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By Diana Nollen/The Gazette
ELY - Fifty years into her world-class career, internationally known potter Clary Illian is having her first solo exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art from Saturday to Feb. 17.
Not only is she thrilled to share a retrospective of her work with her hometown, she's also thrilled her pieces will be displayed in a building that houses so many wonderful childhood memories.
“I should say how much fun it is to go into that building where I used to go as a child and pick up books and read,” she says, sitting at her rugged wooden dining table in her Ely home, surrounded by the willow furniture and pottery she's made, as well as pieces she's collected over the years.
After studying at the University of Iowa and in England in the 1960s, the Cedar Rapids native, now 71, settled into her career in Eastern Iowa, first in Keystone, then in Garrison for 18 years.
She moved to Ely in 1985, setting up shop in a historic downtown building. Three years ago, she decided to downsize to a smaller house on Main Street still steeped in history. Built in the 1930s and once home to the lumberyard owner, it's trimmed with simple, yet stylish woodwork.
That's the hallmark of Illian's utilitarian mugs, plates, bowls, teapots and vases. Simple, yet stylish. Practical, yet artistic. Meant to be used, but lovely enough to be admired on a mantel or in a museum.
“Clary operates on two levels,” says Sean Ulmer, curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “She's a much-beloved local treasure. People who know her and her work are great fans and are very, very attached to the pieces she makes. They have a personal connection with Clary and her pots.
“On another level, she's an internationally respected potter. Most people don't realize that, because she's very modest,” Ulmer says.
She only markets locally and has purposely kept her prices low, generally under $50, so people will be able to buy a lot of her goods and actually use them. With everyday use, of course, comes the hazard of breakage. That doesn't bother her too much.
“I just think, ‘Oh good, now they have to buy another one,'?” she says with a clap of her hands and a slightly wicked laugh. “More than even breaking pots, people will tell me that they got divorced and the husband or wife got the pots, and they're so mad about that.”
About 120 pieces from her home and private collections across the country will be featured in two galleries on the museum's second floor. Visitors will see her art evolve through various clays, forms and glazes, progressing from stoneware to porcelain and more recently, earthenware - all made using a potter's wheel, then fired in a kiln.
Illian says choosing the pieces to exhibit wasn't that difficult and was actually very rewarding.
“It has been great to look back and see that, by golly, I've made some pretty nice pots,” she says. “I'm always in the present moment. I'm not thinking about what I used to do.”
She has had pieces included in ceramics exhibits at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art over the years, including “A Show of Hands,” which closed July 29. But Illian says that with a solo show, where visitors will see a cross-section of her work all in one place, they will see the scope of her work - and learn more about the craft she fell in love with the first time she touched clay in a University of Iowa classroom.
“I just think it's always interesting to see a big body of someone's work, because each piece informs the other,” Illian says. “That's what it's doing for me, giving a sense of the whole. I also think maybe since everyone who's seeing it isn't going to be a potter, maybe they would look at those 120 pots and say, ‘oh, this is not just art fair stuff. This is something that is a discipline that is capable of development over a lifetime and the endeavor is of a sufficient scale to really absorb someone over a lifetime. The person isn't just playing.'?”
Mankind has been making and using pottery “for many thousands of years,” she says, since the Neolithic times at the end of the Stone Age.
“You've got to have containers,” Illian says. “If you have food, you have to have containers or otherwise you're just going around eating with your hands, putting it in your pockets. I think it's a profound part of human artifacts.
Young artists are changing their approach, she says, because of the high startup costs for education and studios that must be paid before then can even make a living.
“Young people (are) developing work that is much more labor-intensive so that it can command a bigger price in the marketplace,” she says.
“There are still utilitarian potters around, but if you're looking at academia, which is where most of ceramic education happens these days, you'll see those kids doing very elaborate things with clay. Good things. But you're really going against current tendencies to say, ‘I'm going to be a utilitarian potter and make relatively plain wares' - not simple, it can still be very rich - but highly decorated or with a lot of labor,” she says.
Pottery is “just the right activity” for her personality, she says.
“It's the right mix of physical and rational. It's the right mix of tradition and improvisation. It's the right mix of discipline and play,” she says. “It's always hard to know whether you grew into that person or whether it's like finding the right partner - ‘the one' - I don't know if I found ‘the one' activity in life that was right for me or if it was a gradual, directive thing of becoming more and more internalized.
Her fans think she's found “the one,” including Ulmer, who was thrilled the museum could not only exhibit her work, but help create a lavishly illustrated book of essays and photos documenting her career achievements. Much of the book production, from photography to printing and binding, was done locally, Ulmer says.
He's always proud to showcase local artists, which has been the scope of the museum's entire year of exhibitions. “Our Iowa artists are all so different,” Ulmer says. “You can go in one gallery and see Lasansky, then go in another one and see architecture, and see all of the other (local) artists who are really good, all working in very different ways.”
By showcasing their work, he says visitors will “realize our artists do really great work.”