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University of Oklahoma exhibit fires up imagination

By Chris Schutz
Norman, Oklahoma (AP) 11-07

Centuries ago, someone discovered that the clay soil underfoot was more than just dirt.

That discovery was repeated around the world, as people learned that moist clay could be squeezed together and formed into containers, and that fire and glazes made them more durable.

“In all civilizations, bowls appeared, and maybe canteens and water bottles,” said Jane Aebersold, curator of ceramics at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Ceramic items, some hundreds of years old, make up a significant portion of the artwork on display at the museum. The displays of ceramics represent more than seven decades of collecting, including some pieces gathered by oilmen.

An exhibit that opened in October features American Indian pottery and paintings by the families of Maria and Julian Martinez and Louis Gonzales of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico. About one-fourth of the exhibit belongs to the museum, with the rest on loan from other museums, private collectors and the artists.

“Reflections: Historic and Contemporary Works of the Martinez and Gonzales Families” runs through Jan. 6. Because the museum already owned a foundation for the show, owners of the other pieces were “very pleased” to participate, Aebersold said.

The Maria Martinez pieces, with matte designs accenting gleaming black-on-black pots, will serve as a special draw to the museum, she said.

“People are always interested. People know her name.”

Martinez, who lived from 1887 to 1980, left behind pottery that today commands prices in the thousands of dollars.

The appeal of the black-on-black pots, which started out with simple coils of red clay, is easy to understand, Aebersold said. “I think, because it’s beautiful. It’s as simple as that.”

Among the five generations represented in the show is Martinez’s granddaughter Barbara Gonzales, who made pieces in the 1970s decorated with spider designs and precious stones. The turquoise accents give them a “contemporary edge,” Aebersold said.

Aebersold figures Martinez drew inspiration from pottery made by her Anasazi ancestors.

Examples of pre-Columbian pieces – items made before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas – are present in the Fred Jones ceramics collection.

Some of these works, including a Mayan pot that dates to A.D. 700 and a sculpture of a Mayan face show that pottery “does not necessarily look that different from civilization to civilization,” Aebersold said.

The well-known Martinez name will probably attract some first-time visitors to the museum, she said. But first, visitors pass through the Asian gallery, which contains works from various Chinese dynasties.

A centerpiece of the Asian gallery is a sculpture of a horse from the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) “It’s one of the finer pieces that we have,” Aebersold said.

The collection also includes pieces from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The Asian pieces, which were acquired by Ponca City oilman Lew Wentz and British photojournalist Richard Matzene, served as the basis for the formation of OU’s art museum in 1936.

The ceramics collection is a resource for OU students studying subjects such as Asian art history, art theory, art criticism and contemporary art practices, Aebersold said. Master’s and doctoral level students can get permission to study items in the museum’s storage areas as part of their research, Aebersold said. The museum also offers students a chance for internships, she said.

Aebersold, who teaches ceramics at OU, has been with the university since 2000.

She discovered a love of ceramics as an undergraduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans. She is still learning, Aebersold said.

“That’s one of the things there is about clay...there is such a variety of possibilities,” she said.

As curator, she’d like to see the museum’s collection expand, especially in the area of contemporary works. High on her wish list are works by the late English potter Bernard Leach, whom she called “the father of the American studio pottery movement,” and Rudy Autio of Montana, who was known for his abstract ceramics.

“As your collection grows, your visibility increases,” she said.

Information from: The Oklahoman,