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Renowned ceramist Paul Chaleff shares work at Watson-MacRae

By Staff | Jan 11, 2010

Sculptor and ceramics master artisan Paul Chaleff has a number of small and large pots on display at Sanibel's Watson-MacRae Gallery.

It isn’t every day that an artist, acclaimed worldwide as a pioneer in his field, brings their work to Sanibel. So when that happens, local craftspeople and creative types sit up and take notice.

Last Thursday, when ceramics master artisan Paul Chaleff debuted several of his pieces at Watson-MacRae Gallery, many islanders delighted in the display.

“I’ve never tried to make things look perfect,” said the potter, known in the art community for his use of colossal scale in ceramic sculpture and vessels. “Everything starts out very similar on the wheel… very cylindrical. But it just keeps changing. I like art in which you can almost see the process.”

As one of the pioneers of the resurgence of wood firing in America, Chaleff’s wood-fired pieces can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as numerous other museum collections across the United States.

His work has also been shown at the White House in Washington, D.C., the Gion Gallery in Kyoto, Japan and at the National Monument to Women in Military Service for America at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Paul Chaleff's large pots on display at the gallery were fired between 2002 and 2006.

“People who own my work tend to live with them in a very different way,” he stated. “It becomes a personal part of their lives, every day. It’s not necessarily something that stands out. It’s imperfect, but on purpose. It has a beauty that lies in its idiosyncrasies… just like we do.”

A ceramist for more than 40 years, Chaleff adopted his own version of wood-firing back in the 1970s after witnessing some artwork created in Japan. There, several generations of potters use wood to heat their kilns, a custom passed down through generations of artisans.

“I took the eastern process and made it very western,” said Chaleff, who constructed his own custom-built kiln at his home studio in Ancram, N.Y.

One of the pieces being shown, a 20-inch pot made entirely from porcelain, is one of the works the artist is most proud of.

“When I work with porcelain, I like for it to maintain its liquidity,” he explained. “I want to show the viewer just how wonderful it is to work with and to move around. You can see how fun it is to play with. But it is a bit of a trick to get it to do what you want it to do.”

Four of Chaleff's smaller pots shown at the gallery were created in the late 1980s.

As a potter, Chaleff also works with clays derived from mines across the world. He noted that clays differ from place to place, in color, texture, density and pliability, depending upon how far down a mountain it is harvested from.

Chaleff studied at the Bronx High School of Science before advancing his education at the City University of New York, where he earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Fine Arts. After working as a potter’s apprentice and studying ceramic techniques in Japan, Chaleff started his own career as a ceramist.

A pivotal point in his progression as an artist came during a 10-year collaboration with sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, with whom he worked between 1982 and 1992.

“He was a nice person and a gentle artist,” he said. “I learned so much from him. We had such different talents… I could make certain forms and shapes and he would know how things would work together.”

Chaleff, drawn to Sanibel through a friendship with local gallery owners Henry and Jane Eckert, also shared his philosophy as an artist.

“Art is a language, and in my work I am saying something,” he said, adding, “I only hope that somebody is listening.”

In addition, the gallery’s current “Duets” exhibit features Naples artist Hollis Jeffcoat, whose muted abstract paintings blend very well with Chaleff’s pottery.

“Anybody who appreciates museum-quality pottery should come in and see his work,” gallery owner Maureen Watson added. “It’s a special treat to have Paul show his art here.”

This exhibition will run from through Saturday, Jan. 30.

Watson MacRae Gallery is located at 2340 Periwinkle Way #B3 in The Village Shops on Sanibel. Gallery hours are Monday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For additional details, call 472-3386 or visit www.watsonmacraegallery.com.