Pottery beyond words

Ceramicist Willie Leftwich finds an expressive outlet through the colorful vessels he creates

August 10, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

Potter Willie Leftwich worked as an engineer and lawyer before taking up ceramics after his retirement at age 60. More than 50 of his three-color, wood-fired clay vessels, glazed in warm earth tones with accents of blue and green, are on view in the James E. Lewis Museum at Morgan State University.

Leftwich sees his work as an expression of intuitively grasped "essential realities" that lie beyond the power of words to express. His pots, vases, bowls and other vessels are inspired by the shapes and proportions of the human body, and their tactile qualities are as much a part of their meaning as are their formal properties: These are works that beg to be touched.

Though Leftwich's pots are all spontaneous creations produced without reference to any historically or geographically specific craft tradition, many of his works, with their intricately patterned and textured surfaces, recall the forms and colors of African ceramics.

Leftwich, who is mostly self-taught as a ceramicist, has suggested that the apparent convergence of his art with African pottery may be an unconscious expression of the process through which he is exploring his own African-American identity.

"I'm constantly trying new stuff," Leftwich says. "Everything is new for me; I'm not trying to replicate anything."

While he is making a vessel, Leftwich says, he is aware only of the formal problems of shape, color and line that present themselves as he works on the potter's wheel. Even before a vessel has taken shape, for example, he is already contemplating potential glaze combinations and how to score the surface with various patterns of his own design.

Scoring a vessel's surface affects how different color glazes interact with the surface of the pot and with each other. Some patterns cause the glaze to pool or puddle on the surface; others result in subtle striations in the coloring that unify the overall shape of the vessel.

"I try to get at least three colors in every pot," Leftwich says. "I don't know how to explain it, but I try to get the glaze [to be] part of the pot itself, not [something] lying on top of it."

Leftwich's best pieces have a clarity of form and serenity of expression that he likens to the Buddhist virtues of simplicity and humility.

It is an ideal that is as timeless as it is universal, through which beauty manifests itself in unprepossessing objects made for everyday use that also nurture the spirit and illuminate the soul.

"Willie Pots: Wood-Fired Pottery by Willie Leftwich" runs through Aug. 22 in the James E. Lewis Museum at Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Call 443-885-3030.

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