When Charles Alexander (b. 1956 in California) first began working in clay in 1988 he immediately fell in love with the material. Since then he kept on working on his art both in his home studio and in schools (San Francisco Art Institute, Mendocino College). His knowledge and forms keep on evolving, as he explains in the excerpts below, that also address his background and vision.
The beauty of art is that there is no right way. It is an individual path of self-awareness and discovery.
“My art journey started when I took drawing classes by Larry Thomas in Santa Rosa Junior College. If he hadn’t been my teacher, I would not have pursued art. When I moved to San Francisco in 1984 to join the San Francisco Art Institute, I started painting. Later I switched to print making, with once more Larry Thomas as my instructor. My minor was sculpture and in 1989 I had my BFA. I stayed at the SFAI a few more years as a staff member, helping out in the ceramic classes. Something I still enjoy doing the last couple of years during the summer classes in the Mendocino College.”
“My art is definitely figurative – be it not in a strictly representational way. A lot of the forms come from the figure or from nature, or combinations of those.
My three orginal forms in my imagery were the butterfly bones, the landscapes and the torsos. Their underlying theme is man’s relationship to the environment. That relationship has not been very good lately, and that’s what the landscapes show: the sufferance of the earth. The butterfly bones on the other hand are meant as spirits that protect nature, to be put next to a tree or in a garden.
I see this concern for man’s relationship with the environment coming mainly from two events that left a big impression on me when I was about thirteen. First, a big oil spill that hit the San Francisco bay, and not much later a huge one a little further in the coast town of Santa Barbara. Second, Indian people taking over the Alcatraz island in the bay.
Part of this theme is also my relationship with the material that forms how my pieces are made. Intention, rendering and honesty are key ingredients to me.”
“At first, I started making a piece having in mind the kind of form I wanted to make. Over the years, the process became more important to me. When today I start working with the clay, I start with an action, for instance with a wire. Then I see what happens and I take the next step, like pulling it lenghtwise, or cut it three times. So now the form takes shape because of the process. I react to what the clay is doing in front of me. I’m just manipulating it: I see what happens and pull it in a certain direction. I don’t make any marks, they come from the process. So do the textures.
In the beginning, it was eighty percent me and twenty percent clay. Now it’s the other way around. I maintain the forms, but my approach is way more conceptual and process focused. Most of the time, you can look at one of my pieces and see how it is made, just like you would play a movie backwards. As my process changed, also the forms changed. It’s a natural path of maturing. From this process came my other imagery.
My imagery and themes I maintain even now I’m more process focused. My imagery is how I keep my process in reality. I take my process a step further and put it into a form.”
“The beauty of art is that there is no right way. It is an individual path of self-awareness and discovery. When I started making art, it felt like coming home. In terms of happiness, it’s the way to go. The moment of creating is so much fun, it can’t be replaced. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. Self-critique and self-motivation are key. Once I’m satisfied with a piece, the reaction of the viewer doesn’t matter. Since it never has been my job, it’s just self-fulfilling.
Western art per definition is interested in the individual experience. You are what is interesting, not your background. You should trust yourself, not your ability. Nevertheless, ability remains important, to me at least. I don’t agree that the idea is enough. The material and execution should not be neglected. They are the servants of expression. Without them, no art.”
The ceramic arts community
“Ceramic art has a wonderful oral tradition where information is exchanged through encounters and environment. We are a ‘tribe’ and we love what we do. Clay is such a versatile material – from coffee cups and bowls to heat shields on space crafts – so exchanges between ‘clay people’ are invaluable.
I feel that I bring something unique to these discussions and add to the ongoing evolution of the ceramic arts. That is why I enjoyed working in schools so much or why I like taking part in the Mendocino Inland Ceramic Artists.”
Group shows 2015
California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art (April, Davis, CA)
Dolphin Art Gallery (September, Gualala, CA).
Group shows 2016
The Corner Gallery (June, Ukiah, CA)
Wabo Community Center (October, Brussels, BE)
Interview by Isabel Wagemans