Clay, Glaze and Firing: Illinois

Photo by William Lemke

Whether we’re talking sculptors, painters, authors, musicians, or any other creative, decade after decade, the Midwest produces some of the most profound artists in the world. In recognition, this year we’re zooming out from Wisconsin to celebrate ceramicists in our neighboring states. Next stop: Illinois.

Photograph by Elizabeth Nishitateno

HIRONOBU “NISHI” NISHITATENO

For Hironobu “Nishi” Nishitateno, the marriage of form and function is only completed in the real—never in the abstract. A teacup with a subtle soft pinkish white hue comes to life when it encloses green tea. A plate or bowl that uses a soft bluish glaze is meant for summer usage to help suggest a coolness to contrast the heat of the day.

From Nishi’s artist statement: “My style is based on the simplicity and functionality of Japanese pottery, using natural materials and colors typical in nature. It is my belief that pottery should not be the center of attention on the dinner table. It should be simple and attractive, while discreetly adding to the delicious appearance of the food. I strive to create pottery that resonates with me and brings out my inner peace. It is my hope that the natural simplicity of my pottery can bring the same peace to others.”

Nishi’s ambition for his work is deceptively simple. As his wheel-thrown forms, be they plates, tea pots, bud vases, or bowls, reach toward a perfection that can never be fully grasped, his intensity and spirituality, and his expressive passions, are increasingly invested in each unique effort.

Nanten, or heavenly bamboo, is the name Nishi has chosen for his pottery. When the characters are separated, they mean south and heaven, which reflect his commitment to honoring his place of apprenticeship on the southern island of Kyushu at the Kagoshima Kogyu Gijustu Center and the transparency and sincerity of his artistic intention. Nishi continually refers to practicing exactness in the process and stages of each unique piece. When planning a new work, produced in exceedingly limited editions, the process begins with small sketches that evolve into a desired dimensional form. As he says, “Drawing is the ideal. But in the moment, there is change.” As he moves toward the final expression, each stage must be executed as exactly as possible. His creative intensity is one nurtured in specificity and rigor rather than spontaneity.

Nishi’s creative life is inextricably entwined with his family life, which includes his American wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters. Unalloyed joy spreads across his face as he describes preparing and placing food in front of his daughters enhanced by just the right plate or bowl.

Elizabeth and Nishi met in 2004, when she was teaching English in Japan. She is so much a part of his creative life that, in addition to managing his business affairs, not only does she serve as a translator when the exact turn of phrase might momentarily elude him, she also serves as a vocal advocate and virtual guarantor of his sincerity, his intensity, his spirituality, and his devotion both to his art and his family’s very existence. His expression of responsibility for his family and their welfare becomes the most vital part of his art.

Photograph by Marlene Miller

MARLENE MILLER

Creating powerful, brooding, sometimes threatening sculptures from powerfully worked stoneware, Marlene’s work evokes the ghosts of Francisco Goya’s inquisitors and hooded clergy in Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War etching series. Life-sized busts of weathered, craggy, pock-marked, and ravaged, sometimes broken, men wearing the iconic headgear of bishop’s mitres, pointed dunce caps, tall triangular hoods reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan disguises or Spanish religious penitents caught up in spiritual frenzy, share her studio and exhibition space with earlier iterations of Marlene’s work: full-figured, pensive, aging female acrobats—plump young girls plaintively gesturing in short blue frocks and Mary Janes.

Marlene’s work is grounded in her depiction of the human figure—sometimes tender and wistful, at times cocky and self-assured, ranging in scale from small talismanic sprites ensconced in architectural niches to over-life-sized, bald-headed men with the inscrutability and distant gaze of 1930s Italian prototypes of futuristic supermen.

What’s so surprising and delightful is that these physically palpable works come from the deceptively strong hands of a woman who can only be described as existing on the edge of slight-of-stature. These powerfully worked pieces come from the self-assured and slender hands of a person of strength driven by an intensity of character and vision.

Marlene initially trained at Bradley University in nearby Peoria, Illinois, and completed her MFA at Syracuse. She later took a sabbatical from her teaching position at Illinois Central College (ICC) to do intensive research in human anatomy and figure drawing at Illinois State in Bloomington. In 1997, well into her two-decade teaching career at ICC, she approached the president of the college with a proposal to execute a 28-foot bas-relief sculpted mural to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the college, populated with life-sized portraits and abetted by a small Jack Russell terrier. After nine months of planning and months of engineering to build the necessary scaffolding of sufficient strength to hold 1,600 pounds of clay impregnated with sawdust and nylon fibers, she was ready for the yearlong effort it took to complete.

While the academic community embraced the work with great enthusiasm, they did not anticipate the outcome: Marlene realizing that she needed to leave her teaching career and take on the challenge of supporting herself as a full-time artist. And so, in 2000, she handed in a letter of resignation, left the security of full-time employment, and set upon the path of working in the studio full-time.

Figuring she had a two-year make-or-break window, she actually devised a backup plan. While driving a vanload of work to the annual juried craft exhibition in Washington DC sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, she took careful note and copied down the ads on the backs of passing tractor trailers. “If this doesn’t work out,” she said to herself, “I can always become a long-haul trucker.”

It worked out.

Marlene now shows her work across the country and internationally. She has developed a following of collectors and continues to make work that evokes powerful emotional responses from her viewers.

Marlene is a voluble and highly expressive woman. Eager to share her enthusiasms and aspirations for her work, she bounces from narratives of professional challenges to stories of personal losses that strengthened her resolution and informed changes in her work. In a burst of excitement, she talked about working without preconditions, ensuring that spontaneity and discovery drive her creative output. She related how one of the menacing busts, which she refers to as “those bastards,” was not resolving to her satisfaction. “So I took a 2 x 4 to his forehead and nose.” The result is a brutish figure, dark and compelling, but insistent and unforgettable.

Like the clay she works in—a substance whose plastic malleability encourages both rapid additions and savage subtractions—Marlene is a powerful and dynamic figure who engages in immediate give and take. Push and pull. Like her art, insistent and unforgettable.

Photograph by Delores Fortuna

DELORES FORTUNA

Delores Fortuna grew up on a dairy farm near Chetek, Wisconsin, outside of Eau Claire. It’s somewhat of a cliché, but nevertheless true, to note it’s not uncommon to find people who experienced the hard scrabble existence of farming often thrive when given an opportunity in an unrelated field.

Delores went to the prestigious University of Chicago both for undergraduate and graduate school, studying with many pioneering artist/educators. She began her career in art after leaving behind her pursuit of mathematics. While working with the legendary German/British modernist sculptor and ceramicist Ruth Duckworth, she came to realize that “Life has to be the world you go into. This is what I am going to do—it has to be something you have a passion for.”

After facing life-threatening health challenges as a child, she felt that her survival—her life—became a sharable gift. What she concluded was that when many people, nonartists in particular, “see things they themselves cannot express they still inherently know, they intuit what is going on with her work when they encounter it.” This is her gift back. Her art exists as a kind of consanguineous occurrence in which artist and viewer share in the experience.

Delores’ health challenges impeded her ability to walk unaided until she was in college. When she was young, she found great release and freedom and near-instant grace when swimming, which had become part of her therapeutic ritual. Later, she discovered that working on the wheel—feeling the wet clay in her fingers and on her hands—reified that same experience of movement and flow experienced through manual control.

Delores works in a rough-hewn studio crowded with both new and older work. Tucked into a hilly forest outside of Galena, Illinois, she revels in the solitude that allows her to evolve the intimate and delightful functional objects that are her obsession. Delores spent decades as a teacher while working as an artist, finishing her academic career at the Chicago Art Institute helping students discover the creative nexus of self-expression and perfected craft. She helped them understand the urgency of developing an “I statement” so they could see themselves blossoming in the work, investing it with personal narrative.

Teaching created the opportunity for her to expand her experience of making art to foster more personal connections. She repeatedly enjoined her students to become more resilient, to accept challenges and defeats, and to find inspiration in doing the work rather than waiting for an external revelation. “If you wait for the thunderbolt, your coffee is going to get cold,” says Delores. She insists that it’s in doing the work that the inspirational triggers emerge.

Delores works exclusively in what she describes as porcelain body, a clay that does not include iron, which tints what’s known as stoneware. She dismisses any notion of a fine-art-versus-craft dichotomy applying to what she makes. “Fine art versus craft is an American conversation. In Europe and Asia, there is no division in the continuum of art.”

Her work is characterized by two complementary approaches. She begins every piece on the wheel, but then by scoring and hand-shaping the dimensions of the vessels, they become gently curved forms with distinct geometric changes of contour. Glazed with color blocks of intense turquoise, ochre, or sienna, she then threads them with delicate traceries of spidery marks that reinforce or enhance the anatomy of the piece. Delores says that when people look at pieces of pottery, they see silhouette and volume, but picking the piece up, they feel the marriage of these as a complete form. When working a piece on the wheel, a dialogue takes place between the inside hand, creating the volume, and the outside hand, creating the silhouette. It’s this dialogue that results in the final form.

The ultimate result of Delores’ adventure is one that exudes confidence, joy, and love of expression with the assured intention of bringing beauty to those who cannot make or articulate it within themselves. Despite all of the obstacles and challenges, her realization is simply “I wanted it more.” Her resiliency is homegrown, nurtured in the soil of Wisconsin farmland.

Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe in front of his wife’s, Nancy Herzog’s, hydrangeas.

Photograph by Larassa Kabel

Delores Fortuna
fortunapottery.com
higherfireclaystudio.com/fortuna
abelcontemporary.com/delores-fortuna

Marlene Miller
millerclay.com
abelcontemporary.com/marlene-miller

Hironobu “Nishi” Nishitateno
nantenpottery.com