by Sasha AltafMay 05, 2023
As a young aspiring ceramist, I had little knowledge of studio pottery. I was just infatuated with clay and fascinated with the magic of a lump of it being formed into a hollow vessel on a rotating wheel. Much later, well…there was no easy access to the www then, I was introduced to some tableware made at the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry. I was so enchanted by the forms, and more so by its glazing, that I ended up making an application to join its annual courses. And the response I got was to wait in a queue for a few years! Just that by itself speaks volumes of the popularity of Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith, the founders of the pottery. They moved to India in 1971 and have had a significant influence on an entire generation of contemporary ceramists of India.
I speak with Ray Meeker about his early days with the craft, the fired-house project, and the fascinating journey so far.
Rahul Kumar (RK): What triggered the move from architecture to clay for you? Did you ever practice as an architect after completing your education in the field?
Ray Meeker (RM): Fired houses are architecture. Even there, an aesthetic was achieved that met with broad appeal. I did do a couple of conventional buildings. The Golden Bridge Pottery, of course, and the Promenade Hotel in Pondicherry. And a house in Auroville.
RK: And making India your home... how did that happen?
RM: In 1969, I met Deborah Smith in the ceramics department of the University of Southern California. In Los Angeles, Deborah encountered The Adventure of Consciousness written by a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.
My mother always thought I would make a good architect. But I began my university career at Pepperdine College on a basketball scholarship in 1962. In 1965 I transferred to the University of Southern California School of Architecture and Fine Arts. In May, 1970, Deborah dropped me off at the Los Angeles International Airport. I had a one-way ticket to Europe. That fall, while Deborah was in Japan with Professor Susan Peterson, who was doing research for her book on one of Japan’s most notable potters - Hamada Shoji - I was in the Pyrenees, where I met Brother Cyprian, a 26-year-old Russian Orthodox monk, who was restoring an eighth century chapel on the lower slopes of Mt. Conigou. We worked together for two weeks, then I headed east overland to India through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a trip that is virtually impossible to make today. I arrived in Pondicherry in March 1971.
At USC I took as many ceramic courses as I could fit into my schedule. I dropped out of architecture school at the end of the fourth-year, landing in the ceramics department directly below the fifth year architecture design studio. To be honest, I liked the glass box skyscrapers of downtown LA, gigantic mirrors trading reflections of each other and the slices of moving cloud on an intense blue ground. That was on a clear day in the smog-choked City of the Angels, not a very common occurrence in 1969. With one semester of upper division ceramics courses, completing my BFA, I was on the road.
With a degree in Japanese language from Stanford, Deborah apprenticed in Japan with ceramic sculptor, Araki Takako, in Nishinomiya and with master potter, Yamamoto Toshu, in Bizen. She went to Japan to immerse herself in a craft—to submit to a practice with a master. Clay was not a passion; she was looking for discipline, not a career. Anyone working in clay in India in the early seventies, in the vacuum between the industrial ceramic complex and the traditional rural potter, was a pioneer. Ceramic as art? Well, that was an uphill battle everywhere, apart from the Far East.
Deborah arrived at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in December, 1970. Soon she was sitting before The Mother, who at age 92 sanctioned a glazed pottery unit as part of the ashram activities. Deb’s response, “If my friend comes and builds me a kiln, I will try to do it.” We had no idea what we were beginning would play a major role in filling the vacuum.
RK: What was it like to set up the Golden Bridge Pottery five decades back in Pondicherry? The idea of studio ceramics was almost non-existent in the country then. And how receptive was the audience of the time to your pottery, that had a fresh aesthetic, quite different from the traditional idea of beauty?
RM: The Golden Bridge Pottery began as a 10’ x 20’ coconut leaf shed on an isolated wasteland, covered in thorn bushes that bordered the railway line to Villupuram. The Mother blessed the project - “it’s a lucky spot.”
The enduring success of the Golden Bridge Pottery is remarkable enough, but understanding its influence means disentangling the intertwined cultural threads: an unlikely confluence of American pioneering spirit, Indian spirituality, and Japanese ceramic traditions. – Janet Abrams, Cultural Crossings. Crafts (UK) 279, July-August 2019
Deborah intended to work as an individual studio potter producing a very limited line of glazed stoneware. I was going to build her a kiln and move on. We ordered the firebricks: they would be ready in six months! I got a residential permit and built a larger, sheltered space for the pottery. Armed with Daniel Rhodes’ book, Kilns: Design, Construction and Operation, I built my first kiln, 30 cubic ft., cross-draft catenary, fired with kerosene, and water dripped onto hot iron plates.
In 1971, on the Coromandel Coast of South India, neither Bizenware nor ‘cutting-edge’ ceramic sculpture seemed appropriate. Functional stoneware it was. Kick wheels, clay slaked and sieved into terracotta drying tanks, and natural-draft kilns that require no power were adequate even as production expanded. Raw materials were sourced from India’s well-developed heavy clay industry.
Now kilns are wood fired—with casuarina, grown locally as a fuel crop, in a 70 cubic ft. car kiln with a Bourry firebox modified to preheat primary combustion air. For over 40 years, Deborah managed 16 workers producing a line of more than 200 functional stoneware forms on orders that were more than she could fill. Pots, licked by flame and blushed with ash from the firewood, glazed in tenmoku, kaki, chun and egg-shell matts, arguably considered the finest handmade functional stoneware in India. A new craft tradition emerged: ‘Pondicherry pottery’. Buyers from India and abroad now come to Pondicherry/Auroville looking for ceramic products from some 25 workshops, varying in size, from studio potters working alone to small-scale production units employing up to 40 people, making everything from raku to porcelain. Fifty years ago, there were none.
RK: And over the years, what has been the influence of India and its culture on your work?
RM: Very little really. We assumed that the Indian influence would surface in the Indian students' own work.
RK: One of the most fascinating projects was your ‘fired houses’. It beautifully merges architecture and the essence of clay. Please tell us the genesis of it and why did you abandon it?
RM: It is not unusual for a functional potter making hollow forms to think about the relationship between inside and out. And perhaps at times to contemplate stepping inside, and well, why not make it big enough to live in. A house. Architecture.
The exterior of the chamber will be of masonry made with large uncut stones, in order that the outside will not seem to have been man-built. When the masonry is finished, I want to cover it (on the inside) with several layers of enamelling, from the top of the vaulted ceiling down to the floor. This done, I should like to build a big fire in it... until the enamelling has melted and coated the masonry...the inside of the chamber would seem to be made of one piece ... and would be so highly polished that the lizards and earthworms that come in there would see themselves as in a mirror.” – Bernard Palissy, 16th century scholar, potter, and enamellist
In 1984, Deb and I were in the US. I contacted Nader Khalili. We attended one of his two-day workshops making vaults and domes with tiny bricks cut from rolled slabs. From building kilns, I was familiar with the vault and dome. I did two lectures for Khalili at SciArc where he taught in California. After 13 years of firing houses, I stopped. The energy audit was not as I had hoped. In the end I was adding coke dust to the brick clay. That did satisfy my energy consumption goal, but posed as many problems as it solved. For the whole story see my book Building With Fire, recently published by CEPT University Press.
RK: You have a deep influence in educating and training an entire generation of contemporary ceramists in India. I remember, at one point there was a waitlist of three years (?) to join your course! As you look back, how do you feel about this accomplishment?
RM: I think the waiting list was never more than two years, but that’s a long time to wait. We only took four students at that time. Now we take eight, and most students have to wait a year.
Our seven-month course was never meant to produce fully developed studio potters. We wanted to demonstrate that studio pottery could be taken seriously. It is not a hobby course. And it is not ‘art school’. It is geared for students who wish to become professional potters (or artists working in ceramics), eventually setting up their own studios.
RK: Some of your recent works have been in massive scale. It would be great to know how you approach a particular body of work—do you begin with an idea in mind, do you sketch before moving to clay?
RM: Ideas generally come in sequence, some variation on the previous piece or pieces. When I start a totally new direction I may sketch, or cut/reform previous works in Photoshop. If I really get stuck, I grab a chunk of clay and slap it around for a few minutes. Below is a photo of the maquette for the Hyatt piece.
RK: I have always believed that medium does not define what is art or craft, it is the idea behind the creation. And yet, there is a popular belief that clay has been slow to get acceptance in the contemporary art business. Do you agree? Why?
RM: Agree. Clay (ceramics) is for the table. Art is for the wall.
Peter Nagy says, “there's still a subconscious thing where Indians see artists as craftsmen, and craftsmen aren’t supposed to make a lot of money. Even for the super-rich, it’s more than what they want to spend on art.”
Further, quoting Peter from the press release for the Rai/Ray show, November 2021, Nature Morte gallery, “No hint of functionality corrupts these works: Meeker’s art is an uncompromising aesthetic inquiry with few ancestral references from any known compass points. In the end, the message of these works may be humanity’s ultimate doom, the slow decay of civilization back into the inevitability of nature.”
Functionality corrupts! Not necessarily, but it is a popular belief.
Much of the work in Rai/Ray was shown in Auroville in February 2021 under the title Fire and Ice.I am reminded of the opening lines of a poem byRobert Frost: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.” Fire. Stolen from the Gods. But it comes at a price.
RK: If you were to point out the single largest influence on your work, what would that be?
RM: The gut-wrenching contrast between nature: Mt. Whitney, and the pristine atmosphere of the Sierra Nevada where I roamed from age 10 to 23, and human nature: in smog-choked Los Angeles, circa 1969, aka, The City of Angels, where I spent seven+ years in universities.
Did you know? Ray Meeker
- was born in 1944; shares his date of birth with American Independence Day, July 4
- can always be found wearing kurta-pyjama (traditional Indian attire)
- along with Golden Bridge Pottery and Deborah Smith received the Outstanding Achievement award from National Council for Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), Pittsburgh, USA, in 2018
- enjoys watching tennis tournaments/ Grand Slams on TV
- rides a motorcycle to his studio till date
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