Interviewsand Articles

 

David Armstrong and the American Museum of Ceramic Art

by Richard Whittaker, Oct 31, 2016


 

 

If Pomona College student and football player David Armstrong hadn’t signed up for one of Paul Soldner’s classes over fifty years ago, AMOCA [American Museum of Ceramic Art] would not exist. It was to get a pesky graduation requirement out of the way that Armstrong signed up for a ceramics class. As he put it, “We play in the mud on the football field. Playing in the mud in the classroom, why not?”
     And curiously, if I hadn’t also crossed paths with Soldner almost as many years ago, the interview that follows would never have taken place. I think it’s worth pausing to dwell a little on this. I spent less than an hour with Paul Soldner while David’s relationship, once began, continued. And in both cases, the meeting was life changing.
     Many of the clay artists I’ve talked with speak of the impact of their first hands-on encounter with clay on the potter’s wheel. The experience, so fundamental, is a shock that resonates in a personal space that’s rarely visited in our day to day living. And so it was not a surprise for me to hear David describing how his student strategy to get a requirement out of the way backfired so gloriously. At graduation he’d earned 29 units in ceramics. But it wasn’t only because of the power of that first hands-on experience; in this case there was something else: Paul Soldner.
     Even though my experience with Soldner was slight, it had a long lasting effect. My girlfriend, Nancy, a student at Scripps, wanted to show me the pottery studio one evening and Paul happened to be there. I was soon sitting at a kick wheel trying to center a lump of clay after a quick demo from Paul. It was unforgettable, but what’s impossible to quantify is the part played by this man who was, of course, a complete stranger to me. It was something subtle, almost outside of my awareness, but afterwards a trace of his presence remained.
     The experience led me to take a ceramics class at a nearby community college (I hadn’t yet transferred to Pomona College) and for the next five or six years, studio ceramics was part of my life in one way or another. During that time I’d enrolled at Pomona College, graduated and moved to the Bay Area. In brief, this was the foundation for meeting David Armstrong fifty years later.
     The intermediate link in that long interval was provided by Bay Area sculptor John Toki who asked me one day, “Richard, have you heard of AMOCA?” John, an inveterate networker and tireless supporter of studio potters and clay artists, was already friends with David Armstrong. In fact, I’d met David in passing at one of John’s open house events. But the funny thing is that entirely on my own, and purely by chance, I’d already been to AMOCA.
     The city of Pomona underwent a steady economic decline beginning in the 1970s, I’d guess. I’d come to know the place in the 50s and 60s, especially thanks to my mother’s fondness for a department store there, Buffum’s—“at the top of the mall.” And although I’d left Claremont after graduation in 1966, I returned from time to time to visit my parents. On visits in the 80s and 90s, occasionally, I’d find myself driving through the city of Pomona; it was impossible not to notice the spread of empty storefronts. And it was on one of these visits, perhaps in 2006, that I happened to notice a sign “AMOCA.”
     Curious, I stopped and was quite amazed by what I found. “What is a serious arts museum doing in the city of Pomona?” I wondered. A woman at the desk gave me a short history of the place and I made a note to future self: look into this curious thing. But it hadn’t happened and I’d more or less forgotten about AMOCA, that is, until John Toki’s question.
     John Toki, it turned out, was part of what he likes to call “AMOCA North.” And it wasn’t long before, with help from Board Chairman Don Pattison, I found myself flying down to Claremont to interview AMOCA founder David Armstrong.
  

Richard Whittaker:  To begin, I’d like to ask you a little about your early life.

David Armstrong:  Well, I was born in McPherson, Kansas in 1940. When I was four years old, my parents came to California. My father had been the manager for J.C. Penney in McPherson, but along about 1943 the company changed their entire modus operandi and my father realized there wasn’t much of a future with the J.C. Penney Company.
     So he and my mother came to California, to Pomona, and opened a furniture store. Right after World War II, the demand for furniture was incredible and anything my father could get he could sell.

RW:  So somehow your father was not involved in World War II.

DA:  No. My father had passed the age for being drafted. So over the years the furniture business prospered and as time went by, I was in the first graduating class of Upland High School. Then from Upland High School, I went to Pomona College. I had intended to be a veterinary.

RW:  Now, I heard that before you got to college, there was some farming involved. Is that right?

DA:  My father bought three acres over in Montclair when I was in the first grade and we had horses and goats and chickens. I was in the 4H Club and I raised goats and grew up drinking goat’s milk. My father was five foot nine and I’m six feet and I attribute that to the goat’s milk.

RW:  Where there any citrus trees?

DA:  We had a few citrus trees, but most of it was open pasture with a barn and a place to keep the livestock. That’s the environment I grew up in.

RW:  So you must have had some responsibilities on the farm.

DA:  Yes. I had to take care of our animals, and every morning and evening I had to milk the goats. I had to feed the horses, feed the chickens and, from time to time, we also had rabbits. So I took care of the animals we had.

RW:  I’ve talked to a few people who grew up on farms, and they say you learn resourcefulness about fixing whatever needs to be fixed. Do you relate to that?

DA:  Yes, absolutely.

RW:  What are your fondest memories from that early life?

DA:  I think growing up with responsibilities and being able to have animals that I could take care of— I think that’s probably the best memory I’ve got.

RW:  Did your dad continue to have the furniture store while having a little farm?

DA:  Yes. He would go to work in the morning, and my sister and I would take care of the animals.

RW:  Would you share some of your experiences in high school?

DA:  Well, I played football. I had a lot of friends who were athletes. In fact, I won the first varsity letter ever given out at Upland High School, and it’s really because my name starts with ‘A.’

RW:  That’s amazing. So then you got to Pomona College.
DA:  Yes.

RW:  And did you play football for Pomona?

DA:  I played tackle. Unfortunately, I got some injuries that have been with me ever since, but I really enjoyed the game.

RW:  So besides football what were your other interests at Pomona College?

DA:  I majored in zoology, because I wanted to be a veterinarian. Actually, I’d wanted to be involved with a zoo. I thought I might be able to do some good in that environment. And in the long run, my interest in animals, and my education—as limited as it was—helped me a great deal in the field of art. I’d converted my father’s business from a furniture business to a collector’s gallery and met some gentlemen who specialized in painting birds, top figures in that field—John Ruthven and Roger Tory Peterson. John would come out to Pomona. This is all after I’d graduated. Anyway, John would come out and we would organize field trips with 25 to 50 patrons. It was lot of fun and sparked a lot of interest in the study of birds. We’d also run into all sorts of lizards and snakes, and it was a nice experience.

RW:  I have fond memories of lizards. Some have that little blue area underneath their heads.

DA:  That’s the sceloporus occidentalis, the Western Fence lizard.

RW:  [laughs] Okay! So you started out in zoology, but something happened.

DA:  What happened is I had to take an art class. I thought, “This is going to be my downfall!” So I talked to the guys on the football team and they said, “Why don’t you take ceramics? That’s what we’re doing.”
     So I took it the very first semester to get it out of the way. I thought, “We play in the mud on the football field. Why not play in the mud in the classroom?” So I signed up and as luck would have it, my professor was Paul Soldner. He was in his second year of teaching so I was involved with Paul almost from the beginning—we could go to Scripps and get credit at Pomona College. I really liked ceramics so I signed up for another semester, and the more I got involved, the more I enjoyed it. By the time I graduated from Pomona College, I had 23 units of ceramics.

RW:  That’s amazing. You were throwing pots pretty well by then, I bet.

DA:  Yes. But I was still interested in zoology. Then, when I was a sophomore, the football team went down to the women’s dorm to welcome the new freshmen women, and I saw this absolutely beautiful young lady come walking up the steps of Harwood Dormitory and I thought, “I’m going to have to learn about her and meet her.”
     Well, six months went by and nothing. But I found out she was an art major. So do you know what I did?

RW:  What did you do?

DA:  I signed up to be a model in her art class.

RW:  [laughs] That’s quite a move.

DA:  [big smile] I wore this kind of John L. Sullivan swimsuit. Anyway, she thought, “If he’s going to go that kind of trouble, maybe I should go out with him.” So we had our first date and three years later we got married.

RW:  That’s a great story. So you modeled for the art class, but not in the nude?

DA:  No. And I got fired. After the second day, the professor said, “Dave, you’ve got to relax.” I was up there you know [mimes flexing his biceps]. But mission accomplished!
     So with her influence and then studying with Paul Soldner, my entire life changed. Ever since then, it’s been pretty much associated with art and, of course, an interest in ceramics.
     The reason I was so enamored with ceramics is because of Paul. He inspired his students to dig down deep and express themselves. And most important, he conveyed that there’s more than one way to do things. Paul was involved in making things out of nothing. I mean, he made a kiln out of an old oil drum and a house vacuum.
     In my second year with Paul, we had the Scripps Annual, which he was in charge of. He had an idea of developing something that could be fired quickly and had been reading about raku from Japan. So he developed some glazes and a clay body that would mature at a low temperature, but in Japan, they were doing this at high-fire.
     Well, Paul made a small kiln out of a 50-gallon oil drum, packed clay around the inside and put some burners on it. His first firing was in preparation for the annual at Scripps. The whole class was out there. Paul reached into the kiln with a pair of tongs and pulled a glowing hot piece and ran over to the fish pond at Seal Court and dumped it in. This was pretty dramatic with the steam and all. And then he pulled it out, and Richard, it was the ugliest thing you ever saw in your life!
     But Paul thought, “Well, we’ll try it again.”
     So he pulled out another red-hot piece, but this time he stumbled on the way to the fish pond. The pot fell into a pile of pepper tree leaves and set the whole thing on fire. The whole class is putting the fire out, and when they all looked at the pot, it was beautiful! The leaves had made an impression in the glaze. And that started Paul off on a whole career of developing raku. Now it’s a major technique of firing taught in all the colleges and universities that have ceramics classes.

RW:  That’s another great story. I didn’t know that Paul was responsible for raku here in this country.

DA:  He’s the father of American raku. It’s different from Japanese raku.

RW:  It’s interesting how things happen. Would you talk about your first experiences with clay. Was there a moment where it kind of lit up for you?

DA:  I think it was from day one in Paul’s classroom—touching the clay and realizing I could make something out of it. And whatever I made couldn’t be duplicated. Paul taught us how to throw a pot, how to do slab rolling and coil building—most of the techniques that were available at the time. I really enjoyed working with the clay. And Paul taught us all in a big room—beginners, intermediates and graduate students from Claremont Graduate school, too.
     He discovered there was kind of an osmotic transference of knowledge with the beginners working side-by-side with others who were more experienced; and the experienced people would see the beginners trying things they hadn’t thought about. There was great communication and camaraderie between the students.

RW:  That’s inspired.

DA:  Yes. During Paul’s career, he inspired over 200 students to become teachers of ceramics, which is absolutely amazing.

RW:  What was your trajectory?

DA:  At the beginning, I was entranced with the wheel and learning how to throw a pot.

RW:  Can you describe the first time you started wrestling with the clay?

DA:  Well, it went all over the place. But then Paul showed me a technique and I was able to adapt to it pretty quickly.

RW:  I’d think there would be a kind of natural affinity for working with clay with people who worked with their hands, like on a farm.

DA:  I’ve always liked to work with my hands and this seemed to be just a natural extension of that.

RW:  What was the high point of your throwing career?

DA:  I came back and got my Master’s degree. I graduated from Pomona College in January of 1962, but then I went into the Army and spent two years in Albuquerque at Sandia base. When I went into the Army, the recruiter said, “Well, since you are a zoology major, you should be a Military Policeman.” Now you figure that out.
     Then I came back to California and spent the next five years in the National Guard. During that time, my father passed away, and I took over his furniture store and converted it into a collector’s gallery. Then in 1989, I went to get my Master’s degree. Paul was still teaching, so he was the chair of my committee and the high point was my MFA show for Claremont Graduate School in 1991—Audio Ceramanetics.
     I made five different sculptures—eight, nine feet tall—and the observer could participate with them to produce the sounds. That was the whole idea. For instance, one was a pole with a circle attached to the top. It had small chains coming down holding these cones that I’d thrown, and there was a conveyor with little cups that you could put clay marbles in. You’d press a button, and the conveyor would take the marbles to the top and dump each one so it would come down feeding into these cones one after another: “tink, tink, tink, tink, tink, tink.”
     And there was one I called, Sensuru, with a thousand little dishes suspended on little chains. The outside rows of the dishes were stationary, and the inside part would revolve, and each time the dishes touched each other, they would make a sound.

RW:  What was the response to these pieces?

DA:  I had all sorts of accolades from all sorts of different people.

RW:  But somehow you didn’t go into your own art career from that. I mean, that could have been the beginning of making a name for yourself and so on.

DA:  Well, I realized I probably would never be a well-known ceramic artist. My background is really more in promotion and business management. The ceramics helped a great deal in my career, and I’ve made a living working with ceramics. During the time I had Armstrong’s Gallery in Pomona, “collector plates” were popular starting about 1970, and we had our own production studio here in Pomona.

RW:  So there was a big gap between your Bachelor’s degree and the MFA.

DA:  From graduating in ’62, I spent two years in the Army and came back in 1964 to help my father with his furniture business. He passed away in 1966 and I spent the next couple of years trying to work with the furniture business. I did some interior design for folks, but they would go to some discount house and buy their furniture, so that was very discouraging. And finally, I’d had enough of that. So I decided to do something I really enjoyed, something that was more art-oriented.

RW:  Is that when you thought, “Maybe I’ll start producing some things myself”?

DA:  Yes.

RW:  Where did the idea of doing collector plates come from?

DA:  Well, with my background with ceramics. I thought, “Why not? I can do this.” So we started over on Park Avenue in Pomona. There was a gentleman who had a ceramic production facility in Glendora, and he was losing his lease. I talked to him and said, “If I provide a building for you, would you like to come to Pomona?” He came over and supervised the ceramics production. That left me free to work in the gallery and to sell.

RW:  So how did you come up with a ceramic product to produce?

DA:  In the early 1970s, collector plates were something folks really started becoming interested in. Rod MacArthur, the son of John MacArthur, the oil baron down in Florida, set up the Bradford Exchange and marketed collector plates designed by Norman Rockwell all over the U. S. He was very successful.
     So I thought, “Well, if he can do it, so can I.” I knew how to work with ceramics. So we started with a wonderful artist, Irene Spencer. She subject was mother and child and her paintings were really heart rending. Folks all over the country started liking the work she did.
     Later on, I made the first ceramic baseball cards. We had Pete Rose, George Brett, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson—and they went over pretty well. But soon there too many hands out getting royalties and there wasn’t anything left, so I stopped. And it was in 1975 that I met Red Skelton, the comedian.

RW:  How did that happen?

DA:  I read an article where I discovered that Red Skelton was a painter as well as a comedian. He painted clowns. I thought it would be wonderful if I could get him to work with us using his paintings, because everyone knows Red Skelton. And I was able to get an audience with him. When I presented my idea. He said, “Collector plates? How many would you want to make?”
     I said, “To start off with, a series of four with 10,000 each.”
     He said, “I could never paint that many!” [laughs] So I explained how it would work and he liked the idea. He said, “Why don’t you take these two paintings with you and send me a contract, and we’ll get started.”


RW:  Wow.

DA:  The series was extremely successful. But as things become successful, then others try to steal them away from you. But nobody could compete by painting clown paintings, because Red was the ultimate clown. Other manufacturing companies approached him, but he stuck with me. So I ended up representing Red Skelton for 27 years.

RW:  Did you get to know him?

DA:  Very well. He was the funniest guy I ever met, and one of the quickest wits. He always had something interesting and funny to say.

RW:  I read somewhere that he was an orphan. Do you know anything about his background?

DA:  No. I know that as a kid he used to dance for pennies at some of the sideshows and circuses, and when he was very young he fell off the stage. People laughed, so he developed an act where he would fall down. In later years, he had to wear braces on his legs.

RW:  Do you have any insight into the clown paintings?

DA:  The clowns he painted for us were of Freddie the Freeloader—one of the great characters he created for his stage performances. There were different situations that Freddie got involved with. One is just face shot of Freddie the Freeloader. Then there was Bronco Freddie riding a bronco bull. There were a whole series of plates. Over 27 years, Red received over $3 million in royalties for the use of his paintings.

RW:  I wonder if that theme, the freeloader, was descriptive of part of his early life?

DA:  Maybe in the early stages. But from 1950 to 1970 he had his own television show, and it was always in the Top Ten. I don’t know much about his early life, but he created all of these characters for his stage performances, like Cauliflower McPugg, Clem Kadiddlehopper and Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid.
     I used to wear a toupee and when I went back to get my MFA degree one day I was firing some pieces I’d made. Paul had these catenary kilns and to check how you’re doing, you would pull out the plug at the top of the kiln and look in. So I pulled out the plug, and the flame came right out and melted my toupee. I was helmetized.

RW:  Good heavens!

DA:  I wasn’t hurt, but I thought, “Maybe I don’t need this thing anymore.” By then I’d been working with Red for years and I’d always worn that toupee. Red would gently tease me about it and I was kind of concerned what he would think of me without my toupee.
     So we had a meeting coming up for him to do some autographing of some of the plates. I got there early and saw them driving up, so I ran out to open the door for Red. He looked up at me and said, “Oh, I see you’ve been out to Indian country.”

RW:  Real quick, just like that.

DA:  He was always so sharp. I’d gotten scalped.

RW:  You liked him.

DA:  Yes. He was a very good friend of mine. I was a pallbearer at his funeral.

RW:  I see. Okay. Let’s jump forward to the museum. What are the beginnings of the American Museum of Ceramic Art?

DA:  I had a gallery and I’ve always liked to collect things, and the collection grew and grew—especially with some of Paul’s work. Well, Paul never had a student who started a museum. So we talked about that. I thought we could do something to help show the ceramics that others make and help them with their careers. So we started the museum.
.
RW:  So you brought the idea up?

DA:  Yes. And he said, “That’s a great idea.” This was in 2003.

RW:  Did it just suddenly click like that?

DA:  No. It took a lot of work. Through my gallery I represented different artists from all over the United States. I thought if we had a museum it would probably help the business—I mean, from a selfish standpoint. The idea started from just a small bud and it grew and eventualy really took hold. And I thought it would be a great help to the City of Pomona, too. At the time, I was president of the Pomona Central Business District and Pomona was going through some pretty rough times. At one point, Pomona was the top ranking city in murders in California.

RW:  I didn’t know that. I knew things had gone downhill.

DA:  So while I was President of the Pomona Central Business District, we hired private security as well as extra police force. We started making the city cleaner, and we developed a downtown property owners’ district, where the property owners contributed to pay for some of the services the city could not provide. And little by little, we were able to change the perception of Pomona, but it still has that stigma to it.
     I thought if we could have something of a cultural destination—and if the perception was clean and safe—people would want to come to Pomona. And we were able to get the museum started. The process took four or five years. We opened the doors for our first exhibition on September 11, 2004. Over 1200 people came that evening. It was amazing.
RW:  How do you view that idea of the museum as cultural service?

DA:  I’m not real sure exactly how to answer that. I think it’s the duty of all of us, as much as possible, to preserve our culture. If the remnants of our culture are not left behind, then the idea of our society disappears. If you go back to ancient Egypt over 3,000 years ago, the things that are preserved, more than anything else, are the ceramics and they are a documentation that enable us to learn more about that culture.
     Or take Peru. Ceramics is the main medium for the preservation of Peruvian culture. Daily life, and the entire history and culture, is preserved on the decoration of the ceramics. And ceramics has helped immensely in preserving many, many different cultures.

RW:  How would you say that your own love of ceramics fits into to all of this?

DA:  Let’s put it this way. The thing I learned about ceramics is there are all sorts of different ways to work with it. I admire people who take clay to a different level in their own ways. I’ve collected different objects that show that transition from what we know about to things that are totally innovative. And I admire what the artists have done who were able to achieve a level that others did not, and I’ve tried to collect objects that are a testimony to that artistic ability.

RW:  And that sounds like the spirit of Paul Soldner, too.

DA:  Well, it’s taking an idea and working with it and getting it to go further than anybody else has. That’s what studio ceramics, to me, is all about, and I really admire that.

RW:  You’ve done things to make a living and, at the same time, it seems you’ve been able to think outside of the box, so to speak.

DA:  That has to do with being an entrepreneur. I’ve learned that you have to look beyond the façade. What are the influences that you’re looking at? Many times, you’ll find that the causes are a whole lot different than you might have thought.


RW:  How would that apply to the museum here and what you’ve done?

DA:  Well, it doesn’t really matter how great an exhibition you put together unless you get people to come and enjoy it. You have to give them an incentive to come, and then to enjoy the exhibition. So some of that looking beyond has to do with marketing and merchandising the museum. And telling people about what we have here.

RW:  So you can imagine a goal, but it’s only until you take the first and second step, that you begin to see things you might not have thought of before you started. Does that make sense to you?

DA:  I think it does. But I do a lot of thinking, and I visualize what I’m about to do. What are we going to need? How are we going to apply it? I actually try to live working with a situation. Now, is this going to be the right way? So I visualize putting something together, and envision the finished product. It’s something I’ve worked on a long time. I don’t have a radio in my car. Whenever I drive some place, it gives me the opportunity to think and visualize.

RW:  I’m glad you shared that about the radio. On long drives alone, sometimes I won’t turn my radio on at all. It gives me time alone with myself and the landscape. It can be like a meditation.

DA:  I’ve put on 278,000 miles on a van that I purchased in 2007. I’ve driven all over the U. S. in the pursuit of ceramics, either delivering or collecting. In all that driving, it’s probably less than a couple of hours I’ve listened to a radio.

RW:  I love that story. What are some of your favorite experiences with ceramics?

DA:  One of the favorite relations I have is with Patti Warashina. She was the wife of Robert Sperry who developed crackle glazes. Robert was one of the first to work with that. We were able to preserve a lot of his work for the museum; I purchased it from Patti. I really admire her talent and her abilities, and she’s a very good friend.

RW:  I saw those plates by Robert Sperry on the wall, and they’re beautiful. What are your hopes for the museum?

DA:  I hope that it can grow and prosper and become the most important ceramics museum in the country. Right now, I think it’s the largest, but there are many museums that have some wonderful collections of ceramic art.

     Ceramics has always played second or third fiddle to other visual fine arts. Most museum directors up until a few years ago felt that ceramics was just a craft, but I don’t feel that way. The craft is the throwing, the slab rolling, the extruding, the processes you learn, but what you do with it is the art. It’s what you can do to extend clay into something that nobody else has done that’s art.

RW:  Do you know about Marguerite Wildenhain?

DA:  Marguerite Wildenhain and Susie Singer were the second show at AMOCA. Marguerite from the Bauhaus, and Susie from Wiener Werkstaette. Both came to the United States because they were Jewish and had to leave Germany for fear of being executed. Susie was incarcerated in one of the camps, but was able to get out, but it really affected her health. She came to Claremont and taught ceramics at Scripps. In fact, she taught Betty Davenport Ford how to build sculptures.

RW:  It’s a beautiful space and a great idea. I wish you well with it.

DA:  Thank you. We’re almost through our 12th year. It’s been a real privilege to know and work with all these artists who I’ve worked with. If it weren’t for ceramics, I would never have met some of the people I’ve met. Time after time after time, I get involved with different things and end up in different places meeting people I never would have met.





            
 

About the Author

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

 

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