maake – Interview with Tony Marsh

Tony Marsh earned his BFA in Ceramic Art at California State University Long Beach in 1978. After graduating he spent three years in Mashiko, Japan at the workshop of Tatsuzo Shimaoka. Marsh completed his MFA at Alfred University in 1988. He teaches in the Ceramic Arts Program at California State University Long Beach where he was the Program Chair for over 20 years. He is currently the first Director of the Center for Contemporary Ceramics at CSULB. Marsh has taught, lectured and exhibited extensively throughout the us, Asia and Europe. Tony is a 2018 United States Artist Fellow. You will find his ceramic art in many private and permanent museum collections around the world, included among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mad Museum of Art in NY, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Everson Museum, Syracuse, the Oakland Museum of Art, Gardiner Museum of Art, Toronto, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

Our family left NYC the year JFK was assassinated and moved to Big Sur, California. We moved in next door—down the dirt road, actually—to the Weston family, as luck had it. I remember seeing an early Ed Weston print Cabbage Leaf, from 1931. Immediately, and for a moment, I thought I was looking at an image of an enormous and beautifully wrinkled sheet that was thrown over a piano. It was a suspension of disbelief, a transformation of my vision and the activation of my imagination. My mind raced and I knew that art could be powerful. I had a wonderful high school teacher that introduced me to art and ceramics. I would credit him as much as any other instructor for the ways in which he helped me build a framework for a life in the arts. He believed in me and after one semester of high school ceramics, I was invited to help him teach a summer class. It established a lifelong pattern and parallel devotion to teaching and making.

Questions by Shannon Goff

Hi Tony! Congratulations on your well-deserved recent United States Artists Fellowship Award. Thank you so much for the opportunity to gain insight into your life as an artist and educator.

You were born in New York City but have lived most of your life in California. Did you ever identify as a “New Yorker”?
I don’t identify as being a New Yorker in the way my mother did after we left in 1963. However, growing up in central California, because of my experience in a multi-racial, multi-cultural urban environment I never felt completely at home in or was able to identify with the cultural monotheism of Carmel, California where I grew up. So perhaps I missed New York and I left Carmel as soon as I was able, as beautiful as it is. I am a great deal more culturally comfortable in Southern California.

When did you become interested in art and becoming an artist? Were there any early influences that piqued your interest?
Both my parents spent an entire lifetime in the arts, my father was a writer and mother a ballerina and painter. I grew up around artists and being taken to museums are some of my earliest memories in life. Another early memory is the scent of turpentine, linseed oil and oil paint in my mother’s studio. If it were a fragrance, I’d wear it. Our family left NYC the year JFK was assassinated and moved to Big Sur, California. We moved in next door—down the dirt road, actually—to the Weston family, as luck had it. I remember seeing an early Ed Weston print Cabbage Leaf, from 1931. Immediately, and for a moment, I thought I was looking at an image of an enormous and beautifully wrinkled sheet that was thrown over a piano. It was a suspension of disbelief, a transformation of my vision and the activation of my imagination. My mind raced and I knew that art could be powerful. I had a wonderful high school teacher that introduced me to art and ceramics. I would credit him as much as any other instructor for the ways in which he helped me build a framework for a life in the arts. He believed in me and after one semester of high school ceramics, I was invited to help him teach a summer class. It established a lifelong pattern and parallel devotion to teaching and making.

I wanted more than anything else in life to be a professional baseball player. I understood the game organically and even loved practice. Between the ages of 10 and 17 I poured my passion into the sport. I had the physical tools to play professionally but not the correct mental makeup. I suffered a career-ending shoulder injury at 17 and was directed by a high school counselor to take a pottery class my last semester in high school. I walked into that lab and in a sense never walked out to this day. I am grateful for a life in the arts and education. I have met and worked with so many wonderful people and been transformed by my experiences.

You spent three years in Mashiko, Japan apprenticing with National Living Treasure Tastuzo Shimaoka. How did this opportunity come about? What effect did this experience have on you as an artist?
I fortuitously studied glass blowing with Mr. Shimaoka’s daughter at Long Beach State in the 70s and graduated with my BFA but had no interest in attending graduate school. At the time I was graduating I was offered the opportunity to go to Japan, and be housed and paid, as a worker in the studio of Tatsuzo Shimaoka in Mashiko in 1978 and I agreed to spend three years there. The last year and a half I became Mr. Shimaoka’s assistant in his private studio. It was an incredibly difficult, but excellent experience.

Forty years later I am still sorting through the impact that it has had on my life. It was transformative in many ways. Perhaps the least important thing I learned was how to make “Japanese mingei pottery”. I was in the countryside and working with older, very traditional men and women who were farmers and potters, some of whom fought in WWII. I had to not only learn Japanese, but also shades of the local dialect which had no written references for study. Their cosmological views on life were remarkably different than mine and there were frequent cultural situational events that played out in front of me, where the values of an Eastern Budddhist/Shintoist culture stacked up against those of a Western Judeo/Christian culture. I was frequently placed in the position of needing to decide what I believed, what was instilled in me culturally, and what was personal. It was unsettling and fascinating and a three-year test. The experience opened my eyes and tenderized me to the humanity in all of us despite our cultural differences. It was the late 70s and I was out in the countryside. In those three years I couldn’t call home and I never left Japan to visit family. I could only write letters which took two weeks by boat to be delivered and then another two weeks if I had a question and someone answered immediately. One month, sometimes more, to solve a simple problem or have a question answered—different times! I learned a great deal about perseverance, how to be alone, how to navigate another culture, how to speak another language and communicate. I already knew how to work hard but I learned a lot about hard work. I was shy then—and still am— though much less so, but I also developed a deeper understanding of the value of restraint in Japan. I still think regularly about the impact of my time there had on my life. It is essentially why I started an International travel program 25 years ago for students at CSULB where I teach. Americans need to travel.

To answer the question, probably the most profound impact that being in Japan had on me as an artist is that I learned that I didn’t want to return home and be a pseudo-Japanese folk potter. I admired Mr. Shimaoka enormously for numerous reasons. I wanted to be like him more than I wanted to make his work.

I’ve always admired the evolution of your work. Despite the disparate aesthetics of each series, notions of accumulation, containment, and labor seem to run through it all. Any time the audience thinks they know what you make, you pivot, reinvent, and surprise. What has precipitated these changes in your practice?
I do hear questions from time to time about the apparent differences between bodies of work, but I don’t feel those differences so much. For one thing, while I could not find it in me to be a tableware potter after returning from Japan, I did, and more so now than ever, I have a profound appreciation for what pottery has meant to humanity across all of civilized time and culture. So the idea of pottery and the clay vessel have been the root inspiration of everything that I have made since finishing grad school, and yet I do not consider myself a potter. Pottery has been the subject matter I have drawn from, in my own way. The short list of tasks required of pots through all time is; to present, hold, preserve, ritualize, serve, beautify and commemorate. Within that context I am just making work spurred by curiosity.

I also make work out of disagreement or argument that I have with the history of the material or process. In that way it is less homage that I am paying and an attempted subversion coup of the facts. That sounds obtuse. For instance, the perforated work in part grew out of the fact that except for translucent porcelain, clay is generally dense, opaque and absolutely ruled by gravity. I think because of that, or inspired by that, I wanted to make objects from clay wherein material was replaced by light so as to make ethereal forms that might seem to hover. It was all driven by a disagreement, or argument if you like, about the very nature of the material and what might be possible. It took me about 12 years of continually making adjustments and refinements in equipment, materials and process to complete the series, and then I was able to move on to other curiosities or arguments. I consider my practice to be rigorous in that way. I enjoy intense encounters in the studio and my best work feels like an act of devotion. In this way, I am driven by the internal rewards more so than the external rewards of being an artist. Don’t get me wrong, artists absolutely need both and it is a very complicated equation. And, artists do prioritize those two sets of rewards in whatever order of importance they choose. It is just that the internal rewards of discovery and self actualization via making are a higher priority.

My high school teacher told me once that I should learn to do things without first knowing that I would be rewarded for it and my mother reinforced that notion. That idea stuck. I have always followed things that I was passionate about just to see where they might go, I have hit a thousand and one dead ends—ask me if I care? Often it was so enjoyable in the moment, and that can be value enough. If I am to be transformed by the making of my work, it needs to grow. I generally move on in art when I feel as though I am at risk of simply making bad copies of my old work. So I will follow ideas until they feel complete. That may be quick or it may take years. It just depends on how fertile the idea was.

What does a typical day in the studio look like? Is there such a thing?
I try hard to find my way to the studio most every day unless I am traveling. I learned that this is up to me and nobody will make it easy. So, I need to love doing what I am doing, that is part of the attraction. If I had something better to do, I think I would do it but there is nothing better. I work where I teach and so toggle between teaching and working in the studio. It is like juggling raw eggs and trying to drop fewer than I catch on some days.

You have managed to successfully balance your career as an artist and educator for many years. Can you share some of your secrets?
I’ve gotten up most mornings and started the daily task of working my way towards the things that feel internally rewarding, towards the things I love. I teach the way that I want to teach because it feels meaningful and I make things for the same reasons. I have been fundamentally transformed by my history as a teacher and a maker. I have paid attention, learned from numerous mistakes and have grown towards a deeper understanding of what risk-taking is and what failure means in art and life. I don’t really understand making and teaching as terribly compatible activities and so try to make sure that each one has the time and focus it needs. And certainly, my currency as a maker gives me a deeper frame of reference as a teacher. Teaching requires generosity and making requires a certain type of selfishness, both move forward but on different tracks and each suffers in a way because of the time and focus requirements of the other. Teaching is an honorable social contract if engaged with rigor, if not it is a waste of time.

I do think worth mentioning is the value of learning to dream in different ways with short-term and long-term implications as a teacher and as an artist. It is highly functional. Most importantly, I will add that dreaming alone, while enjoyable, is not enough. One needs to learn how to pursue not just goals, but dreams, and act on them in the real world. Being dreamy as a teacher allows one to get out in front and actively cultivate ideas about education as opposed to being absorbed daily in reacting to the small fires one runs around putting out. And of course, being dreamy as an artist happens in many ways and doesn’t need to be explained.

Many incredible artists have come out of and through your progressive program. When did your vision for the Center for Contemporary Ceramics at CSULB manifest? What effect has the CCC had on the CSULB students and community since it’s inception in 2017?
I actually started teaching as a lecturer at CSULB in 1985 and during my first semester I brought a Northern California painter down to be in residence for a month to create a body of work and present an exhibition on campus. It has been my inclination from the beginning to invite artists to campus to work with students and faculty. I have never been an all-in believer that a university curricular structure, no matter how comprehensive and well designed, will prepare a student sufficiently for what he or she is going to face when their formal education is complete. I may or may not be correct in that assumption, but have believed and acted on filling perceived gaps in the process with non-academic experiences for our students. To that end, I have brought a steady, diverse stream of arts professionals, educators, authors, collectors, critics, curators and primarily artists across a spectrum of disciplines to present and work on campus amongst the student population. Our students frequently work with these artists, assisting them in the fabrication, firing and delivery of their work, frequently for exhibition and importantly, students are paid for their help. I had always insisted that all of the teaching faculty create in the building and space has been provided. Together with resident artists and students, the studio environment resembles a beehive. A healthy program creates an environment where everybody teaches, everybody learns. Our resident guest artists from time to time might teach a course for us but I have actually been more interested in simply having them model artistic behavior as their contribution to the numerous voices that sing in the building. I like the difference between artistic voices in our environment. It stays more rigorous and vital in that way. International travel has been another such non-academic teaching tool at our disposal. I had an interesting insight recently after thirty years of teaching—I realized that I have never been singularly interested in just teaching students, technically. In other words, walking into a classroom and showing students how to make things. It is part of the job and necessary of course, but I was really more interested in using the entire program as a tool to deep-teach. More than teaching a subject, I am interested in changing a life and developed the program as a tool that I could use to that end. International travel has been one of the tools at my disposal. Every year for over 25 years we have sent essentially every student of ours that so desired out to travel somewhere in the world. Hundreds of students now have traveled to over 20 countries. We have taken students to the Venice Biennale every other year almost without fail since 1997.

My colleague, Professor Chris Miles dreamt up the concept of institutionalizing the idea of bringing artists to campus to work and so did all of the hard work of creating a center and passing it through university approval process. He did so wisely, so that after I’m gone, the practice of bringing artists to campus to interact will have a framework and budget and not just be driven by personality.

As much as I am interested in helping our students find their way, I am also interested helping to shape a dynamic presence for art made of clay in Southern California and beyond. To that end, when artists are invited to come onto campus and work they are frequently artists who’s education has typically not been in Ceramics. They are mature artistically, but may not fully understand all of the things that one is not supposed to do with clay. I encourage them to be as ambitious as they want to be and we assist them with the technical aspects, and find ways to create work that might seem impossible. I really don’t want or like saying ‘no’ to almost any idea. I believe that bringing ambitious artists to campus, encouraging and assisting them in making their work is the best way to continuously nudge an expansion of the field and to inspire our students and those in the orbit of what we do.

Any advice to recent grads who are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
Hopefully life is long, prepare well. Be willful. Manage debt. Learn how to make good decisions from setbacks or when you receive disappointing news. Make what you love, Be afraid, but don’t let that stop you. Find something that you can pour your passion into. Seek internal reward. Passing this along: Allow yourself to engage your ideas fully without first knowing that there will be any external rewards for it. Be relentless.

What do you think of the current state of Ceramics?
Fascinating, medium-specific galleries are becoming fewer and fewer. Most contemporary fine art galleries now work with one or more artists who use clay. Folks in the field of ceramic art, in a sense, have a harder time being shielded by the field and need to make work compelling enough to compete with all other artists and that is the utmost major development of the 21st century in ceramic art.

I know you are an avid gardener of ancient plants. Are there any parallels between ceramics and gardening for you?
I collect and grow cycads. They have been on the planet for over 200 million years. They predate flowers in biological evolution. They require a healthy environment and thoughtful care. I understand them organically above and below ground and make sure that they have what they need to flourish, which is similar to teaching in many ways.

Are there any books (or essays, poems, films, etc) that have had a profound effect on you?
The poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda has been important. The book Harold and his Purple Crayon (with no text) stands out in memory since childhood as important, it details everything one would need to know about becoming and being an artist!

To find out more about Tony and his work, visit his website.