Earth and Heaven

Ceramist John Pagliaro transforms mud into emotion

John Pagliaro makes pots.  Out of clay. With his fingers.  On some level it’s just that simple. But the pots themselves speak in complex and nuanced sentences: The longer you look at Pagliaro’s vessels and assemblages, the more you understand that their story isn’t about mud and fingers at all.
 
Pagliaro works his clay by pinching – the oldest pot-making technique of all, predating the others by thousands of years.  Old doesn’t necessarily mean primitive, however. The restrictions presented by pinching require Pagliaro to see each piece in the unformed lump of clay at the beginning of the process. Once the first few pinches have begun to shape the vessel, a course is set that cannot be much altered. A certain combination of intuition and skill needs to be in place.
 
His surfaces are usually stone-burnished, much in the way that Native Americans smooth and polished their pots.  Pagliaro’s forms, too, echo Native American vessels, but he cautions,   “I’ve been making more or less the same pot since I was nine years old – long before I had any exposure to indigenous work.” He attributes the similarities to the basic physical relationship of clay and fingers. His clay curves with the arc of his arms, wrists, hands, and fingertips. By extension, the vessels are a memoir of his movements, recorded in clay.
 
It’s only natural, then, that Pagliaro’s white stoneware vessels, sometimes smoky and dark, sometimes smart and pristine, occupy space with a kind of human longing. They yearn to be noticed, to have their burnished skins seen and valued for their individuality.  They want to be admired for the contours of foot, waist, shoulder and neck. But they also want you to look into the void. They want you to understand what’s inside.
 
The empty space of a pot is its physical and symbolic center.  What does a vessel contain? An old suggestion of utility lingers in the back of the mind, a satisfying reminder that ancient shapes were meant to carry water or store grain or keep the embers of yesterday’s fire alive for today. But now, in a context where the utility centers on the visual and physical experience of a piece of clay, the message of a good pot is incorporeal.  Philosophical.  The irregular, shimmering scribbles on the inner surfaces of many of Pagliaro’s pieces heighten the impression that a message is being conveyed. They are marks left by his fingernails during the touchy second phase of stone burnishing the surfaces.
 
In some cases, Pagliaro hides these interior marks with colored coatings. A new work, Love Lasts Longer Than Death, is a framed assemblage of clean white vessels whose insides glow with three different shades of red.  The message here, says Pagliaro, is about the enduring qualities of love and passion and attachment, whose strength can outlast life itself.  He sees the piece as an extension of an earlier work, Lazarus, whose grouping of intense dark surfaces and even darker interiors vibrates with residual energy, insisting that something alive inhabits even darkness and stillness.
 
When asked to explain the intersection of clay and these emotionally charged topics, Pagliaro declares without hesitation, “I am a mud person. Not a fire person.  Fire people engage more with the chemistry of glazes, with a certain kind of technical bravura, which is beautiful. But I am really rooted in the Expressionist possibilities of clay – in the primacy of feeling over thought. I’m looking for an emotional experience from the clay.”
 
He’s giving one, too.
 
Visit johnpstudio.com for more information. To purchase, visit Clark + DelVecchio Gallery at garthclark.com.  See handeyemagazine.com for more images of John Pagliaro’s work.
 
 

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