New Focus Leads to Lambertville


“New Focus Leads to Lambertville”
by Janet Purcell in The Times of Trenton

When he was growing up in Washington, DC, Jim Webb was set on a path other than that of a man who loves working with his hands.

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.

The son of James Webb, Sr., NASA’s chief administrator during the Gemini and Apollo programs, he attended St. Albans School and Princeton University. He then traveled extensively to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Webb never expected to be creating one-of-a-kind ceramic lamps in a renovated old house in Lambertville.

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, a seed was sown while he was attending Princeton that would later change the course of his life. It happened while studying ceramics with Toshiko Takaezu, the internationally known ceramicist.

But it took another seven years, a master’s degree in economics from Columbia University, and a stint in journalism before he made the decision to do what he enjoyed most – working with clay.

“In college I loved clay work but didn’t think I could do that for a living,” he says. “It was only after trying a lot of other things that I knew the most interesting thing for me to do was to work with my hands.

“I was heading toward getting a doctorate at the Columbia School of Arts and Sciences, but it was when I got the (master’s) degree that I decided to make the break. It wasn’t my family’s idea of what they expected, but after they realized it was what I really wanted to do, they accepted it.”

Prompted by his mentor Takaezu, Webb arrived in Lambertville in 1978. In 1979, he found the old house at 233 North Union St. and moved in. Although Webb no longer lives there, the house serves as his working studio. Last October, two rooms were made into showrooms.

The two-story stone house was built in the early 1800’s as one of a row. Originally it was just two rooms measuring 15 by 15 feet each, one on top of the other.

“When I got here there was no shower, no tub, no hot water,” Webb says. “The man who lived here before me had one spigot with cold water and a hot plate. He’d heat water on the hot plate to wash with.” Webb installed a small but functional and attractive full bath on the first floor, lined in his own sand-tone ceramic tiles.

In one of the studio rooms, he broke away stucco to reveal some of the original stone on what was once an outside wall. In doing so, portions of the original support beams were also exposed. He removed about six layers of dark paint from the random-width pine floor. It’s now sanded and brought to a satiny finish.

Underneath, the basement had a dirt floor and an old coal-burning furnace.

“I dug down another foot – one of those things you do when you’re young and foolish,” he says. It now has a concrete floor and serves as Webb’s shipping area.

There is no central furnace in the building. Instead, it is heated by two wood-burning stoves, a ceramic stove built by Webb and a solar wall on the building’s south side.

The stuccoed outside south wall is covered with plexiglass and painted black. There are two openings, one on each floor level.

“The sun comes through the plexiglass material and heats it up,” Webb says. “Because there is heat building on the stucco, air is pulled in throught the opening on the first floor and it rises up to the second-floor opening. It’s like a greenhouse.”

In the central showroom is another unique source of heat – a masonry stove covered with black and green tiles and “the guts” from Austria. Webb designed and built the stove when he and his wife, Barbara, operated the Canal Tile & Stove Co., a business which offered installation of hand-built stoves to homeowners.

“There are hundreds of fire bricks inside and the heat goes through an incredible maze of them,” he says. Called a Biofire, the stove takes about a grocery bag full of wood to radiate heat for nearly 12 hours.

In recent years, Webb changed the focus of his business and is now creating ceramic lamps, plates, vessels and boxes.

His ceramic and cast stone lamps are unique in design. Several stand in a library at the University of California, Berkeley Campus, and one was used on the set of the 1995 Paramount Pictures movie “Jade.”

Webb builds the ceramic bases from sheets of clay rolled on a slabroller, then a press-molded top piece is added to create the shape. Webb then engraves the sides with decorative relief motifs, which he often rubs with oxides and masks before firing.

The cast stone bases are molded Portland cement and sand that has beeen colored by an acidic solution. This solution gives the raw cement a patina finish and a range of earth-tone colors.

Handmade paper is shipped from Maine for the lampshades, which are made by Barbara Webb. She points out one made from Egyptian papyrus that is especially beautiful. Others in the showroom are made from papers from other countries such as Thailand. And there is also a collection of mica shades.

Until last fall, when the Webbs opened their showrooms in the 233 Studio, Webb’s creations were only available through galleries, interior designers and craft shows.

“Our main focus now is this retail space,” says Barbara Webb. “We plan to be here as much as possible.”

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