After 65 years of working with ceramics, Hank Murrow is having his last clay show at White Lotus Gallery in Eugene. Working with clay is hard on the body, he explained. At age 85, he’s determined it’s time for him to give it up. Still, Murrow made many of his porcelain and stoneware jars, plates, and platters–which will be at the gallery until December 30–as recently as this year.
The title Fired Up is a reference to the kilns and fires used to make ceramics, but it also works well to describe Murrow’s enthusiasm for his life as a ceramicist. “I love metaphor,” he said shortly after we met at the gallery.
Most artists discuss symbolism in their art without pointing to how it works. But Murrow is aware and fascinated with the way metaphor seizes the imagination. His love of metaphors extends to writing too, and he has in the past, though not in this show, incorporated poetry into his ceramics. For instance, he wrote a poem on a tray that would be covered when used, but then the words would be revealed as the meal was eaten.
The following poem is one of his early ones. He said it is “almost a haiku, but not quite.”
The Sun’s light
(Warm and comfortable)
by the night: revealing
All Suns !
“Once a metaphor grabs you,” he said, “it takes hold for life.”
He walked me to a display by the gallery’s front window, to a large stoneware platter with Shino glaze. The platter is orange with black horizontal lines that move unevenly across it. Murrow explained the lines as contrails, the kind that planes make. In between two of the lines is an image of two birds, flying across an orange sky.
Murrow explained the birds as a couple. He is fascinated with the migration and movement of birds, especially geese. They’re social animals, he said, and mate for life. He uses birds as “stand-ins” for people, and noted that they fly together or apart, and sometimes in opposite directions.
In most of his pieces that contain images of geese, the birds appear small against a background ceramic sky, as dark silhouettes. But in the “bird jars,” stoneware jars with Shino glaze that Murrow made to hold water for a Japanese tea ceremony, the geese are instead 3-dimensional figures sitting on top of porcelain lids. Instead of the usual dark silhouettes, these birds are white like Snow Geese.
Shino ware is Japanese pottery and Murrow has traveled to Japan for extended stays on three occasions. Taken with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, he was concerned that the bird on top of his jar would draw too much attention. He asked a Japanese Tea Master what he thought, and received this response: the embellishment was fine because the bird was there to bring news.
Murrow told the anecdote about his bird jar, which is in the show, at his artist talk for Fired Up on December 2. Clearly, he enjoyed that the Tea Master took his metaphor and ran with it.
Artists typically use their artist talks to speak about process or inspirations. Murrow began by telling the crowd—which included his wife Bev—that he was going to do something different. Too often, he said, people wait to speak about how much their friends mean to them after they’re gone. With that in mind, he was going to use his art talk to speak about his friendship with Jim Laub while they were both around. Laub was present for the talk and sitting nearby.
Murrow told us that he met Laub at Kent State University in Ohio in 1968, during a one-year stint as a ceramic teacher. Laub was his student. Both Murrow and Laub separately made their way to Oregon—in Murrow’s case, it was back to Oregon because he attended the University 10 years earlier in 1958.
In 2008, Laub founded Clay Space in Eugene’s Whiteaker district, a ceramics art center that among other things, offered people studio space, wheels and kilns. He successfully ran the space, including during the pandemic and then sold it in 2021 to a member who continues to manage the center today.
Murrow had two plates with him as he spoke about Laub. They looked like they were made by the same person, but one was made by Laub and the other by him. They were porcelain with black glaze and in the center of each was a cloud shape. Against the black glaze, the clouds looked like they were in a night sky being lit by the moon.
“Jim taught me how to do this,” Murrow said, meaning the way in which the clouds were made. He described the lesson as a gift, one of many he had received over a lifetime of friendship.
Meeting Murrow, even briefly, you get the idea it’s all connected for him: friendship, poetry, learning, food, and pottery. Here’s how he put it on White Lotus’ webpage announcing the show: “I feel certain that my work is deeper from learning to garden and to cook; and our lives are sweetened by good friends for whom to set the table.”
Since he said he wasn’t going to make ceramics anymore, that he was too tired to push clay, I asked, did that mean he wasn’t going to have any more exhibits?
Murrow was perplexed by the suggestion that he would stop making work – of course he will continue. He will still work and exhibit, just switch his medium to ink and watercolor. They’re familiar, he’s worked with them throughout his career sketching ideas—and metaphors—for his pieces. He is still going to make art, just on paper, is all.
Fired Up will be on display at White Lotus Gallery through December 30th. The gallery is located at 767 Willamette Street in Eugene and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.