Ceramist Harrison McIntosh Explains How He Made Himself at Home in Claremont
California ceramist Harrison McIntosh is internationally recognized for the elegant stoneware he began creating in the 1950s and has continued to refine and develop over the course of his long and distinguished career. The simple lines of his forms and their softly curving silhouettes reference the human body or elements of nature, including gourds, eggs, and other natural forms.
McIntosh’s exceptionally handsome vessels reflect his familiarity with traditional Japanese pottery as well as his appreciation of postwar developments in Scandinavian design. But McIntosh’s distinctive work ultimately is rooted in a California style of pottery that he helped pioneer, a timeless style of elemental simplicity with an aesthetic directly inspired by nature, architectural form, and music.
“It was a golden age, with Millard Sheets and this beautiful little town.”
McIntosh worked and lived in the art colony of Padua Hills, in Claremont, Calif., and his lifelong friend Sam Maloof lived nearby. That friendship is evidenced in the furniture by Maloof that still graces McIntosh’s home, as the two friends often traded work. But the circle of creative kindred spirits was much wider still; Claremont ceramist Rupert Deese was McIntosh’s studio partner for more than 60 years. Artists Jean and Arthur Ames, Paul Darrow, Phil Dike, Betty Davenport Ford, Millard Sheets, and Albert Stewart were all neighbors and friends as well. McIntosh, now almost 97, shares his reflections on these friendships and on the lively Pomona Valley art community where he and so many others thrived. He is one of the 36 artists who will be featured in this fall’s exhibition “The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945–1985,” on view in the Mary Lou and George Boone Gallery from Sept. 24, 2011, to Jan. 30, 2012. The exhibition is part of “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980,” an unprecedented collaboration initiated by the Getty that brings together more than 60 cultural institutions from across Southern California for six months, beginning in October 2011, to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene.
What was Los Angeles like in the 1940s when you were a young artist?
It was a marvelous time to learn about art. My brother Robert and I would go to all the art exhibitions. One of the best art galleries was called Dalzell Hatfield, in the Ambassador Hotel. When I first arrived at Art Center School, I worked in its offices in the morning and took drawing classes there in the afternoon. The school was only about three years old then, still located on Seventh Street near Westlake Park [now MacArthur Park]. Chouinard [Art Institute] was a few blocks away. Those were the two most important art schools in Los Angeles.
The Foundation of Western Art, a privately endowed art museum that showed the works of contemporary artists, was nearby too. I was in the gallery one day, and the director told me he needed an assistant, and I got the job. Many California artists would come through; I sent out invitations to shows for all these different artists, and I helped to hang the shows. So I became acquainted with many artists of the time, such as Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, and Tom Craig.
You lived with your parents and brother in Silver Lake then, in a house built for them by the architect Richard Neutra. How did that happen?
I was fascinated with architecture, especially the modern style that was developing in Southern California. When my parents were planning to build a house in Los Angeles in 1937, I told them about Richard Neutra. We called him, and the next day found ourselves sitting in his Silver Lake living room planning the design of our house using redwood. We did much of the work ourselves.
What I like about Neutra that’s reflected in my own work is the simplicity of things—his architecture is mainly to keep the appearance clean using simplified areas of glass and open spaces in relation to nature.
Was it during this time that you started working seriously in ceramics?
In 1940, a friend of mine told me about a very good night class in ceramics at USC taught by Glenn Lukens. I studied with him for a year. Meanwhile, I set up in my parents’ garage, bought materials, and found a secondhand gas kiln that my dad and I put outside the garage. I learned the formulas for clay and how to make glazes, and I started making cast pieces. My brother had been hired by Walt Disney to make backgrounds for his films, so he would take my pieces to work, and the Disney artists would buy these for one, two, or three dollars so that I could buy more materials.
How did you end up coming to Claremont?
Millard Sheets was the chairman of the art department at Scripps College, and he had a great reputation among young artists in Southern California. I found that I could use the GI Bill, so I went to Scripps to see the facilities. There I met Richard Petterson, who was teaching a ceramics class, and right away he was really enthusiastic about me coming to the Claremont Graduate School. I brought some samples of my work, and these were submitted to Sheets. I was labeled a “special student” because I didn’t have any college degrees behind me.
And in Claremont you met Sam Maloof?
Sam and I got acquainted when I was studying in Claremont. Sam was not a student there, but he was working for Millard, who had hired him to make silk-screen prints of his paintings. So for a year or two Sam lived at Millard’s house. As time went along, Sam and I became more established, and we started having lunch together just about every week. Sam did his banking in Claremont, and he’d call me when he came to town. If I was free, if I wasn’t firing the kiln, we’d meet at Walter’s Restaurant for lunch.
Also, when Sam and I were first beginning on what would become our professions, the Pasadena Art Museum was putting on the California Design exhibitions.
What was California Design?
Eudorah Moore started it, and Sam and I both became acquainted with her. She was very encouraging for us. California Design mainly consisted of all kinds of furnishings for the home and accessories designed for mass or limited production, but it also included studio works like ours. Sam had a van, so we would go to Pasadena together to take our pieces for the shows. These shows turned out to be quite valuable because a lot of people in Southern California saw our work, and Sam and I would get orders.
Why did this artist colony take hold in Claremont?
It was a golden age, with Millard Sheets and this beautiful little town. Many of the artists who became well known had gone through the war, so Claremont, because of the GI Bill, became their paradise. And with the university, it had all that an artist wanted for intellectual stimulation. We were all part of a whole scene of what was going on in the contemporary field. Everyone was using traditional materials but in new ways.
All the artists spent time together? Not the painters with the painters and the ceramists with the ceramists?
Yes, the painters and craftsmen, potters, weavers, sculptors were really mingling together—it was a true cohesive community with a lot of great friendships, and everyone supporting one another. Every time anyone had an art show, everyone would come.