Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Jim Melchert: Lucky Breaks

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 1, 2007



I met Jim Melchert at his studio in Oakland. A few weeks earlier I’d seen two of his broken porcelain pieces in a show at The Garage Gallery in San Francisco. We’d talked a little at the opening about his use of breaking as an element in his work with tiles. I realized that utilizing chance is a topic in itself. When we met, we focused on this aspect of his work. During our conversation I took photos as usual. While scanning the film later, a malfunction occurred and produced the stylish effect you can see in photo above. Perfect! I thought, and left it just as it was.

Richard Whittaker:  Randomness and chance is an integral element in your work and I’m wondering when this first became an interesting subject for you.

Jim Melchert:  Probably in the late sixties. John Cage’s book Silence was very important to me. It was an introduction to a lot of possibilities I’d never thought about before. His musical compositions were based on throwing the coins for the I-Ching to determine the pitch, how long a note would be held, all the aspects of constructing a musical composition. In the late sixties, in the Bay Area, we were all consulting the I-Ching. The amazing thing is that the results always seemed to fit the situation one was concerned about. I was also interested in chance the way artists like Arp have used chance. But the way I’m working now in using chance is altogether different from what I was introduced to with Cage.
     I talked to a physicist quite a few summers ago. I asked him what a crack was. I’d found that with some Mexican pavers I was using, that if I heated them too rapidly in the kiln, I could count on them cracking. If you don’t want it, it’s really a huge nuisance, but since it happened with such regularity, I thought I’d better find a way of using it. So I was deliberately firing those tiles and doing things that depended on the cracking. Usually when you have an extreme heat change, the cracks will form arc shapes; they’re quite lovely curves. I had assumed this was just random, but when I talked with the physicist, he told me that cracks are not random at all. Actually they expose the weak links between the molecules. The bonds are not as secure in those places. 
     So when there’s a shock to the tile, it’s going to break where those weak links are. Depending on how you break it, it will release in different ways. I found that by dropping a tile to break it, I get something quite different from what you get from a thermal shock. I have five places here along my sidewalk where I will drop a tile and I have a pretty good idea of what kinds of breaks I’ll get.

RW:  Fascinating. You’ve mentioned Cage and the I-Ching. I was consulting it, too, just as you say. But when did your relationship with chance begin to feel meaningful in terms of your own experiences?

JM:  There’s a certain excitement that comes with something that you don’t expect. On Sundays, when the kids were small, we liked to take little outings. Shall we go to Muir Beach again? Maybe Tilden Park? Well, we decided to take out a map of the East Bay and each one would take a turn with a pen just dotting a spot. Then we would drive to that place. [laughs] The kids thought it was the dumbest thing! But Maryann and I just loved it! You have no idea what you’re going to see. And it’s a lot cheaper than going to the movies.

RW:  What an inspired idea!

JM:  Yes [laughs]. You can surprise yourself. One thing about surprises is that, in a way, they are interruptions. Interruptions can certainly be annoying; at the same time, interruptions can sometimes wake you up! An interruption can alert you to something.
     We’re dealing with change and chance all of the time. Just think of the weather right now. I have a son who lives in Oxford in England. The Thames is overflowing. It’s the first time it’s happened in sixty years. You have to use your resources in dealing with change. I suppose that the more you learn to improvise, the better you are at making things work. This interests me. I think artists are very good at making something positive come from a negative situation. A broken tile is not a negative situation, but you can’t give it away. By working on it, I’ve given them value that they
didn’t have.
RW:  It’s true. A random interruption could be a break in an inner pattern, too. Could a crack be something through which a kind of light might appear?

JM:  Yes. There’s a very interesting artist named Jun Kaneko who has organized a symposium in November. Artists are going to meet there and we’re going to be talking about the space between. There is a Chinese character ma and what you see are a couple of doors. The Chinese character looks a little bit like the old saloon doors you see in western movies. Then below, where’s it’s still open, you see the sun! [laughs] There is a concept of ma in Jun’s work.
RW:  I’ve had the experience with language of how difficult it is to find the phrase that’s alive. Some people have introduced randomness. They cut up the sentences and words and just mix them up at random. This action gets one outside of one’s habitual world, let’s say. There’s an unexpected freshness that can appear this way. But if “I” am in charge, it’s so much harder to find that.

JM:  That’s right. Often a person needs a jumpstart. Sometimes, just to do something, just to put this together with that, you begin seeing something that you haven’t seen before, but you need the spark. The whole notion of collage is to juxtapose something with something else to make an image that you wouldn’t have imagined yourself doing. Once you’ve caught fire, as it were, then it’s you working. There’s a challenge when you confront something you have to deal with that is new to you. It should bring out the best in you. You hope it will. You hope you’re prepared for it—I mean whether it’s a flood or a cracked tile. It’s resourceful people we so depend on whether it’s legislators or people who tell stories, make art.

RW:  You’ve had a consistent and intentional relationship, since the sixties, with the process of chance. Is that a good way to describe it?

JM:  I suppose so. A lot of things have happened to me. For example, when I was in Washington—this would have been in 1980—I was invited to a conference in Mexico City at which there would be a number of U.S. artists who had come from Spanish speaking countries. We would all get to know one another. Since I was in the Arts Endowment it was thought that if I were in on this I would get a much better understanding of those artists and their work. Ed Carillo—who was still living then, a very interesting, good man—Ed was there with one of his students. I found out that the two of them were going to rent a car and go to Teotihuacan to climb the sun pyramid. I asked if I could go along. We climbed the pyramid and it was a profound experience. Going up, it was a lot of effort. The steps were very steep. Getting down, your legs felt different, physically. You’d take a step and you’d find yourself taking a much bigger step than you normally would. Ed told me a lot about the way these pyramids had been built and introduced me to the idea of one Aztec year being fifty-two of our years. It was a spiral idea. After one of our years the planets are not in the same place they were a year earlier. It takes fifty-two of them before the planets are again in the same place. There were many things like this. That whole experience triggered a series of drawings I did that had to do with re-climbing the pyramid. There was a show of those drawings at the San Francisco Art Institute after I came back from Washington.
     So, all of a sudden an invitation appears to go to Mexico City. I go. It was a wonderful experience. Then there was the contact with Ed, where I learned so much. It has served me well ever since. As a result, I tend to look forward to these chance invitations. For instance, I am just back from two weeks at Watershed in Maine.

RW:  I’ve heard about this place from John Toki.

JM:  It’s all for ceramics and for independent work. When I was there I had some pieces in a soda kiln, which is similar to a salt kiln. It’s used for a very specific kind of firing. At any rate, I’d heard about it. I’d been invited a year ago and it’s easy to say oh, sure. But when the time comes, you think, why did I ever agree to this? I have all this work to do here.
     I went and I found it one of the most beautiful places in the summer. There are these great boulders and there is the water. You’ve got the coast there. And forests! I’ve never seen so many forests everywhere. The Watershed people asked me to invite two other artists to be there as guests with me and we were joined by twelve who were paying residents. There was also a staff, most of whom were quite young, but all were experienced artists, gifted artists, all working in clay—about half of them potters.
     I chose Jamie Walker, who teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle, and a woman sculptor, Elise Siegel, who lives in New York City. I had never met Elise. Neither had Jamie. A few years ago I was in Korea for the Third International Ceramics Biennial and saw a large sculpture, a group of figures, boys fighting. It was an amazing piece and every day I would pass it. I always thought, I’ve got to meet the person who made this. So with this invitation, I thought I’d just invite Elise Siegel. It turned out I made a very good choice with both Jamie and Elise. We were quite a team, the three of us. We had such good conversations and we thoroughly enjoyed all these other people who were working there. So I came home feeling so refreshed. Of course, now I’m paying for it. I’m doing three weeks’ work in one week!

RW:  You used the phrase, gifted artists. And then I’m thinking “chance.” Gift and chance. Both seemed to be at work with your Watershed experience, but I wonder if you’d reflect on gift and chance. Both of these elements are big ones. Let’s look at those in terms of the work.

JM:  It seems to me that if you regard what you have as a gift, you then sense the responsibility to do something with it. I feel, for example, that I’ve been gifted with very good friends. If that’s the case, then one needs to be a good friend, it seems to me. I have a studio and, my goodness, how many artists there are who can’t afford a studio and they want to work. Or people who don’t have the time to do the work. Well, I’ve got the time and I’ve got the place, and I can do it. So I’d better not fritter away what I’ve been given.

RW:  Both the idea of a gift and also embracing accident—in fact, in your case, cultivating accident—both bring things that I didn’t generate from my ego self. There seems to be something so important in that.

JM:  Say it again.

RW:  If I demand or ask, it’s not a gift, right?

JM:  That’s right.

RW:  If a crack occurs in a tile, generally, it’s unbidden. So I’m saying the unbidden element brings something with it that I could not have generated out of what I’m calling my ego, not in a pejorative sense, it has to be there. But gifts come from some other place, and so does the unbidden.

JM:  Right. And we have a lot of the unbidden built into our genes. We didn’t ask for it. So the best thing to do, I’ve finally concluded, it to accept the unbidden things. I had an older brother with whom I didn’t get along very well. Whenever I—to this day!—whenever I really louse up with something, I will hear my brother’s voice. “Oh, you dumb, dumb, you IDIOT!” It’s still my brother’s voice. I’m carrying this with me. Now [laughs] I could do without it, believe me! But that’s part of who I am and I acknowledge it. I say, “Okay, Paul’s still yelling at me.” But I don’t want to be yelling at myself! I’ll let him do it and then I’ll get back to work. There are many such things, unbidden.

RW:  I’m glad you brought that up. There’s so much of ourselves that’s not only unbidden, but almost everything about myself is a given, really. I didn’t make my body. How much of myself did I create? Recently I’ve been asking myself that. Part of what I am responsible for may be restricting. Let’s call them ruts. Sometimes an interruption, an unexpected event, can free me from these ruts, for a little while. We’ve been circling around this, but my sense is that you’ve really discovered that in a very central way somehow.

JM:  Well, I’m seventy-six. [laughs] I’ve finally seen a little bit! you know. Something that’s on my mind is that I have probably no more than five or six, seven years left—given my family history, and so on. So what do I want to do with this time? Talk about gifts! Well, time is one of the most precious gifts we have. If I ever had to focus, it’s now. But I like this body of work you’ve caught sight of because I have the feeling that I’m just at the beginning of something. I’m very curious to see where it can go.
     One of the things I’ve learned from Pete Voulkos is to think of the material as your partner. It takes the two of you, as opposed to the popular notion that the artist is the one, and what happens is the result of that one. Material has a mind of its own. Pete was so taken with clay that he really didn’t like glaze that much because it would cover the clay. He wanted to maintain that contact with clay. That’s why wood firing appealed so much to him. It would bring out the color and not obscure the surface. For myself, with these tiles, by dropping them, I’m able to see something that was concealed in the clay before. And when it’s exposed, it becomes something I can work with.

RW:  What was concealed were the weaknesses?
JM:  That’s right. It’s a little bit like fault lines. Years ago when I first met Dorothea Rockburn and later when I met Sol Lewitt, I began to see how, if you work with what’s in front of you, with what you have, it may take a search, but you find there’s a lot that can be done that doesn’t come from, how shall I say, the history of the imagery that you’ve used in the past. You can break from that. For example Dorothea would make a wall drawing with a sheet of paper, but drawing on the wall. I’d see arcs and I’d ask, Dorothea, how did you get that arc? I mean there was no curve in the rectangular piece of paper. She said, well, you put a pushpin in this upper corner and let the paper swing. It describes several arcs. She’d follow the swing of the paper with a pencil. She make these wonderful wall drawings in this kind of conversation between a piece of paper and a wall.
     With Sol, he’d often do things in sequence. Starting with a thought, okay, I’ll put lines that are parallel with an edge. Then, I’ll double the lines, and so forth. You would proceed and before long you’re arriving at places you’ve never thought of going. It’s a revelation. If you work resourcefully with the structure of what you have in front of you, the two of you will lead you to places you haven’t been before.
RW:  Now these tiles here that we’re looking at. I find them very beautiful. Do you find them beautiful?

JM:  Oh, Yes! [laughs] One time Rupert Garcia came and gave a talk to my seminar when I was teaching at Cal [UC Berkeley] and he did the most wonderful thing. He put a slide on the wall and he said, “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” It was so refreshing when he did that! Because it’s something, you know, we’re trained not to say. [laughs] He said it! And it was wonderful!

RW:  [Gets up and walks over to a broken tile piece] The way these lines come up here and these…

JM:  It all comes from the inner structure.

RW:  They’re elegant. It’s a real demonstration of this collaboration of chance and the structure of the material—in combination with your own sensibilities.

JM:  Yes. And you know, initially, I just make single tiles, like these [points]. Occasionally I’ll come across two tiles that, if I juxtapose them, will excite each other. What has surprised me is how there is such a diverse range of images that come from this. ∆  


About the Author

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


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