Beauty That Gives Shape And Meaning

AT the heart of the pottery of Brother Thomas lies the positive conviction that beauty can make life a better place. The results would seem to make a strong case for just such a claim. Brother Thomas makes beautiful pots. Exceptionally beautiful pots. So much so that when we first see them we might be surprised by their striking physical appeal, and we might miss just how essential that beauty is to the work, to Brother Thomas, and to us. When we examine the work, however, we discover that not only is the beauty profound, but that it is precisely the experience of that beauty which gives the work its shape and meaning. There is one thing which Brother Thomas brings to his work that makes the experience of that beauty possible. It is not talent, or skill, experience, or even desire, but faith. Faith is the most necessary and difficult of those qualities to acquire and maintain, especially in the arts. It is the interlocking of faith and beauty which extends the experience of these pots beyond the vessels themselves. As Brother Thomas states in a catalog which accompanied the exhibition:

``In art, all that is present in the physical product, its shape, its feel, its color, its function, its harmony, must somehow be a doorway beyond those sensory things themselves. For you see, it is the function of art to open the human heart to those experiences which have the deepest meaning to the human spirit: truth, beauty, goodness, unity.''

This is not to say that the physical product is somehow something less for being a doorway. And yet it is amazing the ease with which this work shoulders such a burden. We are lifted, cupped in its hands, and carried away without even being aware of it. When we look at a vase, or a bowl, we feel the fullness of the volumes, the pressing up and out of the curves which rise to the top and open like a flower.

We savor the luminosity of the glazes, their rich color, their dappled texture, and cool, smooth, stony surface. We witness the gestures which grace that surface, glazes brushed on with a singular intensity that allows for the splatter and drip to play an integral role in the expression which results. An expression which embraces intuition as a key to a larger and deeper experience. These gestures delight in the possibilities, in what can just happen unplanned and unsought, the events which illuminate the artist's experience and ours.

The shape and surface and color of these pots are like fruit and flowers and fish. They have a wonderful earthly quality. The colors range from juicy raspberries and rich, smooth mustards to fiery coppers and midnight blacks. The surface textures can be glossy and slick, crackled, ribbed from the throw on the wheel, or irregular from the brush marks and drips of the glaze.

The shapes of the vessels can be short and full, cylindrical, elongated, or wide and flat, almost two-dimensional. All of these formal variations contribute to a broad range of experience in the work, but all of this is nothing when compared to the complexity of expression unleashed by the gestures which Brother Thomas lays across these forms. And because the pot is three-dimensional like sculpture, we can discover that a piece has other sides, other moods.

So if the color, surface, and shape impress us immediately with their earthly charms, it is the otherworldliness of the images which makes an interior and more spiritual impression. While they may suggest plants and trees, the effect is one of fleeting, moving, silhouettes blurred beneath the surface.

The feelings can be very different. Some can be bold and dramatic, even aggressive in the way that they speak to us, while others are so quiet as to be barely noticeable, like a few drips on a sheet of color.

The gesture fired into these surfaces conveys it all. It is a question of what we are willing to see. Not just sumptuous fruit and nature celebrated, but also pain and darkness. The sense we get throughout, however, is ultimately one of complete and utter serenity. The darkness speaks of hope and light. The pain speaks of healing. The first feeling I was aware of experiencing with this work was calm. Experiencing a work of art is a risk; we have to give to receive. Another act of faith. We go in, and then come out the other side changed.

The potter works with all the elements, earth and water to make clay, fire and air to make it hard. Even the process is an act of faith. Not just because every time it goes in the kiln to be galvanized by the flame it risks destruction, but also because the surface happens in the kiln. Just what it will look like remains a secret until the process is complete. Brother Thomas places his vessels in the hands of fire and the results are like a phoenix.

THIS work needs no defense. Beauty needs no defense. But we live in a culture of such arrogance that it must classify everything. Measure everything. Pottery is not considered fine art because it serves. It is a great irony to me that something which serves is somehow less. These vessels are aesthetically rich and they serve. What could be more beautiful? It is a further irony that because beauty is subjective, anything which has some undeniable or broad appeal is therefore immediately suspect.

Bruce Springsteen sang something once about a kind of poet that could stand back and let it all be. In an ideal world we wouldn't need art. We could be like fish in the ocean or deer in the forest, we wouldn't have to struggle for meaning. Art is simply about being. Seeing the work of Brother Thomas reminded me of that in the nicest possible way.

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