William Catling



Reaching into the freshly cut trench, I pulled out a handful of purple-gray clay and began making a place setting for the scheduled afternoon tea. The sun was warm against my skin on this lazy summer day with a gentle breeze to move the grass and keep us cool. Seated on the ground nearby, my companions were busy shaping their own bowls, cups and teapots. Amid this collaborative adventure rose an aroma that kept our parents away and for which we dubbed the clay “sewer mud.” And thus began a tradition that lasted many a summer day.

 
This was one of my early childhood experiences with the multifaceted material called clay. This love for clay continued throughout my early life, and intensified while in college at San Francisco State University in the early 1970’s.

A couple of semesters into my Bachelor of Arts degree I enrolled in the introductory level ceramics class with professor Joe Hawley. After a few weeks of work we all came proudly to our first critique. On the shelves was a smattering of mugs, bowls, vases and other bits of beginner’s attempts at functional ceramics. We grew quiet as professor Hawley looked carefully at the display of ware; the silence seemed to last forever. He removed a hand from his chin and sweeping us with his gaze proceeded to ask, “What are all these meaningless objects?” He went on to tell us to go back out and create objects that meant something significant to us; something that challenged our understanding of the material and its limitations. I left the room, walked to the technician’s office, bought 100 lbs of sculpture clay and went to work. That first piece of clay sculpture launched my career. It was the beginning of a life-long relationship with clay and shaping objects that carry meaning embedded into the process and the material.

The following semester I met the most significant person in my life as an artist, Stephen DeStaebler. He taught an introductory class in sculpture and that led me to later work as his apprentice and in 1981 to enter the masters program in sculpture under his guidance. Sadly, DeStaebler passed away in May of 2011.

From my professors and other clay artists I have gathered some thoughts that direct me as a ceramic sculptor: Clay is alive. The role of the artist is to work in tune with the life of the materials chosen. The crack in the clay is a gift to be received. Humanity is bound by a common spirit to be rejoiced with, mourned for and shared in. Advanced technology can be dangerous; it should be handled with gloves, saving the skin for contact with things elemental in nature. The real work of the artist is always in the studio. Our art is the work of our lives. Do not spend too much time in galleries and museums; they can confuse your personal vision.

I carry these thoughts with me as an artist and into the classroom as a professor at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. I share in the long tradition of creating art about the human condition through the use of the figure, as my life’s work.