Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mark Pharis

[Functional forms] "have been a source of curious and engaging problems for many years. I suspect it is because the nature of the pots is multifaceted and unfolds over time. Utility or function is but one aspect of a pot. Use and its connection to the domestic arena form the framework and a context in which I work. The themes provided by function are familiar-vases, cups, teapots, etc. And they may be thought of as a kind of shorthand for a longer and less obvious list of concerns, which includes-in no particular order-interactivity, material, chemistry, the realm of ideas, metaphor, formal constitution, social and cultural context, a pot's relationship to 'fine art' and function as 'idea." –Mark Pharis

"Just as in music we find that the simpler the theme, the more thorough must be the knowledge of the musician in order to compose acceptable variations thereon. So, in fact in every Art this rule obtains, and the simpler the apparent result- assuming, of course, that such result is really beautiful the greater the art care knowledge and taste required... The problem presented is practically one of elimination. To include all that is necessary and eliminate all that is unessential..."

Mark Pharis is an American ceramic artist and professor residing in Roberts, Wisconsin. Pharis is currently the Chair of the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota where he has been a faculty member since 1985. Pharis is most known for his exploration of functional vessels: namely the teapot, vase and soy bottle forms. Pharis is well known for his unique method for handbuilding using cut paper templates and slabs in a way very similar to sewing with fabric. Pharis comes from an important lineage of potters having been a student of Warren MacKenzie, an influential American potter formerly an apprentice of British potter Bernard Leach.


Mark Pharis received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1971. Between 1971 and 1985, Pharis was employed by many Universities (mostly Midwestern) as a visiting faculty member, sabbatical replacement and summer session faculty. During this time Pharis showed in many group and two person shows as well as several solo exhibitions. In 1985, Pharis began his long-term career as a professor in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota, where he is currently the Chair of the Department.

It was as a student at the University of Minnesota that Pharis studied with Warren MacKenzie. Sandy Simon, also a student of MacKenzie, describes the importance of MacKenzie: “I remember what brought me into the world of pottery—coming of age in the midst of the Vietnam War, kids we knew in high school were getting killed; our college campus was closed. Violence was everywhere and for reasons we doubted worthwhile. Pottery making was a vital practice of living. Warren MacKenzie, as our teacher, encouraged us to follow our vision, allow our talents and trust ourselves. The world was a healthy place: compassion and confidence in humankind not only existed but thrived, and feeling it was just the beginning; living it was just down the road.”

In an interview with Jeanne Quinn (faculty member of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado at Boulder) Quinn describes McKenzie’s artistic strength as his very narrow focus in clay—his ability to work within a structured set of rules to work within. Quinn queries Pharis about his own rules or parameters for working with clay. Pharis responds stating that it is his choice to make functional vessels that is a parameter in his work. He states: “I was in love with the whole functional world and I could operate confidently in that world—I like the fact that this is [function is] structured—functional pots happen in a certain framework, both defining and liberating at the same time. It is interesting to investigate the boundaries of that.”

Apparent simplicity of form and decoration in Pharis’ vessels allow for a revealing of the subtle complexities in the work over time and through the use of his work. His interests in function are clearly both literal and conceptual. Pharis states: "I want my pots to have that potential to flip or alternate, to appear to be about use at one time, but to be visually independent and clear enough to be other than functional as well." His process of folding and joining slabs together that have been cut using templates similar to sewing patterns gives a sense of volume to his closed vessels that speaks to the softness of clay in the green state. Where the slabs are joined as seams the process of assemblage is apparent.

His exhibitions are numerous and his work can be found in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, Gardner Museum, Toronto Canada, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, Ferguson Collection, the Kansas City Art Institute, The Woodman Collection, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, Everson Museum, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, amongst many others.


What Follows Interview at the University of Colorado at Boulder:
Akar Design:
Department of Art: University of Minnesota:
Ferrin Gallery:
Trax Gallery:
LaCoste Gallery:

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