Robert Harrison

Robert Harrison: Shrines for Potters

Posted on Monday, January 14th, 1991

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.