Let There be Light

time-off ancient-influence

“Let There be Light: Ceramic Artist Jim Webb and Lampshade Maker Barbara Webb Wed Their Talents”
by Ilene Dube in the “Time Off” section of The Princeton Packet

Light from the sun washes into Studio 233 in Lambertville.¬Ý It comes in through the front door, the back door, and through a skylight in a powder room that is more like an Islamic temple.

Artists try to capture light in their work. Ceramic artist Jim Webb literally turns the light on in his creations – he crafts lamps. Made from ceramic or cast concrete bases with steel tubes, they are topped by shades from natural materials – hand-made papers or mica. Studio 233 has opened its doors for an exhibit, Boxes and Light, through July 21. Also on view are hand-constructed boxes and artwork by Annelies van Dommelen.

Using slab construction, Mr. Webb, with the help of his wife Barbara, makes the monolithic lamp bases, using a press mold for the rounded tops. Glazing makes each lamp distinct, as does a hieroglyphic design stamped on all four sides.

The studio at 233 N. Union Street, sandwiched by Niece Lumber Co. on either side, is a building that dates back to 1830. Mr. Webb bought it from a woodworker in 1979 and lived there until 1989, when he and Barbara met, married and moved to Stockton. The couple has since moved to Hopewell with their three children.

As an undergraduate of Princeton University in the 1960’s, Mr. Webb took a ceramic class with Toshiko Takaezu, the Hawaiian-born ceramicist known for her large, Japanese-influenced organic shapes (on view at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton.) After graduating with a degree in art history in 1970, Mr. Webb, a Washington, DC, native, traveled to Afghanistan for a dig with archaeologist Louis Depree.

Peeking out from the workshop, Mr. Webb comments on his experience there. “I wrote to Louis Dupree on a lark,” he says. “I never thought I’d get to go. Then he wrote back and said, ‘Come on over.’ I had to get a map and figure out where it was.”

It took two weeks to get to the site. Mr. Webb flew to Belgium, then took buses and trains, including a 10-day bus ride from Munich to Teheran. The dig, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, was an ancient site 15 feet below ground, says Mr. Webb. “We were sifting through dirt, looking for charcoal and seeds.”

He lived in a small village in Northern Afghanistan, working with laborers who rode donkeys. “It was like biblical times, with people ploughing with tree branches. This was before the Russians came, and it was peaceful. The people were great, though very poor.” While in Afghanistan, Mr. Webb worked for an English-language newspaper.

After nine months, he returned to the United States to study economics at Columbia University, hoping to return to Afghanistan someday to teach English. He was en route to a doctorate, but after earning a master’s found himself drawn to Columbia’s ceramic studio. “I just began to feel that was what I wanted to do – it wasn’t rational,” says Mr. Webb. Ms. Takaezu, with whom he had kept in touch, urged him to come to Lambertville and join the now-defunct Clay Co-op. (Mr. Webb recently celebrated Ms. Takaezu’s 80th birthday with her.)

After renovating the Union Street building – removing plaster covering the 18-inch thick walls, refinishing wide-planked pine floors and installing a passive solar wall – Mr. Webb established a business making custom tile installations. “These were related to architecture, and the tiles were reliefs,” he says.

About 10 years ago, a lampshade maker, Sue Johnson of Berkeley, CA, commissioned a series of custom ceramic lamp bases. Her shades are made of pressed mica, a style popular during the Arts & Crafts movement. It was a successful combination, and Ms. Johnson continues to sell his work in California. Ten of Mr. Webb’s lamps are in a library ar the University of California, Berkeley, says Mr. Webb.

Mr. Webb liked the transition to lights because “I enjoy making a single object more than custom work. And I like the idea of combining light with cast stone and ceramics.” A tall thin man with a white beard and twinkling eyes, he appears to have found enlightenment in his work.

Ms. Webb came on board, making the shades of handmade papers from Thailand, Nepal and other sources. In October, the couple opened the front half of the studio as a showroom. The lamps are modern, yet they resonate with an ancient message. Mr. Webb studied Arabic at Columbia and admires Islamic art, but if there is any influence from his travels to that part of the world, it is on a subliminal level, he says.

Customers have found the lamps suitable in both modern and traditional interiors, according to Ms. Webb. It is the simplicity of the design that makes the hieroglyphic symbols stand out. Mr. Webb claims he doesn’t plan these, they do not have any symbolic meaning, he just randomly carves designs into pieces of wood or plaster to make the design. He will often use found objects, such as the debris from a technical ceramic studio that washes downstream. “I like to keep trying new things,” he says.

He develps his own glazes and uses a clay body from a customized recipe that is mixed for him. These formulas don’t shrink or crack, an especially important feature when working with tile. Mr. Webb also makes lamp bases from molded concrete. The Portland cement is finished with colorful patinas so it doesn’t look anything like cement.

In addition to the lamps in the studio, there are sushi plates and Ikebana containers using similar glazes. Like the Japanese art form of flower arrangement, Mr. Webb’s designs emphasize form and balance. His is an exercise in simplicity and restraint.

The workshop is neatly organized with tools, rubber molds and mother molds, and there are two kilns in a shed off the back. Sunning themselves on the deck is a row of topless lamp bases. Mr. Webb calls these his “rejects.”

“I didn’t like the way the glazes turned out, ” he says. I’ll probably just throw them out.” When that day comes, there will be at least one writer rooting through his trash.