Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Daniel Hunter: The Idea of Something Real

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 11, 2017


 

 





In spring 1991 four of Daniel Hunter’s photo tableaus appeared in issue #2 of The Secret Alameda. Hunter was part of a small circle of artist friends, several of whom appeared in one way or another in The Secret Alameda over the next six years. We were all trying to figure out how to make our way in the art world. By 1998 TSA had evolved, becoming works & conversations, and many of us had drifted apart. But long before all this, in the early 70s, Hunter had worked for Ramparts magazine as co-art director. Prominent in his responsibilities were developing cover images and doing photo assignments. Coming from his fine art education (UC Berkeley, M.A. sculpture), he adapted by throwing himself into journalistic photography with its particular challenges.
     Recently we reconnected, and revisiting the photo tableaus we featured in ‘91, I see how they reflected both sides of his earlier training. But now I had the chance to see his new work. And indeed, I was curious to see what Hunter was up to this side of twenty-five years ago.
     It was a surprise to see he was working in clay—tiles. They were handsome, and the impeccable craft was familiar, but it took a while before I really saw them. They pack a punch, though in many cases one doesn’t see it coming. Yes, the work belonged to Daniel Hunter.
     I thought it was time to catch up and proposed an interview. It turned out to be one of those conversations I hope for and, as we talked, new vistas opened I hadn’t known about. Before we got started, we were chatting as I looked for a good place to set up. Finding a good spot, I took out my camera to adjust the settings before we began.—rw

Daniel Hunter:  How’s the light?

works:  Looks good, a 100th at F5.6. Sound familiar?

Daniel:  [laughs] Yes. I taught photography for maybe 35 years. I still think f-stops, shutter speeds.

works:  And when I first met you, you were doing photography.

Daniel:  Yes. I started working with a camera right after I finished UCB, but more in a conceptual way. There was a book I stumbled across where a sociologist uses old family photographs to bring back a particular time in Wisconsin—I guess it was the late 19th century—and I loved those photographs.
     So, I started taking pictures of old pictures. My girlfriend [Diane Coleman] at the time had started doing paste-ups at Ramparts, and eventually we transitioned into doing a lot for Ramparts—photographing covers, doing photo assignments and stuff like that.

works:  I want to come back to that, but first let’s go further back. You’d gone to UC Berkeley, and had gotten an art degree.

Daniel:  An MA in sculpture.

works:  So tell me about that.

Daniel:  Okay. So my Bachelor’s is in sculpture, too—from the University of Arizona. Sculpture always made a lot of sense to me. But when I finished graduate school, I was very angry at the art world—and angry because there was a war in Vietnam. And the artwork a lot of other people were doing didn’t address the frustrations that I’d experienced, having resisted the draft.
     So, as I began to work with the camera, I thought, “Maybe I could use my art training in photography.” And this was when I began to get involved with the magazine. In my naivete, I thought, “How hard can photography be?” I thought I’d be able to figure it out in a year or so. But I never did figure it out, obviously.

works:  Well, I can’t agree with you there. But you spent a lot of time with sculpture, you said. And I remember you describing some of those pieces. One was like an old school locker. You’d put a fan in there and blew something around inside making a noise. Can you describe that piece?

Daniel:  I did a bunch of large boxes, and moderate boxes, too. Maybe the piece you’re thinking about was a glass box and inside was a fan running. You could see it, but you couldn’t feel it.

works:  What was your thinking there?

Daniel:  Again, these were pieces I made when I was in graduate school. I was 23, 24 years old. So instead of just making beautiful things, I said, “Why treat these people nice? They’re looking for an easy ride. I’m not having an easy ride. I had dodged the draft; I felt I’d ruined my life. So the sculptures I made in graduate school reflected that, like a 3’x3’x4’ asbestos box with a steel edge all the way around. I put a small room heater inside. You’d walk up to it and go, “Wow.” It’d be hot, not like you couldn’t touch it, more like the way you’re in a cold room and walk into warm room.

works:  I see. That’s powerful, in its way.

Daniel:  I did a whole series of containers of something…

works:  Did you reflect at all on that in terms of anger?

Daniel:  Not at the time. It was the idea of something being real in and of itself, and an experience beyond just the aesthetic. Getting beyond just the aesthetic experience fascinated me.

works:  That makes sense to me. So, after you got your Master’s were you still doing sculpture?

Daniel:  I was still doing sculpture. I bought that old building on 13th Avenue in Oakland, so I had a big studio. I paid next to nothing for it.

works:  It was in a kind of a run-down neighborhood.

Daniel:  At the time, it was a very run-down neighbor-hood. There were four bars very nearby. And it was a pretty run-down building.

works:  You told me earlier one bar was frequented by Native Americans and it was pretty rough, right?

Daniel:  The first week after I bought the building, I was moving my furniture in, and a couple of Native Americans were fighting; they got in fights all the time, vicious fights. That bar was maybe three doors down. Two of them got in a fight and ended up at my front door, pounding each other and getting blood all over the front of the building. I thought, “My God, what have I gotten myself into?” Later, that became Richard Berger’s building. His studio downstairs had been the bar.
     Eventually, the fights were so brutal that I called up the alcohol control board and complained. I complained and complained. And then somebody was knifed to death there. One day I went out and there were a whole bunch of people standing on the sidewalk holding their faces, with blood pouring out.
     “What happened now?!”
     Somebody had run into the bar and fired a gun and the bullet went through three guys’ faces sitting at the bar. I called up the alcohol control board again, and finally they lost their liquor license; that was the end of that. Then the owner sold it to Richard.

works:  That’s an incredible story.

Daniel:  I mean, I had no idea when I bought the building. And across the street was a women’s bar—working-class, gay women. They would fight, also. They would come back from softball matches and sit out in the street and scream, “You better keep your hands off that bitch.” This was 1972. It was totally, “What??”
     But both the bars were closed down within a couple of years, and then the neighborhood calmed down significantly.

works:  I remember you telling me you ran into a very practical problem with sculpture—what to do with your old work?

Daniel:  Yes. And when I got that building, I began making things you would walk into—like tunnels. You couldn’t quite see inside, but you could feel it. You’d walk through and the elevation changed a little. It would go up and then back down, and the walls would come back in. You’d be walking through and you’d go, “Eww.”
     With one of the last big pieces I made, you’d go down a corridor and turn right, and it would get narrower; then you would turn right and it’d get more narrow; it kept going that way. In the center I had a 500 watt bulb. As you went in, you could sort of see the light and it would get brighter, but you could never get to it, because finally the passage was too narrow.
     So what did I do with all this plywood and sheetrock and 2x4s? Eventually, I tore it all apart, and put it into the building. The old sculpture became new plywood floors and I used the 2x4s, too. But storage is a big problem with sculpture.

works:  Is that’s when you thought, “Maybe I should find a new medium, like photography?”

Daniel:  That was part of it. I got into a couple of galleries—like Reese Palley, a nice little gallery in San Francisco—and that really confused me. They said they really liked my work and wanted to represent me. I was very young and insecure. They had some shows, and I put some pieces in, and it just confused me. I decided I didn’t want my pieces to be in the gallery and I pulled them out during the show. That was the last I ever heard from them. I was just miserable and, at that point, I was suffering from depression.
     And about that time, I was also nominated for a SECA grant, and all these people kept parading through my studio. I didn’t have a colleague I could talk to, or an older artist to help me put things in perspective and calm down.

works:  Somehow you had trouble, I guess, just accepting that they liked what you were doing.

Daniel:   Really. But what I was doing wasn’t so nice. Yes. I had a hard time with people liking what I was doing.

works:  Have you reflected about that?

Daniel:  Sure. I would imagine it has to do with what happened in the family somewhere along the way. My family were Presbyterians. They have this idea of pre-destination. So no matter what you do, it’s already pre-judged where you’re going. And although my parents didn’t go to church, this stuff filtered down. You know? You’re damned. Why even try?

works:  Or you’re saved.

Daniel:  Or you’re saved. But it doesn’t matter how hard you work or what you do; good deeds will not save you. And thinking back now, I realize my mother was very depressed. I didn’t understand that at the time. She just was always in her room and sometimes couldn’t work. She cried a lot, and stuff. So there were family issues, which we all have to work through. And I’m from a working-class family, not a middle-class family.

works:  I see.

Daniel:  So getting a job was really what I was supposed to do, and when I was young, I was suspicious of middle-class people. Who were these people that got to read really good books and talk about films? They need to put a roof on a house, or something like that. So all that was part of it.

works:  That’s fascinating. I think one absorbs all that, even if you haven’t sat through a lot of Sunday school. But maybe you did.

Daniel:  Not so much, but you absorb it by watching your parents, and your grandparents—who they are, and how they relate. And most of what they’re doing is based on what their parents did. My grandmothers and grandfathers were religious people. My father rejected it, but he was still…

works:  All that was present in his reactions.

Daniel:  Right.

works:  So getting into a gallery was a crisis, and being thrown into the system, not knowing how it worked.

Daniel:  Right.

works:  It was hard for you just to say, “Look, I’m doing these really cool, angry sculptures that are fascinating and great.”

Daniel:  That’s right. I couldn’t do that. But what I could do was maybe make a transition into photography. I could see what was going on all around me was unjust. Maybe I could teach myself photography and do something positive with it.
     The sculpture was negative in a lot of ways. I remember making a big steel trough; it was 6’x4’x2.’
     I filled it up to the very top with water. It was made out of sheet metal, so it bulged way out. If you touched it, the whole thing vibrated. I wondered, what if it breaks, you know?
     Richard Berger had that piece in his backyard until he passed away; I gave it to him and he used it for his koi. What do you do with these things? But it worked really well for goldfish.

works:  It sounds like a powerful metaphor for something that was true of you, I’d guess.

Daniel:  Yes. And it weighed an enormous amount. You looked at it, and it was this volume of water, filled right up to the top. And Reese Palley put it in the gallery down in their basement. There was no drain, so they had to empty it a bucket at a time. I felt sorry for them.

works:  That’s a great story. Okay. So photography seemed like something you could connect with. It might be a pathway for you.

Daniel:  Exactly. There was a structure, too. With photography you’re dealing with light, you’re dealing with photosensitive material and you’re dealing with a machine that is capturing or recording that light.
     So I was able to step out of myself a little. And the more I read about it, the more I could see historically—like the first photographs came from drawing machines. I mean, it embodied a lot of art; it recorded the whole history of late 19th century, early 20th century. Art was actually an integral part of all that. I liked that, and there was this structure I could work with. I felt it gave me a little stability.

works:  All right. So talk about how your photography took you to Ramparts, and about all that.

Daniel:  Okay. I was living with my girlfriend, Diane, and she’d worked doing paste-ups. That was often a job young artists could get—pasting up for newspapers or magazines. She answered an ad she found at CCA. Ramparts needed a paste-up person. She got the job, and she’d come home and tell me stories I thought were very interesting. I’d look at the magazine, too. They went through art director after art director. People would stay for three months and then get fired. There was a lot of turmoil there.
     Significant editors would come in and sort of take over for a while, and they’d get mad and leave. Then they’d come back and take over again. David Horowitz, I think, was one of them.
     In any event, Diane weathered all of that, and one day I said, “Why don’t you become the art director? Next time they fire one, say you’ll become the art director, and I’ll help you.”
     She said, “Well, how?”
     I said, “Look. It can’t be that hard. We’ll learn about the different typefaces and all that. How hard can it be?”

works:  So she did that?

Daniel:  Eventually. Around that time a friend had given me an early color TV, a Sony Trinitron, and I was taking pictures off the TV. This was around 1971. And I happened to take some pictures of, I think that was the Six-Day War on the news, Walter Cronkite. There were some Palestinians surrendering. And I was just click, click, click—and Ramparts needed a color cover right away.
     They wanted to scoop everybody, and they already had some articles they could put together, but they needed a color cover. I told Diane, “I have a color slide!” So she said, “Bring it in! We’ll show it to the editors!”
     So we did—of these Arabs surrendering—and they said, “We want it.” That became a cover and they paid me for it. Then they ran into trouble a few more times and asked Diane, “Can your boyfriend help out?” So I’d shoot something and give it to them, and it would end up a cover. So when she said, “I can be an art director and he can help me,” they said, “Okay.” And that’s sort of how I got into Ramparts.

works:  That’s fascinating.

Daniel:  I was there three years. I didn’t know that much about photography, so all of a sudden, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to learn this stuff!”
     I set up a darkroom and just shot and shot. I took every kind of picture I could think of because I had to produce. It was a very intense learning experience. I did a number of story assignments, too. Looking back, those were really nice. I walked with Cesar Chavez for a few days photographing him. I also went down to Camp Pendleton at the end of the Vietnam War and photographed all of the Vietnamese refugees pouring into Camp Pendleton. There were thousands in long lines, and everybody was given USMC jackets—there were tiny kids with these giant Marine’s jackets.
There were lots of interesting opportunities and things I got to see. And by then, I’d become interested in journalistic photography. I’d sort of moved away from a fine art orientation.

works:  I wonder if any other things from that time are coming back to you?

Daniel:  Well, Diane and I were co-art directors. We’d be given something like: “Okay. Here’s the next issue. We have 15 stories and need to illustrate six or seven of these, so get material to illustrate them.”
     We’d call up the big photo agencies in New York, like Black Star, and order photographs. Then we’d start figuring out what we could use. Sometimes, we’d just go to the library. You could get beautiful, big historic half-page line shots for free.
     So we did that. But sometimes I’d have to do a photo layout, maybe two or three pages, and I’d take photographs. The interesting thing was how this worked once you had the photos. We’d set them out and, “Uh, I like that one. I don’t like that one. I like those two together.” And the story would just sort of unfold, visually. Does that makes sense?

works:  Totally. I understand.

Daniel:  Exactly. Then we could size them however we wanted. We would cut rubylith for the layouts.
     So the whole magazine industry was interesting to me. Sometimes I would fly to L.A. with the separations and watch the signatures come off the press.

works:  You got familiar with the presses and all of that?

Daniel:  Right. But these were big, four-color web presses.

works:  Did you enjoy that?

Daniel:  It scared me. I felt like a tourist. All of a sudden, a pressman would run a few sheets off the press and put them down in front of me and ask, “What do you think of these colors?”
     But eventually I learned how to make reasonable decisions: “It has a little too much cyan.”

works:  I can’t help feeling there’s some kind of relationship between your tile work today and your time at Ramparts. Do you have any sense of that?

Daniel:  Sure. Well, I go to a thrift store here or I go into the Dollar Tree and just buy toys. I bring them back and saw them up and look at them. Some are absolutely beautiful. They’re so sweet—with little bears or little animals—and then I start to assemble them. It’s similar in that, all of a sudden, relationships develop, and that’s similar to the work in Ramparts.

works:  I remember Ramparts was a left-leaning magazine and they didn’t pull their punches.

Daniel:  Right.

works:  And many of your tiles have something sweet juxtaposed with something disturbing, like a gun or teeth and jawbones.

Daniel:  Right.

works:  So, reflect on that for me a little bit.

Daniel:  In 2014, there were a bunch of young college students in Mexico, 43 of them. They were protesting, and they were rounded up. They were taken to a garbage dump and killed, and then their bodies were burned—this was the official government version. All that was left were charred bones broken up into little pieces and thrown into a river.
     These young students were all going to be teachers, and most of my life I’ve been a teacher. They went to a rural college and were going to work in rural areas, I believe. And the American press hardly covered it, you know? It’s still hard to find a lot about it.
     I was so horrified by that I decided to make some tiles that had small pieces of bone. You can buy a half of an anatomical skeleton; it’s made out of nylon. I started working with those bones, and came to realize there’s not a whole lot we recognize. We recognize the piece of jaw and the teeth. And we recognize vertebrae and maybe a little piece of the rib and finger bones. But that’s about all we really recognize. So I did a few pieces sort of to remember those 43 students who died.
     Mexico had an investigation, but nobody still knows what happened to those 43 people. I mean, there are a lot of forensic experts saying the official government story is bogus. Anyway, that led me into working on those pieces. And the guns and the bones work together. Then I started taking toys and mixing them together—taking a piece of clay and making some impressions, or casting some shapes.
     And making the clay tiles works for me. All of a sudden, the whole process clicked, so I’ve continued doing that.
works: That’s an interesting phenomenon, that process of “clicking.” It’s kind of mysterious to me.

Daniel:  It is. I’m grateful that something has clicked. I hope this work will continue to interest me. It dawned on me that there was so much potential working this way, that I could not only make something decorative with a beautiful clay surface and all kinds of beautiful glazes over it, but I could also bring information that has a little more punch, or that would affect your attention in a different way that wasn’t just beautiful. You might be drawn in by the glazes, but you could get other kind of information into those tiles, and I’d never thought you could do that with tiles before.

works:  It’s fascinating because they are beautiful, and typical of all the work I’ve known of yours. It’s very well crafted. What would you say?

Daniel:  That certainly is true. I want to do it well from a craft perspective, and the craft is not always successful. I’d like the craft to almost be invisible. I don’t think I have those skills yet.

works:  I think you’ve gotten there, pretty much. The first time I saw them was at that show at the Orinda Library. They were in a glass case, and I thought, “That’s a handsome array of tiles, really well-made.” And I wasn’t getting beyond that, you know? Then at a certain point, I noticed, “Oh, wait a minute. Is that a gun with a teddy bear? And are those teeth? What’s going on here?” So this is in keeping with your early work. It’s not décor, but it kind of looks like you could use it to tile your bathroom. You know? And you could, of course.

Daniel:  Yes, you could.

works:  Except as soon as you started looking at it, you might be disturbed.

Daniel:  Yes. I took some of them to my Feldenkrais teacher. She wanted to know what I was doing,. So I took a few in with the teeth. She said, “These could be used as hot plates.”
     I said, “Well, that’s not why I made them.”
     She said, “But they could be used for hot plates.”

works:  She never saw them. I didn’t at first, either.

Daniel:  Right, I know.

works:  Do you know Ehren Tool? [no] He was a Marine and came from a gung-ho military family. As he put it, he was going “to unfuck those Iraqis.” But he got over there and discovered they weren’t unfucking anybody.

Daniel:  Right.

works:  It was traumatic, as it must be for anybody caught in the thick of war. And now back in civilian life, his way of dealing with his experience is by making ceramic cups and giving them away.

Daniel:  Oh, yes, I have heard of him.

works:  They always have military themes. He’s given away probably, something like 20,000 of them by now. He calls himself a “war awareness artist.” He wants people to know that war is real. He gave me five cups; they’re beautifully made. One afternoon I wanted to get a drink of water and I picked up one his cups—it had some bombs on it. As I tipped the cup to my lips, something happened. I realized I didn’t want to drink out of that cup. That was the moment I realized how powerful those cups were.
     And your tiles could be used to make hot plates, but I don’t think they’d get used very much.

Daniel:  No.

works:  So what are your thoughts about where this work might go?

Daniel:  Well, it’s just here. I don’t know. I have to wait and see. There was a little show I was in, up at Davis, and a woman said, “This looks like stuff from the Holocaust.” She was referring to all the teeth. I said it wasn’t about the Holocaust and explained it to her, and then she liked it.

works:  It seems what you’re doing is asking people to wake up to something.

Daniel:  I don’t… Yes.

works:  All you know is that something clicked.

Daniel:  Something really clicked for me, and I’m grateful for that. I like making something small because I can’t lift heavy stuff anymore. I also like making something small that I can build off of and that can be more than just something small. I can vary the size of the tile panels. I really like the entire process.

works:  I’ve done photography for a long time and certain images click for me. Just the other night I was going through my older photos and I realized some could be seen as disturbing. Quite a few years ago I was down at the Salton Sea. It’s a strange place.

Daniel:  I’ve been there. It’s a very strange place.

works:  Yes. In the distance, I spotted some odd palm trees. I got closer and could see there had been a fire. Some palms were still standing. Others had collapsed. It was surreal. I could hardly wait to stop the car and rush over with my camera. That sight clicked for me in a big way. But looking at my photos you might see images of collapse and disaster. I think there’s beauty and mystery, too. But I realized some of my images must say something about my early life—maybe something about suffering and isolation. Does this make sense to you?

Daniel:  Well, it does. But for me, it’s not exactly darkness—I’m at a loss of words. It’s more like a wake-up call. Hey, there’s more to life than just a beautiful day. Life is a serious matter. There’s a lot of serious stuff going on and, for me, it’s really internalized. I mean, I’m moving things around and finding relationships I really like. But I’m always drawn to things that are a little unpleasant. Do you remember those boxing photographs that I did?

works:  Yes.

Daniel:  That’s a very unpleasant business. I would get those old magazines and cut out those photographs of old fighters, and put them together. There was something about those images that was horrifying, but revealing in some way. It revealed some part of who we are. Some part of who I am, maybe. I don’t know.

works:  I don’t either, but it does point to a reality. In a very real sense life is a struggle, and perhaps, certainly for many people, a real battle. You know?

Daniel:  And it was very hard for me growing up because I’m dyslexic. I could not read. I had a murderous time in school, 1st through 12th. It was just murder! I was humiliated and felt humiliated all the time. I hated going to school every day. Then I got to university, and all of a sudden, I’m a smart guy. How is that possible?

works:  Right. So how did you find out that you were a smart guy?

Daniel:  Well, eventually I decided I wanted to go into Fine Arts. I didn’t want to be in Liberal Arts. They wouldn’t let me in anyway, my grades were so bad. But I was able to talk my way into Fine Arts, and for the first time in my life, I was around people I was somewhat comfortable with. And the professors were people I could have a conversation with—not necessarily a lengthy conversation. I could ask them questions and wasn’t terrified of who they were. I had to take other courses, too—geology, psychology—and I began to realize that I was smart. I don’t mean brilliant, but I was okay; my mind actually worked. I wasn’t that guy who the high school counselor told, “You have no reason to even try to go to college.” I wasn’t that guy.
     Then I got accepted to UC Berkeley on my portfolio. I did very well there. This was somebody who was tracked in high school into auto mechanics, welding, woodshop and so on. I was offered a job as a mechanic when I finished high school. I wasn’t supposed to go to the university. The one consolation I had is that I was able to see.

works:  Say more about that.

Daniel:  I could always see things, look at things and see things quick. I remember telling my mother, “Your friend’s left eye is lower than the other one, and his ear goes this way.” I mean, I had good eyes. Then I started taking art classes. The sculpture made sense, because I could see it.

works:  You could see.

Daniel:  I could see it. Painting was a little more difficult. Sculpture was more natural for me.

works:  I think there’s a way in which art can be profoundly healing. Does that idea bother you?

Daniel:  No, not at all. It’s very healing for the practitioner and very healing for the people who go and look at it. It’s been very good for me. And I’m able to teach art in some ways. I love it.

works:  Art and doing art, can connect pretty deeply. The thing you said, “My eyes are pretty good. I can see,” I relate to that, too. My family moved 12 times by the time I was 12 years old.

Daniel:  Wow.

works:  I was always in a new place. It was probably scary. I don’t remember. Just when I was starting to make friends, boom, we’d leave town and I’d find myself in a place where I didn’t know anyone. And reflecting about that, I realize that each time I must have been anxious and focusing on seeing what’s safe and what isn’t. I suspect that has a lot to do with why I’m also pretty good at noticing stuff.

Daniel:  What’s it called? Hypervigilance?

works:  That’s it. It’s a survival skill.

Daniel:  It is. My mom was a real handful, and I had to kind of keep my eyes on her. I watched her face real carefully, because I could see what was coming down the pipe, by what was on her face.

works:  Do you think that translates into being sensitive to others?

Daniel:  I think I’m very intuitive about others.

works:  That’s what I mean.

Daniel:  Clearly. I think a big part of my early life, was learning how to tune into people emotionally rather than just listening to what they were saying. And that’s an exhausting thing to do, trying to figure out, “Am I safe with this person or not? Can I tell them what’s really going on? Or do I have to be really, really careful?”
     I’ve had years and years of therapy, and it’s helped me realize that I’m okay, and that being super empathic all the time can be exhausting and counterproductive. At some point, I have to be me.

works:  Absolutely. Now I don’t think we even touched on your earlier involvment in ceramics. Earlier on you became a potter, didn’t you?

Daniel:  I did. Back when I was a teacher, I had to take so many education classes. Oh, my gosh! I sort of wandered into teaching. I needed a job. It wasn’t a profession I sought out.
     So after I got all these credentials, I didn’t want to take any more credential classes and I decided, “I’m just going to take art classes!” I really missed working with my hands enormously.
     As an undergraduate, I’d taken a lot of pottery classes. I got to where I could throw a pretty good pot. I always thought I was a sculptor making a pot, you know, but it seemed interesting enough. Then 15 years ago I went back and took some ceramics classes. At that point, I didn’t want to go back to fine art because of all the issues of what to do with your work, and the fear it would take me back into a dark journey of some kind. It just seemed a lot safer to make pots. Maybe I could make beautiful pots. That rekindled my ability to throw on the wheel, and I made pots for some time.
     But I found myself trying to turn every pot into a piece of sculpture. My girlfriend, Susan Gold, is a potter She’s been throwing for 30 or 40 years. She absolutely loves it! I can throw pretty well—I can throw porcelain—and I can make pretty much what I want. But I found pots a real struggle. Once one is thrown, what would I do with the surface? I found I couldn’t get the information into the pot I wanted. It wasn’t the right aesthetic for me.
     I think potters do wonderful work, but it’s a very refined, special kind of aesthetic and I just wasn’t interested. So slowly but surely my things started veering away from—and I fought it—veering toward sculpture. I fought it and fought it.

works:  You have a center of gravity in sculpture somehow.

Daniel:  Yes. And I came back.

works:  You spent years teaching photography in high school in Oakland. Was there some satisfaction in that?

Daniel:  Tremendous satisfaction!

works:  Say something about that, if you would.

Daniel:  Well one thing, to begin with, is that I went to a snooty graduate school for art, and they brought in famous artists as our professors.

works:  You’re talking about UC Berkeley?

Daniel:  Yes. At least that’s the way I perceived it, you know—art with a capital A. It’s this special process, which I fought against, and I also embraced.
     The wonderful thing about teaching high school, I realized, was “God, these kids are smarter and more creative than me! They’re just absolutely wonderful! And if I can just get them plugged in…”
     At first I taught photography and I was able to get them a little excited about that. And I got pretty excited about that. But then, when I taught ceramics, I was able to get them all excited! The Special Ed kids could come in and everybody could be successful in ceramics. Not everybody could be successful in photography, because it’s technical.
     The thing that was completely shocking to me, is that I loved high school kids.
     I despised going to high school—and here I was. I loved these kids! And I was able to work with them. Also, I hadn’t had a lot of experience with people of color. But at Oakland High, it was very rare that I had a European-American in any of my classes. So I was dealing with all these other cultures that I hadn’t had much experience with.
     It was really hard for me at first, but over a period of time, I sort of figured out what I was supposed to do there. I wasn’t supposed to beat them up and give them a hard time—or threaten them, or give them bad grades, or anything like that. I was supposed to support them, move them along gently to their next experience.
     It was an exhausting job because I was doing a lot of parenting, too. Kids would come in with impacted molars. There was nobody to explain to them that they needed to have those teeth removed. If they get infected, you can die from that kind of thing.
     Or girls would come in who were pregnant, and they would be in my photography class. I told them I loved them, but they couldn’t stay because there were chemicals around that might be bad for the foetus.
     There were just a lot of crazy, delightful circumstances. I was basically dealing with crises every day—and it was the best job I ever had.
     A lot of the teachers, after 25 or 30 years, are completely burned out, because they’ve given so much. I was lucky. I only taught there 17 years and I felt okay until the very end.

works:  That’s beautiful.

Daniel:  The kids are so needy, and you help them—and they’re so appreciative, they really are. And you can be cranky and crazy one day, and they don’t care; they’ll forgive you. Adults won’t.

works:  It sounds like a transformational experience.

Daniel:  It sure was for me, yes. It really changed me for the good. Now, when I’m on BART and I see these African-American kids, and they have their pants falling down, and they’re acting so tough and stuff, I want to go over and say, “How are you doing? What school did you go to? Where are you going? What’s happening with you?”

works:  They respond to that.

Daniel:  That’s one of the things you have to learn, and it wasn’t easy for me to learn. I had a lot of barriers; I was really afraid. I learned that if you’re honest, and if you show people you like them, they respond very well. They respond well.
     
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversation and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.   

 

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