Robert Harrison

Earthly Visions, Celestial Alignments: Robert Harrison’s Accomplishment

Posted on Friday, January 14th, 2000

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 [1989] at the Kohler Sculpture Park in Wisconsin and Black Mountain Colonnade [1994] 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).