Ralph Bacerra’s Exquisite Beauty

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This summer the art news in LA has been about a giant, private collection housed in a sparkly new downtown gallery: The Broad. In the same time frame hundreds, no probably more like thousands, of smaller shows opened across the city and region, befitting the powerhouse that is the LA environs art scene.

I found myself drawn to 2 new exhibits celebrating ceramic history in Los Angeles. A history told through the prism and influence of Master Ceramicist and Teacher, Ralph Bacerra.

Primary is Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty at the Ben Maltz Gallery, on the West LA Otis campus, a retrospective of 90 pieces showcasing the career of the Garden Grove born artist and teacher.

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A faculty member at the Chouinard Art Institute from 1963-71, he headed the ceramics department at Otis College of Art and Design from 1983-96, in a career that spanned 5 decades.

Enrolling at Chouinard in 1957, he studied graphic design, with a view to pursuing a career in Commercial Art. However, one elective seminar with pioneering studio potter, Vivika Heino changed everything and a new pathway emerged.

“I started to get more serious working with the wheel and the clay and the glazes. I said ‘this is for me’.This is where I want to be and I dropped everything and switched my major to Ceramics.”

With his mentors move to the Rhode Island School of Design, Bacerra became head of the Ceramics program.

A lifelong exploration of historic asian ceramics, textile and print designs and finely honed technical expertise became the beautiful vessels and sculptures that comprise the exhibit.

His work represents pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. Expressed in all forms, organic, geometric, traditional or sculptural and always a surface replete with pattern, color, composition and design.

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Not for Bacerra the prevailing exploration of the “humble pot”, the creamy earth toned stoneware with brushstroke calligraphy in a nod to Japanese folk art:much approved of in the 50’s and 60’s! Moving forward with glaze technology and drawing upon his earlier background in commercial art, he experimented with raised clay designs on his stoneware and then shifted to porcelain and white ware, where his increasingly complex and overglazed decoration could shine.

“China Painting” as it was referred to, had become the province of Women’s Art Clubs and hobbyists, ironic given the historic gravitas and tradition of similar techniques. A growing movement celebrating color and embellishment and drawing upon these derided techniques influenced and encouraged Bacerra.

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This retrospective shows the move from simple green & white or blue & white graphics to dizzyingly complicated patterns:patterns and techniques drawn from Asian ceramics, persian painting, middle eastern textiles and MC Escher’ designs. Kandinsky, Klee and Klimt all on display at the Pasadena Art Museum were particular favorites.


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He perfected increasingly difficult firing schedules to accommodate  the complex and multilayered combinations of glazes.Curator and Author of Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty, Jo Lauria notes:

“As many as 14 firings were required for a single object and the labor intensive process was fraught with potential for breakages and flaws in the kiln.”  ..a 50% loss rate apparently.

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His tenure at Chouinard and Otis mentored an impressive number of students who follow in his footsteps.

The second exhibit celebrating Los Angeles’s storied clay history is Crossroads in Clay at Chouinard and Otis: The Ralph Bacerra Years, a group exhibition featuring more than thirty former students of the artist.

This exhibit, concurrent with the Ben Maltz show is at the Vincent Price Art Gallery, on the East LA  College campus.

It is an historic review, connecting the skills of the teacher (Bacerra) to the ceramic art of the students he mentored and a rare opportunity to see works created by these heirs of Bacerra’s tutelage. Many are now prominent artists in the field.

He challenged students to critically evaluate and recreate historic glazes and forms as part of their education and believed strongly in technical mastery and craftsmanship.

The show includes more than fifty artworks that demonstrate differing approaches, aesthetics and practice.Some retain a direct relationship to Bacerra and others are headed in alternate and innovative directions.

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A beautiful full-color catalogue, written by Jo Lauria and produced by the Ben Maltz Gallery accompanies Exquisite Beauty. And Crossroads in Clay curator, Christy Johnson has contributed an original essay discussing the lasting impact Bacerra had on his students.

Otis has also produced 2 “rolling clay” tours ( October and November) which travel to many of the ceramic artist’s studios featured in the Crossroads exhibit. 

A joy to explore Bacerra’s beauty for beauty’s sake .

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Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers

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I was asked why I decided to spend 6 weeks hiking from France to Spain along the famous Camino de Santiago, and was amazed to hear the words ” I’ve never done a big thing and I really wanted to” come out of my mouth.

When I read that Simon Rodia had said much the same when asked about his Watts Towers I recognized the sentiment.

“I wanted to do a big thing and so I did it.”

I first glimpsed the Towers from the Blue Line enroute to downtown LA from Long Beach, but the neighborhood, post 1992 riots  seemed scary. The newspaper photographs from the 1965 unrest flashed through my mind and slowed me from exiting the train. Poetic images of the Towers would appear in magazines, cameos in movies and video games would nudge me to visit, but it took a decade before I finally drove down the tiny streets in Watts to explore.

A big thing in Roddia’s life but almost lost in the suburban megacity that is Los Angeles.

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The triangle block is surrounded by small single story homes, an abandoned trolley line runs close by, there’s a small park and remnants of historic 20’s architecture when Watts was a solidly middle class suburb. A suburb growing because of railway lines and jobs and proximity to downtown LA.

Construction worker and immigrant Rodia moved into Watts and built his unique structures from rebar, his own concrete mixture, railway detritus and broken soda bottles and ceramic seconds. Neighborhood kids earned money by “sourcing” the decorative elements.

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He built in the evenings, after a days work and often walked 20 miles to Wilmington, along the tracks to find materials. He used no electricity or cranes, but constructed each component by hand.

The towers climb 100 feet into the air. And the project took 33 years in all.

I’m drawn to experience these solitary artistic endeavors.The innate sadness versus the fantastical and exuberant, and the physical scale and decades of labor tug like no other art.

I’m reminded of other outsider art constructions: Hermit’s Cave in Griffith, NSW , Forestiere Underground Garden in Fresno and Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea.

And I think of artists who’s work I love, totally different mediums but very often huge scale and for me, strong emotional impact like James Turrell, Michael Heizer and Christo.

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Rodia left Los Angeles in 1955 never to return. He “quit” the site, apparently exhausted by City threats and permit issues, and after a fire destroyed his bungalow, plans were underway to demolish the towers.

In a serendipitous and magical encounter, an actor and a film editor, having seen the towers and knowing of their abandonment and impending destruction, bought the site from the neighbor and set in process the saving of Rodia’s life work.

To quote Wikipedia : The Watts Towers or “Nuestro Pueblo” are considered one of Southern California’s most culturally significant public artworks.They are one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The towers were also designated a California Historical Landmark in 1990.

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The towers are surrounded by a 10ft chain link fence. There is need for continuing restoration but they are not crumbling or in a state of devastation. In fact, on a clear spring day the crazy Gaudiesque towers, ceramic walls, ships and fountain shapes sparkle with seashells and colorful broken china.

Parking and seeing from the street is free but supporting the small Art Center and taking the $7 guided tour is a good thing. Unless you live totally behind gates or in a secluded, perfect and remote place , the neighborhood is fine. A little scruffy in places, but also cheery and cute around the Towers and along the street. Neighbors have decorated in honor and admiration of the art piece they live next to.

This brilliant and unique folk art is visited by 45,000 visitors a year, mostly overseas tourists and school groups.The Watts Towers may be the finest example of LA outsider art AND an international icon but the least visited by people who live locally.

Los Angeles is an art, design and architecture magnet. Full of singular, iconic buildings and neighborhoods and cool places to explore.

Another really big thing to do!

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ps: My personal nudge to revisit, Australian school friend, photographer and fellow Hermit’s Cave devotee. Thanks Cilla.

Sanam Lamborn’s Persian Kitchen

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What a treat to reconnect with Sanam Lamborn, and especially over traditional persian tea and a coffee table full of sweet nibbley things: small  homemade pastries, fresh berries, tiny perfumed cookies, persian baklava and dates.

Sanam is the woman behind My Persian Kitchen, a blog devoted to exploring, enjoying and cooking Persian foods. She is followed by thousands of readers around the globe, a number which is increasing, especially as interest in Iranian food grows.

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Born in Iran, she moved to Rome with her mother where she lived for 10 years before settling in LA in 1990. And yes, English is her 4th language after Farsi, Italian, and French!

After graduate school, and in the midst of unanticipated unemployment, she started writing a blog (in fact, Nosh Cafe made a little appearance). Her stories about food generated the most comments, questions and interest, so My Persian Kitchen was created to concentrate on the recipes of her heritage.

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Sanam regards Persian cuisine as one of the major “mother” cuisines of the world along side Chinese and French, and with its brilliant history, depth of ingredients, and techniques it’s hard not to be dazzled.

Think the center of the Silk Road, the location and geography of Iran which allows for 4 growing seasons, and a bounty of beautiful core ingredients such as fresh green herbs (cilantro, mint, parsley, dill, tarragon), a myriad of fruits such as plums, pomegranates, quince, prunes, apricots, dates and raisins, and then spices and flavorings like saffron, dried limes, cinnamon, rose petals, cardamon to name a few. Pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and saffron are native to Iran, along with oranges and grapes.

Add caviar, lamb, fish, fresh vegetables, noodles, flatbreads and basmati rice and there’s a lot to work with!

Once the center of a huge Empire, Iran neighbors the former Soviet Union countries and Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab states and Turkey. Conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century, it was also invaded by Arabs, Turks, Mongols and Uzbeks.

Sanam’s stories and recipes help build an awareness and knowledge of persian cuisine, which until recently tended to be overlooked in the food press and confused with other middle eastern cuisines.

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Along with detailed step by step recipes, one of the things I love about My Persian Kitchen is her “persianizing”. A good cook and an adventurous eater loves nothing better than understanding what makes a cuisine sing, getting comfortable and familiar with the elements and flavors. The next step is applying them to their own local ingredients…persianizing.

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Speaking for myself, I’m a little intimidated by the famous persian rice, so I love that Sanam shares her own steep learning curve with that iconic staple!

Beautifully tender, but separate fluffy basmati rice, sometimes plain but often studded with treats, it’s the dish that all cooks are judged on and everyone wants to master. So delicious that its crusty bottom is served separately as a dish in its own right.

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In the 6 years since My Persian Kitchen started, Sanam has been invited to write for several magazines, including Saveur and Los Angeles magazine and she is in the process of producing a series of e-books. There’s also cooking classes, demonstrations and tastings and small special catering events.

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Time spent with Sanam also reinforces the essential graciousness and hospitality of Persian culture and her recipes reflect this integral component.

I suggest checking in to My Persian Kitchen and exploring with Sanam!

http://www.mypersiankitchen.com