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Precious and ceremonial: a piece from Middle Passage.

Stoneware Soup
By David Brickman

Vessels for the Human Spirit: Recent Works
by David MacDonald

Schenectady 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 upon it.

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 overwhelming them.

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 represent fertility.

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.

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