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.
While the seeds of conflict might have been sown in Adam’s muddy rib, Notkin’s image of choice to explore conflict is the heart: “conflict, even on a collective scale, really begins within individual human hearts.” Through this simple image, which he invokes in his Heart Teapot series, he investigates our dual capacity for love and violence. According to Notkin, “The Heart Teapot series was probably the most succinct in terms of investigating the seeds of human conflict, bringing it back to the image of the individual human heart where we sense that our emotions, both love and hate, emanate from that little organ.”
Some may classify Notkin’s work as fine arts, but Notkin describes himself as a classically trained ceramicist who started his career making functional pottery – bowls, cups, pots, a myriad of vessels, which he calls the ceramicist’s “primal canvas.” For thirteen years he chose to work with the teapot, drawing inspiration from the Yixing teapots of Yixing, China, a 500-year-old tradition that renders naturalistic imagery in sophisticated, geometric detail.
While Notkin’s teapots and tea sets draw from Yixing in their color, form and texture, their imagery displays something very different. To quote Notkin, “It’s not your grandmother’s teapot.”
Indeed a Notkin teapot is not your grandmother’s teapot, often depicting scenes of war and violence. To view a Notkin tea set is one thing, but to actually use one seems somewhat absurd. For what would it mean to drink from a human skull or from the ruins of a city demolished by war; to have tea streaming like blood from an anatomically correct heart, wrapped in a spool of chain? These are grotesque images laden with irony. They create a palpable tension in Notkin’s work, which not only walks the line between what “crafts” and “fine arts” can be, but also points to the contradictions present in the tea sets themselves and our modern world.
Looking back Notkin jokingly remarks, “I was once asked if I would make the teapot that saved the world.” Notkin’s sense of activism really began to solidify in the 1960s. As an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute, he was a draft resistor and a protest leader in the resistance to the Vietnam War. In 1969 Notkin successfully rallied fifty fellow students to board buses for Washington, D.C., where they joined anti-war marches. “A lot of my peers were drafted and were sent to Vietnam and some didn’t return” Notkin explains. “We were living with this. It wasn’t just a war fought by the less advantaged” as it is in today’s voluntary military. “We rallied because we had to. It was our lives on the line.”
As the Vietnam War dragged on, a cultural shift was happening in the United States. U.S. citizens were embarking on the civil rights and feminist movements, and there was an ever-present distrust of authority and government in the air. While youth were experimenting with new cultural norms, artists were experimenting with new forms of expression. “We were questioning everything,” Notkin says, “certainly the war in Vietnam, but also values in general” – including artistic values.
Europe already had its Dadaists, Futurists and Surrealists to challenge what they saw as the antiquated establishment of representational art, but the United States was now blossoming with its own brand of avant-gardism. One movement from this tumultuous period was Funk, emerging from U.C. Davis, where Notkin studied as a graduate student under Robert Arneson.
Funk, largely a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, was marked by self-expression, humor, improvisation, taboo imagery, and skepticism toward craftsmanship. Notkin discovered Funk in 1968 when he and some friends took a trip gallery hopping in New York. It was there at the Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that Notkin saw Arneson’s Typewriter, a ceramic typewriter whose keys morphed into women’s fingertips, replete with red fingernail polish. “I was just blown away by that. I thought wow, what a great piece!” Notkin says, noting Typewriter‘s “obvious commentary on women in the workplace.” “It was a really wonderful generator of thought… I greatly admired that piece and I just thought boy, if I go to graduate school, I’ve got to study with that guy.” It was at U.C. Davis and through works like Typewriter that Notkin saw ceramics’ potential to generate political commentary.
Today Notkin continues his anti-war message. “Art is a revolt against man’s fate,” Notkin writes, quoting André Malraux, in his statement for All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness, a tile mosaic depicting George W. Bush. “I look at it in terms of human potential,” explains Notkin, who sees humanity as simultaneously capable of creating great works of art and destroying those very same works – and itself – “at the push of a button.”
In The Last Syllable of Recorded Time Notkin imagines this nightmarish fate brought to bear by the push of a button. Tiles portraying creative and destructive drives combine to form an atomic explosion, starkly surrounded by a yellow and black border, which he eerily forms from human ears. Deafened by the explosive impact, their placement and texture resemble river rocks and the scattered shoes left behind after the Holocaust; “They’re about being stone deaf,” he explains, “how we either don’t hear, or hear things but don’t heed them.”
If humanity is made up of positive and negative forces, if it is made up of light and shadow, then art embodies our better nature: “the positive potential of the human species,” Notkin says. Although Malraux’s statement may be cynical, Notkin is optimistic in his expression of awe, wonderment and amazement at life and the creative spirit: “When I hear an incredible piece of music or see a work of art… like the Pietà by Michelangelo, I think, my God– a human being created that! It just amazes me, the capacity of human beings to create almost miraculous things.” “Life is a miracle to begin with,” Notkin reminds us. For him it’s a miracle worth preserving. That’s why he makes his art.
To see more of Richard Notkin‘s art, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery and go to the artist’s website.
Annie Pentilla has an MFA and BA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She co-edits Highway 101 Press (highway101press.com) and interns at Tikkun. Her work has appeared in Improv 2009: Anthology of Colorado Poets and Read This.