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Paul Soldner: American Master

By Tom Zwierlein

From the March/April 1997 issue of Clay Times

TZ: I know that you and Pete (Peter Voulkos) are contemporaries. What was your relationship like with him in the beginning?

SOLDNER: I was three years older than Pete so he called me "old man." In the first month or so, I was Pete's only student, so we had a very personal student-teacher relationship. We built wheels and kilns together. We went to exhibits together and worked together. Other students (John Mason, Mac McCord, Ken Price, Joel Edwards, Jerry Rothman, Billy Al Bengston, Mike Frimkess and more) began working at the Los Angeles Art Institute. Pete left us alone. We were free to teach ourselves. No assignments, no official critiques and I believe we all got A's. Grades were not important, only working, hanging out together, drinking coffee and night clubbing in L.A. after midnight were important.

TZ: Although you were working during abstract expressionism it never seems apparent in your work. Who or what were your influences?

SOLDNER: I think I was more influenced by Zen and Japanese aesthetic than the New York abstract movement. But Pete was into the abstract movement. Because I was older (and maybe more mature), I tried to find my own way. Sure, I was influenced by Pete's work because I wanted to be. But also, I didn't want to copy him. That's why I involved myself with throwing really tall pots that didn't look like Pete's. We had lots of visitors in the studio, like Tony Prieto (Mills College), Laura Andreason (UCLA), Marguerite Wildenhain, Vivika and Otto Heino, Susan Peterson, etc. Pete took classical guitar lessons and played when he got bored in class. We had a radio playing all the time, classical and popular.

TZ: Can you talk about how you got started building pottery equipment, and did you have any of the skills, like welding, with you when you went to California?

SOLDNER: Because the school was new, the ceramics department didn't have any equipment. We only had a room, a couple of tables and a sink. No clay, no kiln, no mixers, etc. So Pete and I tried building our own wheels because Pete didn't like the ones available commercially! After I designed and built my own wheel, Pete got a purchase order from the school for me to make eight wheels. Then teachers from other schools would come to our school and order some for their shops. I always liked to build things and I learned skills (like welding and casting concrete) when it was necessary or helpful. When I was younger I built my own photo enlargers, strobe flash, photo electric light meters, etc. I also worked on residential construction in the summers.

TZ: Will you tell us about the evolution of your complex, and your visionary uses of materials like concrete and solar power?

SOLDNER: It's hard for me to separate making my sculpture (and pots) from building my own house, or experimenting with solar heat, wine making, mushrooming, architecture, hot tubbing, advertising or my life style. It's all there. I sometimes say clay is the hub of the wheel and exhibiting, teaching, manufacturing equipment-all of the above-are spokes of my wheel of life.

TZ: Paul, tell us about your hot tubs and wine making interests.

SOLDNER: I think hot tubbing, wine making and play are all very natural impulses. It's too bad so many people are hung up about enjoying life.

TZ: I remember when I was at Anderson Ranch, you were looking at it as an alternative to college-a somewhat communal way of living and working-a place where the artists and the facility would develop as a whole. Will you talk about your relationship with Anderson Ranch and what it has become after your 25 years of working there?

SOLDNER: I was involved with Anderson Ranch two times. In 1965 or 66 some Aspen residents asked me if I would teach them how to make pots. I said, "Okay, if you can find a place to work." So they rented a vacant store in Aspen. It worked great. We built our wheels and kilns, etc. but after one year we lost the lease! So we looked for a new place. The Jannes Corporation, which was starting a new development at Snowmass Village (eight miles from Aspen) offered us the temporary use of one of the buildings they bought to make the development. We liked the rustic look of the Anderson Ranch and moved in. Within a year, I got some teaching jobs at the University of Colorado and University of Iowa, which meant I had to leave the Ranch. Other potters used the facility for their own work.

In the '70s, Sherry Heiser moved the "Center for the Eye" photography school to the Ranch. She didn't need to use all the buildings and asked me to start a craft school. When I accepted, we called it the "Center for the Hand."

That's when you came in. I decided to make it a professional school but as an alternative to college. So we did everything colleges don't do. Free tuition, room and board and no credit or degrees. Each student agreed to work four hours a day in return. They had their own studio space and the faculty had to live and work on the ranch. I evolved an "osmosis" theory of learning where they were encouraged to watch the teachers but not to expect to be taught. The idea was more Japanese than American where students are given the responsibility to teach themselves. Everyone lived sort of communally. They took turns cooking and shared the house as a coed dorm. To make a long story short, I left after three years partly because I had gone back to teach in California at Scripps College; also because I had problems with the board. (It was a non-profit organization.) I felt we needed to own the land and buildings if we were to continue. It didn't happen so I left. However, other people picked up the pieces and kept it going, but only as a summer program. Eventually, the land was given to the school and it now functions as the Anderson Ranch Art Center. It has become very important for short-term (two-week) classes. I'm the godfather now, which means I give them my blessing and let them run it any way they want.

TZ: About Soldner Pottery Equipment-I remember the thrill of going to Glenwood Springs, meeting Gene, and picking out my wheel that I still use today. I was very sad after hearing about the fire, and worried that it was the end of Soldner Pottery Equipment.

SOLDNER: I never expected to become a businessman or a manufacturer, but I didn't like the equipment sold to potters. Mostly it was designed by non-potters. Since I was a potter I had ideas of how it should perform, not how many I could sell. Therefore, I taught myself how to make them better. By that, I mean stronger parts, better control of slow speeds and more quiet than other electric wheels. I also tried to keep them low-tech by using off-the-shelf parts and simple, no-nonsense solutions (like wooden table tops, oversized 1-in. bearings, etc.). Eventually my factory burned down, and I never rebuilt it. However, I continued to re-invent the wheel by casting the frame as an integral unit. It held the bearing, motor, table, legs and drive chain. I also made a stripped-down version which was complete, except it has no floor frame. Instead, it hooks on the side of a table like the "Sassy" children's chair you see in restaurants. It is very successful and portable. I used to put it in the overhead compartment of airplanes! My foot pedal is kind of old- fashioned. It consists of only two parts: a variable transformer (to control the voltage/speed) and a solid-state rectifier to make the AC voltage into DC (to run DC motors). Because I don't use transistors, the wave form produced by my low-tech pedal is more pure than that of cheaper transistor pedals. Therefore it is quiet and sensitive in a broad speed range. After the fire, I sold the wheel division to Bluebird. They are making the wheel the way I designed it.

TZ: What about your clay mixers, and the concrete tub concept? I remember the drum mixer you pulled behind your car.

SOLDNER: I invented my clay mixer because (again!) I didn't like what was available: pug mills (which are designed to extrude clay-poor mixers), old dough machines, or modified motor mixers. All of them had problems: too big to move, too obsolete to repair, but most of all, too dangerous to use. Also, because they were made of metal, clay sticks to them (making them difficult to clean) and they rust. When I developed my mixer it had to fit through a 32-in. doorway. It couldn't rust; the clay should release better than metal; it needed to be efficient (HP-to-mixer load ratio); needed to be repairable in the field; should be able to mix 300 lbs. per batch, quickly; and most of all, it needed to be SAFER.

Yes, I built a "flintstone" mixer you pulled behind a car. The wheels were concrete, the drum an old oil drum. It worked okay but even though I published an article on how to make one, most people thought I was joking.

TZ: I used to always look for your ad first in Ceramics Monthly. I doubt many people know that you do the ads yourself, including the photography. The ads often stirred quite a response in the "letters to the editor."

SOLDNER: When I decided to advertise, I told Ginny, let's not do a high-pressure, bragging kind of ad. Let's use humor, and it worked. When I advertised in Ceramics Monthly (about 20 years) I made a NEW ad every month. It takes a lot of work to think up a new idea, photograph it, typeset and design the layout, but that's what I did. The new owners of Ceramics Monthly said they had a problem with my ads so I quit. I'm trying to help Clay Times now with a full page.

TZ: Paul, I'm worried -- are you really a womanizing chauvinist?

SOLDNER: ... No, I don't think so. However, I do love women. I love them for their wisdom, their caring nature, their companionship, and yes, for their beauty. I have many girl friends who I consider my best friends. My male peers often take a male assistant along when they do workshops, but I prefer female assistants, so I often take one with me. They are great.

TZ: When did you get interested in photography? Do you still document your own work?

SOLDNER: Before I was interested in art, I trained myself to be a photographer. This has allowed me to make all the photos for ads and the annual NCECA "titillating" posters. My dark room is simple. A few trays, a stainless tank and an enlarger sitting on top of the washer dryer. I develop the prints on a board over the bathroom sink and wash them in the shower: as low-tech as you can get, but it works. I also document all my work: 35mm slides, a polaroid (for I.D.), a 2-1/4" x 2-1/2" color transparency, and black-and-white. They all go into an envelope giving the data, location and final disposition of each work.

TZ: I watch many of my students and friends struggle to find teaching jobs. Can you talk about the evolution of the MFA graduate, and the field of education today?

SOLDNER: Before the second world war, most artists trained in art schools. They didn't give degrees. After the war, all that GI money caused colleges to grant BAs, MAs, and MFAs in art. Now the MFA is supposed to be terminal, but I hear of people getting the PhD because so many people with MFAs are competing for a few jobs. (This is changing because the GI generation is retiring.)

TZ: What do you think is happening to the tenure system in our universities?

SOLDNER: Schools don't like to tenure teachers because they cost too much to keep around. The idea is that you can hire part-time teachers for a lot less money (with no benefits). It's a sad situation and is the end of the "role model" teacher.

TZ: The Soldner workshops-you strap a handle on a wheel and fly to a distant city, make a number of pieces one day and fire them the next, install a show at a gallery in town, have an opening, party, dance, get back on the plane, leaving us all bewildered and hung. Tell us how this phenomenon came to be.

SOLDNER: I used to do a two-day workshop where I would take my raku tools, forced-draft oil burner, fuel tank, speed controller, brushes and slides. I tried to once-fire the work in steam the next day, then either salt the kiln or pull them out to smoke [raku]. The reason I worked that fast was to downplay the attitude that you needed high-tech, sophisticated equipment to make clay art. (Most of the beautiful works seen in museums were made without electric wheels, gas kilns, or the clay and glaze stores.)

TZ: It must be difficult to keep track of work, especially with galleries and collectors all over the country. I have a piece of yours that has a serial number on it, and you signed it with a marker! How do you feel about the importance of a signature or chop?

SOLDNER: Through the years, I have used different marks, signatures and stamps to identify my work (even a cast of my belly button). Now my logo is trademarked. Signatures are only important for collectors and historians. The work is the real signature.

All my work (in the last 20 or so years) is dated. The first number is the year it was made. The second number is the chronological number when it was made. Also the Soldner Logo was made into a chop. I try to use it also but sometimes I forget!

TZ: Your work has always seemed to be affordable. Will you talk about what seems to have established the pricing?

SOLDNER: Pricing my work has always been difficult. I tended to price too low according to my wife, so I let her help. Price is determined by many factors: reputation, rareness, collectors (what the market will bear), age, etc. But the most important is the quality and uniqueness of the work. Getting the work out and having it documented also helps.

TZ: I remember your coffee can glaze recipes going into a brown paper bag for mixing: the stacking of pots into kilns like logs, and a very basic clay body: sand from a gravel pit and fireclay from the building supplier. How do you come to a medium so vast and complex and work in such a casual way?

SOLDNER: I like to reduce the complex to its simplest form. So I'm more interested in concepts than in rules. As a result I guess people see my low-tech ways of making clay and glazes as casual. But I know (from experience) what I'm doing and how to make it work. For example, I now make sigillata and use it within 30 minutes! None of the usual procedures-it's just 25% ball clay and 75% kaolin dissolved in water. The secret is to apply it thin (like skim milk). I don't need to settle it, ball mill it, or separate it. The simplicity shocks some people.

TZ: Where are you doing most of your work and how are you firing it?

SOLDNER: Most of my work is done in a workshop. Therefore, it's all over the world. Sometime, after it's bisqued, I have it sent back to me or I go there and finish it (mostly low-fire salt). Sometimes I have to build a kiln or use whatever is available, even wood fired, low-salt. For my work, I need any kiln where I can introduce salt in the flames.

TZ: Are you still doing a lot of traveling and as many workshops?

SOLDNER: Traveling and doing workshops more than ever-an average of two or three a month-somewhere over 500 but I've lost track. Now, I'm doing a lot overseas.

TZ: Paul, as we near the next millennium, do you have any insights on the object makers?

SOLDNER: Object makers will continue as long as they are interested. I see an artist's lifestyle as being part of and similar to their work. When you stop working, that's it. Artists are never satisfied. They don't need to read about art: they need to experience it.

Happy potting

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