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Eric O'Leary: A Potter's Dream

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He's come a long way from throwing bowls and mugs on a potter's wheel. Eric O'Leary learned his trade from his father, the legendary studio potter Jack O'Leary. He started his career making the usual kinds of ceramic pieces. But over time, his work has progressed to larger and larger scales. Recently, he's worked on a series of environmental installations that combine ceramics, sculpture, landscaping, and interior design. He has also played a key role in eliminating lead from ceramics made in developing countries; lead is a key component in traditional ceramic techniques, but its toxic effects have led to premature death for many potters and their families. This passage is about the first of O'Leary's environmental installations: a five-year, million-dollar project called the Guachochi Commission, inspired by the canyonlands near Patzcuaro, Mexico. 

 

 

 

 It begins in the basement of his client's house. A 150-foot tunnel links the house with two outbuildings, a barn and a greenhouse. The tunnel is full of decorative elements, including a 40-foot-long illuminated glaze painting. Coming out of the tunnel, you emerge into the barn, which contains offices and a central hallway. At the end of the barn is the greenhouse, which is the crowning element of the project. 

 

"You walk into an environment that has four large monoliths rising out of a reflecting pool of water," explains O'Leary. The largest monolith is 28 feet high. "You can wade in the water and walk around the bases of the monoliths, and they have not only internal lighting, but there is a waterfall happening in various places on the four monoliths. All the waterflows and light phenomena can be run from the client's Palm Pilot. And he has an infinite number of scenarios that he can create with water and light." 

 

On one of my visits to Tariki, the monoliths were being constructed. The interior is a steel skeleton braced by a series of horizontal steel "donuts," as large as four feet by three feet. All this steel supports the ceramic surface of the monolith. 

 

I note the obvious: this shows that an artist must also be a problem-solver, an inventor, and an engineer. "Exactly," he replies. "And I think art is actually going through a big swing from the purely conceptual back to a place where execution is valued again, the craft of art is important again." It's a lesson that he learned from his father, who evolved from craftsman to artist while never losing touch with the technical skills that undergirded his work.  

 

With undisguised pleasure, O'Leary splashes a cupful of water on a ceramic surface. What had been a subtle, muted palette is instantly transformed into a rainbow of striking colors -- a masterwork of the art of ceramic glazing.  

 

"When I was in the canyon region,  there's a series of formations you walk through, they're enormous in scale. And there's an astounding range of color! Different geologies, water, plants, and there's this kind of unfolding story. With these monoliths, I'm hopeful that I can tell a whole series of stories and tie them all together through the use of glaze and color and texture."  

Read the rest of the story in my book, including O'Leary's global involvement in helping ceramicists in the developing world use new, safer techniques, and his other major installation projects. 
 
Read excerpts of my interviews with Eric, in which he talks about his father Jack, and about the Tariki Studio -- founded by Jack, now operated by Eric and his brother Kevin. 
 
Listen to my 2003 interview with Eric, recorded on-site at Tariki Studio, in the online archive of New Hampshire Public Radio. 

Contact me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.