Views of the Potter's Life

Views of the Potter's Life

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A page from the 1952 catalog shows the pottery’s offerings in its standard ware

A Year in the Life: Clary Illian
Directed by Atom Burke
Atom Burke Productions
24 min., DVD $30
atomburke.com

The Leach Pottery, 1952
Restored and re-released by
Marty Gross Film Productions
32 min., DVD $30
martygrossfilms.com

 

A Year in the Life begins with a quotation from Clary Illian's A Potter's Workbook: "It is a wondrous thing that ... people still want to make pots on a potter's wheel." The Leach Pottery, 1952 ends with a voice-over by Warren MacKenzie saying that he learned from Bernard Leach not only "how to make pots," but "why anyone made pots in this day and age." Illian, like MacKenzie, apprenticed at the Leach Pottery. But as the statements suggest, beyond that immediate link these films share a deeper concern with pottery and the potter's life.

The 1952 film apparently was made at Leach's request by local camera club members in Cornwall, England, with a few shots by MacKenzie from the same period. In this restoration, MacKenzie's excellent voice-over commentary helps explain the workings - artistic, personal, economic - of the pottery, and helps make the film a happy discovery. It turns basic footage shot without sound into an engaging guide to one of the most important sites in modern ceramics.

A Year in the Life is less happy, if only because it captures the dramatic after-effects of a badly broken wrist and shows Illian moving from a main-street building in Ely, Iowa, where she lived and worked for more than two decades. Re-established in a nearby house with a new garage studio, she starts up again making smaller, more manageable - and colorful - electric-fired work. The narrative is a bit uneven, but the interview footage and many images of Illian's work succeed in revealing her skill and imagination as a potter and her forthright, resilient character during a difficult
period.

Robert Silberman is a member of the department of art history at the University of Minnesota.