The Cup in My Hand
In the Shenandoah valley, bobcats roam the forest outside Rob Barnard’s studio. When it storms, thunder echoes mightily along the valley between the mountains. The wheel is spinning in the studio, the kiln is being stoked, preparing to fire up clay. Rob signs his ceramics with a small circle and a dot inside, the calm in eye of the hurricane. To my eye, Rob’s pots are a step away from mud, as though Geb, the god of earth, dipped his hand into clay, shaped a bowl, smoothed away the excess, and fired it in the earth’s core. You can see the artist’s hand at work— drips, scrapes, even fingerprints.
I have lived with Rob’s work in my home for many years, and the experience has been transformative. His pieces are made to be used, not merely beheld. It is this direct experience, the invitation to touch, that provides a pathway to understanding the work. When I open my cabinet for a cup or bowl, I invariably reach for one of Rob’s. But why? While it’s true that I like the aesthetic—how my chai tea looks in a particular vessel, how it feels to hold it—it’s more than that. Over time the pieces themselves teach me, exert subtle influences.
I grew up in the same Kentucky town as Rob, my family knew his family, though by the time our families became friends, Rob was already away from home, studying to be a priest. From his sisters I learned that he spent twelve hours a day in silence, three of those in prayer. My teenaged mind could not fathom the value of that practice. He decided to leave seminary and finish high school back home. After high school, Rob enlisted in the Marine Corps, served in Vietnam, then enrolled in the University of Kentucky during the heady, counterculture 70’s. Rob was part of a hotbed of inspired ceramists, who were impressed by the ash glaze produced by wood firing they’d read about. They wanted to recreate the effect but were unable to achieve it with the methods they used.
While a student at UK, Rob came across Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book,” and after reading it, decided that if he truly wanted to be a professional, that is to become completely knowledgeable, not only about making pottery but also about the aesthetic aspects, he had to study in Japan. So in 1974, he and his wife, Lynn Marshall Barnard, moved there. Rob studied under the distinguished Kazuo Yagi at Kyoto University of Fine Arts.
Rob’s distinguished career now spans 40 years. Over the decades, Robert and Joseline Wood have collected his work and have now donated 37 pieces to The Crocker Art Museum of Sacramento, California, a premier institution in the field of international ceramics. The works will be housed in the new wing, the whole collection for one year, then selected pieces for permanent display.
I attended an opening of Rob’s work in a gallery in Boston’s SOWA art district. His pieces startled me. I wanted to reconnect with Rob and open a dialogue about his work. So, at his invitation, I visited him at his home and studio in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I drove over rolling gold winter hills, past bare sycamores with graceful trunks and cream-and-taupe mottled bark, a ridge planted with twisted dormant apple trees. As I approached his house, the landscape opened and softened. In the distance, the afternoon sun illuminated a row of maples like wan fans along the horizon.
With his shock of silver white hair and ready smile, Rob greets me from the porch. The order, arrangement, and earth-tones of his décor are welcoming and I have a sensation of being drawn into myself, my senses focusing into a state of calm alertness as my mind clears. Wow! I think, Good Feng Shui. My traveling companion, a Himalayan cat, catches the spirit of the place, leaps onto a leather couch and commences purring.
Rob offers me tea, Japanese style, warming the pot, heating the cream, and pulls a tray of homemade blueberry scones from the oven. We have our tea on the hickory dining room table, next to a small pile of brass-jacketed .45 caliber bullets. Rob is complex man— tough-minded and intellectual, passionate about his work.
After tea, Rob shows me around his studio and energetically discusses the prospect of his upcoming firing. He built the studio from rough lumber and equipped it with deep shelves, three separate potter’s wheels and a woodstove. He points to a small, slightly out-of-round cup and talked about the importance of spontaneity. “I might plan to make a dozen goblets,” he says, “but could instead end up working all day on a little creamer that catches my curiosity.”
He holds up a teapot with a hollow, cone-shaped handle a narrow upturned spout. The sooty top half blends into the rusty bottom half. The pot is elegant, but not pretty, its shape and finish feel both conscious and unforced. Just as there is no clutter in Rob’s house, there is no clutter in his pots. Yet their simplicity is accomplished through a series of complex considerations.
The finished works aren’t necessarily peaceful. Rob isn’t churning out ceramics in order to make people happy and comfortable. In his words, a good pot “reflects our frailties and strengths and offers us a riddle (koan) about how contradictory elements might be resolved to create something powerfully human. Good pottery must therefore have opposing elements—just as human beings have their own make-up—and then seek a resolution of these contradictions. That’s what makes it compelling.”
When I take the teapot in my hands, testing its heft and touching its rough surface, I am reminded of the Native American slang term wonky. The concept is that if the artist is disciplined, spirit can work through the heart and hand, uniting divine energy with the imperfection of the human experience. The resulting creation vibrates with aliveness and authenticity. I believe that quality is why I choose Rob’s bowl out of my cabinet, or his vase for my flowers.
But what, if anything, does this mean? Michael Cardew in his book Pioneer Pottery notes that if a potter is to work properly he or she must live on the frontiers of art as the scientist lives on the frontiers of knowledge. She is always taking risks because she does not know the outcome of her work prior to its creation. There is no formula, no map and, as far as she knows, no audience.
This approach requires, a willingness to accept outcomes we cannot predict. It demands attention both from the creator and the observer, not a passive experience of art, but an encounter. As Rob writes, “You may be in a museum looking at painting, sculpture, pottery, or photographs, when suddenly an object seizes you and creates a kind of mental confusion. You may be strongly drawn to it, for example, when, in fact, you thought you would or should detest it. This experience unexpectedly causes you to transcend your prejudices and taste and somehow makes the world a larger and more beautiful place to inhabit, a place where all things seem possible. Your fears and worries vanish and you leave feeling like you are walking on air...”
In America, many have come to view the artistic impulse as extraneous, not of vital to our well being. I believe that if we become disconnected from the objects in our hands, where they were made, and by whom, we become disconnected from meaningful contact with the world as well as those objects relationship to our inner lives. We become disempowered to influence our own stake in these questions. Yet I am also convinced that as a culture we are hungry for a route out of the simulacra, for relief from the overstatement of the millionth identical, factory-produced, aesthetically void mug for sale in Target.
From a shelf in Rob’s studio, I pick up a stoneware tea bowl, with white slip and a clear glaze. The slip contains crackles and drips, but the glazed surface is smooth. It feels right in my hand and I know I will take it home. Nothing will ever be exactly like it. Is not an imitation. Not an advertisement. It is the thing itself.