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Raw materials: Eric O'Leary
 
Eric O'Leary's studio, Tariki, is located in Meriden, New Hampshire, a small town in the Upper Valley area. There's an old house in front, and a long building in back that looks like it was built incrementally over the years, with practicality rather than esthetics in mind. 

Tariki was founded by Eric's father Jack O'Leary, one of the leading ceramic artists of his day. In these excerpts from my interviews with Eric O'Leary, he talks about his father and the arc of his own artistic career. 

 

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How long have O'Learys been working with clay here? 

We've been working with clay since the late 1960s when my parents moved here. He was really one of the fundmental key guys in the ceramics movement in New Hampshire. A lot of this was happening in my high school years, and it was prety astounding. 

 

You had an unusual childhood, but the only one you had, so I supposed you didnt realize it at the time. 

That's right. Just to step back a bit and look at the early history of the studio, there's a really interesting aspect of my father's decision to go into clay. 

He was a conscientious objector and pacifist during World War II, and that political decision led him to spending about six years or more in prison. In those years, he made a fundamental decision to work with creative process. Part of that was driven by his own experience in prison, where he did some work with the prison community to find ways to express themselves. 

He came out of prison in 1948, and moved with my mother to Alfred, New York, where he went to the School for American Craftsmen. Where I was born, in 1949. Alfred is really the seat of American ceramics, Alfred University. It was writ in my destiny, I think, that I was going to find a way in clay through my life. 

 

You had to either follow in your father's footsteps, or rebel completely. Go into accounting or something. 

[Laugh] That would have been the choice. My father had an amazing capacity -- he was kind of the quintessential Zen guy. And it always seemed like, if you were going to rebel, you never knew where you could rebel. The door always seemed to open in front of you, and there was never a barrier. 

I think that whole dialogue that I started with him as a child, continued on until the end of his life. And to this day, he informs so much of my creative thinking. It's hard to put into words the impact he has had. 

 

From what I've read of him, he was a real mix of artist, craftsman, guru, and Merry Prankster. 

He had a unique sensibility. I think back over the years, the crazy things that would happen at the studio. You never knew just what my father might get up to. He taught not only the people working in the studio with this kind of Zen approach of his, but also taught the people who were coming here to buy pottery. I think a lot of the time, I wasn't sure we were really selling pottery -- I think we were selling something more abstract than that! [Laughter] I think this troubled my mother at times, that we didn't really have a sound grounding in more economic realities. 

I remember one incident, when a very close friend of the studio's brought his father here one day, and they were looking at some beautiful porcelain tea bowls. And my father picked up one of the tea bowls and he said, "You know, these are really amazing. They're unbreakable!"  And he proceeded to drop one on the floor! And sure enough, it completely disintegrated into a million pieces. And this customer was looking at my father, my father looked at the floor and said, "Hmm." He smiled, and said "I wonder if they're all like that." And he proceeded to drop another one. 

We were sitting there quite astounded. These were actually beautiful tea bowls that were being broken on the floor. But my father was trying to reach this customer at a much deeper level and say, "You've just seen me work on the wheel and create a beautiful object. But it's a bigger issue than the object itself; it's the creative energy that's flowing through me. It's the experience, the long years of tradition that I have. I can do this seamlessly; you shouldn't feel attached to the object itself. You really have to look deeper than the object to see the creative energy and motivations and years of study and tradition that are there. And that's what I'm asking you to understand." 

 

Where did the name Tariki come from?

Tariki is a Zen term. "Ta" means "other power," "riki" means "enlightenment." So it's "other power enlightenment." In Zen you have your balancing of forces, so the opposing school of thought would be "zhiriki," "zhi" meaning "self" and "riki" meaning "enlightenment." Self-enlightenment and other-power enlightening. 

During the years at Dartmouth, there was a Zen national treasure named Yu Fujiwara. He came to Darmtouth for a year. There were no facilities for him to really do his traditional ceramics. And my father was very interested in Japanese ceramics and glazing techniques, and he invited Mr. Fujiwara to visit the studio and see if this would be suitable for him. 

He came, and immediately fell in love with the studio. So they started a relationsiop throughout that year, and I would come home from high school and spend the afternoon working with Mr. Fujiwara, doing whatever needed. 

In the course of that, this concept of "tariki" was discussed between the two of them, and my fathe was very much taken with this concept of "other power enlightenment." 

What Tariki is for me now, is spontaneity born of years of surrender to tradition. It preserves that lasting primitive embrace we share with earth, with this planet. Its life, its clay. It's the bones, the blood, the muscle of clay. That, for me, is what it's really about now. 

 

You've followed in your father's footsteps in your artistic medium, but you've taken it in radically different directions, on a much larger scale. How did it happen? 

One thing that did it more than anything else was a connection I made in the early '70s with a jazz musician named Don Cherry. Don and his wife Moki, I met them through my father, and we became very close friends. 

And what I realized at some point in this relationship with Don, was that this is a person who'd made what I call the big leap. He looked at music and said, "This is my life. And to do it, I'm standing on the edge of this cliff, I have no idea if there's even a bottom out there, but I'm going to make this leap. It's an absolute leap of faith, it's a complete, total commitment." 

And he put that right in front of me. And I said, "This is what I have to do. 

I have to make this commit to this medium and this process. And I have to push this to a space where no one's really thought of going with it before." 

And then I said, "Okay, where can I take this, that is grounded in tradition, and where can I move with this?" And I said, "I think the place to start is the architectural history of clay."  And then marry that to the process of sculpture. I started doing that in the mid-70s, and it increased incrementally. Then, when my father passed away in 1982, at that point my youngest brother who was in Alaska came back, and he joined me, and he has really become my right and left hand and a good bit of everything else. I said, "I want to move in this direction. It's going to take some time to get there, but I'm really convinced that I have something to offer." 

 

[He picks up a wasp's nest from a shelf in his office.] 

I've been looking a lot at organic structure. This is a wasp nest. We're using it as a potential model for a sculptural gateway. We're looking at using some very high-tech fabrication of this kind of structure. Because there's some very interesting resin stuff that's being done with polycarbonates and stuff that are really in the environmentally friendly zone. 

And what's really interesting about this is that wasps combine natural plant fibers, but they also use clay from the earth to make this whole thing work. So there's a resonance for me, in that this is like a paper-clay object, which is very intriguing to me. 

 


 
 


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