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Acclaimed Ceramist Keeps His Work on the Firing Line

August 29, 1990|RANDYE HODER | Hoder is a regular contributor to San Gabriel Valley View

PASADENA — When artist Philip Cornelius makes teapots, he provides the tempest, too.

"What I do is so freaky, I can't have anyone around," he says, his speech punctuated by expletives, his eyes flashing behind tortoise-shell glasses, his thick hands swirling through the air. "I can't be disturbed. If I get disturbed, I fall apart."

At 56, he is one of America's most acclaimed ceramists, best known for his "thinware" designs. Cornelius, who has taught at Pasadena City College for 25 years, molds delicate sheets of porcelain into abstract forms, almost all based on the common household teapot.

He says he likes teapots because they are containers, and like all containers, they are useful. "Containment is important to me because it has a sense of function," he says. "Teapots are big ugly things. It took me to turn them into art."

Indeed, Cornelius' teapots don't look anything like what you'd find on a kitchen stove. Many of them are charred, rough-hewn vessels, evoking images of warships, planes and tanks. But, at the same time, they somehow convey a sense of refinement and vulnerability.

Garth Clark, who represents Cornelius and sells his pieces at Los Angeles and New York galleries for as much as $3,500 each, calls the work "highly contradictory."

There is a tension "between being tough and hard and being fragile and vulnerable," Clark says. "These objects are very much about contradiction."

So is the artist.

As a teacher, Cornelius is giving and interested in his students' work. But as an artist, he is intensely private and guarded about his own.

In his classroom, where 17 students wear aprons to protect themselves from a blanket of red clay and gray dust, Cornelius demonstrates basic ceramic-making techniques. But he doesn't discuss the trademark style that has taken him decades to develop: working with incredibly fine layers of clay and yet still firing them in the kiln at intensely hot temperatures.

"It's not my job to show them what I do," Cornelius says, lifting his cap from his head and running his fingers through his slightly graying hair. "It's really none of their business. I don't need to open my soul to them."

Although Cornelius divides his time between the classroom and the studio behind his Spanish-style home in Pasadena, the artist has been careful to keep the two worlds separate.

Many of Cornelius' students, in fact, have no idea that their teacher has pieces featured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

"I've learned a lot from him in just two weeks," says John Sih, 28, an engineer who is taking his first ceramics class at PCC this summer. "I had no idea that he is so well known. I guess I wouldn't really expect that here."

Cornelius began teaching at PCC in 1965 after earning his undergraduate degree in science from San Jose State University and a master's in fine arts from Claremont Graduate School. He says he has continued to teach at the community college all these years because the school has given him the freedom to do his own work. "Professor/artist, artist/professor--both are an important part of who I am and what I do," he says.

"Maybe someone who teaches at a major university or a prestigious art school has more professional clout than I do," he adds. "But I'm not into professional clout, I'm into art clout. I don't take my power from teaching, I take my power from what I do with clay."

Teaching at PCC, Cornelius goes on, "has enabled me to lead a fairly normal life, to pay the bills and raise a family. It would have been too spooky for me to be an artist and raise two kids. It would have been living too much on the edge."

Cornelius' current work is an exploration of mayhem, an idea that has always interested him. Earlier teapots drew inspiration from World Wars I and II. The newest series, he says, refers to a new breed of war. The teapots, dotted with body parts, are charred in the kiln "almost like third-degree burns."

He mentions Iraq.

"I have a lot on my mind now," Cornelius says. "We have had an unprecedented peace, and now we are going to have an unprecedented amount of war."

Cornelius' propensity for firing his pieces until they are on the verge of destruction is as important an expressive quality as the way he shapes the clay. "Putting them in the kiln is like putting them in a tomb," he says. "I like to fire right to the edge. It's like they've been through a war."

His work, consequently, is not always pleasant to look at. Wayne Kuwada, director of the Garth Clark Gallery in Los Angeles, says Cornelius' work is "tougher than a lot of what you see in the ceramic world."

"Because of the imagery, his stuff isn't particularly soothing," Kuwada says. "You have to go beyond looking for the beautiful object. He always takes his work a step beyond."

Says Cornelius: "No one fires as hard as I do. And if they did, I'd fire even harder."

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