Ceramics: Gary Erickson

By Sophie Keane

When ceramics professor Gary Erickson graduated high school, he had a conversation about his future that he recounts to this day. A memorable English teacher was probing Erick­son about careers. Erickson had not learned of any potential career paths that struck his interest, so his English teacher approached the blackboard with a piece of chalk and drew a small circle, explaining that within the circle lay all of the ca­reers about which Gary knew. The teacher drew a large circle around the smaller one – within the larger circle lay all of the careers about which Gary had yet to learn. The 18-year-old approached the chalkboard, walked about 15 feet away from the circles, and made a mark on the board, saying that that distant mark represented the career he wanted. Today, Gary Erickson works in his own art studio, creat­ing world-renowned pieces in his own distinctive style. He teaches ceramics classes at Macalester as a visiting professor, and has received numerous grants for his work. His pieces have appeared in innumerable solo and group exhibitions; many pieces are on display today as permanent installments of collections, such as at the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People in Santiago, the Jingdezhen Sanbao Ceram­ic Art Institute in Jingdezhen, China, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s easy to say that Erickson has “made it” as an artist. Just this summer, his work was displayed at Ecumene: Glob­al Interface in American Ceramics, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Erickson has been creating his unique pieces in porcelain and ceramics for more than 30 years, and has not slowed down for a moment. Erickson’s avant-garde grad school work at Alfred Uni­versity laid the foundation for the infinite directions that his art would go in the future, but many people didn’t understand it at the time—including his family. His non-utilitarian sculp­tures were not vessels, or anything else that a non-artist might consider “pottery.” But they had a quality unto their own that gave them a purpose, beyond a nice object to look at. “They have a rhythm, and a movement to them,” he explained, as we examined some of his early works in his studio. Erickson is an avid salsa dancer (he in fact teaches a beginning salsa class here at Macalester), and its influence is apparent—the dance and the ceramics converge in his sculp­ture. Erickson pulls from the energy of dance in his creation, but finds his primary inspiration in the natural world. His freed, organic pieces evoke the natural life around us more than anything else. Even his earlier, more narrative pieces, which pull heavily from Eastern imagery, seem to flow and move. The Eastern influence—particularly China—has driven much of Erickson’s work over the past eight years. Ever since visiting the town of Jingdezhen, whose history regarding the art of porcelain spans for more than a thousand years, Erick­son has felt a special connection to that part of the world, so much so that he returned nine times. At times, he admits, there’s an element of culture shock. He doesn’t try to assimilate himself, though; he instead fo­cuses on the changes that his art experiences, both at home and abroad, while still remaining his art. His undeniable fas­cination with the Chinese culture, particularly the history of Jingdezhen, appears in small ways, throughout his entire life. All one has to do is ask him a single question about porce­lain in China, and his breadth of knowledge that can trace to the very origin of the clay will astound. He prepares tea in a manner similar to that of a traditional Chinese tea ceremony: informal, attentive, generous. He said with a laugh, “I try to embrace the Chinese culture, and be as Chinese as I can be at 6’5”!” We observe more of his works, which in recent years include pressing organic material—leaves, grasses—into clay tile. Erickson glazes over the tile with his own specially for­mulated glaze, which gives the pieces a sharp depth. He has more commercial success with this kind of work, as opposed to his sculpture. His sculptural pieces reflect his real passion, but may take more time to grasp. “I like the kind of art that makes you work—you have to interact with it. It makes you physically and psychologically engaged, a part of the art process.” Erickson concedes that many don’t understand his work, or feel the life that he instills in his pieces. He is always more than willing to discuss with these people precisely what it is about his work that does not resonate. In an exhibit in Jingdezhen, for example, a painfully shy young art student approached him with a burning ques­tion about his work. “He approached me, and said, ‘I have a problem with your work.’ So I said, go on. And he said, ‘It’s not perfect!’” At this, Erickson’s warm face breaks into a grin, and he laughs with an energy that tickles his entire 6’5” frame. “I take that as a compliment!” he said. His work, quite simply, is life, and humanity, and na­ture. “Nature doesn’t really try to make things perfect,” he explained. “It’s more about a life process—and maybe that’s how it is for me, and my life process.” Over chamomile tea, Erickson and I reflected on his life process. Even as a as a curious, mature high school graduate, wanting a career outside of the circles his teacher inscribed, he could have never imagined the places his life would take him. We refered to that mark on the board, the career that it represented, and Erickson said with a smile, “I look back, and I think, well that’s art.” He’s doing something that no one else ever has, or ever will, do. “I think we all want to make a connection with our soci­ety and our world, and we want it to last longer than we ever will.” It seems clear to me that Gary Erickson—the artist, and the man—has done just that. refresh –>