and ceremonial: a piece from Middle Passage.
By David Brickman
for the Human Spirit: Recent Works
by David MacDonald
Museum, through Feb. 15
If you haven’t seen the spruced-up Schenectady Museum since
it reopened just under a year ago, and you owe yourself a
treat, a visit there could be just the ticket. Like a smaller-scaled
version of the cavernous New York State Museum, the Schenectady
Museum takes you on a wide circular path through flashy, fascinating
interactive permanent exhibits to a more intimate space in
the back where changing shows take place.
There you’ll find a stylish, almost minimalist installation
of 31 pieces by Syracuse ceramic artist David MacDonald. The
show is the most recent in a long-term collaboration with
Schenectady-based Black Dimensions in Art, which has coordinated
programming with the museum since BDA’s inception in 1975.
MacDonald, a professor at Syracuse University for more than
30 years, is an accomplished craftsman who takes his inspiration
from, as he puts it, “the magnificence and mobility of the
human spirit, as well as . . . my African heritage.” To MacDonald,
that means creating art in the form of vessel: “There exists
in the vessel a universal timelessness,” he writes.
This timelessness may be a function of numerous factors. Looking
at a large stoneware jar, one can’t help imagining what might
traditionally—or presently—be stored in that jar. Wine, perhaps,
or water. Olive oil, or even olives. Things that have nurtured
us for millennia (i.e., not cookies).
The durability of the material is another factor. Stoneware,
unless broken, holds up well. Archaeologists love it for that
reason. But it also appears fragile, like the earth it comes
from. One cannot toss it around like plastic, so it commands
a certain respect, even reverence, from its users. A worthy
vessel for the art and symbolism MacDonald wishes to bestow
His method is to create deceptively complex patterns using
the traditional Nigerian technique of “combed imagery.” This
is done by dragging the teeth of a sturdy wooden comb over
the surface of the still-wet clay, creating rows of concentric
furrows much like plowed earth.
When glazed, the raised part of the pattern emerges from the
glazed grooves in its natural gray-brown color, retaining
the essence of the hand-formed clay. MacDonald chooses a limited
palette of dark or reddish brown, white, blue-black and pale
green glazes to embellish the crisscrossing patterns without
Many of the platters feature star, flower or pinwheel shapes
that are somewhat evocative of Celtic knots—adding to the
universality theme—and many of the jars are treated in such
a way as to enhance and play off their roundness, which may
Altogether, MacDonald’s very thoughtful process and masterful
restraint make for extremely handsome pieces, and their scale
is impressive for ceramics (the platters are all more than
20 inches in diameter).
But the pieces on view are not merely decorative, at least
in theory. Platters, bowls, jars small and large all could
be used in a household for storage or service. Reinforcing
this concept is a wall label that describes the pieces as
“equally decorative and functional.” However, in reality,
these pieces are far too precious for any use less than ceremonial.
As though calculated to bring home this fact without actually
stating it, the selection here also includes four pieces from
a series titled Middle Passage. Though technically
bottles (therefore, vessels), the thrown and handbuilt earthenware
pieces are truly figures, and very eloquent ones at that.
Standing up to 33 ½-inches high, the forms all feature complex
combinations of combed patterns, raised bumps, and glazed
and unglazed areas. Figuratively, they appear to be angels,
complete with wings, but they also appear firmly rooted to
the ground upon which they sit heavily.
Why such a weighty feeling to an angel?
Images of tightly packed slave ships placed on each angel’s
breast provide an answer.
While MacDonald’s “functional” forms have a power and a dignity
that your everyday crockery clearly lacks, his Middle Passage
pieces have more than that. Not only is their message meaningful,
it is delivered with such skill as to be beautiful, too.
MacDonald uses less restraint in the decoration of these figures,
incorporating sky-blue and gold, yellow and gray, all of which
are played against the vivid terracotta red of the earthenware.
Looking something like members of a choir, they do sing.
Also of note at the Schenectady Museum is a new long-term
exhibit in the object theater called Expression! Art and
the Creative Process.
Featuring works commissioned by the museum from a nice roundup
of area artists, the installation revolves around a 12-minute
documentary film that explores and explains the creative process
as practiced by these artists. As the film rolls, lights play
upon the individual works being discussed, the tools used
to make them, and even on the audience at times.
It is a clever, highly professional program that the clichéd
“kids of all ages” are sure to enjoy—and learn from. The artists
included are: Hermitage des Artistes, a collective of three
tramp artists; weaver Martha Hubbard; ceramic sculptor Phyllis
Kulmatiski; mixed-media artist Lillian Mulero; photographer
Clifford Oliver; and painter Steve Tyson.
Teachers take note: This one is well-worth a field trip.