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A very beautiful, early globular-shaped pottery
jar by Rick Dillingham, Santa Fe, NM 1974
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 picture bowls to the 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.
He 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 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 Virgina Ebelacker.
Although no one really knows for certain whether the historic San Juan potters did this 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 color and arrangement of the fire clouds 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 purples, pinks, browns, beiges, greys, blues and blacks and the interestingly and intentionally variegated and slightly glazed surface texture.
The vessel shows at once all the beauty and expressiveness of the clay and glaze and all 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 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.
Rick Dillingham in Santa Fe, circa 1975
The jar measures a nice-sized 7 1/2” in diameter and it is also 7 1/2” in height. It is in excellent original condition. There are numerous surface scrapes, gouges and pitting present which we believe Dillingham deliberately added himself for artistic effect and textural patination and to give the impression of age. This is furthered by the intentionally irregular shape of the jar’s neck and rim which suggests erosion and wear over time but this was deliberate “distressing” done right from the start to convey this impression. These are techniques we have seen Dillingham do on many other of his vessels. The jar is properly signed “Dillingham” in the artist’s customary incised cursive signature on the bottom and it is also dated “Dec 1 ’74” which makes it one of his very early pieces.
This 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 22 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.
“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.”