Artistic Tradition: Being a Part of Something Big

This essay originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Art in Wisconsin.  

A couple of years ago my high school ceramics teacher asked me to write a reflection on a retreat we took back when I was a student.

On a cold winter evening in the late 70’s a bunch of high school art students piled into cars and drove off for a weekend at a remote cabin in the woods of Iowa. I remember a bitterly cold ride in the back of a pickup truck, but once we arrived the cabin was warm and full of excitement. Our trip was more than just a weekend jaunt, we were going on a pilgrimage. It was a pilgrimage to meet the teacher of our teacher. Don Hunt who taught us ceramics made it clear we were not simply being taught a skill, we were heirs to a tradition. It was a tradition that traced back to the Bauhaus in Germany and even further back into the mists of time. I was thrilled to be a part of something elemental, ancient and mysterious.

the essay was to be the foreword for a chapter he was contributing to a book about Marguerite Wildenhain, a distinguished ceramic artist and teacher from Germany.  Marguerite had received a rigorous training and taught at the Bauhaus. She fled Nazi Germany and eventually arrived in this country where she taught in California. As a teacher she was renounced for demanding and receiving the highest effort from her students. over the years her students became teachers and produced talented pupils of their own. one of Marguerite’s students was Dean Schwarz who led the retreat in that remote cabin in Iowa and my teacher Don Hunt was a former student of Dean Schwarz.

For youth the importance of tradition can be easily tossed aside… and when I was in school the dominant mode of art education was the philosophy that art in the 20th century was a continual upward spiral of innovation. this fascination with the new taught that each new generation of artist would cast off the chains of the past and reinvent art. I think one of the most refreshing things about the teaching of Don Hunt was that he had us steeped in tradition and was so explicit in saying that what we were learning was something that had been passed down from teacher to student for generations.

recently I was able to purchase the finished book marguerite Wildenhain and the Bauhaus.  It is an enormous volume with 767 pages weighing about as much as an unabridged dictionary. I have not yet had the opportunity to read the entire book, but in looking through the pages I recognized the same colored slips we used for decorating. Her pots also had the same glaze that we had used in our kilns back when I was in school. I also recognized the same design of kick wheel that I had made once, but most importantly I recognized in the various essays descriptions of her passion for teaching and her student’s enthusiasm for learning. It was the same burning enthusiasm that I had experienced so many years ago in ceramics class with Don. I was also impressed by the vast reach of Marguerite’s influence. It was clear that marguerite had many students and many of them went on to teach others and pass on the legacy.

The lessons I learned from Don were some of the most formative in my life. I count myself fortunate to know the exact genealogy of this line of my artistic heritage. I know many that share that connection and I am sure that other teachers have left similar trails of talented pupils. One has to image that anytime one encounters an artist of significant talent and insight, behind that person must be a legacy of tradition that contributed to what that person has become. whether we recognize it or not, that is the way that we truly become an organic living part of something very big.

Margurite Wildenhain, 1959, Photo by Otto Hagel © 1989 courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundaion

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