Richard Notkin. "Men at Work" (2013). Ceramic, glaze, watercolor, copper patina, wood backing 20.25" x 8.5" x 2.75"
For more than forty-five years ceramist Richard Notkin has been exploring the seeds of human conflict through images cast in clay. Abu Ghraib, World-War carpet bombings, Picasso’s Guernica, ears deafened by the aftermath of an atomic explosion – these are just a few of the images Notkin renders in his wall reliefs to reflect on the modern world he sees around him. What Notkin observes in the world reveals a troubling scene: a planet marred by war, genocide and destruction – in other words, the less-than-savory aspects of human existence.
As an artist Notkin’s had quite the career. His reliefs, teapots and tea sets have exhibited world wide, including in the Florida Holocaust Museum, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. As he reflects on his life and career, he describes his aesthetic as “art activism.” While it’s taken the span of an entire career to perfect the articulation of his anti-war message through clay, he attributes his passion for activism to a childhood growing up in a Jewish community in the South Side of Chicago.
It was there in Chicago’s South Side, a place rife with religious strife where Catholic and Jewish boys didn’t get along, where he first became aware of the unsettling conflicts between religious and ethnic groups, providing a daily reminder of the kind of tribalism that cause nations to engulf themselves in conflicts like World War II. “We were made very aware of the Holocaust,” Notkin says, recalling members of his synagogue who were survivors, including his dance teacher who had somehow survived Auschwitz as a teenager. “They impressed us with the fact that we needed to be activists, that we needed to be aware and alert and active, and that these things could happen again.” Through his work, particularly those exhibited in the Florida Holocaust Museum, Notkin remains keenly aware not only of the genocide that occurred during World War II, but also the genocides occurring today in Africa and other parts of the world.