Being bowled over

Artist draws influence from traditional Japanese tea ceremony for dual exhibit at Arts Council

Artist draws influence from traditional Japanese tea ceremony for dual exhibit at Arts Council

March 19, 2009|BY TIFFANY ARNOLD

Ceramic artist Joe Campbell said he has heard people at art exhibits talk about his Japanese tea bowls behind his back.

And he said he's expecting a similar scene at the Washington County Arts Council on Saturday, opening reception for a dual-exhibit featuring his ceramics. The exhibit, on view through April 15, will also feature photos by Jim Strongin taken during his travels across the globe - hence the exhibit's title "Africa and China: A Visual Odyssey."

Campbell's focus is neither in Africa nor China. His 27 mostly new ceramic pieces for the exhibit draw from the aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony. It's a fascination he said began 40 years ago, eventually evolving into his written master's thesis in college and shaping much of his work as a professional artist.

Campbell said what attracted him to these ceramics was their deceptively simple look. Asymmetry is valued and so is an "earthy," handmade look. Pieces in the show include tea bowls and flower vases. There are also other elements - like sake bottles and tea leaf containers - that aren't directly tied to the tea ceremony.


Still, Campbell, 57, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said he often finds himself explaining the subtle nuances of these ceramics at exhibits. He also overhears people muttering things about them.

"I'd hear over my shoulder, 'That looks like something my third-grader made,'" Campbell said.

And this would be true if the third-grader knew how to let the ashes from the wood-fired kiln - which has to stay on for 48 hours or so - melt in such a way that they seem to lick a smoky glaze onto what would have otherwise been a naked bowl. Then there's the second firing in the gas kiln, where sodium bonds with the silicate in the clay to create another glaze. Campbell calls this twice-fired aesthetic "visually thick."

Campbell said salt-firing is not really a Japanese technique. It stems from 15th-century German styles.

Primitive-style ceramics are popular among collectors. If done right, the third-grader's bowl could fetch between $800 to $1,200 - the amount Campbell sold his works for at a show in Brooklyn last summer.

"One of my Japanese friends sold one for $6,000," Campbell said.

Campbell, who teaches art at Frederick Community College, doesn't like to delve into the debate over whether functional art, like ceramics and pottery, is deserving of the same stature as fine art. He doesn't like to peg things as good or bad.

"That argument is just so old and tired," Campbell said.

But he did say that over the last 50 years, clay has been getting more respect as a legitimate medium, which he credited to artists like Peter Voulkos. "He took the clay out of the kitchen and into the art gallery," Campbell said.

Though Campbell's pieces are functional, he views his work as sculpture first.

"It doesn't matter that it's a coffee mug, it doesn't matter that it is green," Campbell said. "What is important is that it's clay, and that I used it in an expressive way."

If you go ...

WHAT: "Africa and China: A Visual Odyssey," a dual-artist exhibit featuring photographs by Jim Strongin and ceramics by Joe Campbel

WHEN: 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday, March 21. The exhibit will be on view through April 15

WHERE: Washington County Arts Council, 14 W. Washington St., downtown Hagerstown.

COST: Free

CONTACT: Call 301-791-3132 or e-mail

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