Interview with Alice Corning, Ceramicist and Sculptor

A Ceramicist Who Breaks the Glazed Sealing

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Born in Cincinnati, Alice Corning earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Harvard University. In 1965, after living abroad for a year, she studied ceramics at the Spring Street Pottery Studio in New York, until moving to Mill Valley in 1974. Her quest to bring technique and geology into harmony, met with success this year. Culture Vulture’s Toba Singer and Corning are members of Les Copains, a San Rafael French conversation group.

Toba Singer: How did you get started as a pot thrower?

Alice Corning: I was living in Manhattan in the late sixties, with young children, and not a lot of time. I’d planned to be a poet, having studied Creative Writing with an emphasis on English Literature. Then I began to find words so challenging that I’d wake up thinking about them: Was there a better word? After a long period of frustration, I was ready for something different. While taking my children to a playground at an Episcopal Seminary in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, a seminarian’s wife showed me ceramic bowls she had made. Thinking that I’d enjoy making bowls like that, I found Spring Street Studio. Beverly Aldrich taught just a few students there. I joined them on Wednesday evenings while my husband took care of our three children. Soho was beginning to become an art center. I studied there from 1968 until we moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area in 1974.

TS: Describe your process as it developed over time.

AC: For a birthday present, my mother gave me a Potter’s Wheel, which meant I could make a few pieces at home. Now my work with clay was something I could enter and put down, with no words running through my head. One of my children was taking Suzuki lessons at home with Danae Apostolidou, who bought some of my bowls. It was very exciting that something I made could bring pleasure to a person as part of her home. I saw how important functional pieces are to the environmental ambience of enjoying a coffee or tea interlude. I had a Ukrainian-born friend, an artist, poet, and sculptor who loved ceramics. He called himself Ben-Zion. He became a mentor to me, very supportive. I gifted him with what I considered my best bowl. Handing it to me, he said, “Take it back. You will make better ones!” Others might have felt stung, but I took his words as a gesture of encouragement. I have served on the board of The Leakey Foundation. [The Leakey Foundation was founded “to increase scientific knowledge, education and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival” according to its mission statement.] The Board will reject a proposal because it is poorly written, or the applicant hasn’t done enough research to see that it is redundant. They can resubmit based on the Board’s critique, much in line with Ben-Zion’s comment to me about my gift to him.

TS: What obstacles did you strive to overcome?

AC: I was on my own when I moved here with three children. I had no time to work. Rather than go to a school, I took workshops. The first was a retreat in Davenport California at Big Creek, run by Bruce and Marsha MacDougal. A well-known potter would come to teach and a chef, to prepare meals. My first was with Karen Karnes, a very maternal and encouraging person. I met other potters there and we formed Six Potters. For ten years, we fired, worked, and met to exchange ideas and exhibit. It was a helpful way to start in a new environment with clay. We had a wheel but no kiln. Rick Demarest from University of California-Berkeley built a kiln for me so I could fire my pieces. He said, “Of the 50-100 pieces that you fire, know how many you really like.” I asked him how many he usually liked. “Usually? One.” He gave me a scale of expectation. Next, I worked with Peter Voulkos—a wild guy, always with a cigarette or cigar in his mouth. His assistant would keep him supplied with 25 lb. bags of clay. Known as, “The man who punched his pots” (because he punched, slashed and overfired them), he once threw 200-pound teacup.

When I began to work on my own, I wrote to Beverly Aldrich, asking for glaze recipes. She said no, you must find your own. So, I did. There’s secrecy in ceramics circles. I’ve never held back sharing glaze recipes because what happens is different from kiln to kiln, depending on size, atmosphere, and how you control oxidation reduction.

TS: How does firing clay differ from baking a cake?

AC: If you have a cake recipe, it will say, “350 degrees for an hour.” In an outdoor kiln, a stiff breeze or rainy weather affect how fast the kiln heats. I have a graph of every gas firing I’ve done, and know how to jazz up the gas, but there are still subtle variations, not as controllable as a household oven. You can’t use gas indoors. I go to a high fire of about 2600 degrees. There are fumes, even though I try to fire as clean a kiln as possible. I never use lead or cadmium, and work as safely as possible, but there is always some emission.

TS: From our early days at Copains, you demonstrated fastidious habits, toting a large dictionary, a notebook, and your handwriting is impeccable. What in your upbringing explains this?

AC: My father was fastidious. He filled out tax returns to the penny. We lived half a year in Cincinnati, the other half in Miami Beach. They’d take me out of one school and put me in another. Florida schools were strict. We worked long hours to attain pristine penmanship. Once I had to write “I am a pest” one hundred times. I look back on that with horror, but I did internalize habits that are useful now.

TS: Did changes in your life here in the Bay Area have an impact on how you work?

AC: I didn’t have a lot of time to work at home, so I’d tell the children that I was going to the studio. They wanted attention but accepted my absences because they were proud of my accomplishments. I was the one who felt torn. They were happy that I was doing something that I liked to do. I began thinking that I wanted to get into the gallery world to gain more visibility. I had shows, got into a few galleries, but not some that I wanted. There was a Madison Avenue gallery that I approached, and a friend made an introduction. I didn’t get in. Never getting the high visibility that I thought I wanted, I decided I’d work on a smaller scale. Some artists decide to build large objects, and their work drives their process. I always accepted the limitations that parsed my work, and sometimes felt I’d wimped out, not forging ahead in an important way.

TS: What standard drove your self assessment?

AC: Getting into that gallery would have met the standard. I’ve since come to revere the gratitude that people express at finding my work, even a small piece that has become important in their lives. A neighbor about 30 years ago, moved to Portland. She called to say she’d be here and had recently broken a cup she’d bought from me. Tears flowed because every morning for 30 years, she’d had her coffee in that cup. We found its match in the studio. I have a piece in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and one in the Forrest L. Merrill Collection. He’d come to a Museum of Craft Show at Fort Mason in San Francisco where I had two pieces: my Triangular Vessel, a signature theme, and side by side with it, the same piece cast in bronze. He bought both. I had pieces in The Mission Gallery in Taos. The Mission had mostly old Southwest-themed paintings and sculptures. I was one of two or three of their ceramicists. Rena Rosequist had run it for 35 years when she acquired my pieces. My work remained there for another 15 years, until Rena died. I sold many pieces to the Amerind Foundation in Nogales, on the Mexico border. It was founded by East Coast financiers who came upon Taos and Santa Fe in the 1800s. Taos has a hidden community tucked away in nooks and crannies that takes a while to know.

TS: In your recent experiments, you broke some rules. What skepticism did you encounter?

AC: I always wanted to get geology into my work. Clay is mined throughout the earth in strata and river bottoms; yet when potters go for fancier glazes such as Celadons and Orribes, they cover up the geology of a piece. To show it for what it is, I have worked with unglazed clay. I had the idea to combine white porcelain and black stoneware, to wedge it together enough to show the striations, while preserving each element’s integrity. 

The first question was, “Will the piece hold together or break apart?” The elements have different shrinkage quotients and should be fired at different temperatures. A supply store attendant said an unglazed piece might be grainy. My dear friend, ceramicist Ree Kaneko, said it might crack during firing.

TS: Did you heed to their words and give up?

AC: No. I decided to do it, and it worked right away, no adjustments needed. I glazed the interior to be useful but left the exterior unglazed so the geology would show. Toba, your observation that there’s motion in it is a great compliment because I wanted tremendous motion, like water running through a stream. Ree and Jun Kaneko are good friends. Jun is a prolific sculptor and painter who works in glass. He’s famous internationally. He saw a little two legs piece that I made, and asked, “Why don’t you make it 6 feet tall? Have it recast at Berkeley.” We expanded the dimensions using a computer and it looked horrible. The rescaling made the whole thing different. So, the Berkeley people brought me soft clay, recast it 3 feet tall, and we put it on a 3-foot table, which worked perfectly. The form just didn’t translate. What was charming at 3 inches, wasn’t at 3 feet. I made it work; and it was a lesson in scale.

Jun was asked by San Francisco Opera to do sets and costumes for both “Madam Butterfly” and “The Magic Flute,” and for “Fidelio,” in Philadelphia. He and Ree met Juan Sánchez, a physician living in Cuernavaca, who with his brother, opened a huge commercial Raku studio with six kilns going. After inviting Ree and Jun there, he invited me. They do slip cast work, where you work with liquid clay, a totally different composition from mine. You pour clay into plaster molds, strapping the molds together. The plaster absorbs the clay’s moisture. You let it dry until you can unmold it. I preferred working on a wheel, but hadn’t brought my tools, just hands and clay. They had a rib, a cutting wire, trimming tool, and wooden knife. Working under relatively primitive conditions, everyone doing something different, not having the clay I use, having to work quickly on pieces that dry faster due to the heat, was a good challenge. I spent a week there and didn’t get to fire bisqued pieces I had brought. [Bisquing is the first firing. It drives out chemically combined water to make clay hard enough to hold a glaze at a lower temperature.] The pieces were fired twice, a glaze and then a high temperature firing. Besides the camaraderie, I had an assistant who glazed and fired my pieces—delicious!
TS: What developments continue to inspire you?

AC: Some people are not quite sure when they see a new technique, but they come back and buy. Jun and Ree have built a museum in Omaha called The Kaneko. It is dedicated to creativity in the Arts and Sciences, and they have had fabulous shows there. I’m a member of the board. From bowls, I’ve moved to torsos, and legs, and triangular vessels that offer the opportunity to work with shadow and light. Mark Fishkin is President of the Mill Valley Film Festival. He saw my work and then spoke with me about the festival awards, made from paper. Seeing my pieces inspired him to commission a ceramic figure in lieu of paper awards, and so it was my greatest honor to redesign the award as a torso, which the Mill Valley Film Festival now bronzes each year to honor its winners. I have had an opportunity to hold an Oscar and can assure you that the bronzed Mill Valley Film Festival Award adapts more naturally to the winning hand.

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