Oral History Interview with Joe Molinaro Part II

Kentucky Historical Society


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0:08 - How technology has impacted his work / clay community on the internet

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Keywords: Amazon; community; Ecuador; email; glaze; glaze program; internet; kiln; technology; world wide web; writer; writing

8:30 - Exhibitions

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Keywords: exhibits; Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft; Lexington (KY); Louisville (KY); Morehead University; Nashville (TN); St. Louis (MO)

11:14 - Commissions / know your audience / plans after teaching

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Keywords: art fair; ceramics; Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft; Oprah Winfrey; pottery; retirement; studio; teaching; teapot

15:10 - Recognition for work / loving what you do

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Keywords: Al Smith Award; documentary; Eastern Kentucky University; Fulbright Award; Rude Osolnik Award

22:17 - National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts

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Keywords: American Craft Council; China; Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen; National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA); Pittsburg (PA); Southern Highlands Guild art show

25:18 - Subscribing to publications / family

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Keywords: American Craft; Art and Perception; Ceramics Monthly; Ceramics Technical; graphic designer; Studio Potter; writer


WILLIHNGANZ: So you were talking a little bit about technology.

MOLINARO: Technology, yeah.

WILLIHNGANZ: And how it impacted your work.

MOLINARO: Well, it’s impacted my work. I’m not sure if its impacted the physicality of the work. And, what I mean by that is, where it’s impacted at makes it easier to fire kilns, for example, because now they’re computerized. The Internet, you know, the way in which technology has brought us to have all this have-a-world at our doorstep sort of thing, so you have the ability to reference things quicker. You know, back it’s been, like fifteen years almost, about thirteen or fourteen years ago, I started a list of called ‘Clay Art’, and at the time, you know, I just thought, well, there wasn’t anything. There was no group out there you could subscribe to, and talk to other people in ceramics, so I thought, well, I’ll start one myself. If I get a couple of dozen people on it, that would be great, because, you know, living in Florida, you know, there was a lot of people around all the time that moved to Kentucky…more rural, and felt a little bit more cut off to the greater clay community. So, you know, when e-mail came about, we all got our first e-mail addresses. And, I quickly started looking at these user groups out there that were on art, architecture, and everything. And, I tried to ask questions about ceramics, and nobody wanted to talk about it, because we’re talking about art. So I thought, well, screw it! I’ll just start my own. And, I called it ‘Clay Art’. And again, I thought, you know, if I get a couple of dozen people on this list, I’ll be happy. Well, you know, within five years I had well over three thousand people from thirty different countries. And, of course, that was a time when people were really jumping onto the e-mail band wagon. And, all these list of groups were being started, so I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and it’s still in existence today. I ended up passing it onto one of the major ceramic magazines, and they run it now, and it’s gotten even bigger. But, so technology really influenced me there, because all of a sudden I was electronically connected to people in Japan, or England, or Tennessee, you know, and so the ceramic world all of a sudden existed in my own house, so questions could be asked. At that time I was just starting to go down to the Amazon of Ecuador, and so I could write reports about these things I was experiencing down there, to audiences that were around the world, and people were asking questions about it, so I started writing about it. And, you know, so it kind of ushered me down that path as well. And, I have always enjoyed writing, so that’s something that I’ve pursued alongside of my work, and still do today. As a matter of fact, I’m working on another book on pottery in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but a lot of that started with clay art, and that was the early days of being connected to kind of a global community of ceramics. And, it’s a long shot from when I first got into ceramics. I thought man, if only I could make pots in the potter’s wheel, and buy some land in the country. So, it’s kind of opposite, but in many ways, it’s still the same, because it’s still about community and it’s still about clay, it’s still about tradition. And, my interest in indigenous potteries’ of the world is because I’ve been able to be exposed to that, through not just books, but through the internet and e-mail and stuff like that. I’ve met people on line, and shared images, and learned about them and their countries, and so, I think technology has influenced. And, there is a lot of potterers’ influenced by technology, because, you know, there are glazed programs, and I have those, and I don’t use them very often.

WILLIHNGANZ: What does that mean?

MOLINARO: One of my best friends has written a very popular program that ceramists can use to develop [unintelligible], where you type in parameters into the computer, and it formulates different things, and gives you that. So, technology has been extremely helpful for that. If I’m having trouble with a glaze, I can type in my recipe, and I can troubleshoot it that way, instead of having to mix it, and fire it, and try this, mix it, fire it, and try this.


MOLINARO: I can circumvent a lot of that, so technology has been great there. So it has influenced, but at the same time, I never claimed that it’s a driving force. I think it’s just a tool, because I’m more influenced by tradition and the indigenous work that’s being produced still today.

WILLIHNGANZ: Do you use any types of technological tools? Neil Di Teresa’s was showing me how he does paintings. And, he has a photograph that he likes of a woodland scene, and he puts it in the photo shop, throws it up on the screen. And then, takes another picture of a person standing, and he wants to put this person standing in there, and he doesn’t like the size of the person, so he shrinks the size. When he gets this done, he makes a copy of that, and then he paints from that to recreate what he’s done on the computer.


WILLIHNGANZ: You do any kind of design thing like that?

MOLINARO: No, I don’t. I don’t, and that’s an interesting concept. And, I’ve thought about that at times, about, for example, teapots. I could go through a multitude of designs just by using photo shop, in cutting and pasting different spout combinations, and things like that. But, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in discovering that spout combination, because I’ve got ten spouts I’ve made, and their all different. And, I’ve got all these different bodies, and I’m trying one against the other, and this one’s suggesting this one. It’s kind of a dance I do with the pieces themselves, because I like working with the material more than I like working taking these parts, and putting them on cut and paste on the computer screen. It’s not to say it’s a bad thing to do, but I think for me, anyway, something is lost when you know I’m touching this and feeling it, it opens a door to…I’ve got somewhere I’ve put textures on, just the spot here where that’s smooth, and I could probably do that on a computer. But, I would rather do that than reel. Sometimes I’ll make a dozen spouts, and I’ll find myself, you know, carving into the spouts, or putting slip on, or doing different things. And, I never put them on a teapot, because all I’m doing is, I’m looking at the relationship of this surface on this zigzag form. And, I might stumble across something that really isn’t appealing to me. Then, I take that and reconstruct it, and put it on a teapot. So, I really like that kind of playing around with the material, and the forms, and the reel. I could probably, and maybe I should, do some of it online with my computer photo shop, but I feel like I spend enough time at the computer now with my job, my writing, and other things, that I don’t want to then give the computer that much more control of my life as it relates to my work, because a lot of times when I’m writing or doing things on the computer, I do a lot of that. I deliberately will stop and go to my studio to work, so I can juxtapose that activity to this activity. And, if I try to see how close I can bring them together, I think both of them would suffer from me anyway, they would. It’s not to say I might come up with some great designs, but, you know, maybe I don’t come up with many great designs, but the ones I come up with I can’t keep up with as it is.


MOLINARO: So, I’m not going to worry about it.

WILLIHNGANZ: Where do you exhibit your work?

MOLINARO: Well, I exhibit it through exhibitions pretty regularly, and tend to have work coming and going pretty regularly, through juried or invited shows, and those are a myriad of places. Most recently, Saint Louis over at Morehead…just different places, you know. Wherever there are shows, you know, I’ll enter or be invited. And, I’ve got some shows coming up. There are a couple of galleries that I’ve kind of been in and out of…Blue Spiral in Nashville, the North Carolinas…carried my work off and on places like that. And, I’ve been in galleries in Lexington, or the Kentucky Art Craft Museum in Louisville has showed my work quite a bit. And you, know, I’ve reached a point where I don’t worry about, oh gosh, I’ve only had this many shows, or that many shows, because it seems like when I’ve looked back on the last five or ten years, I still show about the same whether I’m working in it or not. Some years I get invited to more, and some years there are shows I’m interested in pursuing. But, it always tends to work out. And, I know that, because with my job at the university, we have to file these reports at the end of the year. And, one of them is, you know, how much are you showing your work for the artists? That is, and so, most of us on faculty are worried, cognizant of the fact that we have to be out there doing that.

WILLIHNGANZ: Is this a ‘publish or perish’ situation?

MOLINARO: Yeah, kind of. And, of course, I write a lot, too. So, I’ve got that to [unintelligible]. But, years ago, I just decided that it will take care of itself. Because, as long as I’m active in the studio and active in my field, I just have the confidence that the work will be shown, and it does, and it seems to work out that way, that I tend to show about, you know, six to ten really good shows a year. And, if I try real hard, I’m in six to ten good shows a year. And, if I don’t, I’m in six to ten good shows a year. So, I just, you know…I guess maybe I’ve been doing it long enough, that there’s enough that trickles my way, and one’s that I choose to pursue. I, you know, good batting average, so I can rely on that without having to get. I watch the young faculty come on, you know. They’re just so hell bent on making sure they sustain that record. But, you know, thirty years later, it’s more about doing the work and just staying involved. The record kind of follows you.

WILLIHNGANZ: Do you ever do commission work at all?

MOLINARO: No. I really don’t. Now, it’s not to say that I have done work, for example, one year. It’s going back a few years. The Art and Craft Museum contacted me, because there was a couple of big collectors, I think. They’re going into the collection. It was something to do with Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby. Somebody was buying for them for something that they had done. And, they saw my work there. And, so they commissioned me. They wanted to buy two teapots, one for each of them. And, but, they didn’t tell me what they had to look like. They saw my teapots in an exhibition, and we would like to buy two of your teapots. But, I got to make them, and there wasn’t, like, we would like a black and white one, and they didn’t get into that. So, that’s kind of the level. If you come to me and give me commission work, I’ll probably say okay. And, you’ll probably be calling me for three years saying, ‘Where is it?’ Well, I haven’t done it yet, because I’m not real good at doing that, and wife will attest to that. She’s still waiting for canister sets.


MOLINARO: I really don’t do commissions per say.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay. Have you exhibited at fairs?

MOLINARO: Years and years and years ago.


MOLINARO: I haven’t in many, many years.

WILLIHNGANZ: Yeah. I wouldn’t expect you to have much time between your teachings.

MOLINARO: No. And, that’s not really the venue for my work. I think it’s important for artists to know who their audience is, and my work needs to be displayed more on a pedestal with proper lying. It looks better in a gallery. And, if you buy it, you’re going to put it in your home, because you’re kind of into collecting this kind of stuff, and you have a place for it. The gallery and the art fair setting, doesn’t really afford me that setting, nor that clientele. It’s not to say that the people that would be there wouldn’t appreciate my work, but those people would be better off to find it in more of a formal gallery setting.

WILLIHNGANZ: If you were to quit teaching altogether, quit writing, and just do pottery day and night, would you be happy?

MOLINARO: Probably not. I would like to do more of that, though, and I just built my studio here at home this last year, and just built a kiln. And, I happen just to get ready to fire it for the first time, so it’s all new for me working here. I have been working at the university, and part of that is an effort to spend more time on my work, because it’s really hard for me to spend that kind of quality time at the university in my studio there, because there are so many distractions that are waiting for you. There are distractions here, but they’re of a different nature, so you know I’ve been teaching long enough where, you know, I’m looking down the road. There is going to be retirement coming my way, and stuff like that, and so what I really want to do is stay involved in my work, and be involved in a more independent level where, when that day comes, I will be able to continue my work even after I’m done teaching. So my work is very important. And, I’m trying to pay more attention to it on that level. But, to quit teaching and to quit writing, and just do my work, even when I quit teaching, I will still be traveling and writing hopefully. And, at that point is when I might be more interested in doing workshops. And that, because that will fulfill this yearning to get in front of a group of people and talk about your work, and share what it is you do. Even if it is a simple technique, just to be able to share it.

WILLIHNGANZ: Uh, hum. What recognition have you gotten for your work?

MOLINARO: Well. Over the years, going back to when I was in Florida, I did get a state fellowship when I taught in Florida, one or two down there, I can’t remember. And here, I’ve gotten two Al Smith Awards, and did receive the Rude Osolnik Award, which was a great honor. And, I’ve gotten a couple of Fulbright Awards academically, for my research. And, I’ve produced some video documentaries of pottery in the Amazon, and done quite a bit of writing for publications, and wrote the book on Kentucky Pottery. Those are all part of awards in and of themselves, a number of awards and shows that I’ve been in over the years, and been in some pretty good collections along the way, so. None of these are things that you really pursue, they are products of what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it, I think. And, you know, luckily in Kentucky, we’re surrounded by good artists and good craftsman. And so, to win an award here is really an honor, because you’re in really good company. Because, you know, that they had so many people to pick from, and it was really nice. And, most recently, I won an award at the university where I teach, Eastern Kentucky University. It’s called the Warrick Award, and it was an award acknowledging my research in South America. And, they only give one of those a year to faculty. So that was a big honor. That was, for me, at the university, like the Rude Osolnik was for the visual arts. So, I’m happy in that regard, and the Fulbright’s were a great honor in that. But, you know, I always think that if you do what you love, you will always love what you do, so it’s just an easy thing to kind of stay plugged into what brought you there in the first place. And, what brought me to working in clay was that fascination with this material, that could start so soft, and then so hard, and in between that help you put a little bit of who you are in it. And, I’m still trying to do that, whether it’s a bowl I’m making to put on the kitchen table of my home, or a sculptural form in a gallery, is to somehow what little bit of your legacy is left there. Because one thing I learned very early on, that good pots and bad pots live the same life, and that’s more than you. So the requirement that’s for you to really just preserve and cherish the good, and have the courage to eliminate the bad, because twenty years from now or even after we’re all gone, the bad work is still there representing you. So, you really want the good work out there because when you’re gone, it’s still going to be speaking of who you were when you were here. So hopefully, that because it’s a material that, you know, if there’s an earthquake, or a fire or flood or what have you, these damned pots seem to survive better than we do.


MOLINARO: It might break, we glue them back together, but they’re pretty tough stuff, you know. Unlike a painting that, you know, water damage and boom, where are you? And, that’s why pots are the oldest of the arts. And, that’s why we learn about past civilization, and past people through the pottery that they made. Because the people who made them, whether they knew it or not, whether they’re aware of it or not, a little bit of who they are, is a people was left in that work. And so when we dig these treasures up, wherever we are in the world, we learn a little bit about the maker, and so I just hope that is the case with stuff I’m making. And I know, I’m pragmatic enough to know, not all of it is, and it’s scary to think that I don’t know which ones aren’t, because you know their going to be here after me; their still going to be talking so.

WILLIHNGANZ: I got to tell you a story. I was in Seattle, I mentioned my friends who were collecting Mata, and I’m not even sure how you spell it, Mata Ortiz pottery.

MOLINARO: Mata Ortiz, yeah.

WILLIHNGANZ: She told me some wonderful stories, and she has quite a collection. I mean we went room to room, and went through all these different things, and she told me some fascinating things about. She’s been there, and she took a work shop with Ortiz somebody or other and she said what’s amazing to her is they don’t use wheels.


WILLIHNGANZ: They scrape them out with bone.


WILLIHNGANZ: Then they paint them meticulously, and they take their children’s hairs and make these very fine brushes, with like four hairs, and they dip them in, and they very carefully paint these lines hundreds and hundreds of lines into these patterns. Then, they fire them up, and they loose roughly half of them when they fire them. They break and their gone. And, all that work they put into them up to then is gone. It’s just I don’t know.

MOLINARO: Well, the pottery in the Amazon I’ve been studying, and some of its right behind you there, the bowls. Those are painted with brushes made of human hair, and they will spend hours if not days painting one piece, and sometimes they break in the firing. And you know these people don’t get upset about it because it’s part of the day’s activities. They’re not trying to fill an order. They’re not working for somebody else. It’s, they know that pots break and that’s part of the process. Where we lose it as we try to make a masterpiece, or we got to make this by 5 o’clock on Friday, and if it breaks, were all upset. Whereas, if you can kind of put it into the daily rhythm of your life, it’s a lot less troubling. And that’s something I still don’t know how to do , but it’s interesting to watch these women do that. They will spend all day painting a pot, and it will blow up in the firing, and it doesn’t ruin their day. There is another day, and they will make another one tomorrow and it’s really a lesson, but the pots in the Amazon, in many ways, because I have studied the Mata Ortiz somewhat, and for that reason, because of the similarities for the jungle pots.

WILLIHNGANZ: Interesting, that’s very interesting. What craft organizations or associations do you belong to?

MOLINARO: Well I am a member of NCECA, which is the National of Council and Education for the Ceramic Arts, and actually I’m on the board of directors for them. I’m their program director. It’s an appointed position, a three year term, renewable for the second term, which I’m in the second term now, and that’s probably the biggest clay organization in the country. It is the biggest in the country and probably the biggest in the world of a clay organization, and there is a conference every year, and we do symposiums in other places. For example, we have a symposium this October in China, and our conference last year was in (God where were we last year, I’m drawing a blank?), we were in Pittsburgh last year, and next year we will be in Phoenix, and the year after that we’ll be in Philadelphia. So, that’s very time consuming for me. And, that’s the big membership thing. But I’m also a member of the American Craft Council and Kentucky [unintelligible] Partners. I’m involved in their cultural programs. That’s about it! There might be another one or two smaller ones.

WILLIHNGANZ: Have you ever been involved with the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Crafts?

MOLINARO: I’ve never been a member. Well actually I was a member of the Kentucky Guild for a few years, about ten years ago. And, I fully support who they are, and what they are, and my not being a member in no way is any kind of statement whatsoever. When not being a member is really more about me, not finding a way to plug into like, I don’t do their shows. You know, things that they’re really about aren’t things that I’m involved in. And, when I did join the organization several years, about ten years ago, and I was a member for a few years. I did it mostly, just an attempt to, just to support them, and I probably should still do that, and just laziness I don’t. But, you know, I’m always encouraging my students to join, and feel like they have a lot to learn by being a part of that, so it’s a really valid group, and a [unintelligible] group in this state, and I have a great respect for them. So, you know, I’m always quick when people say are you a member to say no, but not because I don’t believe in them you know. Theirs a lot of things I should be members of.

WILLIHNGANZ: Have you ever been involved with Southern Helms Guild?

MOLINARO: I’ve been involved in some of their shows but not as a formal member. No, but I have shown. They have done exhibitions that I’ve been invited to and been a part of.

WILLIHNGANZ: Uh, hum, okay. You’ve subscribed to periodicals.

MOLINARO: Too many.


MOLINARO: Specifically to clay?

WILLIHNGANZ: Well, to your field really.

MOLINARO: Yeah, well, I get American Crafts, Ceramics Monthly, Studio Potter, Art and Perceptions, Ceramics Technical, yeah, Clay Times.

WILLIHNGANZ: Do you get a chance to read all of that stuff?

MOLINARO: You know, I get them, and I look at them more than I think I’m going to, just because I’m busy. But, it’s hard not to, because, you know, I know a lot of people that maybe the person on the cover is somebody I know, or maybe there’s an article in there that somebody wrote, that I know, or maybe it’s something I’m interested in. But, largely I keep membership to those, because I teach, and it’s a way for me to keep abreast of the field. And, often times, the students are working on something, and I’ll say, ‘Okay, you need to go look at the May issue of Ceramics Monthly, because there was an article that so and so is addressing that technique that your exploring’. So it’s a way for me to kind of help them be connected and I write for them.

WILLIHNGANZ: I was going to say I thought you probably wrote for them.

MOLINARO: Yeah, and I had an article in Ceramics Monthly on something in the Amazon, so I publish. I use those as vehicles to disseminate my writings.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay. Have your family been pretty supportive of you work?

MOLINARO: Very, yeah, yeah. My daughter’s a graphic designer herself. So, she’s grown up in the arts, and when she graduated from Notre Dame, and when she went to college she said…my wife’s a librarian…she said, ‘Two things I will not major in is library work or art’ , and she ended up an artist, so.

WILLIHNGANZ: Have you ever worked on projects with her, your daughter?

MOLINARO: No. I really haven’t. We’ll talk about things that touch us both, but we’ve never, you know, she’s in graphic design, and that’s a little more commercial avenue, but she’s very creative and very successful. And, she doesn’t really work in clay or anything. When she took a ceramics class, I mean it was with one of my professors at Notre Dame, so, you know, and so she’s taken ceramics that she knows, and she’s grown up with pots in her life. But, she’s not inclined to come out here and get her hands dirty you know.

WILLIHNGANZ: Laughter. Okay, well I think that’s all I have unless there is anything else you would like to contribute for the record.

MOLINARO: No. I just hope I gave you what you wanted.

WILLIHNGANZ: Oh, I think you gave us a lot of information. It’s terrific and I really enjoy your work. Thanks!

MOLINARO: Good, good.

[End of Interview Part II]