Just a Guy Named Joe

Highway 128 is a favorite drive of mine, winding through the Alexander Valley from Napa County (though the prerequisite here is that you must like the looks of vineyards), then on from Cloverdale to the Mendocino Coast. Nature so lyrically lovely, particularly during the spring and fall, it could be called artful.

Another sort of artfulness also reaches its apex on 128, the kind created by a man. A garden of extraordinary sculpture is growing around a studio, which the owner has not only filled with hand-wrought objects of beauty, he is making the building itself a work of art. During the removal of a faux, low ceiling to expose the original high one, a piece fell from the rear wall, from which a huge stash of acorns was avalanched, exposing an outer wall riddled with woodpecker holes. The artist is firing away, creating a colorful glass plug for each of the hundreds of holes. Playfully entitled “My First Collaboration with Woodpeckers,” it looks spectacular now, not even half finished.

The Enigma of Highway 128 — Who, you may have wondered when passing by, is this superman of terra cotta, ceramics, metal and glass? None other than Mr. Joe Hawley, Professor of ceramics at San Francisco State University. The beautiful property site is a perfect setting for his large terra cotta clay and mixed-medium works. Gently sloped and laced with old oaks, it reaches a confluence, a high point that looks out over the distant wilderness.

Joe found it two years ago after a three-year search. He moved from San Francisco, where he has considerably lightened his responsibilities as an instructor; he is semi-retired, professor emeritus. The need to move was hastened by the mass eviction of the artists of the Doelger Art Center in Daly City where he had a studio. So much large, heavy and delicate art and equipment was transported north, the move most have proved a logistical nightmare.

This house by the side of the road was built over 100 years ago and, Joe discovered, used to be a one-room schoolhouse, Alder Glen School. Now it is home to Crimson, the conspicuous woman who stands consecrating the entrance, wearing nothing but a few terra cotta designs and squiggles. She is a story unto herself, named after an artist’s model, Crimson Rose, who once posed for the Professor’s classes. The statue is in large part a body cast, a hurried, painstaking effort by Joe, with a little help from his students, to minimize the discomfort of the casting procedure for the graciously consenting Crimson. Joe molded the head, feet and hands after other women, the composite clay form fired in a specially-built kiln which Joe constructed brick by brick around the standing muse.

Facing Crimson in the yard is stoneware and steel “Thunderhead in Hawaii,” based, I believe, on Joe’s conception of the mysterious vagaries of weather. Leaning against a shed is “The Letter,” an almost wall-sized terra cotta sheet written by the artist about love and its loss. When Joe speaks of another work called “Low Life,” he suggests it is representative of life in a tide pool and then slips into more esoteric connections of primal sexuality, organic rhythms, or simple truths in the things we find around us. Then he spins off into space, our exploration of which excites and inspires him. “We are exploring space to know our connection with the universe,” with other sensors feeding back thousands of little bits of information to produce a range of universal concepts and knowledge that is awesome. Space, atoms, spheres, music, all are interconnected for Joe, a source to wonder at and relate to.

The word “rhythm” surfaces often in Joe’s conversation. Music is obviously of primary importance in his life and work. The sounds of jazz reverberated through his studio during the whole of our visit, the same melodies and rhythms that he assures me are ever-present while he works. Those rhythms and others are evident in a series which he started seven years ago after returning from a sabbatical to India. Called “Songs of India,” these festive pieces were created as a joyous celebration, a decorative and ornamental osmosis. Made of ceramics, glass, metal, and then, found objects (also a description of the course of the artist’s chosen mediums through the years, with the addition of terra cotta clay), they hang like magnificent, color-shocked stalactites from the wainscotted high ceiling of the schoolhouse cum studio, “frozen music” Joe calls them. He continually changes his favorite elements, moving pieces to different positions, intermixing, transposing, like a jazz musician, not following strict discipline, but creating developments of rhythm in improvisational form. One of this series is on loan at Handley Cellars on Highway 128 west of Philo, which gives you an opportunity to stop by and see one of the unique pieces, all virtually indescribable except in Joe’s idiom.

Curiously, I had an extended writing block after my “interview” with Joe until… I put a Charlie Parker tape on. By the time “Bird of Paradise” and “Don’t Blame Me” flamed out, my words were rolling onto paper. More osmosis?

Joe went to San Jose State in the 60s and taught there for a few years after matriculation. In 1967 he joined San Francisco State’s faculty. He also taught at the University of Hawaii for a couple of years. A favorite piece of his, “Whispering Column,” has been on loan for 15 years at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which happily necessitates a trip now and then for Joe to Hawaii to look in on his creation. He terms it a “wind piece”; he is very concerned with sound in clay. The local geckos and bugs have formed a harmonious physical relationship with the tiny open tunnels made of clay, stacked in row upon row, mindful of early Mayan housing, but looking like the original it is, unlike anything else.

While at the University of Hawaii, Professor Hawley and David Kuroaka, also a SF State professor (from Hawaii) founded Raku Ho’ola e’a, a series of summer beach campouts for ceramicists, weekends of sharing techniques, of work and play, of beach firings in the tradition of Raku, an ancient form of Japanese pottery making which lent itself to the enjoyment of “doing” together. The event began 20 years ago and continues every summer.

Joe’s terra cotta pieces are at once profoundly powerful and whimsical. Some evoke a “humorous rhythm” such as “Sky Cycle,” created for children and currently residing predestinatedly on what was once a playground long ago, next to what is now the ghost of a schoolhouse. Crawling into the gently curved clay “open” enclosure, Joe says, should make you feel you are “in the eye of the storm but not threatened by anything.”

Another humorous approach are his “wiggles,” a series of terra cotta huge squiggly “worms,” he created while re-shaping wet clay pipes and tiles at their source, Gladding-McBean and Co. in Lincoln, California, where Joe worked on a series for six months entitled “Emerge.” He has high praise for the firm’s generosity of time, material and spirit.

There hangs in his yard a giant hollow sphere, made of concrete, glass and metal, through and into which he has woven images of space and the attendant rhythm of systems. Then, there is the large, graceful fountain created of found objects. And, his eroded sphere, which he blasted into with hose and water pick, “playing with erosion.”

Most of his pieces have a name, all have an organic presence, a primal and definitive purpose, a sense of connection to humanity, to the earth and beyond. Far, far beyond, way out there, in other, as yet unknown, universes. Some works invoke the atavistic, are concerned with ancestry, such as “Fragmented Ancestor,” which he describes as part of an asteroid, part of something way back when, which leaves a question to it.

It was not easy to leave the kind and congenial, brilliant and ingenious professor, or his two affectionate cats, his moody studio of changing color, light, and shadow, densely strewn with breathtaking works of art, his own and that of others, or even the ancient polished black restaurant stove that reigns in his comfortable old kitchen.

I’m currently at work, writing a tome entitled “Letters to My Ancestors” (©1997, JPV). I will definitely have to tell them all about Joe!

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