Dates: 1933 (Bloomsburg, PA) – 2015 (Saint Stephen, NB)
Production Dates: c. 1957 – 2015?
Location: Fredericton and St. Andrews, NB
Types of Work: early functional; 1982 ff, raku sculptural
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: electric, raku;
Preferred Clay: custom formula clay
New Brunswick has consistently produced gems of artists since the early years of studio ceramics. The Deichmanns, Peter Wolcott, Allan Crimmins, Peter Powning and Judy Blake are only few names. Tom Smith has always had a special interest for me since I first met him in the late 1970s. His journey to become one of New Brunswick’s premier artists in spite of alternate career temptations illustrates the tenacity of his commitment to ceramics.
Tom actually started in art education, at the University of Pennsylvania in the Art Education Programme, completing a Bachelor of Art Education in 1957.² The first glimmering of something larger occurred in the same year:
“While an undergrad at Penn state I saw in a 1957 copy of Craft Horizons a feature on Peter Voulkos. As soon as I saw that I thought, ‘My God, that’s pottery. I’m really hooked.’” ¹
It was the vigour of Voulkos’ work:
“I was attracted to the Abstract Expressionist movement that was transferring itself from painting to pottery.” ¹
To further hone his ceramic skills he then obtained Teaching fellowship at Alfred University,² studying under Daniel Rhodes, Bob Turner (his graduate advisor) and Val Cushing.¹ This last he said had the most influence on him.¹ He also studied print making under John Wood, also working as his graduate assistant.² Two dimensional design was a constant secondary interest throughout his life. He graduated with an MFA in Ceramics two years later in 1961.²
The Alfred programme was open. He was free to do what he wanted, though he had to work on his pottery skills. ¹ He admits he was:
“ … certainly not interested at that time in functional pottery.…[I] never got terribly interested in straight functional pottery, true functional ware.” ¹
Over time other major U.S. ceramists caught his attention including Paul Soldner, and John Mason.
Mason was “Another person whose work was peripherally, quietly in the back of my mind, the large, the massive, the strength. Sculpturally his work was in the back of my mind for a long time.” ¹
Then came a spotty period in his career an interruption, a period from 1963 to 1969/70 when he claimed to have not produced any clay works.¹ Yet his resume indicates he was winning awards at the Munson Williams Proctor Institute in Utica, NY, and was juried into the Syracuse International Ceramics shows in 1963 and 1965 among other exhibitions.² Perhaps this ‘memory gap’ was due in part to his “social” activism but he simply said it was due to
“Teaching and little kids. I had no studio either. I had worked for two years in clay out of graduate school. I needed a break and months turned into years.” ¹
However, a year later, 1971, he had come to Canada. He was teasingly discreet:
“I left for political and social reasons. … I’d been pretty active socially. … I had been thinking about and trying to move to Canada for a number of years, trying to make up my mind to make the move.” ¹
“I’d been to Toronto a couple of times. Jack Herman invited me to look around but I came away not really wanting to go to Toronto itself. “ ¹
Why the Maritimes? Partly because he did not want to move to a big city. ¹
“I’d never been to the Maritimes. I took out a map of the Maritimes and thought, I’ll go there.” ¹
He applied for work.
“In the Spring of 1971 I needed a job. I landed a couple of job offers to teach in public schools in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The most positive response I got was from Fredericton.” ¹
With a family that included three children he moved to Fredericton on July 1, 1971, to teach grades 1 to 12.¹ New Brunswick was a totally new environment for him in many ways. What he liked and observed was that:
“New Brunswick was just becoming really active in ceramics. Allan Crimmins had recently opened his pottery. John Shaw was in Fredericton at the time.” ¹
“There wasn’t the art sophistication that was going on in a lot of places in the States. … I didn’t know anybody before I moved here who was a production potter, who was working and making a living as a potter. Down in the States, everybody I knew were … all teaching.” ¹
His move was thus fortuitous and caught early the developing interest in ceramics in New Brunswick.
“This situation allowed the whole explosion of creativity starting with Peter Wolcott in the ‘50s.“ ¹
“I was doing very strong work. There were only a half dozen potters.” ¹
By 1972, a mere year later, he was exhibiting in a “Seven Potters of New Brunswick Exhibition.” ¹ He had become a de facto New Brunswicker. Nonetheless, he still had to undergo local critique. He was firing with electricity at that time and had been for five years.¹ Potter Bill Norman, whom he found “an outspoken guy”, questioned Tom’s use of electric firings:
‘You can’t do anything with electric firing.” ¹
Norman’s comment though speaks to the New Brunswick preference for wood or gas firings¹ and stoneware reduction at the time. Tom saw himself as the only one really doing electric firing.¹
By 1973 he was teaching at the University of New Brunswick.² This gave him more time to begin putting out greater amounts of work.¹ University teaching allowed him to move out of a small studio and to use the university facilities. In 1979 when he was on leave from the university he had four exhibitions in one year.
However, by late 1981 already wanted to get away from the comfort of the university before he became too used to the salary.¹ He was thinking it was:
“… hopefully his last year of teaching.” ¹
In the 1980s he moved to St. Andrews, New Brunswick and became a local ceramics icon. He said modestly of his exhibition success:
“I seldom sell less than half in an exhibition.” ¹
Once settled he didn’t much leave New Brunswick since he was “too busy. It took time and money to get away to the big city.” ¹ A familiar situation to most clay workers.
Recognition was to come his way in many forms including the Strathbutler Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts by the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation in 1992 and election to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1999.
He died in May 2015. Such was his reputation in the region the local art organization Sunbury Shores held a celebration of his life and art including the words
“a wonderful friend and artist. “ 8
A Tom Smith Gallery
Tom Smith entered the ceramics world when in North America a new energy had begun to move the medium from the functional and figurative to the abstract and non-figurative. It was the age of Abstract Expressionism. However, ultimately it was not the gestural side of the movement that attracted him, rather its concept of clay as sculpture. Sometimes he used the medium as shaped, ceramic “canvas.” It was the bowl, as sculpture, that had a special fascination for him.
“As a potter, I am primarily interested in the sculptural dimensions of the medium – the existence of the object in space and the idea and nature of containment. The vessel as a three dimensional object allows and invites endless exploration in form and content.” 4
The following are a few comments on how he approached his work.
Although he had tried salt glaze in graduate school ¹ much of his work was by electric firing, cone 10, to keep the body colour deeper. Colour was occasionally of interest, or a particular glaze might intrigue him but he was
“…interested in form primarily. Glaze has never really interested me. … Recently [pre 1981] I have been more interested than before but my strongest work and concern is toward the form.” ¹
“ I have done the standard bit in glaze firing but some [works] are not glazed but are coloured to get the surface effects and the colour effects I want. I very rarely do multi-firings, but sometimes three max. Occasionally I fire pieces from raw right up to their final temperature.”¹
He gives some insights on how he on how he developed a concept:
“In one day I can take an idea and sit down and make fifty or a hundred variations of that one idea and see what happens … how that idea changes or develops. It’s an incredible design process as well.” ¹
But the process he liked most was
“ … the forming. I’m best when I have my hands on some material. However I do a fair amount of designing on paper too.” ¹
Smith’s Stoneware Pitcher and Vase, are examples of his early functional work, production work that almost every ceramic artist has to produce to survive at some time in their career. Though competent they show that Tom was not in his early years a “thrower”. He would, however, use wheel-throwing throughout his career, often modifying the form by paddling, accretion, tearing and puncturing.
CHI, 1978. With such works we are moving into the realm of handbuilt abstract expressionism. The work is frontal, sitting on a base. Texture and media contrast: wood, smooth surface and rough, textured clay. The upper level has an almost Janus-like split pairing of “profiles” whereas the lower level is smooth, industrial, sharp, like a double-headed axe. This section is punctured by a central hole – the chi’s centre – and slits. The whole is unified by a scratched, dark brown-black-grey coating. The effect is a fusion of the volcanic and industrial and points to future works in its melding of medium and texture.
Landscape # 20, 1990. Here the work, all clay, combines throwing and accretive techniques. A terra cotta coloured, smooth vertical bowl form rests precariously on a small base. This dynamic arrangement is frequently seen in Smith’s work. Surmounting the whole is a large handle disguised as a punctured and engraved slab of grey clay. The over-extending dimensions of the top add to the feeling of instability. Colour and surface contrast like fiery magma and cold lava. What could be minimal function is now all sculpture.
Although he would make a number of functional pieces and great slab plates, when he arrived in New Brunswick he worked for a long time to rid himself of the “making of pot sculpture to make pure clay sculptures.”¹ The bowl form as sculpture held a particular fascination for him, especially in the early years:
“ I love bowls. I think I could do nothing but work with the bowl for the rest of my life … the bowl as a form, as a sculptural form. … It’s the inside volume I’m incredibly intrigued with.” ¹
After 1982 he worked primarily in raku exploring North American versions of the process with occasional nods to the original Japanese aesthetics.
Tea Bowl Form. 1986. A slab-built, boxy, rough-cornered tea bowl in the shiho-gata form sits on a minuscule foot. The seams are blatant, obvious, the surface is scarred with the effects of the raku process. The conventional circular tea bowl form is now roughly cubic. The obviousness of the making process is as important as the final work itself.
Smith would move into, mixing media, frequently adding metal and wood to his work.¹ He explains:
“I am excited by the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate elements and the visual delight in the unexpected tear in the perfectly circular rim of wet clay. It is form that is paramount in my work, and relationships between competing forms. It is the mark left by the broken stick into the pristine globe of a pot which re-defines its form rather than the colour left by the stroke of the paint brush on the surface. What is ultimately important is the work itself and not the process which achieved it.” ³
Open Vessel With Copper Tube, 1998. There is now a refinement and balance, one can even say a monumentality evident. The bowl a form he loved is now stabilised with a wide base. The colour now controlled in flat matte colour fields, masking the raku effects, leaving only a granular texture. The handle form is controlled, here a simple copper tube. The tube attached by two tab-like extensions. The effect is one of solidity.
In this Untitled and undated work the bowl has closed over to become pot shaped. It is dark, metallic in colour. The form is scarred as though by some culinary explosion that rips the top and spills contents down the side. The straggling wooden handle is tied by thin cord to lugs flanking the pot. The effect is of some jury-rigged attempt at restoring a damaged historical articact. The handle and cords are decorative not functional elements that contain the eye within the work, helping focus on the rip, stains and volumes.
Over the years he would contain and refine the broken surface roughness of his work.
In the Lidded Vessel with Patinated Stick the handle is discrete, almost non-usable in scale. The body is covered in a variegated moss green wash while precisely bordered fingers of grey, rise from the base like a hand cupping and supporting the whole. Typically the base gently curves into the foot providing an energy, a vitality to an otherwise quiet form.
Smith would extend his shapes to include vases. Overall he saw himself as:
“…a builder, not a carver … a constructor … stretching the limits of clay … monolithic sort of things rather than wild, busy things happening all over.” ¹
Raku Lidded Vessel, 2006. The simplicity and elegance of Tom’s work such as this show an elegant blend of form, surface and scale. The belly has a sensuous, almost pregnant curve. The surface sparkles with the contrast between the darker grey base and copper blush. The handle and lid are a single unit of patinated copper, with the handle now in faux wood. The small opening speaks to looking at the work as an object to view not use.
Raku Vessel with Torn Rim, 2008. Smith has maintained his small dynamic foot beneath a large pot form. His comfort with combining media is seen in the metal collar fringing the mouth. The coarse looking pot surface looks smooth compared to the rusted surface and ragged edge of the collar,. There is a subtle complementary colour and texture play in their placement.
Tom did on occasion make larger, multi-unit sculptures, moving them around from exhibition to exhibition. They were several feet tall, heavy and toppled over eventually. He found the cost of moving and breakage was ridiculous.¹ He returned to more manageable scale of work.
You can view other works by Tom Smith in the Vimeo video below that show his interest in colour as well as form.
Links to Sites for More Works
Tom Smith a Vimeo video. At 3:41 min. a short but informative video by Matt Brown on the life and legacy of Tom Smith with interviewees Peter Laroque and Kathryn McCarroll. Along with an interesting discussion with little-known details of Tom’s life there is also an impressive slide show of hard to find works including single and multi-part sculptures with a surprising use of colour. A must see.
- American Federated Arts, New York City
- Alfred University
- University of Illinois
- University of Texas
- University of New Brunswick
- Université de Moncton
- Art Bank of New Brunswick
- New Brunswick Department of Tourism
- The Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation
- Art Gallery of Burlington
- New Brunswick Museum
Endnotes & Bibliography:
1. Tom Smith. Interview with Barry Morrison. September 19, 1981.
2. Tom Smith resume. Correspondence with Barry Morrison.
4. Fire and earth catalogue. Pp. 157- 159.
5. Judy Blake. Email correspondence with Barry Morrison.
6. Gallery 78.
9. Bond Auctions .