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 Paul Edmund Soldner  (1921 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: California/Colorado/Illinois      Known for: ceramic sculpture-raku, educator

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Ad Code: 3
Paul Edmund Soldner
from Auction House Records.
Abstract sculpture
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Obituary. New York Times January 10, 2011
Paul Soldner, 89, Ceramic Artist and Innovator
By William Grimes

Paul Soldner, a ceramist who put his own twist on the Japanese firing technique known as raku to create wildly spontaneous sculptural vessels, died on Monday at his home in Claremont, Calif.  He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Stephanie Soldner Sullivan.

Mr. Soldner was the first student of Peter Voulkos, the revolutionary founder of the ceramics program at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, who made it his mission to free ceramics from their traditional function as useful household goods and make them a vehicle for artistic and personal expression.

Mr. Soldner incorporated the lessons of Abstract Expressionism and modernist sculpture in his work, throwing floor pots with expressionistically painted areas that rose to near-ceiling height.

In 1960 he began experimenting with the 16th-century Japanese technique called raku, which is used to fire the vessels for the tea ceremony.  It was little known in the United States, but Mr. Soldner's curiosity was aroused by descriptions in The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo, and A Potter's Book, by Bernard Leach.

He constructed a makeshift kiln from a 50-gallon oil drum lined with concrete, fired a small bowl and ran to a nearby pond to cool it.   ''It was the ugliest piece of ceramics that you ever saw,'' said David Armstrong, one of his students and the founder of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, Calif.

Undeterred, Mr. Soldner fired another bowl, but this time he accidentally dropped it in a pile of pepper-tree leaves, which burst into flame.  The resulting smoke imparted a gray-black, crackled finish to the glaze.

Exposing raku ware to combustible material in an oxygen-deprived chamber, rather than letting it cool in the air or water, opened new possibilities that Mr. Soldner explored relentlessly, developing new textures and color effects in pieces that placed a premium on spontaneity.  His technique became known as American raku, which he described as ''pottery made within a mental framework of expectation, the discovery of things not sought.''

Paul Edmund Soldner was born on April 24, 1921, in Summerville, Ill.  His father was a Mennonite preacher, and he attended Bluffton College, a Mennonite school in Ohio, with the idea of going into medicine.  He was drafted into the Army and, as a conscientious objector, was assigned to the Medical Corps.

He served with Patton's Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded and awarded a Purple Heart.  His unit was present at the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, where the charcoal drawings that prisoners had made on barracks walls influenced him to become an artist.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Bluffton in 1946, he worked as an art teacher and administrator in Ohio public schools.  Initially he planned to become a photographer, but while studying at the University of Colorado, where he earned a master's degree in 1954, he took a course in ceramics and decided to become a potter.

At the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), where he received his M.F.A. in 1956, he challenged the domestic scale of traditional pottery by coaxing monumental pots from the wheel, bringing them to a height of nearly eight feet in one continuous piece rather than sections.

Only the physical limits of the kiln, and the studio ceiling, halted his upward progress -- that and the fact that staring down into the spinning clay began to make him seasick.

To execute his pieces, he invented new wheels and clay mixers that he sold for many years through his own company, Soldner Pottery Equipment.

In 1957 he began teaching at Scripps College.  He also began building a solar-heated house and studio in Aspen, Colo., using local rocks and wood.  He spent summers there for the rest of his life and in the 1960s helped found the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colo.

After teaching at the University of Colorado and the University of Iowa, he accepted a post as professor of ceramics at Scripps and Claremont University Center (now Claremont Graduate University) in 1969.

In addition to his daughter, of Denver and Aspen, he is survived by a sister, Louise Farling of Bluffton, and two grandchildren.

Over the years Mr. Soldner experimented further with American raku.  He used salt in the low-temperature firing process, imparting new colors -- blushlike pinks, oranges and red -- without glazing.  He created novel textures and designs using paper stencils, templates of magazine photographs or the soles of running shoes.  His sculptural pieces bristled with angular planes and squashed tubes that, in his later work, assumed a horizontal posture, influenced perhaps by his hobby of cultivating bonsai trees.

His work is included in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Arts & Design.

Mr. Soldner was the author of Kilns and Their Construction (1965) and Nothing to Hide: Exposures, Disclosures and Reflections (2008).  He was also the subject of several documentary films, the most recent being Paul Soldner: Playing With Fire (2005).

Biography from Edenhurst Gallery (Artists M to Z):
Ceramic art was hardly a new medium when Paul Soldner burst onto the scene in the mid 1950s.  A revolutionary whose genre-busting constructions were at the forefront of the West Coast clay movement and the modern Los Angeles art scene, Soldner — the first student of iconic ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos — used the 16th century Japanese raku technique as a departure point to develop American raku.

The traditional technique involves throwing and bisque-firing vessels, which are then glazed and placed in an open raku kiln to be withdrawn minutes later and plunged into water.  Soldner adopted, transformed, and manipulated this technique to widespread acclaim.  Through Soldner, who continued to make functional ceramics, raku became a strongly American art form.

Soldner was born in Summerfield, Illinois on April 24, 1921.  Growing up, he had never planned to be an artist; in fact, as a college student, he was pre-med.  His medical aspirations waned after being drafted into the Army and serving as a medic for three-and-a-half years during World War II.  He returned to the United States with a strong interest in photography, and the desire to pursue a more artistic career. He turned to painting, and earned a bachelor's degree in art at Bluffton College in Ohio, and then a master's from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

At Boulder, Katie Horseman, a visiting lecturer and head of ceramics at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland, introduced Soldner to ceramics.  After teaching for eight years in public schools and driven to become a potter, Soldner, then 33, headed for Los Angeles County Art Institute, became Voulkos’ first student, earned his master’s in fine arts, and began what art historians look upon as a seminal journey toward contemporary ceramic sculpture.

Under Voulkos, Soldner helped set up the ceramics department with equipment and invented modifications to the pottery wheel, which began a lifelong interest in innovations — Soldner Pottery Equipment.  The artist was one of Voulkos' few students who continued to make functional ceramics at the institute, observes Garth Clark in A Century of Ceramics in the United States, 1878-1978.  Though he worked in a traditional form, his exploratory nature was involved in creating his monumental “floor pots,” which stood up to nine feet in height, often with expressionistically painted areas on the forms.

In 1956, after graduation, Soldner was asked to stand in for the ceramics instructor at Scripps College in Claremont, California.  He stayed and taught at Scripps and the Claremont Graduate School for 37 years — and remained prolific during his teaching years (he has had 178 solo exhibitions, 400 invitational exhibitions, and given more than 400 lectures, seminars, demonstrations, and workshops.  He also created and has curated the annual Scripps Ceramics Invitational exhibition.  Meanwhile, his students included a Who’s Who of contemporary ceramic sculptors, including Jun Kaneko and Rudy Autio.

Soldner has made invaluable contributions to the field of ceramics, including developing American raku and a technique known as “low-temperature salt firing.” His involvement with raku, for which he has gained international acclaim, came by chance. As Garth Clark relates:

"Invited to demonstrate at a crafts fair in 1960, Soldner decided to experiment with the technique.  Using Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book as his guide, he set up a simple kiln and improvised a few lead-based glazes.  The results were disappointing: the clay body did not respond well to the quick firing technique, and the glazes were shiny and too brightly colored.  His fascination with raku (a Japanese technique developed in the sixteenth century) did not diminish, however, and Soldner continued to experiment.  At first he produced mainly tea bowls, but soon found these restrictive and somewhat academic, as there was no tea ceremony in Western culture that would give the forms their traditional significance.  He gradually discovered he was more interested in raku as a technique and an aesthetic than as a tradition. This attitude resulted in a much more playful approach to form, scale, function, and material."

As his main medium of expression, Soldner adopted, transformed, and manipulated traditional raku — which involves throwing and bisque-firing vessels which are then glazed and placed directly in an open raku kiln to be withdrawn a few minutes later and plunged into water — and gained widespread acclaim in the ceramics art world. Though through Soldner, raku has evolved from its Oriental traditions and become a strongly American art form — one that requires the same depth and sensitivity to succeed.  Soldner states (1973):

In the spirit of raku, there is the necessity to embrace the element of surprise.  There can be no fear of losing what was once planned and there must be an urge to grow along with the discovery of the unknown.  In the spirit of raku: make no demands, expect nothing, follow no absolute plan, be secure in change, learn to accept another solution and, finally, prefer to gamble on your own intuition.  Raku offers us deep understanding of those qualities in pottery which are of a more spiritual nature, of pots by men willing to create objects that have meaning as well as function.

Soldner has long infused new issues and ideas into his work.  His development of the low-temperature salt firing method for his raku pieces and his pedestal pieces — thrown and altered sculptural clay forms — push the limits of clay, revealing unique textures and forms.  Soldner’s works have been exhibited in throughout all of the major cities of Europe and the United States, Canada, Latvia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Australia.

Soldner is also the author of numerous articles and a book. Kilns and Their Construction, and the founder of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado.  The center was founded in 1968, and Soldner served as the director in the early 1970s.  It is now well known for its excellent summer program, drawing people from all over the world to study with well-known teachers.

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