2003 Essay | William Daley: Staying in Motion

2003 Essay | William Daley: Staying in Motion

William Daley: Staying in Motion

By Edward Lebow


Ovaled Oval, 2001
cone 6 stoneware
14 x 22.5
photo: James Quaile

The escape artist in William Daley is always leaving himself a way out. His exit is rarely big or flashy. It’s usually nothing more than a detail in his elaborate ceramic forms—perhaps a squared-off end to the donut rim of a broad bowl, or a D-shaped protuberance that reads as softness at the center of a hardened intersection. Such breaches in visual logic are just enough to trip the eye and slow the mind to wonder whether there might be some other way to see, feel and think about the pot at hand. His invitation to take a second opinion is one of the great hesitation moves in modern ceramics. Subtle and easy to miss, it nevertheless reveals the probity of an artist who, for more than 50 years, has drawn comfort from making himself and his forms just slightly less than perfectly clear.

“There’s nothing wrong with clarity,” he says, “but over time it can be pretty boring.” Afflicted by a spiritual and an intellectual greed to feel and know more, Daley has avoided tedium by staying in motion, filling himself with the search for new twists on the forms and ideas that obsess him. The result has been a wide path of achievement as both an artist and a teacher.

Daley would be the first to tell you that he hasn’t traveled alone. Family, teachers, friends and colleagues have continually nudged him along, feeding his mind and generous heart. The sculptor William Parry, the painter Jules Olitski and the plaster master Petras Vaskys are just a few of them. And then there is the world of objects and art. Daley’s eyes dance when he talks about the intoxicating forms of Gaudí and Brancusi, the aesthetic ideals of sacred architecture, Fibonacci, the golden mean and, yes, even hubcaps. “I’m transfixed by hubcaps,” he confides. “They’re fantastic exercises in form.”

Study for Petras’s
Passing Place, 2001
ink on paper
14 x 17

One could easily mistake such a list for an eclectic mix. But that suggests a miscellaneous slant. And there is nothing haphazard about what draws Daley to people, ideas and objects. He gravitates toward the authentic—toward images and objects whose originality gives them an indispensable authority. His heroes among forms range from European cathedrals to Silla dynasty pottery stands from Korea. In addition to chimney pots by Gaudí and abstracted torsos by Brancusi, he swoons over the classical facades that the ancient builders of Petra, in Jordan, carved directly into stone. Peter Voulkos had the touch, too. “I’m in a totally other universe from him,” Daley says of Voulkos’s pots, “but they have a necessity and an authenticity that’s irrefutable—a signature that’s absolute. I put great stock in that. That’s what every artist’s quest is to do.”

Daley’s own quest began with his family. He was born in 1925 in Hastings-on-Hudson, a short distance upriver from New York City. His father was a house painter who loved to recite poetry and improve the world with his hands. His mother stayed at home and raised Bill and his brother and sister. He began drawing when he was young, inspired by his father, who had taken a course in lettering and would practice the numbers and letters from the family’s address on the white enamel surface of the kitchen table every night after the children were in bed. It was ephemeral work. Daley’s mother would wipe away the penciled skeins of calligraphy every morning before breakfast.

His father taught him, Daley once wrote, “how to get ready, how to stay in the work, how to use tools and the hands in my head.” His father also conveyed how to find meaning in work. The secret of his father’s success, he wrote, was that ‘he was always working to please himself.’ It was rich training for an artist and craftsman. But possibly poor preparation for scholastic obedience. The budding artist fled the tedium of schoolwork, Matthew Drutt points out in his smart 1993 catalog essay about Daley’s work and career, by drawing a parallel universe of pictures, filling his tests and tablets not with the needed answers, but with daydreams of calligraphic letters and aerial battles.1 Even when the real war snared him in 1943, he didn’t stop drawing. Forced to bail out on his first aerial mission as a turret gunner in a bomber, he spent the final 10 months of World War II as a prisoner of war. In the German prison camp, he bartered drawings for cigarettes. The images, he says, weren’t much more than cartoons. Yet they were small measures of the constant desire to escape: “Guys would ask me to draw pictures of things they thought about or longed for.”


Celtic Vesica, 2002
cone 7 stoneware, 32h
photo: James Quaile

Daley set out to be a painter after the war, but swerved into ceramics thanks to the influence of Charles Abbott, his teacher at the Massachusetts College of Art. He learned the basics of wheel-thrown forms, but the utilitarian ethic didn’t stick. For one thing, he wasn’t particularly good at making useful pots, he says. For another, he had no interest in following utilitarian canons. He preferred to make his own rules—ones that would facilitate his quest for distinct forms.

From the outset, his visual god was geometry. Like so many other potters of the day, he was drawn to the organic sensual geometry of human, animal and plant life—female torsos, birds, seedpods, among other things. He melded these with the abstract simplicity of Scandinavian design and Chinese ritual bronzes. Drutt points out that the bronzes, in their union of symbolic, ritual and religious meaning, got under Daley’s skin to a degree that other objects hadn’t.2 Daley mimicked their patinated surfaces by eliminating the hand-worked textures of his pots, and coating them with a rich green glaze. Like all of the other influences he has absorbed in his career, the bronzes confirmed his evolving biases toward his own work. They legitimized interest in forms whose linked physical and visual efficiency enabled them to do the most with the least.

That has been the singular ambition of Daley’s work, to concentrate all of his desires, intellect and responses into the walled efficiency of a pot. It is reflected in his aesthetic canons. The common link between his Reptilian Chiclet of the late 1960s, his Shang Form of the 1970s, and the more recent Vesica pots is that they begin with the assumption, he says, “that the form will contain something.” One could say the same of architecture. However, pottery’s smaller size allows it to be “totally comprehensible,” says Daley. “You can be both outside and inside.” That isn’t to say the experience of the two is the same. Over the years, Daley has zeroed in on the discrepancy between inside and outside, using the natural disparity as an aesthetic spark gap to draw a decisive emotional charge.

Most of his generation of potters used this inside/outside dichotomy to play up the expressive volumes of forms, breathing life into their implicit—and hidden—spaces. Daley instead chose to make everything about a pot visible. Exploring the membraned nature of his vessels, he has sought to make sense of the way in which their clay walls translate inside dents into outside bumps, or troughs into ridges. This transaction between physical causes and visual effects is fairly easy to grasp. But its subtle shift from fact to feeling is not. That’s the great mystery of his vessels. It’s just vexing enough to keep Daley in the hunt for new turns of visual phrases and forms. “I’m always trying to stretch my skull,” he says. “I don’t know that I’ll ever understand that. But it’s just so damned satisfying that it’s become a kind of habit.”

1 Matthew Drutt, “Inside/Outside,” in William Daley: Ceramic Works and Drawings, Levy Gallery for the Arts in Philadelphia, Moore College of Art and Design, 1993, 5.

2 Ibid., 6-7.

Beginning in 1970, the American Craft Council has formally honored those whose artistry and leadership have enriched and advanced the craft field in the United States. Now named for the Council’s founder in acknowledgment of her vision and generosity, the Aileen Osborn Webb Awards represent the highest levels of artistry, leadership and service. The Council’s 2003 Awards will be presented October 17 at SOFA CHICAGO.

William Daley, whose deep involvement with ceramics is the subject of this essay, will receive the Council’s highest honor, the Gold Medal, signifying consummate craftsmanship. In recognition of their accomplished artistic careers, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Tom Joyce, Norma Minkowitz, James Tanner and Kurt Weiser will be named American Craft Council Fellows, joining 229 other artists who have previously received this honor. Albert LeCoff, executive director of The Wood Turning Center, will be named an Honorary Fellow. Awards of Distinction will be given to The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, for their contributions to the craft field.

Edward Lebow has written frequently on ceramics and other media, and is a staff writer with the Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia.

Published in conjunction with the special exhibit American Craft Council Aileen Osborn Webb Awards presented at SOFA CHICAGO 2003 by the American Craft Council.

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