Going To Pots: “Sangha,” More Than A Thousand Miniature Vessels By Kathryn Walker
By Shawn Hartley Hancock
Photos of pottery and shop by Kelby Lawson
Sangha, the Sanskrit word for community, is an appropriate name for the stunning installation of miniature earthen pots, each decorated by artist Kathryn Walker, that are on view through November 30 at Pergola, the luscious home store in the hamlet of New Preston, CT.
Walker’s collection of vessels is as beautiful and complex as the artist herself. According to Peter Stiglin, co-owner with David Whitman of Pergola, where the jewel-like vessels have transformed the store, Walker is “a force, and a true intellectual.” He ticks off her accomplishments: Fulbright scholar, documentary filmmaker (The Millennium Journal), art photographer, novelist (A Stopover in Venice, published by Knopf in 2008), Emmy Award-winning actress (The Adams Chronicles), Broadway star (Private Lives, Wild Honey), and conceptual artist.
It stands to reason that Walker’s personal life would be as artfully charged as her colorful mini pots. After her longtime companion, screenwriter Doug Kenney, the co-founder of National Lampoon, died in 1980, she married singer-songwriter James Taylor and is credited with helping him overcome his substance-abuse issues. Today, she happily divides her time between homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she creates art, and New York City. She formerly had a home in Washington, CT.
Walker recounts the genesis of the vessels for RI. “Louis Grachos of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery saw the first group I made—a few hundred or so—and wanted to put them in a show. But he wanted me to make more—many, many more,” she says. She did just that for almost six years, pursuing each new theme until it was exhausted. The Sangha show opened at the Albright-Knox in 2011.
Because pottery has traditionally been used to save or store things, Walker feels her simple pots represent hope and the promise of tomorrow. “These jars, descended from ancient prototypes, carry ancient emblems. They stand in testimony to what has been achieved, what has been hoped for, and what may also be lost. They are at once spectators and votaries,” she says.
Part of the impact of the exhibit derives from the sheer number of vessels and the variety of their colors and finishes. It’s hard to resist touching them, although many guests didn’t repress this urge at Pergola’s opening party this past weekend, when lots of individual vessels and whole curated groups (vessel families, as it were) went happily to their new homes. Some collectors even asked Walker to bless and kiss them goodbye. Rod Pleasants, president of McIver Morgan Interior Design and Architecture, bought three vessels, each with a subtle celadon glaze. He plans on keeping one, and giving the other two as gifts. “Walker works in a wide range of color and style,” he says. “The vessels move from very subtle matte finishes to vibrant intense color—not many artists are capable of that.”
“The elements of human innovation, community, survival, and hope are implied in this collection,” Walker says. “Human survival is no longer an individual crisis. The future of the planet itself has become a commonplace of international debate. The human community grows closer in the face of such a threat, and our survival will depend not only on cooperation and change but, to an even greater extent, on our struggle to become more conscious and generous, the aspirations of the sangha, the Buddhist devotional community.”
All told, the vessels range from crude to more refined, reflecting the diversity within a community. However they end up, they all start as simple, unglazed, earthen pots from Mexico, similar to the vessels made in rural cultures for centuries. Some get left partially raw, while others are highly saturated with pigment. Walker then embeds a fragment of a Tibetan prayer flag in the surface, a gesture that, according to artdaily.org, “evokes the long tradition in Tibet of making “treasure vases”—small decorated jars filled with talismans and sacred stones that are sealed and buried to bless and protect the earth and its beings—while simultaneously symbolizing spiritual generosity.”
Walker then numbers each vessel and applies one of an array of finishes. “The washes, patinas, and textures created are distinctive and beautiful,” says Agnes Gund, former president of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Walker’s friend. Gund first admired Kathryn’s exquisite vessels some years ago. “They have stuck with me ever since,” Gund says. “I feel that each piece, despite its small stature, is a powerful presence capable of standing on its own—unique little jewels in a wide range of colors, textures, and embellishments. With their subtle distinctions in size and shape, they seem to reference different cultures and periods of history.” While those washed in celadon are reminiscent of fine Korean pottery, others, according to Gund, are highly decorated with an intricate and repetitive motif that suggests fine china. Some bring the ceramics of ancient Persia to mind, or recall Japanese calligraphy and Chinese scroll paintings. “The installation of one thousand pots is provocative and uplifting, too,” Gund says, “and symbolic of the differences and beauty in every individual. It speaks to the unique presence each of us contributes to the world and to the vital importance of our commonality.”
On a more material level, all of the individual vessels are $90 each, regardless of size. Groupings of vitrines (curated by Gund and Whitman together) range from about $370 to $1,150, depending in the number of vessels in each.