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A unique and beautiful flat-top plainware pottery
jar by Rick Dillingham, Santa Fe, NM, 1977
JAMES RICHARD “RICK” DILLINGHAM (1952-1994) was one of the most accomplished and interesting pottery artists
in Southwestern history. Born in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Rick moved to New Mexico to study art and anthropology at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where he soon became engrossed in the history, tradition and technique of Pueblo pottery-making. Working at the University’s famed Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, he studied everything from ancient Mimbres Culture picture bowls to the modern-day pottery of the families of the great Pueblo pottery Matriarchs, Nampeyo of Hano, Maria Martinez, Margaret Tafoya and others and in the course
of his work there as a pottery restorer, he repaired and re-assembled countless pottery vessels, experience he would later employ to great artistic effect.
Rick also wrote prolifically and significantly on the subject of Pueblo pottery in several important volumes beginning with the seminal Maxwell Museum exhibition catalog “Seven Families of Pueblo Pottery”, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1974. Rick also spent years as a well-respected dealer in historic Pueblo pottery in Santa Fe where he delighted in passing on his intimate knowledge to his colleagues, clients, friends and fellow potters among whom he was a deeply respected artist, friend and tireless promoter. He formed many lasting friendships with various prominent Pueblo potters, among them Maria, Julian and Popovi Da Martinez, Margaret Tafoya, Elizabeth Q. White, Dextra Quotskuyva Nampeyo, Lucy Lewis, Dora and Tse Pe and Virginia Ebelacker.
In his numerous writings and over the course of personal conversations with him, it was clear to see that Rick Dillingham was fascinated with and completely enamored by the entire process of pottery-making literally from the ground up, from the gathering and handling of the clay to the management of the firing process and the often very elaborate later processes he developed for working and reworking the pieces which he created. Dillingham literally and figuratively broke the mold with his startlingly original ceramic work, combining age-old Native American methods and ancient Japanese Raku pottery techniques with his own imagination to create a unique and daring modern body of distinctive, deeply personal work.
There is an artistic energy, freshness and dynamism immediately evident in them, a certain air of familiarity, but also the distinct sense that you have never seen anything quite like this before, that new ground is being broken here. As he himself often explained it, as a non-Pueblo person, he was largely freed from the creative constraints and conventions that generations of tradition and custom impose upon almost all Pueblo people. Pueblo societies are inherently conservative in nature and change when it happens, occurs only incrementally and slowly over time. In dramatic contrast, Rick broke the dishes, literally and figuratively speaking, artistically from the very beginning.
In the case of this early 1977 flat-top upright jar, Dillingham employed a number of the innovative and creative methods he developed for his work involving the use of smoothly glazed areas such as the top of the vessel and more roughly-surfaced unpolished areas of the sides and bottom. The resulting contrast and visual tension between these different surfaces and their shiny and matte appearance is quite remarkable. Dillingham also managed the firing process on this jar in an especially dramatic manner, allowing and facilitating the burning fuel to come into direct contact with the vessel walls to produce a large area of “fire-clouding” to a beautiful artistic effect. In doing this, he took a page from the fine historic pottery traditions of the nearby San Juan Indian Pueblo some thirty miles north of Santa Fe where their lovely traditional red-on-tan and black-on-grey plainware pottery vessels are characterized by employing extensive fire clouding to great aesthetic effect as seen in the example shown here.
Although no one really knows for certain whether the historic San Juan potters did this fire-clouding on purpose,
it is safe to say that Dillingham almost certainly did and to great success in this case. Depending on which side and from which angle you look at it, the many different sections of this jar are each like their own little Abstract Modernist paintings depending on the particular colors and arrangement of the design elements there. It looks like
a series of miniature Modernist presentation vignettes of the distinct hues and contours of the landscapes of the Southwest with the rich mixture and subtle interplay of the various browns, beiges, pinks, whites, grays and yellows and the interestingly and intentionally variegated surface textures. The overall impression here is of a vast and somewhat eroded Southwestern landscape of great age.
Interestingly, Dillingham has literally allowed the bones of this vessel to remain visible here in that he chose not
to cover up with slip the horizontal coils of clay which make up the body of the vessel, rather to highlight and accentuate the coils in a most interesting way. The jar’s flat-top is an adaptation and development drawing from Prehistoric ceramics in the Kayenta region of Northern Arizona and later drawn upon by the great Hopi potter, Nampeyo in the early years of the 20th Century.
This vessel shows at once all the beauty and expressiveness of the clay and glazes and all of the intense power,
heat and alchemy of the fire which transforms them. As such, it is an absolutely gorgeous and unusually compelling piece. This unique combination of traditional techniques and ancient knowledge and a fresh, modern viewpoint and creative sensibility combine powerfully in Dillingham’s ceramics and are the reason they are held today and coveted in the collections of numerous important museums from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, the Los Angles Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as well as in many private collections. Later, this year the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe is planning on opening a Rick Dillingham retrospective exhibition.
“No one is a master of ceramic arts, it's just a matter of how much you can cooperate with the elements at the time. That’s a humbling sort of thing that I like to keep in mind because it gives me the freedom to experiment. I try to keep the work fresh and fairly intuitive. I keep all the processes as simple as possible to reach the results that I do.
And keeping the forms simple as well–spheres, triangles, cones, rectangles –lets me get away with visual murder on the surface. As a painter looks at a canvas, I look at a form and think how can I make it work? I calculate my process, but not my work. The juxtaposition of basic stripes, zig zags, triangles and circles on the surface looks tricky, but is not consciously set out to be a new image. When I put these things together it’s as much a surprise to me as to the viewer. Ceramic art used to be hung up on the technique rather than the “art” of the piece. I think I’ve done a lot to negate that concept.”
“The term “Plainware” doesn’t really do this jar justice as it is anything but plain, with many subtle and lovely variations of surface, texture, form and color.”
Above, an early San Juan Pueblo, NM red-on-tan pottery jar, c. 1850-1860, ex: Fred Harvey Company.
Rick Dillingham in Santa Fe, c. 1975
The jar measures a nicely-sized 8” in diameter and it is 6” in height. It is in excellent original condition.
The intentionally irregular asymmetrical shape of the jar’s neck and rim suggests erosion and wear over time like the ancient volcanic cones that dot the landscape here. This was a deliberate form of “distressing” done right from the start to convey this impression. This is a technique we have seen Dillingham do on many other of his vessels and it nicely reinforces the organic “earthy” nature of this piece. The jar is properly signed “Dillingham” in the artist’s customary incised cursive signature on the bottom and it is also dated “May or Oct ’77” which makes it one of his earlier pieces. The jar is also marked “1/5” indicating there were a suite or group of five related and similar pieces, one of which a colleague of ours owns, very similar to this one in size and shape but with some different colors and much more pronounced use of yellow paint around the exterior of the vessel.
This jar is an exceptional and evocative work by an extremely talented and special artist near the beginning of
his all-too-brief career. Tragically, Rick Dillingham died way too young at only 41 years of age. He was only 25 when he created this outstanding piece and it naturally leads one to wonder how many other extraordinary and beautiful things he might have created had he lived longer. This piece is now approaching fifty years old and it is is still just
as fresh as a daisy, a testament to the timeless, organic and essential nature of Rick Dillingham’s pottery art.
As shown above, this jar can be displayed on a pottery stand or not. The stand shown
here is for demonstration purposes only and is not included in the sale of the jar.