Steve Procter: Big Ideas

Steve Procter: Big Ideas

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mandorla-vessel-in-gardenStephen Procter creates enormous vessels from clay. He loves the majestic presence they emanate, the sensuous language of their curves, the way they beckon the viewer to approach and touch. He builds his large pieces in many stages, joining damp sections in a modified version of the coil-and-throw method found in many ancient cultures. Although he works on a potter’s wheel, his approach is essentially sculptural. Each massive pot is a powerful and mesmerizing focal point, whether placed in a garden, a living space, a grouping or as part of a collection of large-scale sculpture.

How did you come to work with clay? Or how did clay discover you?
I stumbled into clay about 15 years ago – in my mid-forties. I went to pick up my young daughter from her kids’ clay class and she was working on a kick wheel. I was mesmerized – both by the process and by the meditative space that surrounds focused throwing. I was intrigued enough to get myself to an introductory class, then rented space at a community studio for several years. I consider the beginning of my professional relationship with pottery as nine years ago, when I established my own studio space and built my 140-cu ft gas-fired kiln.

Procter in his StudioWhat did you do before you took up pottery? Were you involved in the arts in any other ways?
My first artistic discipline was classical guitar. After earning a master’s degree in music I taught and performed professionally for twenty years. To supplement my music income I worked part-time as a fundraiser and consultant to arts and culture organizations. My first years working with clay, much of what I did was analogized from music. Principles such as repetition, contrast, harmony, dissonance, articulation and rhythm apply to visual art as well as to music. You might say I was translating the curves that music makes in space into forms of clay. For me, both of those forms of expression come from the same source.

jar-with-dark-slip-at-doorAre there other artists or schools of design with which you identify?

From the outset of my work with clay, I was intrigued by large forms – specifically how alive and animate they feel. Making pots was my way of exploring that mystery. A trip to North Carolina a decade ago was a turning point for me. I was inspired by the large pots I saw, but even more by the warm welcome extended to me, a stranger, by the potters I visited: Mark Hewitt, Daniel Johnston, David Stumpfle, and Ben Owen III. I came away thinking, “I like these people and the way they operate. This is a tribe I want to be part of!” That trip cemented my resolve to pursue pottery professionally.

I like art and design that is about the object itself and the viewer’s relation to it, as opposed to art that is meant to glorify technique, make a political statement or illustrate a theory. I identify with other artists in all media who revel in the intrinsic beauty of their material and try to get themselves out of the way of it. As the the Baroque-era flutist Rameau wrote in a treatise on music, “I would rather be moved than astonished.”

vase-on-hillsideThe monumental scale of your sculptural forms must present some unique challenges. Can you tell us about some of your techniques and whether you’ve seen your work change over time?
I build large pieces with many thrown sections, joining layers of rings to gradually gain height. Although I work on a potter’s wheel, my attitude is essentially sculptural: Beginning with a rough idea of scale and mood, the details of form and decoration arise through an improvisational dance that unfolds over a period of days as the piece finds its way to completion.

I like to think that the lines and volumes or my work are becoming freer, more expansive and more assured. I go through periods when I feel restless with unglazed surfaces and I experiment with glazing, but I keep returning to the simplicity and beauty of the bare clay. Another change over time is the gradually growing scale. I do not think of my pieces as being ABOUT size, but scale is certainly one of their defining attributes.

I just finished throwing a commissioned piece that is 66″ tall and 48″ wide. That’s the current limit of my imagination, my kiln, and my nerve.

looking-in_croppedDo you have any specific goals for your art or career? Or any special projects that you’ve always wanted to do?
I am thrilled and grateful to be able to support myself making pots full-time. I feel like I am where I belong, at long last. On a personal level that is sufficient.

The icing on the cake would be to have my work in more public places. There is something archetypal in forms that speak to people of all backgrounds. I have pair of large vessels in front of a bank in my hometown. It’s satisfying to have museum trustees say how lovely they are. Its way beyond satisfying to have a random teenage skateboarder stop me on the street and say, “Hey, man, great job on those pots in front of the bank!” Not everyone can afford one, but everyone can enjoy them.

I love how the pots interact with and even redefine the landscapes and gardens they live in. I imagine an installation of a dozen or so pieces conversing over hundreds of yards. I am keeping my eyes open for the right site!

Is your work in any collections (public or private) or museums? What awards, articles or other professional recognition have you received?
I was fortunate to get some good press this year: A profile in Designer, the journal of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and couple of images in Ceramics Monthly from my season-long show in the gardens and arboretum of Blithewold in Bristol, RI. I was also honored that filmmaker Robert Fritz included a 20-minute video profile of my studio process as part of his February film festival (Spirit of the Vessel — https://vimeo.com/117683615).

Stephen Procter’s sculptural pots will astonish you. He is one of a number of remarkable artists who have made their Paradise City debuts this year. He has exhibited at both the spring and fall Northampton shows, but this will be his very first time participating in the upcoming show in Marlborough, November 18, 19 & 20. Please give him a warm welcome.