Tag Archives: Frank Fleming sculptor

Adventures in Pottery

When I was little and living in Tuscaloosa, before the interstate came through, Hamm’s Pottery on Highway 11 just past Cottondale was a magical place on the road to Birmingham. I remember rows and rows of wheel-turned garden pots on the hillside outside the shop and a variety of pots – some made by Mr. Hamm and others mass manufactured – that were sold in the store by the highway.

My Harbison grandparents liked to stop at Hamm’s and I suspect that some of the glazed decorative pottery for houseplants that I now have in my house came from those visits. Over time, Mr. and Mrs. Hamm passed away and a barbecue place named The Pottery Grill took over the location.

Fast forward to my post-college years and I was again living in Tuscaloosa and, influenced by the Kentuck Art Center and its fall festival, I began to take a collector’s interest in art and functional pottery. In every room of my house now, there is pottery to contemplate.

My collection eventually outgrew the tables and shelves on which to display it. Just before I moved into my current house, I came into possession of my grandparents’ dining room table and china cabinet. Mother said she’d give me china to display in the cabinet but I had other ideas and the china cabinet became the home to a good many pieces of pottery.

Pottery by Timothy Weber

The first significant pieces of my pottery collection were a couple of “architectural” pots by Timothy Weber (www.tweberpottery.com) when he was based in Tuscaloosa. I lost track of Weber for a while when I was moving around for theatre and he had relocated to Tennessee. More recently, I have caught back up with him at the Kentuck Festival and other galleries around the region and have increased the Weber collection.

Pottery by Daniel Livingston

Daniel Livingston is a friend from my Tuscaloosa years whose delicate and intricate raku pieces have been added to my collection over the years. During a move, I dropped and broke one of my favorite Livingston pieces but gathered up the delicate shards and lined them around a plant in a flower pot. The piece took on a vibrant second life in that incarnation.

Pottery by Susan Brown Freeman

 

 

Susan Brown Freeman is still another potter with Tuscaloosa connections who is now based in Birmingham. I bought my first piece of her pottery at the Chimneyville Crafts Festival in Mississippi. Freeman’s deep glazes and intricate designs with delicately rendered reticulation and cutouts are favorites. When I purchased one as a present for my mother, it started her on a decades long habit of buying Freeman’s pieces.

 

I went through a period of seeking out horsehair pottery – pottery that has horsehair thrown on it during firing, leaving a dark carbon stain on the piece. My two favorite horsehair pieces came from a shop in Seaside on the Florida Gulf coast and from a gallery in Little Rock.

Horsehair Pottery

When I lived in southwestern Utah, I acquired pottery pieces that were fired in restored kilns of the ancient Anasazi by late 20th Century Native American potters. A Navajo-style wedding vase with two spouts bridged by a looped handle was a perfect wedding gift.

On theatre gigs and tours, I would pack a piece of my pottery in my luggage. I would unpack and display it in each of the endless series of hotel rooms to keep a connection to home.

On annual trips to Fairhope, I was pleased to discover The Kiln, Susie Bowman’s ceramics gallery and workshop (www.facebook.com/thekilnfairhope). In the early days of The Kiln, I was especially drawn to the pottery by Branan Mercer (www.b-metro.com/brananmercer) and usually bought a piece or two around Christmas. Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is a fairly short drive from Fairhope and its Shearwater Pottery (www.shearwaterpottery.com), started by Peter Anderson of the artistically prolific Anderson family, is an idyllic location along a wooded road perfumed by Gulf breezes.

Pottery by Shearwater

Pottery by Branan Mercer

Over the years, my collection has grown with gifts from those who know my predilection. A Sansai Trinity Vase, a three-sided Japanese porcelain vase with Chinese characters, was a gift from Pratt Dean, a former missionary in Japan (www.trinityvase.com). A piece of speckled blue “Cindyware” by my friend Cindy Edwards is displayed near functional pieces by Jerry Brown, the master potter of Hamilton, Alabama, who passed away in 2016 (www.jerrybrownpottery.com). Jerry Brown Pottery is a family operation and Brown’s work was created in close collaboration with his wife, Sandra, and other family members. Brown is best known for his whimsical “face jugs,” which is a form I never warmed up to. I am more drawn to the functional pieces like bacon cookers and corn bread cookers which I own and use regularly.

Miller’s Pottery

Miller’s Pottery in Brent, Alabama (www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1033) continues a family tradition of stoneware pottery spanning the history of pottery-making in Alabama. The Miller family has a marital connection to the pioneering French LaCoste family of potters around Montrose on Alabama’s Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, whose kilns date back to around the 1840s. Eric Miller once told me a story about making a set of dinnerware for a relative who, upon receiving it, said, “This is so special, I would never dream of using it.” Mr. Miller sounded almost offended when he explained, “But I make it to be used.” I love the classic lines of Miller’s Pottery and the marks of individuals in the pottery. Eric Miller’s son, Steve, and his cousin, Allen Ham, each bring their own distinctive markings to the classic family designs.

Ceramic by Frank Fleming

The Alabama artist Frank Fleming passed away in March 2018 (www.bhamnow.com/2018/03/19/frank-fleming). Fleming’s monumental works featuring fantastical animals are found in many public and museum locations throughout the South and nationally. His most notable work is probably “The Storyteller” fountain in Birmingham’s Five Points South district. In my collection, Fleming is represented by a more prosaic miniature porcelain piece of an okra pod and garlic bulb resting on a magnolia leaf.

I have pottery pieces from many places but Alabama-based pottery is core to the collection. A key resource for information about pottery-making in Alabama is Joey Brackner’s comprehensive Alabama Folk Pottery (University of Alabama Press, 2006).

My pottery collecting spans four decades of adding pieces that speak to me in some special way at a given time on my travels. It reflects changes in my tastes over time. Its tactile nature makes it a pleasure to handle and use. Practically every piece evokes an individual story of the maker who sold it to me or the individual who gifted it to me. It is an integral ingredient in making my house my “home.”

Pottery by Timothy Weber

 

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Eccentric in Mississippi

In early 1999 I was Managing Director at a not-for-profit professional theatre in Jackson, Mississippi’s historic Belhaven neighborhood. One morning, as I was working at my desk, an intense young man walked in to see me. He introduced himself as Patrick and announced that there were Eames-style mid-20th century chairs in the side alley outside a backstage exit of the theatre and that he wanted them.

I knew the chairs he was referring to. They were molded plastic chairs in the style of American design icons Charles and Ray Eames. Actors and crew used them to gather and smoke backstage during rehearsal and work breaks and performances.

“They’re out there in the elements getting weathered and ruined,” the guy said, “and all they’re being used for is smoke breaks.” He had clearly pre-planned his appeal. He said he would bring metal folding chairs to replace the ones he would like to trade. He explained that he collected mid-century modern chairs and would make sure the alley chairs didn’t get ruined further.

He made sense. Any old chair would serve the purpose that the plastic chairs were serving and here was somebody who would treasure chairs that we were allowing to rust and fade in the alley. Also, that Eames style has been copied and replicated so many times that the fading chairs would have minimal monetary value in their dilapidated condition.

I told Patrick I would need to discuss the matter with the props and scenery staff and that I would give him an answer by the next morning. Later that day, I made the case for the swap to the properties master and technical director and they agreed to the trade. I gave Patrick a call. He arrived soon after to trade weathered cheap metal chairs for weathered cheap plastic ones.

A couple of mornings later my phone rang. It was Patrick. He thanked me again for the chair deal and said, “I’m an artist and I would like to paint you if that’s okay.”

I was flattered. How often does one get asked to sit for a painting? (I’m usually the guy who’s asked to take the picture.)

On the other hand, I really didn’t know Patrick and knew nothing at all about what kind of art he created.

“What would you need from me?” I asked.

“Just let me paint you. I don’t do many portraits and when I do, I prefer to do it in the subject’s environment. So I’d want to come paint you at your house.”

“How many sittings?”

“One.”

“When?”

“How about Monday night after my AA meeting? Around 8.”

I thought about it and said “Sure, okay.” I wasn’t sure I had made a wise decision and decided not to mention the upcoming sitting with anybody until I saw how it all turned out.

On Monday night Patrick arrived at my door with his canvas and supplies. He set up quickly and I asked him what he wanted me to do.

“Just talk to me,” he said cheerfully. “You don’t have to pose or be still or anything. I can see what I need while we’re talking.”

So he began to paint and we chatted. Patrick was very forthcoming and spoke frankly about a lot of things including his travels, his bipolar disorder, and his history with addiction. After about ninety minutes he stopped and announced that he was done.

“Can I look at it?”

“Sure,” said Patrick. “You can keep it. After the paint has had enough time to dry I’ll need to take it back for a few days to apply a protective coating. But it’s yours.”

I thanked him for the painting as he packed and went out into the night. After he left I sat across the room and stared at the painting. That was pretty weird I thought.

A few days later, after I had gotten more comfortable with the new painting, I asked a couple of people who worked in the theatre if they knew of a local artist named Patrick Grogan. They perked up. They did know his work and I got the idea that he was pretty well-respected by the artistically connected people I was talking with.

“He’s kind of a local character but he’s good. I like his work. It’s really different,” said one person who was also a painter.

They wanted to know why I was asking and I finally admitted that Patrick had recently painted my portrait. This information was met with general excitement and enthusiasm.

“How much did he charge?” I was asked.

“Actually, he just sort of gave it to me,” I answered sheepishly.

That caused everybody to buzz and everybody was anxious to come by my place to check out the portrait. I was just relieved that this stranger I had allowed into my house was a known quantity.

Now that I knew that Patrick was known around Jackson, I began to seek out his work and found that most of his art focuses on animals and Native American themes and imagery. It has a distinctly American West vibe … well, American West on peyote.

Friends began to come by to see my portrait and they all were impressed and couldn’t believe that the artist just gave it to me. Soon after, some Patrick Grogan paintings were being displayed in a local designers’ showcase house to benefit some Jackson organization. A couple of colleagues asked if I would arrange a lunch at the show house with Patrick so that they could meet him and see the work on display.

I contacted Patrick and asked if he’d be interested. He said he was always interested in a free meal and we set a luncheon time. On the scheduled date, I bowed out due to some work-related matters and sent my colleagues along to meet Patrick. Since I wasn’t there, what I know about the lunch is second-hand.

I heard that one of my colleagues, after telling Patrick how much she liked his painting of me, proposed to Patrick that she would like to commission him to paint a portrait of her sons.

He declined.

“Of course I’d pay you,” she said, pressing on.

Patrick apparently said something along the lines of “Doesn’t matter. I wanted to paint Edward; I don’t want to paint your kids.” The luncheon quickly came to an end.

Soon after these events, I took another job and left Jackson. Patrick was hard to keep up with but I heard from him infrequently and heard reports about him over the years.

When I met Patrick in Jackson, he was living down the street from the theatre in a 4-plex on Fortification Street. A couple of years later, that building – to the delight of some and the dismay of others – became a large canvas for Patrick to paint on and he covered the facade of the two-story building with trippy and vividly colorful images of many things including religious images, Native Americans, wild animals, totems, birds, and a dachshund to the right of the front door. Like or loathe it, the 4-plex became a Jackson landmark and provoked a lot of discussion.

I’ve heard about various Patrick Grogan exhibits here and there over the years and he apparently has a mural in the food court of a Jackson mall. His work is hard to label but one writer in Jackson referred to him as an “eccentric artist” and I think that works as well as anything. A profile in the Jackson Free Press was simply titled “King Freak.” That works too. www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2011/jan/05/king-freak.

A few years ago I ran across a terrific little book for young people called Birding for Children www.birdingforkids.com. The book has a text by Art Minton and is beautifully illustrated by Patrick. Browsing through that charming book and looking at Grogan’s body of work it is easy to understand his identification with Walter Anderson, another “eccentric” Mississippi artist. Patrick’s anthropomorphic animals also remind me of the work of Alabama sculptor Frank Fleming.

I have heard and read several conflicting versions of an incident in 2009 when Patrick attended a service at a traditionally white Jackson church wearing blackface makeup and a hoodie to make a point about exclusion in the church (or something). In Patrick’s version, ushers escorted him out of the building during a prayer and roughed him up. In the version of others, Patrick came and went without incident but made a lot of people a tad uncomfortable.

In all fairness to that uncomfortable congregation, I suspect that if Patrick had entered any church service in Jackson — white or black or mixed or whatever — in blackface makeup and a hoodie, the same responses would very likely have occurred.

Patrick has traveled a lot and could probably go to some place like New Orleans or San Francisco, Key West or Austin, and easily blend in with a larger community of “fringe” characters but I like that he chooses to stay around Jackson and be a provocateur. It’s his home, after all, and he has as much right to be there as anybody.

Back in 1999, after the sitting was over and Patrick had given the painting to me, he turned the canvas around for me to see for the first time. “What do you think?” he asked.

“I think I look old and fat.”

He laughed. “I don’t agree but I paint what I see,” he said. “I don’t try to flatter. I guarantee after you live with it for a while you’ll love it.”

And he was right. I love the painting and it has had pride of place in every place I’ve lived ever since.

And I look so young.

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(NOTE ON THE ARTIST: There is a website, www.patrickgrogan.com, that has not been updated in many years. But it has nice examples of Patrick Grogan’s work, including a photo of the Fortification Street house.)