American ceramist Richard Notkin studied under Ken Ferguson at the Kansas City Art Institute, earning a BFA in 1970 and under Robert Arneson at the University of California, where he earned an MFA in 1973. He is well known for his socio-critical tile mural ‘The Gift’ and his sculptural re-interpretations of the Yixing teapot, e.g. his ‘Curbside Teapot’ of 1986. Notkin is on the board of the Archie Bray Foundation. He has won several awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowships in 1981 and 1988, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award in 1991 and a Jerry Metcalf Foundation Artist Fellowship in 1999.
As the poet economizes words, I have developed a similar means of expression in the ceramic arts through the conservation of materials. I believe that the aesthetic impact of a work of art is not proportional to its size, but to its content. It is not the objects created which are of prime importance, but the lives of people who may be touched in significant ways.
Although the vast majority of my work created between 1983 and 1995 consists almost entirely of teapots, I consider myself a sculptor with a strong commitment to social commentary. My chosen medium — the material I love to work with — is clay. The vessel is the primal “canvas” for the ceramic artist, and my vessel of choice is the teapot, the most complex of vessels, consisting of body, handle, spout, lid and knob. This allows me the widest latitude in juxtaposing the many images I use to set up my narrative pieces.
In addition, the teapot is a universally recognized object, with strong associations to domesticity and tranquility. As such, it is a “hook” to lure the viewer — who must then decipher the narrative imagery — in a sort of bait-and-switch fashion. The conveying of tea is secondary to the not-so-hidden message in my “teapots”. In addition to examining our many human follies, these teapots pay homage to the teapots of Yixing, China. I was first attracted to the Yixing teapots’ small scale, attention to detail, and wide range of imagery; I later became a student of their remarkable sense of proportion and composition, as well as their symbolism and narrative qualities. In creating my teapots, I strive to avoid being a mere copyist. Although I closely imitate the scale, formats, colors and textures of the unglazed Yixing teapots, my intention is to borrow from these formal qualities with honesty and a sense of homage. It is of utmost importance, however, that my teapots retain a totally separate cultural identity, that they reflect our contemporary civilization’s imagery and speak of our current situations as we emerge from the 20th century into the 21st.
The pieces in the “Heart Teapot” series explore the origins of conflict in human culture — both the collective conflicts between various nations, ethnic groups, religions, etc., and those inherent in relationships between individuals. The seeds of all conflict are to be found in each human heart. Such pieces as “Heart Teapot: Hiroshima”, “Heart Teapot: Beirut”, and “Heart Teapot: Salvador” were created to commemorate specific instances of the human species’ dark side, but the message of each piece is intended to outlive its respective moment in history. The spirit and power of art are exemplified by a work of art’s ability to transcend time and cultural boundaries.
20th Century Solutions
My most recent works in the 20th Century Solutions Teapot series were conceived in late 2000.I began the design drawings, prototype models and mold fabrication early in 2001. Although the first work was nearing completion, the tragic events of September 11 paralyzed my creative spirit for some time. I decided to halt work on this series, as the imagery seemed too painful. After a few days, and with the encouragement of Phoebe Toland, my wife, I decided that the message of the piece was perhaps more pertinent now than ever, and that it certainly needed to be seen.
The titles, such as It Will Be the Same, And It Can’t Be Helped, Nobody Knows Why, and With or Without Reason, are titles of individual etchings from the Disasters of War series by the great Francisco Goya. My pieces are meant to be a contemporary reinterpretation of these themes, and to pay homage to Goya’s work.
The concept behind the 20th Century Solutions Teapot series is, quite simply, that the armed conflict solutions of the 20th Century are no longer viable. We have entered the 21st Century with the technologies of ‘Star Wars’ and the emotional maturity of cavemen, a very dangerous combination. The problems of human civilization are far too complex to be solved by means of explosive devices.