Some Perspective - Russel Spillmann

Some Perspective…


When I arrived at SUNY Cortland in 1966 as a bio/chemistry major, I was totally unaware of the Ceramic Arts. It was only by sheer circumstance, while walking about the newly constructed Fine Arts Building that I came across John Jessiman, professor of Ceramics in the Studio Arts Department, working, “throwing” pots. As with most people, to witness for the first time a ball of clay become a vase, to see this act of creation, bringing something from nothing - especially by the hands of a talented potter – seemed quite remarkable, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try. Even to this day, many of thousands of pots later, I still remember that introductory moment vividly.


I consider myself very fortunate to have met John Jessiman. John comes from the “Alfred tradition”; meaning that you take the pot seriously. All aspects of the piece have to be considered and considered together to form an integrated statement. And if all of the aspects (the relative proportions of the base and foot of the pot, with its height and depth, and its shoulder and lip, and, if lidded, the cover and its handle) succeed, and the glaze and decoration are integrated parts of the whole, then the pot can achieve a sense of presence. The pot becomes as significant as a painting or work of sculpture.


John also enabled me to realize that the potter can participate with the act of creation such as the abstract expressionist painter can. John’s approach to pottery-making was to respond to the creative process as it was happening. Of course, it takes a great deal of confidence in one’s throwing abilities to, so to say, “wing it”, but when it is successful, the pot created has not only a presence, but a certain vitality to it. The piece seems “fresh”, like it was “caught” in a moment of its coming into existence. It can never be duplicated. It represents creation at a unique moment in time.


After four years at SUNY Cortland, I was accepted into the Special Student program at the State University College of Ceramics at Alfred University. There, under the watchful eyes and steady advice of legendary professors and ceramic artists Daniel Rhodes, Val Cushing,Ted Randall and others, I was able to explore throwing all sorts of forms and shapes, expand my glazing palate and techniques, learn how to build and fire kilns, and, basically, absorb the Alfred ceramic tradition and prepare myself to become a studio potter.


I should mention that at this time in the United States, the late 1960’s and ‘70’s was a time of awakening and turmoil. Amidst my own personal journey changing from the rigid, predictable world of science and bio/chemistry to the fluid, dynamic, relativistic world of art, I, like so many others, had to cope with the tensions of the world around us, engulfing us. We had to say no to the Vietnam War and yes to civil rights and social justice. We were forced to take sides in a very tense time. Trying to achieve and sustain a newly emerging personal empowerment during this time was quite a balancing act. To overcome what was expected from us by previous generations to become what we, ourselves, wanted, took courage and belief in one another that we could. The legacy of this era of personal growth and empowerment lives on.


After leaving Alfred, I, with a few other like-minded individuals, bought some land in the hills near Cortland, New York and founded a pottery. Building living quarters, suitable studio space, a kiln, et cetera, while producing pots and traveling around the country from Florida to Michigan to Boston to sell them was, as I look back on it now, seemingly impossible. But we all pitched in, “roughed it” a bit, and made it work.


This “back to nature” movement led me to look into the writings of Thoreau and Emerson, and naturally, Walt Whitman. One cannot read and study Walt Whitman’s poetry without it having an effect on one’s soul. And deepening my soul increased my appetite for philosophy and comparative religious thought. I began to read Lao Tzu, Jalalud-din-Rumi, G.I. Gurdjieff, and many others of different traditions. Eventually, I decided to take some time off from the constant demands of pottery-making and give myself some time to reflect on what I was trying to accomplish and what my greater aims should be. I traveled a bit to South America, Columbia and Venezuela, but mostly to the U.S. West Coast – Arizona to Oregon, studying and observing, trying to understand my place, my duties and responsibilities as a person in society and as a creature on a planet.


After a couple years I returned to Central New York with a renewed sense of vigor of purpose and founded a pottery in Solon just outside Cortland. It was at this time that I made the transition from working with stoneware to working in porcelain. Porcelain has, because of its high silica content, properties of translucence when combined with celadon type glazes. It can have the effect of wanting to look through the glaze and into the pot. Metaphorically, it can, like a person, reveal deeper substance. Alas, my knowledge of chemistry allowed me to understand the necessary changes in glaze formulas to enhance the elegance and purity qualities of the porcelain.


However, this situation in Solon lasted just a few years before I moved the operation to Cortland. Undaunted in the face of many obstacles, both inner and outer, I continued to consider the pot and its creation as a serious endeavor. Fortunately, and thankfully, patrons of the arts continued to support me in the buying of my pieces.


In 1994, Amy and I moved just north of Cortland into an old Victorian home in the village of Homer. There is a large showroom and warehouse on the property that I use as a studio and work area. I still find the process of working for the successful piece intriguing. It is, of course, time consuming, concentratedly labor intensive, but when that really special piece comes out of the kiln, it seems to redeem all the many years of effort and reflection.


Thank you for your interest, and your support.


To make an appointment to visit the studio and for easy directions, please call 607-749-6657 or email russel@twcny.rr.com


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