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MALCOLM WRIGHT: MOVING BEYOND TRADITION Malcolm Wright, who is known by some as a functional potter and by others as a sculptor working in clay, is a consummate craftsman of both. He belongs to a group of contemporary ceramic artists who began as potters throwing vessels on the wheel, and then, seeking to move outside of that tradition, found hand building as a way to broaden their artistic vocabulary 1. From the 1960s until his retirement in 2015, Wright produced a prodigious body of functional stoneware that was honed from an immersion in the Japanese tradition of Karatsu pottery. Since about 2000, he constructed handbuilt, tabletop-sized sculptures, setting aside the notion that © 2018 Malcolm Wright images © John Polak Photography ISBN 978-0-9904312-2-0

clay objects must serve a functional purpose. Both bodies of work have been wood fired, mostly in his “split bamboo” Korean-style kiln, set on property in rural Marlboro, Vermont, where Wright and his family lived for over 45 years.

front cover image: “Equal & Opposite,” 2006, wood-fired brick clay, 7 x 11.5 x 5”. back cover image: “S Curve Pair #2,” 2011, wood-fired brick clay, 10.75 x 8.75 x 7” & 10.75 x 8.75 x 7.75”.

1 Other studio potters who produce functional work on the wheel in the Japanese tradition but also have turned to handbuilding include: Randy Johnston, Ken Matsuzaki, and Jeff Shapiro.

Wright’s familiarity with ceramics dates from his youth: an aunt was a potter in New York City, and her husband collected Asian ceramics. At Marlboro College in the late 1950s, he studied art history with particular interest in the roots of modernism and architecture. A broader interest in art, especially contemporary art of the late 1950s, developed through gallery visits in New York City, where he felt an affinity for the Abstract Expressionists. During his college days, Wright began to explore making pots outside of the academic setting by working with potters in the region. From 1963–67, Wright studied Japanese pottery and taught in a new ceramics graduate program offered jointly by George Washington University and the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC. There, his mentor was Japanese

Out of his Karatsu experience came understated stoneware pottery thrown in subtle simple forms: many vases, bowls, plates, and cups decorated with soft, translucent glazes, often punctuated by a few calligraphic brush strokes of iron wash. This was the glazed functional ware that Wright produced throughout his career with dedicated mastery, more than 100,000 pieces, he estimates2. After more than two decades of throwing functional vessels, however, Wright sought different challenges to take him to new creative realms. He described the need to break away from the Japanese tradition as he found it difficult to straddle two very different cultures3.

potter Teruo Hara (1928-86), a designer and architect of some

Wright found new possibilities

renown. In spring 1967 Wright met Takashi Nakazato, a 13th

in both form and process when

generation potter from Karatsu. A friendship ensued, and

he purchased an extruder after

ultimately Wright was invited to apprentice with the distin-

reading an article by Michigan

guished Nakazato family in Karatsu.

potter John Glick4. He began

During the two years he and his wife, Marj, lived there, Wright was immersed in the traditions, forms, glazing and firing techniques of Karatsu masters. He also experienced a life closely intertwined with craft — a life that strongly appealed


to him and which he took back to Marlboro, Vermont.

“Large Bowl” 2004, brick clay, combination glaze, 10.25 x 14.5 x 9.5”.




shaped extruded tubes of clay that he cut into pieces and reassembled, at first into flower arranging vessels. The forms were no longer round and symmetrical, in fact many were 2 Phone conversation between Malcolm Wright and author on May 2, 2018. 3 Ibid. 4 John Glick, “The Extruder as Design Tool: An Expanded Usage,” Studio Potter, vol.7, no.1 (1977):55–61

“Horizontal Vase” 1994, wood-fired stoneware, 7 x 12 x 11”.


angular. He found hand building less predictable than

which the space between the two parts holds equal visual

throwing on the wheel. The extruder and handbuilding

weight with the solid forms. By manipulating the diptychs,

became catalysts for his journey towards a more individ-

the viewer becomes an active participant in exploring compo-

ualistic vocabulary diverging from his Japanese training.

sition and negative space. As he made sculptures, Wright

Though these flower arranging vessels sold well both here

kept unused scraps in a “wet

and in Japan, Wright once again wanted to move forward.

box” to keep the clay pliable.

He recognized that the strength of their forms alone gave

He set the challenge to make

them purpose without inserting a hole to make them func-


tional containers. Creating purposeful sculpture was a new

(Old Bone), allowing himself

challenge Wright presented himself.

to work intuitively without as

The first group of sculptures





much control from the start.

(about 2000–2008) are hard-

Unlike the meditative, fluid activity of throwing a bowl, Wright

edged with precise seams and

found building the sculptures a more cerebral, deliberative

a strong sense of geometry

process. It could take him weeks to create a single sculpture,

(Wrapped Cube, 2007). The

and still it could crack in the firing. Constructed of unglazed

sculptures are sophisticated,

brick clay, when fired, the sculptures have a porous, brown

poised, and elegant. Some still

surface animated with flashes of orange red — the flame

reveal traces of the extruded

marks from the wood firing. The dry, almost rusty, surfaces

tube despite Wright’s manipulations (Equal and Opposite,

suggest the result of natural aging or weathering; they are

2006). Many defy their origin as he cut apart the extrusions,

surprisingly tactile, even sensuous, though there is no trace

altered them and reassembled the pieces into evocative,

of the artist’s hand or process. More recently Wright applied

dynamic compositions that range from anthropomorphic

white slip to parts of some sculptures, adding another layer

(Rhino, 2007) to industrial (Zig Zag, 2007).

of visual and textural interest.

Wright also made diptychs in which both pieces could be

Wright has always responded to the world around him,

set in different positions in apposition to one another, and in

and he readily acknowledges the inspiration he found from

“Wrapped Cube” 2006, wood-fired brick clay, 10.25 x 11 x 11”.

“Old Bone” 2007, wood-fired brick clay, 10.25 x 14.5 x 9.5”.



and next to see about adding a third part. By this point a

sculptures of Tony Smith

form is emerging that is new and unexpected. The form

(1912–1980) and open abstract

begins to tell me what to do to resolve the visual issues

constructions of his Vermont

that appear.5





(born 1931), both of whom worked on a monumental scale. What he absorbed is the expressive potential in geometric volumes, a sensibility for monumental images (though Wright works on a small scale), and an interest in developing compositions that offer multiple viewing points. Sometimes those different views depend upon walking around the object, sometimes it involves the viewer changing the position of the sculpture. Wright found that many of these pieces had more than one way they could sit on the table top or as he described it “more than one right

to the way a jazz musician plays: improvisational, responsive to the material at hand, spontaneous, but based upon experience. The evocative, organic, and sometimes gestural nature of Wright’s new pieces reveal a remarkable softness in the bends and folds of the clay, even in the tight curves caused by the crushing process. About this same time Wright found new opportunity when

side up.” A second group of sculptures date from about 2008. Intrigued by the urethane foam sculptures that Abstract Expressionist John Chamberlain (1927–2011) cinched with string into soft forms, Wright began to dramatically crush the extrusions to about half their original length. He wrote:

his friend Jay Lindsay (1943–2015), who had a small foundry in Carmel, NY, announced he had purchased 800 pounds of bronze ingot. Wright set out to have Lindsay cast eleven of his sculptures in bronze, an idea that had been percolating for a while. Some sculptures were cast at the same scale as the original clay piece, others about 2 or 3 times larger. While

The idea was for me to crush an extruded tube of clay,

the idea of creating multiples appealed to Wright, the visual

examine the curves and folds, and to preserve and cut

weight of the dense surface of bronze transformed his clay

out the interesting parts, creating new parts that I had

compositions. He chose a layered green patina to differentiate

never seen before. Then I would turn them about until I


Wright compared this approach

could see how two parts might fit together in a new way,

5 Email from Malcolm Wright to author, May 2 with statement dating from April 2018.

“Pod Form #4” 2014, wood-fired brick clay, 7.5 x 15 x 7.5”.

“Heart Muscle” 2009 wood-fired brick clay, 7 x 6.25 x 5.75”.


from the brick clay, and it offers a more industrial feel to a work like Lockwasher, 2010. Wright’s last firing took place in 2015. Knowing that his life’s work in ceramics required full-


time energy and concentration,


he made the decision to close his pottery. His artistic journey, defined by continuous exploration, came to a close. Though seemingly distinct from each other, his functional ware and his sculpture are united by an understated, restrained sensibility and an affinity for geometry. Both draw us in visually and tactilely. Wright’s sculptures — the capstone of his career — are composed of contrasts that emerged working through artistic challenges he set for himself. The compositions are both geometric and organic, monumental in feel but intimate in scale, porous yet sensuous. They were created with deliberation and intuition, but never randomly. At first glance, they seem simple, but they demand our full attention to absorb their complexity. Wright’s work was made mostly in Vermont, but it draws upon inspiration and experience from different cultures and eras. The sculpture is of its time, but also it remains timeless. — Susan Strickler, June 2018


“Lockwasher” 2010, bronze, 16 x 16.25 x 7.5”


“The Rhino” 2007, wood-fired brick clay, 10.5 x 12.5 x 7”.


“Three Figures” 2006, wood-fired brick clay, 13.5 x 8.5 x 6.75”.


“The Space Between” 2006, wood-fired brick clay, 11.75 x 11.75 x 11”.


“Sea Creature #4” 2011, wood-fired brick clay, 9.5 x 8.25 x 7.5”.


“Equal & Opposite” 2006, wood-fired brick clay, 7 x 11.5 x 5”.


“Old Bone” 2007, wood-fired brick clay, 10.25 x 14.5 x 9.5”.


“Mountain with White” 2009, wood-fired brick clay, 5.5 x 9.5 x 5.25”.


“Wrapped Cube” 2006, wood-fired brick clay, 10.25 x 11 x 11”.


“Ice Berg” 2011, wood-fired brick clay, 10.5 x 11.75 x 7”.


“Model House #4, One Story” 2014, wood-fired brick clay, 6 x 11.5 x 11”.


“Two Story House” 2014, wood-fired brick clay, 11.5 x 11 x 10”.


“S Curve Pair #2” 2011, wood-fired brick clay, 10.75 x 8.75 x 7”, 10.75 x 8.75 x 7.75”


“S Curve Pair #1” 2011, wood-fired brick clay, 10.75 x 11.5 x 8” & 10.5 x 11 x 7.5”.


“Stone” 2011, wood-fired brick clay, 8.75 x 7 x 4.5”.


“Zig Zag” 2007, wood-fired brick clay, 7 x 7 x 6.5”. “Zig Zag” 2009, bronze, 14 x 13.25 x 10”.


“Pod Form #5” 2014, wood-fired brick clay, 8 x 17 x 5.75”. “Two Part Form (AP)” 2014, bronze, 8 x 17 x 5.75”.


“Lockwasher” 2010, bronze, 16 x 16.25 x 7.5”


“Diptych” 2009, bronze, 16 x 14 x 12”.

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS Cynthia-Reeves, Walpole, Hanover, Bellows Falls, & NYC,

2005, 2007, 2011, 2018

Sara, NYC, 1999–2018 Mitchell-Giddings, VT, 2015

MALCOLM WRIGHT Malcolm Wright was born in Minnesota. He earned a BA from Marlboro College, an MFA from George Washington University, and was an apprentice to a 12th-generation Japanese potter Tarouemon Nakazato in Karatsu, Japan, working directly under Takashi Nakazato.

Felissimo and Sara, NYC, 2005 Plum Gallery, MA, 2003–2005 Currier Museum of Art, NH, 2004 Asia Society, NYC, 2002 Huntington, WV, 2000 Blandon, IA, 2000 Dai Ichi, NYC, 1997, 2000, 2003


eo art lab, CT, 2008

Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT

Bridge of Fire:

1967 MFA George Washington University, Washington, DC

MFA Springfield, MA, 1992


Art Complex Museum, MA, 1985, 1992, 2005

Japanese C C, Wash. DC, 1992

Noyes Museum, NJ, 1993

Denver Art Museum, CO, 1994

Whitman College, WA, 1994

Apprenticed to Taroueman Nakazato Xll,

Living National Treasure, Karatsu, Japan

TEACHING EXPERIENCE 1970–1980 Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT 1963–1967

Corcoran School of Art, Washington, DC

Gallery Manyodo, Tokyo, 1991, 1997 Genovese Sullivan, Boston, MA, 1990–2005 Azuma Gallery, NYC, 1978–1998 Takashimaya Gallery, Osaka, Japan, 1970





2003 Walter Cerf Award for Lifetime Achievement in the

Arts, Vermont Arts Council

PUBLIC COLLECTIONS Art Complex Museum, Duxbury, MA Bennington Museum, Bennington, VT

In my college years, I was interested in the roots of modernism, from the development of cubism, constructivism and futurism to Scandinavian design, and the time/ space elements in architecture. These interests were interrupted for 30 years by my deep involvement with Japan,

Blanden Memorial Art Museum, Ft. Dodge, IA

functional pottery for food and flowers, and in the ascetic,

Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

restrained taste of tea ceremony pottery.

Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV

Over the last 35 years, my early interest has reawakened. Walking around the fields among Chuck Ginnivers’s monumental sculptures, here in Vermont, inspired me to revisit

Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo, Japan

these interests. Slowly, I became aware of the power of mini-

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

malism as expressed in Tony Smith’s work. More recently, the

Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA

work of Jorge Oteiza and the foam sculptures of John Cham-

Urasenke Society of New York, New York, NY

berlin have been a source of inspiration. The nature of clay and my years working with tabletop scale directs me to a small size that is comfortable, yet retains power. I am interested in dry surfaces, without ash build up, and negative space. I think the sense of Japanese restraint and Western minimalism combine in these pieces, the forms, and ideas I studied more that 50 years ago. — Malcolm Wright


MALCOLM WRIGHT: MOVING BEYOND TRADITION “Malcolm Wright, who is known by some as a functional potter and by others as a sculptor working in clay, is a consummate craftsman of both. He belongs to a group of contemporary ceramic artists who began as potters throwing vessels on the wheel, and then, seeking to move outside of that tradition, found hand building as a way to broaden their artistic vocabulary.”

— Susan Strickler

Profile for Ferrin Contemporary

MALCOLM WRIGHT: Moving Beyond Tradition  

MALCOLM WRIGHT: MOVING BEYOND TRADITION “Malcolm Wright, who is known by some as a functional potter and by others as a sculptor working in...

MALCOLM WRIGHT: Moving Beyond Tradition  

MALCOLM WRIGHT: MOVING BEYOND TRADITION “Malcolm Wright, who is known by some as a functional potter and by others as a sculptor working in...