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A legacy takes shape

Times Staff Writer

A livery stable, an automobile showroom, a pool hall, a restaurant, a pawn shop with a bar. The sprawling brick box of a building in downtown Pomona has undergone one transformation after another during the 76 years of its life. And now it has been born again, as the American Museum of Ceramic Art.

Seen from the outside, it’s a geometric composition of ochre and umber stucco, crisply decorated with yellow and blue patterned tiles. With its acronym, AMOCA, spelled out on a rectangular panel of tiles above the front door and windows, it occupies a chunk of Garey Avenue just south of the historic Mayfair Hotel.

Inside the museum, a cavernous gallery with an open beam ceiling offers a 63-year, 108-piece retrospective exhibition of pots and sculptures by Paul Soldner, a leading figure in Southern California’s effort to transform ceramics from a functional craft to an expressive art form. A variety of tea bowls, vessels and free-form structures -- decorated with calligraphic brushstrokes or imprinted with tire tracks and shoe soles -- illustrates the artist’s love of asymmetrical, organic forms and his penchant for pushing clay to its limits.

Soldner, 83, is known as a hands-off teacher who inspires students with his free spirit, inventive skill and prodigious energy. A video -- produced by the museum and screened on a wall above his artworks -- provides glimpses of his style and philosophy, along with a biographical sketch and commentary from artists, art historians and curators. Books on ceramics by Soldner and other artists are displayed at the desk where museum Director Christy Johnson dispenses information.

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Launched in September as a new component of downtown Pomona’s arts colony and the only museum of its kind on the West Coast, AMOCA is a fledgling enterprise with big ideas. It aims to be a showcase for a broad spectrum of art made of clay, a repository for cultural history and an educational forum.

But most of all, it’s David Armstrong’s baby. A Pomona businessman with a passion for ceramics -- sparked by Soldner about 45 years ago -- Armstrong has poured almost $1 million into creating a nonprofit museum that he hopes will become self-sustaining.

Why?

It’s a long story, but Armstrong makes it short.

“When I went to Pomona College as a zoology major, art was the thing furthest from my mind,” he says, referring to one of several independent institutions of higher learning in Claremont. “But Pomona had seven pillars of wisdom and you had to take classes in all of them.” Stumped by the art requirement, he consulted with his buddies on the football team. They suggested taking Soldner’s ceramics class at Scripps College, a nearby women’s school that’s part of the Claremont cluster. So in his freshman year Armstrong signed up for beginning ceramics. Four years later, when he graduated from Pomona, he had taken 26 units of ceramics at Scripps.

Armstrong took over his father’s furniture business, later switching to interior design and then to collectible plates. In 1975, he struck a lucrative deal with comedian Red Skelton, who had a separate career as a painter of clowns. Armstrong produced and distributed a line of plates decorated by Skelton until the comic’s death in 1997.

That venture didn’t establish Armstrong’s credibility among aficionados of high art, but it supported his ceramics habit. In 1990, he went back to school, earning a master’s degree in ceramics at Claremont Graduate University while studying with Soldner, during his final year at Scripps.

“I loved ceramics so much, I wanted to do something with it,” Armstrong says. When Skelton’s death ended the plate production, he turned his longtime place of business into a ceramics gallery and began renovating old buildings. At the same time, he dreamed up a plan to create a museum. The Mayfair Hotel was available, so he bought it, hoping to make his dream a reality.

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With a naive brashness that now makes him laugh, Armstrong approached Scripps officials, proposing that he take over the late Fred Marer’s vast contemporary ceramics collection, which had been entrusted to the college but lacked a permanent showcase. The answer was no, but Armstrong learned that he could borrow works from the collection for exhibitions if he established a museum.

“That was all the encouragement I needed,” he says.

The Mayfair Hotel didn’t work out, however. Turning the 1915 building into a museum would have been prohibitively expensive, Armstrong says, so he decided to transform it into artist lofts and apartments -- a process that is still underway. The derelict structure that now houses the museum went on the market in 2001. Armstrong had to accommodate a tenant -- a pawn shop that occupies the north end of the building -- but that left 38,000 square feet for the museum.

Creating a museum calls for a lot more than bricks, mortar and seismic upgrades. Armstrong gives much of the credit to director Johnson, a ceramic artist with extensive administrative experience. She has played a major role in getting AMOCA up and running, with nonprofit status and an exhibition program. But it has a long way to go to be in league with such well-established institutions as the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., which has an 8,000-piece collection, and the Ceramics Research Center at Arizona State University’s Art Museum in Tempe, which has a 4,000-work holding.

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The new museum in Pomona has the bare beginnings of a collection in about 20 gifts and purchases, but Armstrong is optimistic. More than 1,000 people came to the opening celebration, he says. And 50 people have purchased memberships -- including a few at the $1,000 level -- before the anticipated membership drive. Daily attendance runs from half a dozen to more than 100 visitors during regular hours.

“The museum definitely fills a need in the community,” says ceramic sculptor Georgette Unis, who serves on the advisory board. “David Armstrong has a vision of a place that not only displays ceramics but follows the study of it, in terms of art and technology. There’s nothing like it on the West Coast.”

The next exhibition, “kilnopening.edu,” will feature works by artists who teach ceramics in Southern California colleges and some of their students. Next will come shows of Bauhaus-trained artist Marguerite Wildenhain’s work and ceramics by Joe Koons and Mel Jacobson, who have found a way of re-creating brilliant glazes that originated in China during the Sung Dynasty.

“This is an American museum of ceramics, but it won’t be limited to American ceramics,” Armstrong says.

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Indeed, the mission statement covers just about everything: “to educate by presenting, collecting and preserving significant ceramic achievements of the world’s cultures from ancient times to the present and, through aesthetic and technical study, to develop a deeper understanding of cultural values and traditions.”

That may sound far too ambitious for any museum, let alone a brand new institution with one major supporter. But Armstrong is undaunted.

“The mission is broad,” he says, “because we don’t know where we will end up.”


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