Back in art school in the 1960s, John Glick didn't consider himself a great painter. It was only when he became a world-renowned potter and began painting with ceramic glazes that he recognized his talent for creating beautiful abstract visions with color and a brush.
"I was a C+ student as a painter," he says. "But later my watercolor teacher came to one of my pottery shows and said, 'You're a painter.' It dawned on me that I'd found another way to paint through different materials."
Glick earned an MFA in 1962 from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he studied painting and printmaking. Two years later, he founded his ceramics studio in Farmington Hills. Plum Tree Pottery sits on a serene wooded lot marked by a green historical landmark sign from the city. A vintage barn-style building houses a few brick kilns about the size of outdoor storage sheds — built by Glick and former assistants. Every table and shelf is covered with neatly arranged vessels ready for firing. The studio is just yards from the remodeled late 19th century home he shares with his wife, Susie Symons, a fellow potter. There's also a showroom for clients, and of course, a few plum trees.
In his personal collection of ceramics on display inside, one piece stands out. It's a majestic patterned vase by the late Finnish potter Maija Grotell, one of his former teachers at Cranbrook. He lists her among his major influences.
Also influenced by Asian ceramicists, especially the late Japanese artist Kawai Kanjiro, Glick's work shows great appreciation for grace, gesture and chance. It's evident in his painterly surfaces and the balance and contours he makes in clay. Overlapping colors, dark strokes that suggest calligraphy, and glazing techniques that give the impression of depth and motion are all hallmarks of his style. Now 70, he's spent several decades forming his own visual language, a vocabulary so striking and original people often recognize it, even when it's coming from work by his students.
Many of the assistants he's brought to his studio for one-year residencies have had a hard time learning from Glick without gaining an impulse to copy his style. The imitation is flattering but nearly impossible to really achieve. He says his surface marks are almost unconscious, part of a rhythm, a background hum that allows his work to happen.
"I love making gestural marks," he says. "It's not something I really think about anymore. It's just an automatic response. ... It feels very internal and not at all studied and not at all planned."
When he's working, he has about 35 water- or paraffin-based preparations around him just to do his surface marking. He moves among them almost unconsciously. He also uses about 55 different glazes that he mixes himself out of hand-selected minerals that he purchases from around the United States and the United Kingdom. Up-close examination of his plates reveals microcosms of clear watery pools, opaque masses of earth, streaks of sun, and reflective specks that shine like stars.
He's thoughtfully pared down a lot of vast and complex ideas about his art to the point where simplicity equals sophistication. The most basic elements remain. Mark-making, color relationships, and the satisfaction he gets from the process now have an alchemical effect, turning surfaces into mystical places where recognizable images and forms often appear out of nowhere.
"People find symbols, animals, birds, horizons and sunsets in my work," he says. "None of them are intended."
An influential figure in contemporary American pottery, he's received many grants and awards. His work can be found in numerous museum collections, including the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the American Craft Museum in New York, China's Museum of Art in Yixing and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto. But his attitude is one of appreciation and not pretense. The simplest teacup has the same balance and beauty found in his large-scale wall panels.
As a graduate student, he was inspired by the idea of village craftspeople creating objects for daily use, like pots and baskets. He keeps this idea of community in mind as he forms and glazes teapots, plates, vases, pitchers, ewers, planters, ovenware and his custom dinnerware sets, which require about a year to get. To him, the relationship between the artist and collector is part of the creative process. It creates energy and inspires. Some of his clients are third-generation, people who grew up with Glick's hand-washable and dishwasher-safe work in their parents' and grandparents' homes.
"People say, 'We love the work; we use it every day. ... Could you make us six more bowls to go with it?'"
When a simple dinner plate can give the impression of a vein of turquoise running through red rock, or dead leaves locked in amber, the distinction between decorative and functional is completely lost. The two concepts seem to melt into one another. But Glick does produce work that's strictly visual.
In his upper gallery he shows pieces he considers unique and unexpected, those that best represent his regard for intuition and chance — the fact that there's no way to know exactly what magic the firing will work with the applied glaze. There are reliefs and freestanding sculptures inspired by natural settings. There are also specially rendered pots and oversize plates suitable for hanging rather than eating from.
From the grandest to the smallest, every piece of Glick's work is made with the highest level of energy, skill and attention to detail, which makes a large sculpture seem humble and a simple teacup a thing of wonder.
Plum Tree is affiliated with a few select galleries around the country, including Pewabic Pottery in Detroit. But most of Glick's work is sold directly through his studio and showroom, which keeps the business end as pure as his approach to the work itself.
Plum Tree Pottery is located at 30435 W. Ten Mile Rd., Farmington Hills. Prices range from about $25 to $3,000 in the regular showroom and as much as $4,500 in the upper showroom. Showrooms are open to the public 1-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, or by appointment. There will be a special open house event Nov. 28-30, with extended hours of 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; those special hours continue through Christmas. Call 248-476-4875 or visit plumtreepottery.com for more information.Norene Cashes writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]