Ely artist brings her artistry to PBS series, 'Craft in America'

Clary Illian welcomed a crew to her home this summer; episode to air in November

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CEDAR RAPIDS – “Craft in America” isn’t popping up in the Iowa Public Television queue yet, but when it does show up some time in mid-November, make sure you tune in for a walk through potter Clary Illian’s Ely workshop and process.

About 20 people applauded a sneak peek Tuesday night (10/23/12) at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, a special offering in conjunction with Illian’s spectacular retrospective exhibition in the second floor galleries now through Feb. 17, 2013.

Related: C.R. Museum of Art throws spotlight on Clary Illian’s 50-year career

Once this episode airs, Illian’s secret will be out. She’s a world-class artist who has purposefully kept a local marketing profile, fully embracing the ideals instilled during her 1964-65 internship with Leach Pottery in St. Ives, England.

Bernard Leach made affordable, everyday pottery for contemporary consumers. Nothing flashy, just utilitarian earthenware at a time when pottery had spun into artwork sitting on a shelf.

Illian took the lessons she learned from mass-producing Leach’s designs, and came home to Eastern Iowa to ply her craft. She inserted her own style and explorations over the years, adding touches of whimsy to each carefully hand-crafted piece the past 50 years.

Two of her Midwest contemporaries also are featured in the middle segment of the hourlong episode, which opens with a young fiber artist/sculptor working both sides of the Tijuana-California border and ends with a veteran weaver in Berkeley, Calif., who is incorporating neuroscience and computers into her ancient artform.

All offer varying perspectives on the history and evolution of their craft, beautifully told through colorful interviews and glimpses into their workspaces and projects.

Illian, who had met the show’s producer years ago, welcomed a seven-person PBS crew to her home this summer.

Related: Award-winning series, “Craft in America” to feature Iowa ceramist

“They hit the ground running … and worked the whole long day just to get those few minutes,” she told the museum audience during a follow-up discussion.

Tuesday marked the second time Illian, 71, had seen the finished product.

“I liked it better watching it the second time,” she said. “The first time I was so flattened by watching myself. It was awful.”

This time, she could relax and enjoy it, without the critical voice in her head worrying about what she said and how she said it.

“It was such a treat to see the historic footage,” she said. The vintage black-and-white tour takes viewers to England and Japan, providing an intimate look at two men a world apart, who forged a new path for American potters as they formed a working partnership and taught their way across the U.S. in the ‘60s.

“I felt the first time, that (the segment) never explained what it was about Leach that changed American pottery,” Illian said, but upon another viewing, that fear was dispelled.

“It’s about the majesty of form,” she said. “You could see, meditate on and be moved by the potential of the pottery form. It’s a wonder it has stayed a dominant experience.”


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