BRATTLEBORO — They are sensually curved, some with lids like old apothecary jars, while others are open-topped. Some have rolled lips, grooves, and raised ridges along the circumference, while others are perfectly smooth, like Gobi sands.
Each is a beautifully formed gem, shaped with inspiration from a cocoon, a chrysalis, a hive, a human figure, perhaps.
Nature, in all its manifestations, inspires ceramics artist Stephen Procter.
Procter's a tall man, but some of his pots are taller than he. Entering his ample, high-ceilinged studio in Brattleboro's Cotton Mill complex can make one feel Lilliputian, or like Alice after nibbling the mushroom. Vast pots stand erect throughout the space - some finished, some awaiting a firing, others in process.
This is Procter's world - an abundant, dynamic garden of ceramic pots qua sculpture.
Procter is at the League of N.H. Craftsmen's Annual Fair this week at Mount Sunapee Resort in New Hampshire, where one can not only see his work in Tent E but also see him at work in a daily demonstration.
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Having grown up in Wisconsin and Iowa, Procter, 66, knew Vermont, too. His mother had been raised on a dairy farm in central Vermont, and he recalls good times visiting there as a boy. In 1981, after a second summer stage managing at Marlboro Music, he moved to the area.
In his early 40s, he says, he stumbled into clay through his then-8-year-old daughter, who was taking a kids' pottery class with ceramics artist and arts educator Bonnie Stearns.
“I saw her working on the wheel and was intrigued,” says Procter, who then took a course of his own at Clayworks.
He was hooked.
In a past life, Procter was a development professional and a consultant to arts and cultural organizations. With a masters in music performance from Ithaca College, he's also a classical guitarist of note, but his professional playing days have waned.
“As I grew more and more serious about clay, it supplanted music,” he said.
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Procter recalls a friend asking, “Do making pots and making music draw from the same well?”
“The answer,” he says emphatically, is “yes.”
The transition from music to clay yielded an analogous approach.
“At a meta level, the purpose is to create an invitation for one to occupy a different psychic space,” Procter explains, “There's much similarity between the way one tries to render a musical gesture in sound and the way we create a visual gesture in space.”
In his artist's statement, Procter explains: “Leonardo da Vinci described music as 'shaping the invisible.' In my previous profession as a classical guitarist, I spun those shapes out in time. Now, sitting at the potter's wheel, I spin them out in space.”
“The musician and the potter work with essentially the same elements,” he continues: “repetition and contrast, tension and release, harmony and dissonance.”
A client once said, he adds, “Your pots feel like crystalized music.” Indeed, each piece resonates, like music.
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Procter's work is easy to spot, beyond its sheer scale. With elegant curves under surfaces either unglazed or layered with glazes, they evoke antiquity with a minimalist, modernist spin.
“My unglazed vessels point toward what is most elemental in the material and the forms,” he says. “Glazes bring more focus and activity to the surface of the vessel, and their application with brushes and layering introduces a painterly dimension.”
Like most studio potters, Procter uses commercially prepared clay. His comes from Ohio.
“What I'm doing is pretty unusual,” he observes. “I struggled for years with ordinary clay trying to get the scale I wanted. Then a dealer pointed me to a clay designed for sculpture that's workable on a wheel.”
Procter also points out another unusual distinction: He's also using high-fire stoneware, which can live outdoors. “It's microwavable and dishwasher-safe, too,” he says with a wink.
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Procter builds large pieces in many sections, joining wet clay to the partially dried wall in a modified version of the coil-and-throw method found in many ancient cultures.
“Although I work on a potter's wheel,” he adds, “my attitude is essentially sculptural: beginning with a rough idea of scale and mood, the details of form and decoration arise through an improvisational dance that unfolds over a period of days as the piece finds its way to completion.”
“I knew from the outset I wanted to go big,” he says. “In that first pottery class, I was told I went through more clay than anyone else in 37 years of introductory classes at Clayworks.”
His kiln can accommodate a piece 78 inches tall and 56 inches wide.
“That's the largest piece I have made,” he says.
Procter's pots are typically 24 inches to 60 inches tall, ranging from $800 to $8,000 each. “Gargantuan or otherwise technically challenging commissions can be more,” he says.
Procter explains his impulse to create in large scale.
“It is my impression that extremes of scale activate/engage consciousness in ways that ordinary scale does not,” he says. “The extreme can provide a useful kind of disorientation that makes room for something hidden or dormant to emerge.”
“Large scale has no value per se, just as loud volume per se has no value in music,” he adds. “But it can be an effective amplifier if the essence of the form offers sustenance.”
Procter has tried to scale it back, he says, but the pieces he's happiest with are those big pots that grace lawns, patios, and porticos of myriad individuals' homes and institutions.
“I wanted to go big,” he elaborates, “because large pots are beings of sorts - a presence that feels almost animate to me.”
I confessed that I'd found myself naming various Procter pots, including one I own. They evoke an essence of human existence - thrilled to be outside in the warmer months, but a little lonely on a winter landscape.
“That's why people need to buy multiples,” Procter quipped, smiling broadly.
Then he said earnestly that “multiples highlight the eloquence of the curves. Each imparts something different.”
And we respond uniquely to each unique undulation.
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Procter's pieces are generally unadorned.
“If I start working with surface adornment, the pot becomes about something else - it becomes a canvas or a vehicle for something else, and I'm ambivalent about that,” he says. “I've experimented with ornament and carving but that narrows the significance of the pot.”
At a show once, a woman suggested that he add hearts to a pot's surface.
“Glad I never did that,” Procter says.
“The unadorned pot leaves room for invocation and evocation; to specify is to limit,” he notes. “I prefer my pieces to operate more like Rorschach inkblots: The viewer can make them into whatever they will.”
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Procter's influence spans worldwide via social media. He's active on Instagram and recently launched an online tutorial video to explicate his techniques developed over the decades.
“It's gratifying to connect with people in Australia, Scandinavia, throughout Europe,” he says.
Procter's actual pots live as far away as California, Ontario, and Florida, but for the most part, they're within a six-hour drive of Brattleboro. His work has been seen widely on display for the public at various institutions.
For instance, his works have been on exhibit at Vermont's Shelburne Museum and at Rhode Island's Blithewold Gardens, where, he says, “it was fun to work with long views and surprise views” while he placed 18 pots throughout the estate's splendid arrays.
Next up will be a show at Jill Nooney's Bedrock Gardens in Lee, N.H.
Of his own influencers he says, “I don't aspire to emulate any particular cultural or historical examples, yet we've absorbed a Mediterranean form vernacular. That's an unavoidable influence. I love the cleanness of a contemporary aesthetic,” he says, as much as he's drawn to ancient forms, Asian forms, and, of course, nature.
One comment he heard about his work that he cherishes in particular was: “Oh, my god - they look like they grew here.”
For as bold and confident a stance as his works would convey, he says, “One thing that may be problematic is that my work lives in no man's land between craft and art. In many art circles, ceramics is not art, but I'm too expensive [and, perhaps, expansive?] for some craft zones.”
Wherever he is seen, though, his aim is simple, honest. In his artist's statement, he notes “the spontaneous exclamation or laughter, the being stopped in one's tracks, the impulse to kneel down, the unselfconscious physical embrace, the singing into the void.”
And, he muses: “How could I render in form spiritual or emotional states of being? What does a pot made while embodying gratitude look like? Or magnanimity? Or stillness?”
“The acid test for me is always how the form feels in my body,” Procter says. “As I age, I have to stick with what feels truest and trust that I will find people who need emotional presence and spiritual gravity.”