Category Archives: OMOC library

Jon Gariepy: Stormy Weather

a review by Susannah Israel

Jon Gariepy’s ocean paintings and ceramic boat sculptures share a massive

presence. The big boats are built in sections, enticing the viewer to peep inside

for a glance at the structure of the interior. These ships have been places. Their

surfaces are dry washes of restrained color, with dark values and the visual feel

of faded paint. Gariepy’s use of paint is intuitive and innovative. He says: “From

the beginning I have been determined to work as loosely and freely as possible. I

feel this gives my work a feeling of movement and spontaneity.”


In the summer of 2004 Jon Gariepy underwent surgery three times for life threatening

conditions, fortunately making a full recovery. He says, “These

back-to-back events sharpened my perception of my mortality and motivated me

to get serious.”


A review of Gariepy’s life suggests that he was not waiting to get serious about

his art. He was already painting from early childhood. “Painting and drawing was

always something I could do, how I was identified.” Encouraged by his high

school art teacher, Gariepy won an award and a scholarship to California State

University, Long Beach in 1958. Gariepy enrolled in the commercial art program,

but was uninspired by the practical approach of applied arts. The artist says, ” I

absolutely loved the art department environment. My first introduction to art

exhibitions, art films and the Long Beach Museum of Art.” Gariepy then attended

Saddleback Community College, where he was awarded Painter of the Year,

completing an Associate of Arts degree in 1971.


At Sonoma State University, Gariepy studied with Walt Kuhlman and Gerald Bol.

He says “Gerald Bol was my watercolor instructor and most influential for me.

Gerald’s attitude was that it was important for him not to teach too much and

allow my unique originality to surface. My watercolors were loose and very

watery and I let the “mistakes” show.” In 1981 Gariepy completed his BA in

Watercolor Painting. Making art took a back seat in the artist’s life for over

twenty years, competing with work and family responsibilities. Gariepy says “I

have painted off and on for 65 years. Now I feel I know what direction I want to

go in the future.”


Six years ago Gariepy discovered clay at the I Street studio of Jane McDonald.

He worked there for several years, attracted to handbuilding for the textures and

sculptural form possible. Gariepy then studied with Bill Abright at College of

Marin, working on raku-fired masks, with their expressive possibilities.

He also learned moldmaking from Abright, creating a 15-Volkswagen “stack”



Then Gariepy was motivated to make the 85 km trip to Oakland to study

ceramic sculpture with Susannah Israel for two years, to developing a body of work

and beginning to approach the clay surface in a more painterly manner.


About choosing the boat form, Gariepy says, “I get personal value by putting my

thoughts out there, but they certainly aren’t new or earth shaking. When I saw

Anselm Kiefer’s amazing boats, at first viewing I felt I never needed to create

another ship or boat … his work says so much. But as I reflected I realized there

are so many interpretations of any subject and my interpretation is as valid as

anyone’s. I still have more to say about the boat.”


For this artist, such interpretation is very personal. Gariepy spent his early

childhood fishing with his grandmother on Rainbow Pier in Long Beach. He loved

reading children’s stories by Merchant Marine author Howard Pease, about the

adventures of a tramp steamer traveling the world. He joined the Sea Scouts,

and as a teenager, would often ride his bicycle to the harbor and spend the whole

day there. This early point of view – the boy fishing from a pier – locates the

viewer as a witness and gives the looming size of the big ships a personal scale.


Gariepy references his environmental concerns with humor and inventiveness

with his ceramic works, such as the two large container ships, Tokio (sic)

Express and Bangladesh Express. The colorful containers are toppling from their

stacks, perilously close to spilling into the ocean. These pieces are based on real

events, says Gariepy. Annually, thousands of ships break down and are

abandoned on the beach, to be crudely dismantled at considerable cost to the



Gariepy’s painted surfaces create a sense of process and the look of having

survived or weathered the prevailing conditions. The word weather has several

relevant meanings: atmospheric conditions; adverse weather such as a storm; to

come safely through a crisis or difficult time. In What Seems to be the Problem?

Gariepy refers to the predicament of the unseen sailors; the boat is listing and we

are made sharply aware of danger lurking in an apparently serene environment.

Such illusions of safety remind us that sometimes we can only overcome

adversity by sailing through the storm.


Gariepy’s style of painting on ceramic sculpture evolved from his interest in color

field painting. He applies washes of ceramic underglazes to bisque-fired clay,

letting the drips show and leaving areas of clay visible. Lines are enhanced with

contrasting color to bring out details. Pieces are fired several times and acrylic

paint is sometimes applied to the surface. The matt finish of underglaze blends

beautifully with acrylic paint, as in the subtle palette of the green and white boat

Old Haunt.


Texture and scale are both created and implied with fine detail. Gariepy does not

want these forms to look like ship models: “… it can contain small points of

verification, like the appearance of metal, faded paint, but it’s more human

than a model.” Close inspection rewards the viewer; peering inside the

submarine we see torpedoes, and the container ships have decks, crew quarters

and cargo.


Whether the piece at hand is clay or canvas, all source images get set aside

when the actual working process starts. Gariepy says, “I work with the simplest

tools and methods and try to excel within the limits of my years of training and

skill. I study, I read, I meditate, I listen, and I look. I try to work from a place of

not knowing.”


Gariepy’s paintings locate us within the wave; his boat forms

reference the journey by showing us the vessel. The artist has received

significant recognition and support for his recent work, which combines a single

vision in two media. Gariepy says, “I feel it is important now to have paintings to

go with my sculptures.” In December 2011 Gariepy exhibited both ceramics and

paintings in a solo show called The Tide Is In.


Jon Gariepy reminds us that we all set out across uncharted waters in our lives,

and indeed weather many storms. Sea voyages have long captured the human

imagination with the elements of risk, adventure and the unknown. The artist’s

huge sense of scale conveys that we are powerless to resist the magnitude of

such forces at work. If, in the end, we are just going for the ride, we can still bring

our human perspective to the experience. With characteristic willingness and

courage, Jon Gariepy faces the elemental questions in both his life and his art.

Susannah Israel is an artist, writer and educator living in east Oakland, California.  She is currently Resident Artist Director at the Oakland Museum of Ceramics. 



Atmospheric Firings: the tradition of acceptance

 by Susannah Israel


Diane Levinson. Weapons of Mass Construction

Nine wood-firing artists presented strong, diverse work at the Triton Museum, masterfully constructed, elegantly conceived and collaboratively fired.  The opening reception was well-attended, with viewers filling the large gallery for the duration of the event. All around the room, groups of people gathered by the artwork to engage in discussion and enthusiastic observation.  The artists were in attendance to answer questions and meet the public, adding to the sense of celebration.

I had the opportunity to talk with Hiroshi Ogawa, my notebook in hand, expecting he would have information to offer about his work.  Instead he wanted to give me details about the work of the other artists.  His knowledge and enthusiasm were the perfect advocacy for better understanding the diversity of these works.  Ogawa modestly made no mention of his own work or his role in the community, but I later learned that seven of the artists fire in his kiln in Oregon. All speak of his generosity and knowledge as part of their experience and the spirit of the work.

The collaborative nature of wood-firing is intensive.  Providing the best possible results for everyone’s pieces translates to physically working twelve-hour shifts, through day and night, throwing wood into a small port in a flaming brick kiln wall. This is serious commitment.  Diane Levinson, who proposed the exhibition, talked with me about the process of curating and installing the work, informed by the same careful respect and attention that characterizes the wood-firing process. Just as the pieces are placed in the kiln to maximize the possibilities of the firing, the work was placed in the museum with an eye to creating the most beautiful and successful totality.  For example, an important sense of the work’s identity was lost when the pieces were commingled in the gallery space, leading to the collective decision to create an area for each artist instead.  The installation took all day, under the direction of Levinson and Terry Inokuma.

The unabashed pursuit of beauty is an aesthetic that requires an attention inherent in traditional clay practice, especially in Japan.  Japan’s cultural traditions include an elegant, meditative approach to viewing the form and surface of wood-fired work, reminiscent of the subtle distinctions within the Inuit vocabulary for snow.  Awareness of such distinctions, of natural patterns and the behaviors of the elements, makes up an important part of wood-firing.

Hiroshi Ogawa refers to “the path of flames” that gives each piece its individual beauty. Deposits of ash and the direct contact with the fire create atmospheric effects on clay and glaze.  The work is arduous and the firings last for three to nine days.  So why choose atmospheric firing? Even the term eludes immediate comprehension. Certainly no flame can burn in a vacuum, since when deprived of oxygen, fire is soon snuffed out.  Aren’t all firings atmospheric?

In the 21st century, atmospheric firing is a specialization and a choice.  Early in ceramic history, wood-burning kilns were developed to make durable, waterproof work. Oil, coal, and gas kilns subsequently evolved.  With the advent of the electrically powered kiln, it became possible to fire ceramics with no atmospheric effects. Electric firings were touted as clean-burning, reliable and predictable.  Aspects appealing to industry and production became available for art purposes as well.  Convenient and controlled, good for schools, electric kilns were followed by computerized kiln controllers, making the monitoring of kilns a matter of choice, preference and equipment budget.  But the magical mystery tour of atmospheric firing needs live fuel as a vehicle, otherwise air-fuel mixtures cannot be adjusted, and there can be no movement of the flames.  Within the atmospheric firing, thermochemical changes occur at a tremendous rate, even at submolecular levels.  This, according to Ogawa, is the essence: “ a project of the soul, rather than a project of the intellect.”

The ceramic pieces in this show can be grouped into distinct categories. Samuel Hoffman, Jennifer Klein, Hiroshi Ogawa, Masuo Ojima and Tim Steele presented work based on traditional and utilitarian vessel forms.  Samuel Hoffman draws marks into the wet clay surface to attract and enhance the deposition of wood ash.  Hoffman’s plates are a canvas for abstract, geometric compositions.  He uses wadding, normally a discarded material, as an integral part of the designs.  Wadding is a mixture of refractory ceramic material that withstands high temperatures without sticking to the piece or the shelf.  It forms a characteristic small white spot on the base or side of the works.  Hoffman has expanded the use of wadding into a resist technique, enhancing his formal compositions and bringing a crisply outlined circle into play on his plates.

Terry Inokuma’s trays are a departure from the traditional utilitarian esthetic, with a sociopolitical commentary as well. Inokuma first fires her trays in the wood kiln, then applies stains and clear glaze, refiring at low temperatures for bright color and crisply detailed drawings. The trays depict known scenes from Japanese Hanafuda playing cards, but with the insertion of nuclear towers and biohazard signs slyly juxtaposed to match the cheerful look of the cards.

Jennifer Klein makes cleanly thrown functional pots.  Her “Teapot,” especially, has a feeling of lively volume, its ceramic skin textured with patterns that beautifully emphasize the variations of the glaze.  The sturdy, quiet strength of Hiroshi Ogawa’s pieces have an unpretentious simplicity.  Ogawa places many of his pots horizontally in the kiln, to promote the dripping of glaze and wood ash around the circumference.  Masuo Ojima is an accomplished potter, who is also drawn to explore the reconfigurations of geometric composition, with variations like the saw tooth edges of a strangely familiar machine.  Tim Steele makes functional hand-built pots without the use of the potter’s wheel. His pieces are subtly faceted bottles, some with angular shoulders and squared necks, and long-necked organic forms like flowers.

Sculptors Andy Ruble, Diane Levinson and Marc Lancet employ formal, structural elements in their work.  Ruble explored the Anasazi ruins as a child on family trips.  Returning to the site many times on his own, he examined and pondered the visual effects of open structure.  He is inspired by function that shows “how the process was planned, how the people thought about making things, how they designed it to work.” Ruble’s pieces feel familiar, though we’ve never seen them before; they create a vocabulary of cantilevered, precisely related modules, centered on an open axis of space.

Diane Levinson’s Weapons of Mass Construction are a wry commentary on the American war economy.  An Albert Einstein quote, chosen by the artist for the catalog, warns us that ultimately war will bring humanity back to the Stone Age, and Levinson’s giant abstractions of the mortar-and-pestle form seem designed for heavy service.  Levinson’s formal compositions of cube, circle and rings are enhanced by the addition of rusted metal elements like chains.

Mark Lancet’s figurative work reveals areas of structure inside, as if sections have broken away.  The structure thus revealed is geometric and architectonic, not the human anatomy we might expect.  This evidence of built construction gives us access to the work, referring to the process of making it.  The wood-fired pieces, with blurred, obscured features, have a sense of ritual; they could be recently unearthed public monuments of a time past or a place far away.

The exhibition is accompanied by a lovely catalog, underwritten by Ko Nishimura.  Notably, each of the artists makes reference, in their own ways, to the essential spirit of surrender.  “Risk and chance are allies in the creative process” for Samuel Hoffman. “Adjusting to uncontrollable elements” gives Terry Inokuma “the choice to reach a little further.”  Jennifer Klein’s “eyes were opened to a new esthetic allowing (her) work to grow in unforeseen ways.”  Marc Lancet declares the arduous process the right approach to  “a beauty worth working for.”  Diane Levinson speaks to her eight years dedicated to learning to “paint with fire.”  Ogawa reaches for “shibui, the power of quiet illumination.”  Masuo Ojima’s secret is to “let the power of Ego disappear.”  Ruble’s pieces are an expression of marvel and wonder at the world around him. Tim Steele shapes his forms in anticipation of the kiln environment while consciously relinquishing the predictable.

In his introduction to the catalog, Preston Metcalf, Chief Curator of the Triton Museum, writes: …”no one knows exactly what will happen in the river of fire”  inside the kiln. This poetic phrase is also accurate.  Ceramic science in the 21st century has given us new clay bodies, formulated for precise temperatures, specific textures and behaviors, color and strength.  None of these factors alone are a match for the mighty furor of the wood kiln at the peak of the firing cycle.  It is important to note that the discipline in the practice of wood-firing is modestly assumed.  Many ceramicists have had their pieces slump and crack, and their glaze results run, crawl, dunt or change color under far less rigorous conditions.  The expertise of these nine artists is an unspoken yet critical factor in the success and strength of the exhibition.  To be surrendered to the wood kiln process, the pieces must be constructed so well that they can withstand days of transformation at over 2400 degrees.   Atmospheric Firings presents us with the annotation of that transformation: beauty in the unexpected, evidence of this dance with fire.

Welcome to the Oakland Museum of Ceramics Press

The Oakland Museum of Ceramics currently houses a library of writing, music and film created by current and previous residents. Our resident director Susannah Israel wrote the following essays, about Aaron Tennessee Benson, Nicholas Bivins, Jana Evans, Mathew McConnell and Courtney Murphy, while critic-in-residence at Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts, 2011.  Interviews with the five artists at the Bray were condensed into five essays for the residents’ culminating exhibition catalog.

The Bray has made these essays available online in the form of a printable pdf: