, fascinates and engages him: the archway, the colonnade, and, most recently, the chimney stack.
Profoundly influenced by Neolithic standing stones and the eloquent fragments of Roman temples, stadia, and aqueducts he has encountered during regular sojourns in Europe, Harrison also draws inspiration from contemporary earth artists (the late Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, Nancy Holt, Richard Long), the eccentric structures built by Barcelona visionary Antonio Gaudi, and the possibilities of postmodern architecture.
The first significant sculpture that emerged from this peculiarly Harrisonian mix of influences was Aruina (1988), a row of five unruly brick columns set at the northwestern corner of the grounds of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts (Helena, MT). Connected by tile-and-brick covered arches, the columns of Aruina frame the nearby Scratchgravel Hills and, with considerable wit, play with the conventions of classical architecture. Aruina is made up of modern industrial materials—concrete, stout cardboard tubes (the interior architecture of the columns themselves), and bricks from the adjoining brickyard. Shards from discarded polychrome sculptures by Japanese artist Michio Sugiyama—embedded in the spiraling patterns of brickwork—add touches of Gaudiesque energy and color.
With Aruina as starting place, Harrison began to elaborate and improvise. Though he created other colonnades (his Cullumned Spiral  at the Kohler Sculpture Park in Wisconsin and Black Mountain Colonnade  on his own property are prime examples), he turned increasingly to a simplified vocabulary: the arch, the column, and the buttress.
In 1995, at his alma mater, the University of Manitoba, the Canadian-born Harrison and a group of students fashioned a work—Red River Passage—that marked, in his view, the “epitome” of his efforts to “mix and match shapes, textures, and colors.” Red River Passage—despite its diversity of elements—coheres beautifully. By some species of alchemy, Harrison has brought together seamlessly (while retaining a pleasurable tension) an arch cast of stabilized adobe and covered with tiles, a brick column, and a curving buttress (almost a wall) of galvanized metal. Perhaps it is the paved area, set with manufactured cobblestone “bricks,” that unites the work—and gives it its social dimension, allowing visitors a zone of peace, a place for meditation or repose.
Other particularly significant Harrison archways completed in the last decade (among the more than twenty he has created during the 1990s) include Penland Arch (1994; Penland School, North Carolina) and Medaltarch (1999; Medalta International Artists in Residence Program for the Ceramic Arts, Medicine Hat, Alberta). Unlike the siteworks Harrison has built in the American West, where the landscape is austere (and Harrison responds with rich, saturated colors), Penland Arch is black and white, an elegant Yin/Yang symbol carved out of the vegetal chaos of a dense North Carolina forest. Medaltarch, too, contributes something new to Harrison’s oeuvre: a tiny brick building with its own columns—a crypt, a shrine, a reliquary—supports one end of the arch, underscoring the uncanny sense that humans have dwelt here.
The summer of 1999 brought Harrison to yet another new stage in his art. Invited to participate in the “Creating the Yellow Brick Road” symposium hosted by the University of Wolverhampton, Welshpool, Wales, he spent eight days crafting a new brick-centered body of work. Having previously used fired brick and tile almost exclusively, Harrison found himself facing the prospect— challenge and opportunity —of working solely with wet brick clay. Improvising freely (unlike his usual mode of carefully planning every detail of a work) and using only one material (rather than his usual collage of found materials), Harrison turned first to the familiar vocabulary of the last decade, creating Ironbridge Archway. After completing the arch—and finding himself fascinated by the “ubiquitous British chimney”—he “spontaneously” moved into new territory, designing and constructing his own brick chimney stack, based on the “elaborate [and] organic” Tudor chimneys of Hampton Court Palace south of London (and to a degree, on the stack forms of American ceramists Peter Voulkos and David Shaner). Harrison’s Chimney Stack #1—for him, the most “seminal” work of the symposium—quickly spawned Chimney Stacks—Royal Pair. In turn, these works led him, in the coming months, to devote much of his energy to exploring the chimney form, a form that—like Celtic standing stones and Roman architectural fragments—manifested, for Harrison, a singular presence and power (and the opportunity for infinite and inventive variation).
Most recently, in March 2000, Harrison found himself participating, with three other artists, in a “Big Mud” project at the annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in Denver, Colorado. Harrison’s contribution was two chimney stacks he calls Chimney Stacks Pair. Again working with wet brick clay, he crafted his own bricks by hand, faceting them with a knife. As with his Welsh stacks, the new Pair was built in two parts—a broad, muscular base and a slender, more graceful chimney. Harrison constructed the sturdy, stair-stepped bottom out of his customized bricks and then mold-formed the articulated chimneys. Suggesting movement but never moving, Chimney Stacks Pair—reminiscent, rhythmically, of Brancusi’s Endless Column—honors the ancient traditions of brickmaking and chimney-building and lends a spirited presence to its sober brick-paved setting.
During the coming months, Robert Harrison finds himself much in demand: in June 2000, he will teach a workshop on site-specific works (with fellow sculptor Tre Arenz) at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana; in September 2000, he travels to the Northern Potters Association’s “Fired Up North” festival at Preston, Lancashire, UK; also in September, he conducts a workshop at the National Academy of Art and Design, Oslo, Norway; and in January 2001, he opens a mid-career retrospective of his work, “Celestial Offerings,” at Jundt Art Museum, Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington.
Spirals and archways, chimneys and Xs carved in earth, still lifes and colonnades, profane icons and spiritual spaces: Ceramic artist Robert Harrison of Helena, Montana, has created an impressive body of sculptural work spread over three continents. His exhibition, Celestial Alignments, offers a mid-career glimpse of the range and depth of his accomplishment, from site-specific sculptures (or models thereof) to large-scale gallery installations to stand-alone wall pieces and screens.
Working with Clay (and Other Things)
Harrison began his career as a ceramic artist in the early 1970s under the tutelage of Robert Archambeau at the University of Manitoba. Initially attracted to the roughly elegant traditions of Japanese pottery as transmitted by his teacher, the Canadian-born Harrison found himself fascinated, too, by American painters and sculptors (Stella, Rauschenberg, Oldenberg), by Robert Smithson’s heady theories and spiral jetties, by the possibilities of postmodern architecture. As the years progressed, he was profoundly influenced, during European travels, by Neolithic standing stones and eloquent fragments of Roman temples, stadia, and aqueducts. The works of contemporary earth artists (Andy Goldsworthy, Nancy Holt, Richard Long) grew increasingly important to his approach, as did the eccentric structures built by Barcelona visionary Antonio Gaudi. Harrison’s eclectic tastes were to lead him far from his pottery roots, and halfway back again.
When he entered the University of Denver’s graduate program in ceramics in 1979, Harrison was ready to step outside the tradition of vessel making and to begin to explore other possibilities in his ceramic work. Today, Harrison sees his move from pottery to sculpture as a natural evolution, but at the time, he recalls, it was difficult, even painful. “I’ve always loved clay as a material, and I love the traditional forms,” he says. “When I first began making sculpture, especially when I incorporated non-ceramic objects, it felt like I was somehow betraying my family.” His sense of loyalty, however, couldn’t still his exploratory urge, and his artistic excursions have led him to use, besides raw clay and fired ceramic artifacts (manufactured bricks, shards from other artists’ pots, commercial vases, teacups, and tiles), such disparate materials as galvanized culvert pipe, granite capitals from discarded columns (and other architectural fragments), red volcanic rock, wooden beams and poles, Styrofoam, concrete, and aluminum-wrapped television cable.
At the same time, Harrison retains his allegiance to ceramics (he currently serves as president of the board of directors for the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, and he is a past board member for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts [NCECA]), and some of his most recent worksespecially his miniature stack forms, seen in this exhibitionare all clay, a return to roots, however temporary, that delights and surprises him.
Aligning the Stars
Harrison finds himself drawn to spiritually resonant sites and spaces, and his gallery installations echo and honor the cathedrals, ruins of Roman temples, and Celtic megaliths he visits during frequent European travels. His installations, which manipulate space in powerful ways, might be called the reliquaries of a private religion, and the relics they containdespite their undeniably personal naturesomehow speak eloquently to many who visit them. Like a handful of other contemporary ceramic artistsinterestingly, this group includes Bobby Silverman, Louis Katz, Rebecca Hutchinson, Richard Swanson, and Richard Notkin, all of whom live at least part-time in Harrison’s current hometown, HelenaHarrison has made the installation an integral part of his work. During the past twenty years, his installations have been featured at Alberta College of Art Gallery, Calgary; the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts, Alberta; Holter Museum of Art, Helena; and the University of South Australia Art Museum, Adelaide. An early installation, hisFour-X Transposed, was featured in Gonzaga’s Ad Gallery in 1982, while he was an assistant professor at the school and head of the ceramics program.
Certainly, the centerpiece (and center point) to his current Gonzaga exhibition, “Celestial Alignments,” represents the culmination of this aspect of Harrison’s work. Incorporating his usual mix of materials, surrounded by four spiraling wooden columns and dramatically lit from above, the central “stack”at nine and a half feet tallstretches to the heavens. The stack, with its ziggurat crown of cut steel, is constructed of culvert pipe and enshrouded in galvanized wire fencing. The shroud, in turn, is wrapped with television cable sheathed in pliable aluminum and filled with multi-colored shards of locally manufactured tile, a tribute to ceramics and to hard-working western farmers who pile rocks in the corners of their stony fields.
To enter this sacred space, you must pass down a narrow corridor (birth canal, passageway to a burial chamber) and through “Celestial Archway,” a Styrofoam arch that alludes, in its decoration, to Van Gogh’s Starry Night and, in its form, to the weightier, earth-bound arches Harrison has erected across North America and in Australia and Europe (in this exhibition, see also Harrison’s miniature arches and the five-foot-tall, black-and-yellow striped arch; they are, perhaps, models for past or future large-scale siteworks, but at the same time, on their own relatively diminutive terms, they command attention).
Conversing with a Site: Arches and Stacks
In 1980, while working at the Omaha Brickworks, Harrison created his first site-specific sculpture, carving an “X” into a clay hillside at the brickworks. He was fascinated by the notion that the Nebraska weather would be his collaborator, each storm subtly or violently altering his handiwork, but at the same time, he began to consider the possibility of constructing something more permanent, a shrine, an instant ruin, a provocative folly.
Another old brickyard would offer Harrison his first opportunity to leave just such a permanent mark. Between 1983 and 1985, Harrison spent his time working at the renowned Archie Bray Foundation, formerly the Western Clay Manufacturing Company, on the outskirts of Helena. There he found plentiful space, materials for the asking, and institutional, financial, and moral support for new, more ambitious works.
Harrison built his first semi-permanent pieceentitled Tile-X on the grounds of the Bray brickyard in 1984. (He had earlier created another hillside “X”Montana X on a piece of property belonging to Robert “Irish” Flynn, a University of Manitoba professor of ceramics and Archie Bray alumnus who has recently retired to Helena.) A pyramid-like structure built of discarded ceramic drain tile manufactured at the Bray brickyard and bound together with metal strapping, Tile-X is situated on a north-south axis, extends twenty-five feet along each axis, and stands twenty-two feet high. Tile-X is tall and broad enough to compete visually with the brickyard buildings nearby, and it echoesin abstract formthe brooding face of Mount Helena directly to the south.
Tile-X was a breakthrough piece for Harrison; by its very size and scale, it gave him the confidence to attempt still larger projects, to hone his construction skills, to indulge his fantasies. One of Harrison’s dreams was to build a monument to the potters and ceramic sculptors who were his comrades at the Bray, and in the spring of 1985, he began to construct A Potter’s Shrine.
As a clear turning point in Harrison’s work, A Potter’s Shrine presented a number of daunting challenges. He was incorporating new forms (the shrine’s brickwork floor was to be a Celtic crossa kind of “X”placed within a circle). He had to learn the art of laying bricks, not just for the complex floor (which features the cross set in a herringbone pattern), but for the walls and archways as well. And he had to overcome many logistical difficulties, foremost among them, the unpredictable Montana weather and a chronic shortage of time to devote to the project.
Despite the obstacles, Harrison brought his project brilliantly to completion. Both social and spiritual space, A Potter’s Shrine truly resonates with its site. In its brickwork, it echoes the original studio buildings built in the early 1950s by Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos, and other Bray pioneers, and it mimicsin its circular form (and acoustical qualities)the brickyard’s crumbling, but elegant beehive kilns, constructed before 1916. As unofficial curator of the shrine, Harrison asked Bray residents to contribute to what he saw more and more as a collaboration, and many Bray residentspast and presenthave complied, placing (imperfect) examples of their works on the shrine’s walls, ledges, benches, and floor. Finally, the Bray’s board asked Harrison to place Rudy Autio’s bust of Archie Brayfounder of the foundation and its guardian angelwithin the shrine. Deeply honored by the request, Harrison placed the bust, sculpted by Autio in the early 1950s, facing west, “at eye level in a position where he could oversee ‘future developments.'”
Since that beginning in the mid-1980s, Robert Harrison has created nearly thirty site-specific works. A 1988 work, also at the Bray, established Harrison’s emerging vocabulary. Entitled Aruina, this row of five unruly brick columns stands at the northwestern corner of the Bray grounds. Connected by tile-and-brick covered arches, the columns of Aruina frame the nearby Scratchgravel Hills and, with considerable wit, play with the conventions of classical architecture. Aruina is made up of modern industrial materialsconcrete, stout cardboard tubes (the interior architecture of the columns themselves), and bricks from the adjoining brickyard. Shards from discarded polychrome sculptures by Japanese artist Michio Sugiyamaembedded in the spiraling patterns of brickworkadd touches of energy and color.
With Aruina as starting place, Harrison began to elaborate and improvise. Though he created other colonnades (his Cullumned Spiral  at the Kohler Sculpture Park in Wisconsin and Black Mountain Colonnade  on his own property are prime examples), he turned increasingly to a simplified vocabulary: the arch, the column, and the buttress.
In 1995, at his alma mater, the University of Manitoba, Harrison and a group of students fashioned a work Red River Passage that marked, in his view, the epitome of his efforts to mix and match shapes, textures, and colors. In this work, by some species of alchemy, Harrison has brought together seamlessly (while retaining a pleasurable tension) an arch cast of stabilized adobe and covered with tiles, a brick column, and a curving buttress (almost a wall) of galvanized metal. Perhaps it is the paved area, set with manufactured cobblestone bricks, that unites the workand gives it its social dimension, allowing visitors a zone of peace, a place for meditation or repose.
Other particularly significant Harrison archways completed in the last decade include Penland Arch (1994; Penland School, North Carolina) and Medaltarch (1999; Medalta International Artists in Residence Program for the Ceramic Arts, Medicine Hat, Alberta). Unlike the siteworks Harrison has built in the American West, where the landscape is austere (and Harrison responds with rich, saturated colors), Penland Arch is black and white, an elegant Yin/Yang symbol carved out of the vegetal chaos of a dense North Carolina forest. Medaltarch, too, contributes something new to Harrison’s oeuvre: a tiny brick building with its own columnsa crypt, a shrinesupports one end of the arch, underscoring the uncanny sense that humans have dwelt here.
The summer of 1999 brought Harrison to yet another new stage in his art. Invited to participate in the “Creating the Yellow Brick Road” symposium and conference hosted by the University of Wolverhampton, England, he spent eight days crafting a new brick-centered body of work. Having previously used fired brick and tile almost exclusively, Harrison found himself facing the prospectchallenge and opportunityof working solely with wet brick clay. Improvising freely (unlike his usual mode of carefully planning every detail of a work) and using only one material (rather than his usual collage of found materials), Harrison turned first to the familiar vocabulary of the last decade, creating Ironbridge Archway. After completing the archand finding himself fascinated by the “ubiquitous British chimney”he moved into new territory, designing and constructing his own brick chimney stack, based on the “elaborate [and] organic” Tudor chimneys of Hampton Court Palace south of London (and to a degree, on the stack forms of American ceramists Peter Voulkos and David Shaner). Harrison’s Chimney Stack #1for him, the most seminal work of the symposiumquickly spawned Chimney Stacks Royal Pair. In turn, these works led him, in the coming year, to devote much of his energy to exploring the chimney form, a form thatlike Celtic standing stones and Roman architectural fragmentsmanifested, for Harrison, a singular presence and power (and the opportunity for infinite and inventive variation). Since his time in England, Harrison has built stacks in Denver, Colorado, and on the Bray grounds (utilizing bricks and ceramic pipe found onsite); and during late summer 2000, he constructed stacks in Lancashire, Great Britain, and Oslo, Norway.
In Denver, as part of a “Big Mud” project sponsored by NCECA, Harrison contributed two chimney stacks he calls Chimney Stacks Pair. Again working with wet brick clay, he crafted his own bricks, faceting them with a knife. As with his Welsh stacks, the new Pair was built in two partsa broad, muscular base and a slender, more graceful chimney. Harrison constructed the sturdy, stair-stepped bottom out of his customized bricks and then mold-formed the articulated chimneys. Suggesting movement but never moving, Chimney Stacks Pair reminiscent, rhythmically, of Brancusi’s Endless Column honors the ancient traditions of brickmaking and chimney-building and lends a spirited presence to its sober brick-paved setting.
Besides the gleaming steel stack at its heart, Celestial Alignments features several miniature stacks, plus four stacks, built specially for the exhibition, that stand four feet tall.
On (and Off) the Wall
Perhaps the least known aspect of Harrison’s oeuvre is what might be called his wall-work, his “scarcely still lifes.” Never before shown as a grouping, these collages of ceramic fragments, plaster, paint, wood, and gold leaf emerged out of Harrison’s experience as a resident at the Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin. There, working with the Kohler porcelain clay body (intended for bathroom fixtures), he cast from his own molds pots, figures, and natural objects (leaves, shells) that he then shattered and reassembled, setting his shards into beds of plaster and containing them in found window frames.
Harrison soon began building custom frames, breaking his complex images into odd shapes. Referring to the histories of architecture, ceramics, painting, and sculpture, both western and eastern (witness such titles as Rococo Teacup Icon, The Three Graces: Chinese Memories, T’ang Meets Yuan, and The Birth of Venus DeMilo), these works fulfilled Harrison’s desire to create small-scale, highly personal relics/icons that might lend spirit to rooms and galleries. The high point, and most complex manifestation, of this body of workand also included in this exhibitionis Broadwater Divider: Starry Night Revisited, a screen that giddily expresses, and meditates upon, Harrison’s love affair with art history (and especially its celestial visionaries), as well as his delight in collage and the purely kitsch aspects of ceramics. Here, and elsewhere in these wall works, Harrison’s early austerity and classical/modernist rigor have transmogrified into celebrations of vertiginous movement, glittering surface, and postmodern playfulness (see his Palladian Dream: Rococo Reality for a clear expression of this tension between the two strains in Harrison’s sensibility).
Ambition and Evolution
Perhaps more than any other clay artist of his generation, Robert Harrison hasfollowing the lead of such mentors and heroes as Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autioskillfully and unselfconsciously brought trends from contemporary “fine” arts into the often-ghettoized “craft” of ceramics, successfully blurring and rendering meaningless such false distinctions. Celestial Alignments, a long-deserved retrospective of nearly thirty years’ sustained work, brilliantly documentsand celebratesthe ongoing fecundity of Robert Harrison’s imagination and his significant contribution to the health of ceramic arts today.
This essay draws upon three earlier articles on the work of Robert Harrison by Rick Newby: “Robert Harrison: Shrines for Potters,” published in American Ceramics (New York, NY), Autumn 1991; “Rooms within Rooms: The Installations of Robert Harrison, 19811992,” first published in the catalog to the Robert Harrison exhibition, “Architecture without Walls,” University of South Australia Art Museum, September-October, 1992, and reprinted, in slightly different form, in Ceramics: Art & Perception (Sydney, Australia), Winter 199293; and “Robert Harrison: Spirited Variations,” published inCeramic Review (London, United Kingdom), Spring 2000.
All quotes by Robert Harrison are drawn from a series of interviews with Rick Newby conducted between 1990 and 2000.
Rick Newby is a poet, editor, and critic living in Helena, Montana. His articles on contemporary sculptors have appeared in American Craft, American Ceramics,Ceramics: Art & Perception (Australia), Ceramic Review (United Kingdom), [high ground], and Sculpture. Newby’s essay on the origins of the Archie Bray Foundation, co-written with Chere Jiusto, will appear in Ceramic Continuum: Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence (Holter Museum of Art/University of Washington Press, 2001).
by Rick Newby
First published in the catalog to the Robert Harrison exhibition, “Architecture without Walls,” University of South Australia Art Museum, September 10-October 3, 1992; reprinted, in slightly different form, in Ceramics: Art & Perception (Sydney, Australia), Winter 1992-93.
“. . . he sowed small worlds. . . .” —Odysseus Elytis
Ceramic sculptor Robert Harrison is best known for his site-specific outdoor works scattered across the North American continent,1 but since the beginning of his career a dozen years ago, he has also devoted considerable energy to creating temporary gallery installations, many of which have paralleled the developments and obsessions to be found in his site works.
Usually developed at the instigation of gallery directors in the USA, Canada, and now Australia, Harrison’s installations—despite their obvious connection to his outdoor pieces—allow the Canadian-born sculptor to exercise a side of his nature impossible to fully indulge in those works of his situated out-of-doors. “When I’m working outside,” notes Harrison, “nature always surprises—and delights—me, the effects of moisture and extremes of temperature on my materials, the look of the work depending upon the angle and intensity of the sunlight. Indoors, I get a different kind of pleasure; I can control all the elements, especially the lighting, and instill a sense of heightened drama, an almost magical or spiritual atmosphere.”2
Raised in a non-religious home, Harrison finds himself drawn to spiritually resonant sites and spaces, and his works, both indoors and out, echo and honor the cathedrals, ruins of Roman temples, and Celtic megaliths Harrison visited during a tour of the British Isles and the European continent in 1987. “I see my installations,” says Harrison, “as sanctuaries. When you enter them, I want you to enter another dimension.”
These manipulated spaces might be called the reliquaries of Harrison’s private religion, and the relics they contain—despite their undeniably personal nature—somehow speak eloquently to many who visit them. Like the paintings of Rothko, Harrison’s installations, especially those in recent years, imbue secular spaces with a sense of the sacred.
Harrison began his career as a potter, making vessels out of clay, studying as an undergraduate with Robert Archambeau at the University of Manitoba, and completing his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Ceramics at the University of Denver in Colorado. Always fascinated by architecture and strongly influenced by “the earth art and other large scale work being done at the time,” Harrison began to move away from traditional pottery during the last years of his schooling and created his first installation for his MFA exhibition at the University of Denver’s School of Art Gallery in 1981.
This shift in his work, he says, was “startling” to himself and his potter colleagues. Until then, the only large-scale work he had done was an exercise in his first sculpture class. Using bricks, he built an eight-foot tall, circular, silo-like structure in which he lit a fire, “as if it were a kiln.” It was, he recalls, “an eccentric structure that stood on its own,” the first evidence of his transition from potmaking to the creation of nonfunctional, but spiritually charged architectural works.
Harrison’s MFA installation was also closely tied to the act of firing, and it introduced what has been a key image for Harrison throughout his career: the X or cross form. Small by the standards of his current work, eight to ten feet square, this first installation was Japanese in feeling and drew its strength from the simplicity of its design. Set inside a square wooden frame, two to three feet in height, and surrounded by 500 pounds of loose sawdust, the exoskeleton of Harrison’s hollow X was constructed of commercially made soft or insulating bricks. Harrison then filled the X-shaped chamber with bright yellow, overlapping bags of “Cedar Heights Airfloated Clay, quality since 1924.” “About clay, but abstracted,” the MFA installation, notes Harrison, could be interpreted as a kiln, with the sawdust as a fuel source, ready for a “conceptual firing.”
In 1982, Harrison was teaching ceramics at Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, and as an assistant professor and head of the ceramics program, he was granted a one-man show in the university’s Ad Gallery. The installation he created for this exhibition was entitled Four-X Transposed and was based on a set of four silkscreen prints Harrison had just completed. With Four-X Transposed, moving away from works which simply referred to the processes of making ceramics, Harrison took on more ambitious themes. The original suite of prints, Four-X, introduced Harrison’s concern with the struggle between nature and technology, placing loose, sumi-like Xs over highly mechanical grids. The installation that followed took up the same theme, reflecting Harrison’s basic optimism that “nature is still able to override technology.”
For the installation, he created an eight-foot square grid, again very mechanistic, out of extruded clay; oxidation fired, it had a flawless, neutral surface, “no variations or accidents allowed.” Three feet above it, Harrison suspended by ropes a four-foot square clay X, also extruded; pit-fired, the X had a mottled black and white earthy surface, “very organic and natural,” a handmade look in contrast to the machined surface of the grid. Here, for the first time, lighting played an important role in a Harrison work, allowing him to control precisely the shape and intensity of the shadow cast by the X.
Lucy Lippard has noted that she finds it “interesting that an X across the earth has been a favorite motif for male earth artists,” adding that, though these Xs can be perceived as “anti-ecological” and “domineering,” “it is the attitude . . ., the artist’s sensitivity . . . that determines the effect of the imagery.” generic orlistat ukxenical orlistat price in pakistan 3 While Harrison himself has observed that “the X . . . always seemed masculine to me, very male. . . .” doxycycline monohydrate 100mg cost doxycycline reactions 4 and a number of his outdoor Xs might be seen as aggressively male marks scarring the earth, his use of the X in Four-X Transposed seems profoundly life-affirming and “female,” values he has attributed to images like the circle and the spiral, both of which appear often in his later work.
As a clear affirmation of the natural world (and as a personal icon), Four-X Transposed gave Harrison his first insight into the spiritual impact his work might have on others. Gonzaga University is a Jesuit institution, and Harrison found that many of his priestly fellow faculty members returned again and again to his installation as they might to a shrine. “They loved it,” Harrison notes. “The cross, after all, is an X. It was so abstract and secular, not identifiably Christian, and yet they could identify with its spiritual qualities.”
During 1986, Harrison was hard at work on four major outdoor works—A Potter’s Shrine at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana; Tex-As-X, University of Texas, San Antonio; and X-Isleand Rundlex at the Banff (Alberta) Centre School of Fine Arts—and that watershed year, he also created what he terms his first installation to make “mature use of indoor space.” Prefiguring his journey to Europe the following year, this installation at the Alberta College of Art Gallery, Calgary, was also his first indoor work to make direct reference (“too direct for my taste now,” he noted recently) to classical motifs.
The work consisted of a large spiral on the gallery floor with a Greek Doric column set at its heart, two large platter forms (four feet in diameter, three inches thick) lean ing against the walls, and a three-foot tall amphora. While creating the Tex-As-X piece in San Antonio that year, Harrison had begun using adobe, the mixture of clay and straw so popular in building construction in Mexico and the American Southwest, and he formed many of the elements of his Calgary exhibition from this addition to his repertory. The column he built up of “little sausages of clay” on a wire mesh structure, he made the central spiral of adobe and covered it with stucco, and the adobe amphora and platters he threw on his potter’s wheel. The platters, with their spirals, echoed fossilized snails Harrison had come across in the Canadian Rockies and honored his potmaking past. “That’s what making pots is all about,” he says, “spinning, turning, the wheel, the spiral. . . .”
The spiral entered Harrison’s work, he notes, because he was seeking “feminine” images “that were more life-affirming” than his favored X, that “suggested growth and renewal.” In his Calgary piece, the flowing, Neolithic energies that emanate from his pagan spirals on floor and platters were counterbalanced by the column and amphora, emblems of a sun-drenched archaic world dominated by reason and the male will to power. This tension, to be found throughout Harrison’s later work, seems particularly lively here, lending the space an air of suspension, of calm and order that might, at any moment, spiral into a fruitful chaos.
Banff Colonnade, Harrison’s next installation, was also completed during the banner year of 1986 and featured what were becoming the signature Harrison column[s] and spiral. It also allowed him to try new, non-ceramic materials. As Harrison continued to move further from his potter’s roots, he incorporated techniques and materials that had little or nothing to do with the making of ceramic vessels or even ceramic sculpture, and in that regard, he feels that Banff Colonnade was a decisive “outward step.” Created at the gallery at the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts, where Harrison was then serving as assistant head of the ceramics program, the colonnade featured turned wooden columns, gold leaf, and a stone spiral, as well as the adobe and stucco Harrison had begun using at San Antonio and Calgary.
Banff Colonnade, despite its technical innovations and formal beauty, did little to further the maturing of Harrison’s “use of indoor space.” Neither did Harrison’s next installation, at Calgary’s Muttart Gallery in 1989, in which four Doric columns danced diagonally across the rectangular room. It was only with Art/Architecture, a one-man exhibition at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Montana, January-March 1992, that Harrison broke through to a new and more refined understanding of the possibilities an installation offers, both in terms of controlling the viewer’s experience of the gallery space and of giving up control, accepting the viewer as collaborator.
“Finally, it dawned on me,” says Harrison, “that I could, through my orchestration of light and space, force viewers to see things in a certain way and, at the same time, encourage them to participate more fully, on a perceptual level, in the creation of this little world, or of many parallel worlds.”
Harrison’s first “room within a room,” Art/Architecture consisted of two rows of columns marching down a ramp in the museum’s Bair Gallery; at the head of the colonnade stood an arch formed of papier-mache-covered styrofoam (colored by ceramic oxides, yet another tribute to Harrison’s pottery roots) and set upon a pair of gleaming steel, gold-dusted columns. The piece culminated visually in an “earthnest” or altar of reddish volcanic rock topped with cast ceramic shells and bathed in light. Over the nest, Harrison had suspended a pair of wooden window frames that might have come from a cathedral, suggesting the presence of a wall, of a “transparent” room set within the gallery. Another, simpler frame—further substantiating the illusion of a room within a room—hung off to the side, lending a slight asymmetry, and its shadow, to the piece. On the walls on either side of the colonnade, Harrison affixed large photocopies of works of art and architecture that had somehow inspired him, from Warhol’s Marilyn to a magnificent Iranian mosque (source for the papier-mache capitals on his columns). Viewers found themselves guided, by the lighting and Harrison’s columns, down the ramp and through the archway, stopping perhaps to meditate at the “earthnest” and then moving on to the room’s periphery to ponder the artist’s favorite images.
Like Harrison’s A Potter’s Shrine at the Archie Bray Foundation, Art/Architecture was an ideal site for meditation or communion, more clearly a sanctuary or sanctified space (for a religion both comfortingly familiar and inextricably alien) than any of his earlier installations, and yet it invited widely varying interpretations. Was it the playhouse of a wise and eccentric child? A place for assignations, the passing of notes and furtive kisses? An educational display at a perverse county fair? A folly in a garden? Or a “reliquary not of saints’ bones, but of [the artist’s] pleasures”? The work’s ambiguity, its “transparency,” as Harrison likes to call it, cried out for analogies; as Roland Barthes has written, “Metaphor is the only way of naming the unnamable.”6
Unnamable, transparent, playfully indifferent to the conventional—with its references to wide-ranging cultures and artistic traditions, its quirky, pastel colors, and offbeat materials (styrofoam, steel culvert pipe, gold leaf)— Art/Architectureproved amenable to collaborations with other art forms, and during its tenure at the museum, it hosted a jazz concert and a poetry reading among its columns, lending a unique quality, congenial and spiritual, to the performances.
Less coherent as a unified image than his earlier works, more complex and susceptible to multiple interpretations, Art/Architecture was the first work in a series Harrison calls “Architecture without Walls,” in which walls are sketched on the air, in a kind of architectural mime. The second is the piece he has created here, at the University of South Australia Art Museum, where—he said immediately before departing for Australia and New Zealand in late July—he hoped to “redefine and refine my concepts, make use of new materials (preferably something I can’t find anywhere else in the world), and improvise a distinctive space, something intimate, magical, and playful.” With this new work, Robert Harrison will undoubtedly sow yet another of his small and sacred worlds: a fictive space that invites participation by all who cross its (imaginary) threshold, a refuge—not always comforting—from the world, large and profane, in which we reside each day.
Rick Newby is a poet, editor, and critic living in Helena, Montana, USA. His articles on contemporary sculptors have appeared in American Craft, American Ceramics,Ceramics: Art & Perception (Australia), Ceramic Review (United Kingdom), [high ground], and Sculpture.
See Rick Newby, “Shrines for Potters,” American Ceramics 9/3 (Fall 1991): 26-33, for a full discussion of Robert Harrison’s site-specific outdoor works. Major outdoor works by Harrison can be found at the Bemis Foundation, Omaha, Nebraska; the Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana; the University of Texas, San Antonio; the Banff (Alberta) Centre School of Fine Arts; the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin; the Kansas City (Missouri) Art Institute; the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, North Edgecomb, Maine; and the University of Arizona, Tucson.
All quotations from Robert Harrison, unless otherwise noted, are transcribed from interviews with the author, Helena, Montana, July 1992.
Lucy Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), p. 52.
4 Newby, American Ceramics, p. 30.
5 Newby, American Ceramics, p. 30.
6 Roland Barthes, “Requichot and His Body,” in The Responsibility of Forms (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), pp. 210, 225.
by Rick Newby
First published in American Ceramics (New York, NY), Autumn 1991; reprinted, in slightly different form, in Kinesis 4 (Whitefish, MT), Spring 1992.
Wherever he finds himself—whether it is the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana, Wisconsin’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the Omaha Brickworks Workshop (now the Bemis Foundation) in Nebraska, the Banff (Alberta) Centre School of Fine Arts, or the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Maine—Robert Harrison likes to leave behind his mark. It is very nearly a compulsion with the Canadian-born ceramic sculptor, this need to inscribe upon the landscape clear evidence of his passing. And yet there is something refreshingly impersonal, ego-less, even universal, about the structures Harrison builds out of brick and tile, adobe and stone, wood and shards recycled from pots jettisoned by his fellow ceramists.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba—geographical center of the North American continent—Harrison early felt a powerful connection with the natural landscape. Guided by his nature-loving mother, he ventured on long walks into the countryside, exploring lakes and forests and the vast Canadian prairie, seeking out wildflowers and learning the secrets of mushroom hunting. His father, an avid fisherman, taught him patience, to sit and look at things quietly, to take a deep pleasure in the smallest details of the natural world.
Harrison began his career as a ceramic artist under the tutelage of Robert Archambeau at the University of Manitoba in the early 1970s. Initially attracted to the roughly elegant traditions of Japanese pottery as transmitted by his teacher, Harrison found himself fascinated, too, by American painters and sculptors (Stella, Rauschenberg, Oldenberg), by Robert Smithson’s heady theories and spiral jetties, by the possibilities of architecture. Harrison’s eclectic tastes were to lead him far from his pottery roots, and halfway back again.
When he entered the University of Denver’s graduate program in ceramics in 1979, Harrison was ready to step outside the tradition of vessel making and to begin to explore other possibilities in his ceramic work. Today, Harrison sees his move from pottery to sculpture as a natural evolution, but at the time, he recalls, it was difficult, even painful. “I’ve always loved clay as a material, and I love the traditional forms,” he says. “When I first began making sculpture, especially when I incorporated non-ceramic objects, it felt like I was copping out, somehow betraying my family.” His sense of loyalty, however, couldn’t still the exploratory urge he had first embraced during his childhood wanderings.
Perhaps the sensation Harrison remembered most vividly from those early years exploring the prairies of Manitoba was that of sheer distance, space without apparent end. He yearned to work larger and larger, to parallel the vastness that had entered him as a child. And despite his misgivings about abandoning pottery, he found sculpture offered him precisely the grand scale he needed.
Attracted to the conceptual and minimalist movements and to ceramic artists like John Mason, whose geometric pieces of the 1960s were seminal influences, Harrison found himself seeking in his work—beyond size—a certain simplicity, even austerity. He wanted, simply, to leave his mark. He began creating ceramic installations and wall pieces that featured the “X” as image and symbol.
But filling the walls and floor of a gallery with geometric figures was not enough, and Harrison turned his attention to marking the earth itself. In 1980, while working at the Omaha Brickworks, he was inspired by the thought and sculpture of ceramist Tony Hepburn, who there conducting a workshop, and under Hepburn’s influence, he created his first site-specific sculpture, carving an “X” into a clay hillside at the brickworks. He was fascinated by the notion that the Nebraska weather would be his collaborator, each storm subtly or violently altering his handiwork, but at the same time, he began to consider the possibility of constructing something more permanent, a shrine, an instant ruin, a provocative folly.
Another old brickyard would offer Harrison his first opportunity to leave just such a permanent mark. Between 1983 and 1985, Harrison spent his time working on the outskirts of Helena, Montana, as a resident artist at the renowned Archie Bray Foundation, formerly the Western Clay Manufacturing Company. There he found plentiful space, materials for the asking, and institutional, financial, and moral support for his new, more ambitious works.
Harrison built his first, at least semi-permanent effort—entitled Tile-X—on the grounds of the Archie Bray brickyard in 1984. (He had earlier created another hillside “X”—Montana X—on a piece of property belonging to Robert “Irish” Flynn, a University of Manitoba professor of ceramics and Archie Bray alumnus; located in the Scratchgravel Hills near Helena, this piece Harrison referred to as a “ritual space,” prefiguring some of the concerns he would explore in his later work.) A pyramid-like structure built of discarded ceramic drain tile manufactured at the Bray brickyard and bound together with metal strapping, Tile-X is situated on a north-south axis, extends twenty-five feet along each axis, and stands twenty-two feet high. Tile-X is tall and broad enough to compete visually with a massive brickyard smokestack nearby, and it echoes—in abstract form—the brooding face of Mount Helena directly to the south. From the air, it reads as a giant cross or yet another of Harrison’s laconic “Xs.”
Tile-X was a breakthrough piece for Harrison; by its very size and scale, it gave him the confidence to attempt still larger projects, to hone his construction skills, to indulge his fantasies. One of Harrison’s dreams was to build a monument to the potters and ceramic sculptors who were his comrades at thefive Archie Bray Foundation, one of America’s most vibrant centers for the ceramics arts, and in the spring of 1985, just as he was completing his residency at the Bray, he received a grant from the local film society to construct A Potter’s Shrine.
At the time Harrison began work on A Potter’s Shrine, he found himself growing increasingly dissatisfied with the austerity of the imagery in his work. The “X” no longer sufficed to completely express all he felt within him. Today he says, “Over time, I had begun including images in my work—in particular, the circle and the spiral—that were more life-affirming, that suggested growth and renewal. The “X” had always seemed masculine to me, very male (and also very modernist), and as I grew more aware of the feminist critique of modernism, and of the feminine within myself, I wanted to use images that were, if not specifically female, at least gender neutral. Maybe I was just maturing a bit and feeling a little more relaxed about being a man.” Perhaps, too, Harrison’s use of less static forms meant he was subconsciously turning away from what he now views as the rigidity and coldness of modernism, and towards a more playful, sensual, and humane stance.
As a clear turning point in Harrison’s work, A Potter’s Shrine presented a number of daunting challenges. He was incorporating new forms (the shrine’s brickwork floor was to be a Celtic cross—a kind of “X”—placed within a circle). He had to learn the art of laying bricks, not just for the complex floor (which features the cross set in a herringbone pattern), but for the walls and archways as well. And he had to overcome many logistical difficulties, foremost among them, the unpredictable Montana weather and a chronic shortage of time to devote to the project.
Despite too much rain, bitter cold, and rushed trips to Helena from Banff, Alberta (where he was now serving as Assistant Head of the Ceramics Program at the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts), Harrison brought his project brilliantly to completion. Both social and spiritual space, A Potter’s Shrine truly resonates with its site. In its brickwork, it echoes the original studio buildings built in the early 1950s by Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos, and other Bray pioneers, and it mimics—in its circular form (and acoustical qualities)—the brickyard’s crumbling, but elegant beehive kilns, constructed before 1916.
Harrison recalls with emotion the day Rudy Autio stopped by to watch him work. The international ceramics figure and current Bray board member told Harrison his materials and techniques were identical to those Autio and his cohorts had used in the foundation’s early days—and then, for old times’ sake, Autio offered to lay brick with Harrison for an hour or two. As Harrison worked, these connections to the Bray’s past became vitally important, and he found ways to honor this living history throughout the shrine. Every brick and tile he used came from the Bray brickyard, and in the mortar between bricks, he embeddedseven shards from the pots and sculptures former residents had discarded on the foundation’s grounds.
As unofficial curator of his creation, Harrison asked Bray residents to contribute to what he saw more and more as a collaboration, and so far, more than fifteen residents—past and present—have complied, placing (often damaged) examples of their works on the shrine’s walls, ledges, benches, and floor. The residents whose works are represented include Akio Takamori, Kurt Weiser, Chris Staley, Sarah Jaeger, Beth Kennedy, Chou, Pang-ling, David Regan, Louis Katz, Linda Sikora, Michio Sugiyama, Josh DeWeese, and Ei (Sano) Yamamoto. Finally, on behalf of the Bray’s board of directors, David Shaner asked Harrison to place Rudy Autio’s bust of Archie Bray—founder of the foundation and its guardian angel—within the shrine. Deeply honored by the request, Harrison placed the bust, sculpted by Autio in the early 1950s, facing west, “at eye level in a position where he could oversee ‘future developments.'”
A Potter’s Shrine prefigures “future developments” in Harrison’s body of work and, at the same time, marks a level of complexity he has yet to surpass. With its four arched doorways, each facing a cardinal direction, its round and rectangular windows, and its roof the infinite Montana sky, the shrine lies open to the magnificent natural setting of the Helena Valley and the surrounding mountains and hills: Mount Helena, the Scratchgravels, the Belts and Little Belts. At the same time, the circular shrine—twenty-five feet in diameter, with its eight-foot walls and eleven-foot central column—suggests a vessel, an inner sanctum, a house, a fortress. It is, as many visitors will attest, a container of harmonious energies, calling forth serenity and contemplation.
At its center, a column—the still point around which all revolves—marks the extremity of Harrison’s fascination with clay and its permutations. He calls the column his “totem,” a collage of ceramic materials—with a massive sewer pipe as its base and the remainder, drain tile, extruded pipe, late Victorian ornamental bricks, and less extravagant paving bricks—”whipped up in one frenzied form.” Atop this crude and energetic totem, an amphora thrown by Harrison, reflecting his fascination with classical motifs, stands above the fray, a pure form, visible outside the shrine from every angle as though it were hovering, unsupported by anything save its own grace.
Harrison’s first truly permanent site-work, A Potter’s Shrine remains one of his most heartwarming pieces, no doubt because it honors the history and spirit of a remarkable place. Certainly, Harrison’s subsequent work has its own considerable charms and strengths, and with each succeeding piece, he further hones his skills and brings to bear an increasingly sophisticated eye and range of reference.
During the two years Harrison worked, intermittently, on the shrine at the Bray, he found time to complete three other site-specific sculptures, one in Texas and two in Alberta. He created Tex-As-X on the campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio for the 1986 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) “Site-Specific Adobe Exhibition.” Another of Harrison’s “Xs” within a circle (“the male ‘X’ within the female circle,” he wrote in NCECA Journal, “a meshing of symbols and energies”), Tex-As-X marks his first use of adobe and stone, and he incorporated elements specific to the region, noting that the “stepped structure of the [rampressed adobe] walls echoed Southwest-Mexican-Mayan architectural styles.” Harrison saw this piece as another of his ritual spaces, and for him, its piles of white limestone represented “prehistoric burial mounds” and its crushed limestone walkways were “sacred paths.”
Harrison also completed both of his Albertan works, X-Isle and Rundlex, in 1986, and both pieces—situated on the grounds of the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts—again incorporated stone, this time local Mount Rundle rock, ten tons for each piece. In X-Isle, Harrison used wood for the first time, pine and spruce for the walls of the “X” and for the stepped walkways he had dug into the earth. As with the Bray shrine, Harrison thought of X-Isle as an “intimate place for reflection or conversation,” and he inaugurated this elegant wooden “X” within a circle of stone, “man within mother earth,” with a shamanistic ritual involving fire and magic.
Rundlex was to be the last of Harrison’s “X” pieces, tombstone for the body of work he had begun in 1980 at the Omaha Brickworks. A simple stone “X” set in the spectacular Canadian Rockies, it was, Harrison notes, the smallest, quietest, and most minimal of all his Xs, and its uncanny power and presence were to spark his extensive investigations into the megalithic stone sites found throughout Celtic Europe.
In October 1987, Robert Harrison and his wife, Christel, flew to the British isles, setting out on a pilgrimage that would take six months and have a profound impact on the shape of Harrison’s future work. The Harrisons visited 120 Neolithic sites in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Brittainy, among them Avebury Henge, Penrhos-Feilu Standing Stones, Newgrange, Carnac, and perhaps most dramatic of all, the Ring of Brodgar Henge in the Orkneys. At these ancient and sacred sites, Harrison sought to understand what gave them their extraordinary power.
“There’s still magic in the world,” says Harrison. “It comes to you, and if you are receptive to its possibilities, it can enter your work, as it did the structures of the ancient Celts.” Raised in an agnostic home, without imposed religious training, Harrison found in his European travels reaffirmation that mystical experience can reside wherever you choose, in the making of art, for example, and in the structures built by spiritually attuned humans.
Traveling into southern Europe, Harrison found himself touched by human structures other than the stone rows, circles, and mounds of Neolithic peoples. He was stunned by the Roman ruins in the south of France, especially those at Arles and Avignon. Their shattered colonnades held a mysterious magic for him, and as soon as he saw them, he began to plan a major new work. In Barcelona, the buildings of Antonio Gaudi delighted him because they reinforced his passion for architectural collage and because they “made brick look so fluid, almost plastic.” As he turned north through Italy, Harrison found more to enchant him. In Pisa, Florence, and Venice, he responded powerfully to the cities’ warmly human scale, to the “tactile” use of brick, and to the deeply satisfying relationships between open space—the piazzas—and architecture. In Paris, it was the museums and the provocative juxtapositions of old and new; in London, the terra cotta detailing caught his eye and the richness of history seduced him.
Upon his return to the U.S. in March 1988, Harrison was ready to begin a new work. Aruina, he would call it, and it would echo, perhaps ironically, certainly playfully, the Roman columns that had touched him so deeply in southern France. The Archie Bray Foundation once again gave him space to work, and in early summer of 1988, he began construction at the northwestern edge of the Bray property.
A row of five columns, Aruina partakes of all the influences Harrison imbibed on his European trip. By dint of its placement, framing the Scratchgravel Hills, it has some of the presence of the megalithic stone structures of the ancient Celts, but little of their sobriety. Its most obvious debt is to the columns and arches of the classical ruin, and with its bricks spiraling around the columns and its collage of bricks and polychrome shards culled from discarded sculptures by Michio Sugiyama, it clearly acknowledges the influence of Gaudi. Black and white Italian tiles recall Harrison’s fascination with the cities of northern Italy, and its ziggurat forms, perversely, bring the piece home, recalling pre-Columbian ruins in the Yucatan.
With a two-foot-deep foundation of concrete and rebar, Aruina’s columns are built of waxed cardboard sona tubes filled with concrete and scrap brick and then covered with mortar, onto which Harrison affixed his rows of bricks. Unlike Harrison’s earlier work, Aruina is not symmetrical or finished. It is fragmented, a fraction of something, a suggestion rather than an answer. It extends into infinity, and it challenges the viewer to imagine its completion. With its inconsistent spirals and its unruly capitals (each different from the other), it subverts all the classical values: calm, dignity, naked (male) power. And unlike much post-modern architecture, with which it shares certain tendencies (playfulness, a desire to redeem history, wit), it does not indulge in glibness or facile historicism, what Hal Foster calls “sheer post-histoire escapism.” Instead, with Aruina, Robert Harrison is aiming at something more deeply human, more archetypal. Witness the work’s spiraling columns; they seem in perpetual, swirling motion, suggesting not so much the imperial stolidity of Rome as the dynamic spirit of the Neolithic.
Once he completed Aruina, Harrison served for nine months as Acting Head of the Ceramics Program at the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts and then turned to new projects, drawing upon his expanded visual vocabulary, his experiences in Europe, and what he had learned in constructing his row of eccentric columns. In 1989, he built two site-works sponsored by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, while a resident at the Kohler Company factory. Cullumned Spiral was an elaboration of his column and spiral theme, and Earth Spiral, an earthwork created for the exhibition “Unconventional Landscapes,” harked back to his first “X” carved into the Nebraska earth. In 1988, along with ceramics artists such as Arnold Zimmerman, Tony Hepburn, and Jun Kaneko, he was commissioned by NCECA to create a work for “Ceramic Sculpture in Open Spaces,” an exhibition to be held at the organization’s 1989 conference in Kansas City. Situated on the grounds of the Kansas City Art Institute, Harrison’s piece, îCrossroads Archwayï, is constructed of adobe, stucco, brick, and shards and alludes to the Spanish-inspired architecture on the Art Institute campus. Also in 1989, Harrison created another site-work (a kind of garden folly made of bricks that are also flowerpots) at the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in North Edgecomb, Maine.
Once again living in Helena, Montana, Harrison has recently taken on a new challenge, one that will sustain him for many years, perhaps his lifetime. On twenty semiarid acres west of Helena, dotted by Ponderosa pine and enormous granite boulders, Harrison has built a house of his own design—a modernist bungalow with plenty of light and room for his extensive collections of ceramics. And here, in this wild Zen garden, after he completes his new studio, he plans to create his own sculpture park, with a site-work for each of the twenty acres: some, like X-Isle from Banff, recycled; some, temporary like the sagebrush spiral he’s already begun; some, works by fellow sculptors who stop to visit and stay to create; and others, monumental like the neo-Neolithic stone circle he plans to build of immense granite slabs rescued from one of the dozen quarries nearby.
When he is not teaching—in the fall of 1992, he will be visiting artist at the University of South Australia in Adelaide—creating new site-works elsewhere, or working in the studio, making wall pieces or his new “megalithicups,” Harrison will undoubtedly find himself wandering his personal sculpture park, seeking—amidst the sage and juniper—the perfect spot to begin yet another shrine, another folly, another celebration of his mystical art.
Rick Newby, poet, essayist, and editor, lives in Helena, Montana, where he writes frequently about the arts.