Studio 233: Clay as Art and Light

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by John Luke in American Bungalow magazine

“If we’re not here doing the work, the work doesn’t get done.” That is the unassailable, universal reality expressed by any artist or craftsperson dedicated to producing fine work in a small studio, in explaining an absence of diversions.” And that is how Barbara Webb, wife and working partner of Jim Webb, explains the absence of Studio 233’s hand-built ceramic lamps from important Arts and Crafts shows outside the Boston-New York-Washington corridor.

“We’re here pretty much seven days a week,” she says, as she and Jim sit together in their sun-drenched studio in Lambertville, NJ, on a bright spring morning. “Fortunately, because we’re located in central New Jersey, it’s fairly easy for us to get to the major high-end shows in the Northeast.¬Ý But we simply can’t take the time necessary to travel to more distant show.” She adds that the presence in the household of their third child, a 14-year-old daughter, adds to the importance of making trips short and of Jim’s staying home while she makes most of the show appearances.

Jim, who grew up in Washington, DC, as the son of former NASA administrator James Webb, Sr., earned a B.A. in art history from Princeton in 1970. While there, he took a ceramics class from Toshiko Takaezu, the Hawaiian-born artist and teacher who headed Princeton’s ceramics department for 25 years. Although Jim went on to do archeological work with Louis Dupree in Afghanistan, spend a year on the New York City local desk of the Associated Press and earn a master’s degree in economics at Columbia, his exposure to Takaezu’s approaches to teaching and living turned out to be a defining experience.

“In college I loved clay work but didn’t think I could do that for a living,” he told a reporter for the New York Times in 2002. “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.” In 1978, when he communicated that decision to Takaezu, with whom he had remained friendly, she invited him to come to Lambertville and join the now-defunct Clay Co-op. He moved into an early 1800’s two-story stone house in 1979 and began making ceramic tiles. Jim moved out of the house when he and Barbara married in 1989, and changed his focus from tiles to lamps when Sue Johnson Custom Lamps and Shades in Berkeley, CA, commissioned some bases in the mid-90’s.

The lamps are structural marvels of the ceramicist’s art. Jim begins constructing each monolithic-looking base by putting a large lump of clay through a slab roller to produce a sheet of uniform thickness. He cuts out the four sides, stamps each side with a hieroglyph of his own design, bevels them at the corners, and joins them with slip to form the basic shape. As the clay dries over a period of days, he spends many hours paddling and shaping each piece to be similar ’Äì but not identical ’Äì to the one before. Even the glazing of each base is unique: he pours the carefully mixed glazing liquid over each base as it sits in a bucket. The final step is to spray an iron and manganese oxide mixture onto the stamps and along the four edges of the base, where it soaks into the glaze to prevent the light-colored clay body from showing through.

The shades are made of either mica or handmade paper. Sue Johnson provides mica shades, while Barbara began making the paper shades a few years ago, using Lokta paper, which is handmade from inner bark of the Daphne, a fast-growing, high-altitude shrub native to Nepal. The paper is known for its strength, durability and resistance to decay.

Toshiko Takaezu, whose 80th birthday Jim helped celebrate three years ago, continues to influence both art and life at Studio 233.

“Looking back, I’m struck by how much Toshiko’s teaching style was one of seeing each student as an individual,” Jim says. “She, of course, was less well known in the late ’Äò60’s when I first studied with her, but as a student I was given minimal exposure to her artwork and was therefore free of the temptation to emulate her pieces. She gave demonstrations of technique, but encouraged each student to arrive at their own means of expression in clay.

“Toshiko also teaches a remarkable work ethic by example. Her prodigious energy rubs off on the people around her. Another lesson she imparts through her daily living is the importance of keeping yourself fresh by shifting gears between art and other passions ’Äì in her case, her garden, which often gets as much time and attention as the clay. For Barbara and me, one of our favorite diversions is the water. Lambertville is on the Delaware River, which is a great place to paddle the canoe, as are the extensive canal systems on both sides of the river.”

Jim adds that William Daley of Philadelphia has also been an influential teacher, although mostly from a distance. “His sculptural and architectural clay forms, as well as the infectious humor of his teaching style, have been a great pleasure and inspiration over the years.”

Historic Lighting in Monrovia, CA; the Gamble House Bookstore in Pasadena; Simply Stickley in Albuquerque, NM; and the new Bellevue Arts Museum gift show in Bellevue, WA, are among the stores that carry Studio 233 lamps outside the Northeast. Style and Form, a gallery in Redwood City, CA, that opened in June 2005, and other stores in Chicago and Charlotte, NC, also carry Jim’s work.

Barbara’s presence at shows and the studio’s outreach through a select group of galleries and stores across the country have helped Studio 233 flourish, although the output remains small, at about 15 to 20 lamps per month, most on order. “We love it when people come directly to us,” Barbara says, “but the shows are very gratifying. The responses are overwhelmingly positive. People seem to really appreciate finding an art piece that also illuminates their art and furnishings.”