ArtHop pick: With ‘A Life in Clay,’ celebrate the career of ceramicist Mark Tunison
Mark Tunison’s retrospective at Clay Hand Studios is called “A Life in Clay.” It’s a truly fitting title. Tunison, a founding member of the gallery, discovered the joys of pottery in college and spent decades spreading that joy to high school students and adults alike.
A reception will be held 5-8 p.m. Thursday, July 1, as part of the official return of ArtHop.
In an email interview, I got the chance to learn more about an artist who was able to make his career and passion “one and the same.”
Q: Thinking back to that first pottery class you took at San Jose State, why do you think it hooked you?
A: Although it seems like I’ve been in ceramics for my whole life, it really started for me in 1969 when a friend in my jewelry class kept nagging me to come upstairs and just try his pottery class. I did one class and then I was hooked. We took pottery together for 3 years, encouraging and challenging each other. The medium just felt right, the clay fit my sense of curiosity and led me down roads I couldn’t take with any other medium.
Q: Tell me a little about your childhood. Where did you grow up? Were you always an artistic kid?
A: I was born and brought up in the San Francisco Bay Area — the East Bay, San Leandro. Our area in San Leandro was an unincorporated area and there were plenty of places for a kid to explore. I may not have started out as a creative/artistic child but I was always curious and that curiosity was fostered by my family, especially my Aunt who was a painter and guided me toward crafts and eventually art. It took me a long time to realize that my dad, who was a metal smith had a big influence in the area of my art. Dad taught me to use tools properly, how to prepare, begin and finish a project and most importantly for me, how to innovate when the tools you have don’t fit the project you’re doing.
Q: After college you ended up teaching in Australia. How did you end up there? Do you feel that aboriginal art had a lasting impact on your own aesthetic?
A: Looking for a teaching position in California in the 1970s was very frustrating, especially as a newly minted teacher with no classroom experience. San Jose State had a job placement office and an offer from the state of Victoria, Australia, for a two-year commitment to teach. Victoria would pay for my and my wife’s flight over and if we stayed the two years we didn’t have to pay them back. It was a great opportunity to see the world, get that classroom experience I lacked and actually be paid.
Aboriginal art did have and still has an influence on my design and my philosophy of art. Aboriginal designs are intricate, one design embedded in another and another. Aboriginal art serves purpose, it often tells a story. I feel my work reflects a form of storytelling by the designs and shapes and glazes I choose. The idea of integrating multiple designs on a single pot is a direct influence from Australia and Aboriginal art.
Q: You spent many years at Hanford High School. Teaching art at the high school level seems to me a wonderful opportunity — and a challenge. Compared to college, at the high school level you’re engaging with students who might not have much interest in pottery, for example. (Or they might not have much artistic aptitude, either.) It seems like you really relished this. What were the rewards of teaching beginners?
A: I think all good teachers should be facilitators as well as mentors. The vast majority of my students came to class with no previous pottery experience.Beginning students learn early the basic skills and vocabulary they need to “find the idea”. Next they discover this studio/classroom is safe and comfortable enough to create their vision. Finally, in that setting it allows me to teach them what I learned back in 1969, clay befriends you, it doesn’t judge you.
Q: You’re a founding member of Clay Hand Studios. What has this organization meant to you, and what does it mean to the community?
A: Clay Hands Studio is the art home I was looking for when I retired from full time teaching. It has allowed me to collaborate with like minded individuals and has become an incubator for learning, creating and producing my clay work. It is a joy to be here,it is like being with family. CHS has associate members as well as founding members. This allows for an “open studio” atmosphere for seasoned potters as well as beginning potters looking for a place to belong. Our participation in the monthly Art Hops as well as our gallery hours and pottery classes help bring the community to CHS and enriches the greater art community in Fresno.
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Q: Tell us about your exhibition at Clay Hand.
A: It is a retrospective of my work from the early 70’s to 2020. It is indeed my life in clay. The arrangements are by decades and we have maximized our studio space. I believe we have 40-45 pieces on display.
Q: Can you pick one piece from the show and tell us about it in detail?
A: My favorite piece is a rounded piece with holes on the top and vertical lines on one side, the glaze is a speckled brown with grey spots. It was the piece I chose to go into my first group exhibit, which took place at the Villa Montalvo in San Jose, 1970. I threw the pot, decorated and carved it and created the glaze from scratch. I have always felt a special connection to this piece which my wife and I lovingly refer to as the “bowling ball.”
Q: I realize that most art is tactile, but pottery seems to be one of the most. Tell us what it’s like to stick your hands in that wet clay. Do your fingers crave that feeling?
A: When my hands dive into that clay, I feel I am home. It seems to me you “grow” a pot, not “throw” a pot. You raise it out of mud and water and if you are unhappy with the result it forgives and allows you to try again and again. It tells me when my walls are too thin or my bottom too thick by the way it lays across my palm. It is forever speaking to me and over time I have learned to listen, to respect its wisdom and together we make magic.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: I’ve been one of the fortunate few whose career and passion became one and the same. I hope I have been instrumental in helping others find in themselves that creative spark they didn’t know they had. Nothing gives me greater joy than running into adult former students, and they shake my hand and tell me, “You know that pot I made in your class? I still have it.”