“The real excitement comes when things are about to go over the edge but never do.”
Malcolm Wright is a master craftsman with an unyielding commitment to creative discovery. Educated in abstract expressionism and modernism, Wright is also known for his unique style pottery and sculpture fired in a giant wood-burning kiln. A student of Japanese technique, Wright moved his young family to Japan for 3 years in the late 1960’s to study and work under Japanese master, Taroueman Nakazato Xll.
Finding Unexplored Corners of the Box
Japanese technique is steeped in tradition, yet Wright learned a valuable lesson about creative expression while living Japan. One of the sons of Nakazato, also a potter, was a maverick and articulated a guiding philosophy of Wright’s career.
“He looked at tradition not as a box that contains you, but as limits in which to find freedom. You find a corner of the box where no one has ever explored before.”
The freedom in Wright’s creative expression lies first in mastering the technique. A wood-fire kiln requires deep intimate collaboration with the kiln itself. As the flame and wood-ash interacts directly with the clay, the results are unpredictable. “You have to accept what the kiln does.”
Wright describes this as the ultimate in creative relinquishing. It takes 30 hours of heating to prepare the kiln and another two and a half days for a team of people to load it. The firing lasts three days and the cooling process happens over five days. It is only then when the pieces are unloaded that the final product is revealed. “It is a very complicated feeling. In three hours you are unloading three to six months of work… All of those questions ‘I like this, I don’t like that’ are very subjective and you can’t keep track of things on that first day… It’s more like a post-partum depression.”
Throughout his prolific career Wright produced an estimated 100,000 pieces. While he is still known for his functional pottery, a very different form defines his late style. “I knew how to make round things. But at a certain point I said, I want to go non-round…It was really returning to abstract expressionism.”
The introduction of a clay extruder, a machine that forces slabs of clay through uniquely designed dies, opened up a new world of creative expression for Wright. The resultant sculptures are geometric and organic, industrial and yet very human.
“Those mechanics and the geometry is what inspired some of the craziness of what I got into later. I’m making a big tube, but I’m not trying to make it look like a tube, I try to use it as a building block for exploring another place.”
Given this departure from functional pottery, one could assume that these sculptures were Wright’s final frontier of creative expression; his signature late style aesthetic. But Wright is always striving. His next iteration of sculpture work pressed even deeper into the unknown.
“After about 8 years I got to know what I was doing too well. I could predict and plan and I wanted to be in an area where I didn’t have control…I believe in the ‘crash and burn’ school of music performance; they are right out there on the edge, but they never crash and burn.”
Inspired to keep searching for the edge, Wright was intrigued by the untapped potential of using only the scrap parts produced from his geometric sculptures. “What will these parts become? I’ve set my own limitations so my brain can’t get in the way of the form revealing itself.” For Wright, it’s about “allowing things to happen intuitively.”
“In the course of working… the question is always ‘who am I today?’ You think ‘I’m going to make a bowl today,’ and you end up making vases. You think you are going to have a contained form and you end up making something completely different….I’m not going to be restricted.”
Breaking the Rules… Again
A few years ago, Wright once again realized he needed a change. His late style took yet another turn. “I even got to know what I was doing with those waste parts…it wasn’t new enough. So I learned to get into the unfamiliar…You are not learning if you are not making a disaster…disasters are very important.”
This is the context from which his crushed sculptures emerged. “I’d take a tube that was 12 or 18 inches tall and crush it to half its height. It became like body parts. And I’d look at it and say ‘what are the interesting parts of this?’ Then I’d draw and plan out how to cut apart this collapsed tube and reassemble the parts in a new way.”
These crushed sculptures look like steel but are made of clay and the perspective from each side yields new discoveries.
“It Is Just What I Had To Do”
Wright continues to push out the boundaries of his own style and expression. His studio is open to the public but many people are puzzled by what they find.
“My reputation is for functional pottery and people come here to the studio expecting that. And then they think ‘where am I?’ But it’s just what I had to do. I have no idea why, but it simply started with these non-round forms that evolved into this other thing.”
As Wright reflects on the entirety of his career and what lies ahead, there is a deep freedom in being secure in his accomplishments and internally motivated by the process. The process of conquering one artistic challenge opens a door to yet another unexplored corner of the box. And yet Wright’s career is not easily describable. His relentless pursuit of the ‘creative edge’ has resulted in many twists and turns and such a wide range of art forms- it can be hard to believe they all came from a single artist. It is the diversity of the work itself is what gives testimony to his creative genius.
At the end of the day Wright says “I want to make whatever I damn well want to.” And perhaps that is the mark of a great artist…something tells me Beethoven would be proud.
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.