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A Potter's Spiritual Journey : He Does a Turn in Old Town, Prefers Dulzura Studio

April 06, 1987|STACY FINZ | Times Staff Writer

DULZURA — It's a warm day in the countryside.

"I'm doing the sun dance; it's a yoga exercise," a tall, muscular man in his late 50s says as he raises his arms to the sky and begins to stretch. "You have to be in good shape to be a potter."

As well as being a ceramist, David Stewart is a philosopher, a spiritual man and a teacher. He shuns the art world and lives a hermitic life, creating in his quiet studio. His cozy pink house and garage-like work space are in this rural town 35 miles east of San Diego. However, five years ago he and his wife opened a pottery shop at Bazaar del Mundo in Old Town.

Until just recently, he rarely left the calmness of his world, but now he sometimes demonstrates turning pots on the wheel at the bazaar while his wife runs the store.

"I moved to the country 25 years ago to get away from the art world," Stewart said. "I want to live quietly and creatively."

But Stewart said he needs to make a living.

"I'm looking for that one-on-one contact with a person who loves my work, not someone who's buying it for my name," he said. "I'm having a one-man show every day at the bazaar. My most expensive piece is about $200. That's not enough for a gallery to make a profit. Art shouldn't be that expensive, it should be accessible to everyone."

Inside Stewart's studio, the music of Mozart rises to a crescendo as the artist pulls up the neck of a glistening wet bottle on his potter's wheel. Dozens of vases with etchings of animals and characters from the Bible and mythology, glazed pots and clay figures of alligators and turtles, sit waiting to be fired in the kiln.

"Art is metaphysical," Stewart says while trimming the sides of the bottle. "The most important thing is that art is not a thing. I try to make every pot a prayer--not a prayer where I'm asking for something. My work is a mantra, it allows me to transcend. The art is a record of the artist's spiritual journey.

"I used to think it was presumptuous to call myself an artist. It's like calling yourself a saint. But now I know as long as you're trying to achieve art, you're an artist. Everything you do with love is a piece of art. If you teach autistic children, or climb a mountain, or fix food and do it with love, it's a piece of art.

"People in the art world don't know what I'm talking about. There is this very famous critic I know who constantly uses words in her reviews like 'challenging.' Well, everything is a challenge. Why can't she just say how the work makes her feel? I'll tell you why, because she's afraid that she might be wrong."

Stewart didn't start making pottery until 1959, after he met his mentor, Marguerite Wildenhain.

"I had gone back to school to study industrial design at San Diego State University," he said. "I had just decided to study sculpture when I went to a Christmas seminar and saw her (Wildenhain) speak and saw a movie of her work. I remember seeing her pots and saying, 'Oh my God, how beautiful.' "

He studied with her for two years and was then asked to help her teach in Northern California every summer, until she died several years ago. Now he is a master potter, but he no longer teaches because it keeps him from his work.

Stewart said he had wanted to be an artist since childhood, but his parents wanted him to go into medicine.

"My family had two successful people in it," he said. "One was a doctor and the other one worked for the post office. So, to my parents, that was the way to be middle class. I remember I used to bring home books of Rubens' paintings and my parents thought I was looking at them to see nude women. They were worried about me because I was interested in art."

The potter has had his work exhibited all over the nation and in Japan. Stewart said that the curator of the Tate Gallery in London bought his pottery. The Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art in Washington asked him to send slides of his pots so his work could be considered for a show.

However, Stewart had decided by then not to exhibit his work. He said that spending time packing up his pieces for shows and sending out slides for juried exhibitions takes time out of creating. Stewart doesn't even have a resume because he said it seems childish to make a list of all his accomplishments.

"Galleries are not interested in what I am interested in," he said. "To be a part of the art world, you have to develop a trick to sell, and when that trick runs out you have to find another one. This takes time away from the actual creating. If they want to make fashion art, I'm all for it. But if they want to make art fashion, that's wrong."

To Stewart, art is getting in touch with the human spirit and proving how beautiful and joyous life is, he said.

"I remember seeing a quilt show once," Stewart said. "There was a picture of the artist and a quote of his or her philosophy by each work. There was one by a black Southern woman with a wrinkled face. She said, 'We made them warm, to keep from freezing, and we kept them beautiful to keep our hearts from breaking.' That has always worked for me."

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