Bill Daley is a distinguished ceramicist and beloved teacher who has been creating vessels for years. His works are often large and richly textured, imbued with symbolic meaning and allusions to the functions such vessels have served over the course of time. He has exhibited at and been collected by institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His new exhibit, “14 for 7,” focuses on 14 of Daley’s ceramic works over his 7-decade career and ties in with William Daley: Ceramic Artist, a new book about his life and work.
In this article, The Phoenix’s Deborah Krieger catches up with him about his artistic philosophy.
Deborah Krieger: What is your artistic background and your training? What was that like?
Bill Daley: I went to art school as a G.I. after World War II at the Massachusetts School of Art. From there I went to Columbia Teachers’ College and got my Master’s in Art Education. And then from that I began teaching…
…One time I quit in protest because they thought we were all Communists! Because [they] thought modern art was subversive. It was in Ulster County, New York, which is a very conservative county, and they just were not used to having contemporary artists in the art department at New Paltz. So they were really pretty upset by it, and we were a bunch of radicals. They fired—they relieved—two-thirds of the faculty of their positions and two of us resisted and quit.
DK: So how did you choose your medium?
BD: I got started with being seduced by mud. It’s a great medium. It’s the most primal, metamorphic material because it changes from rock, to dust, to mud, to something you can form, and then [it] dries out and you bake it or you fire it, and it turns back into stone. So it moves a whole cycle of what material can become. It’s a marvelous material. It’s also very seductive to use—it just feels great and slippery and all of it. It’s great stuff. I recommend it.
DK: Can you talk a little about your artistic influences over the years? Or subject matter that has really inspired you?
BD: I just finished a book, a marvelous, marvelous book by a fourteenth-century cloistered nun. And her name is unknown, but the name of her book is The Cloud of Unknowing. And I’m very moved by it, and when she says “God”, I say “Art”, and when she says “prayer”, I say, “practice”. So it’s the best description of what’s needed to understand—to become a good artist—that I’ve ever read. I guess books have always sort of been a determinant to me, but books are just information. Making stuff is formation. If you’re any good, you don’t make anything that you already know.
DK: How have your relationship with art and your journey as an artist changed over the course of your career?
BD: When I first began, I was a little child—I knew I was going to be an artist in kindergarten, which sounds bizarre to say. But my father was a house-painter, and my mother let us paint with spinach juice and beet juice on brown paper bags, my sister and I, and she’d hang them up on the clothesline in the kitchen. And my father would come home and look at ’em and tell us how wonderful we were. So when I got to kindergarten and… all the way through school, art was my total focus. And then when I went in the army, I had a chance to have experiences that convinced me that that was what I should be doing with my life.
Art’s not complete until it completes a cycle. You have the maker, and the made, the object or thing, the offering, and then you have the audience. The idea of the romantic artist in the attic… is a romantic misunderstanding. Artists are really [some] of the persons in the community that get some of the signals about what’s important, just as early as the scientists and philosophers and so on. And I’m not saying artists as in always physical artists; I think poets and singers and instrumentalists… the whole thing is all the same. Different form, but totally about giving form to the ineffable. It sounds pompous as can be, but I find it very compelling.
DK: What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?
BD: What would like [my audience] to do is to experience it, and I know that sounds corny, but I would like them to touch it. I would like them to respond to its form by… I’ll call it caressing it or searching it out with their eyes closed. I’d like them to understand that it’s about the inside of the inside of things, and it’s about the outside of the outside of things. In other words, I’d like them to use what they feel and touch and see and sense to imagine things that call up experience in their own being that permit them to tune in on it.
So I do a lot of different things with different textures and different roughness, I [do] bumps and holes. I’m interested about open spaces, I’m interested in intimate, closed spaces, I’m interested in transitions from wonderful—like you were sliding down a hill in a sled or down a canyon or into a whirl, into a helix… I think of it almost as psychic physicality that I would like people to have about it. And as they wonder about it, they can wonder if it’s a palace or a temple… or a monument. I give them all names and that’s a little kind of clue to what they might be about.
Right now, I’m making cisterns. A cistern is a vessel that holds some substance for either ritual or for preserving life. That’s either water, or holy water, or rain, or wine… so I’m making cisterns that are for libations and for… symbolic conservation. You can put them in your yard, or you can fill them with things for a party. And I’m having a great time doing it. But I’ve made hanging planters and baptismal fonts and many different kinds of vessels or containers for evoking feelings about being a human being… and my pots about body parts.
I’m not a literal artist… I make objects that are about feelings. And I see feelings as touch, and I see it as touching your mind, and I see it as touching your whole spirit, about experience you’ve had to the present when you come to this object.
This interview can be read in full and with photos online at I-On-the-Arts.com.
“14 to 7” will run from January 23 to March 9 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance
251 South 18th Street (Rittenhouse Square)