As Harrison McIntosh tells his story, he had to be an artist.
The diminutive, soft-spoken ceramist who's celebrating his 95th birthday with a retrospective exhibition at Pomona's American Museum of Ceramic Art is a virtuoso of pure, gracefully handmade form whose work represents the classical vein of Southern California's postwar crafts movement in museum collections around the world.
He was born in Vallejo and raised in Stockton, not exactly the center of the art universe, but he watched with fascination as the Haggin Museum took shape and opened its doors in 1931 in a park near his school. Seventy-eight years later, he also has fond memories of "Nymphaeum" by William Adolphe Bouguereau, the sexy star of the museum's collection of 19th century French paintings. The spectacle of female nudes cavorting in a wooded glen seems antithetical to McIntosh's classically modern pottery and sculpture, but the painting sparked his love of sensuous form.
He and his brother, Robert, found a champion in the museum's director, Harry Noyes Pratt, who got to know the boys as frequent prize-winners in Haggin-sponsored children's exhibitions. Pratt introduced them to Arthur Haddock, an accomplished local painter who took their art education seriously.
"Arthur Haddock had great curiosity about painting, including its technical aspects," says McIntosh, seated on a couch in the living room of the rustic modern house that architect Fred McDowell built 41 years ago for him and his wife, Marguerite, in the Padua Hills area of Claremont.
"He ground his own pigments. He took us to his workshop, and we each built a paint box and folding easel so we could go with him around the countryside."
When the brothers finished high school, Pratt told them to get out of Stockton and suggested that Robert, who was especially good at drawing and painting, apply for a scholarship to Art Center in downtown Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Designin Pasadena). The money came through, Robert moved to L.A. and the rest of the family followed.
Harrison, who preferred sculpture, took classes at Art Center and landed a job at the Foundation of Western Art, a nearby exhibition space where he became acquainted with the art community. In a stroke of luck guided by uncommon artistic vision, his parents bought a lot in Silver Lake for $1,000 and hired Richard Neutra -- a struggling architect who became a Modernist giant -- to build a 900-square-foot house for them for $4,500. In 1939, the family moved in and Harrison set up a studio in the garage. Today the little house, a testament to Neutra's enduring ideas, is the residence of another architect, John Bertram.
All this sounds a little too easy, an early career path almost as smooth and inevitable as a McIntosh pot. With a father who was a pianist by choice and an office manager by necessity, Harrison had the advantage of parental support and encouragement.
But the McIntoshes had more taste than means, and Harrison worked his share of odd jobs as he learned to make ceramics.
The exhibition -- which also celebrates the fifth anniversary of the museum -- offers about 100 works that include a terra cotta sculpture of a female torso, circa 1938, and a hand-built ashtray from his early student days as well as signature vases, bowls and jars. In addition to his best-known symmetrical, functional pieces, enhanced by satiny glazes and complementary patterns, there are abstract sculptures that all but float above blocks of wood or angles of chrome-plated steel, and examples of commercial dinnerware produced in Japan.
A few pieces decorated with figurative images inspired by Japanese prints and European modern art may come as a surprise, but the 60-year survey is remarkably consistent. McIntosh's artistic production came to a halt in 2002, when his slowly declining eyesight finally prevented him from working up to his standards.
The understated elegance of his work is distinctive, says Jo Lauria, an independent curator of decorative arts and design, "but it doesn't force your attention. You come to it naturally. He has an ability to connect to everyday ordinariness but make it extraordinary."
Describing McIntosh's art as "almost a conflation of Bauhaus principles of functionality and Japanese aesthetics," Lauria says that "his lifelong interest has been in how you make a vessel not only functional but also beautiful and pared down to its essence. There are no frivolous handles or ruffles around the shoulders or little anthropomorphic feet."
Flawless as his work may appear, perfection isn't the point, Lauria says. "He's really about clean, linear structure, but with the sense that it is handmade. When you touch his pots, they don't feel cold and manufactured, even though he has designed for industry. They are very tactile. You can see the clay, and it's very inviting when he leaves it exposed."
Largely self-taught within a circle of artists who saw fresh possibilities in clay and other materials that had been relegated to crafts, he got his first ceramics instruction at USC night classes taught by Glen Lukens. Little by little, he learned to make engobes and other clay slips -- liquid mixtures used for decorating and casting ceramics and adhesives-- as well as plaster molds and glazes.
McIntosh was drafted into the U.S. Army and served on the West Coast in 1944 and 1945 but was discharged early when his first wife became gravely ill. After her death, in 1948, he decided to use the G.I. Bill to go to college. Although he lacked an undergraduate degree, he enrolled in an adventurous ceramics program run by the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) and taught by Richard Petterson at neighboring Scripps College.
Petterson, who was fascinated by Asian traditions and aesthetics, "invented the classes as he went along," McIntosh says, recalling his own experiments with various clays and firing temperatures.
"The outcome for me was the [pyrometric] cone 5 was practical if I was going to make a living selling ceramics," he says referring to his preferred, medium-range firing time and temperature. "I worked out several clay bodies that have the characteristics of stoneware and a color palette using mainly metallic oxides." He also became adept at throwing pots on a wheel.
McIntosh met Marguerite Loyau, a native of France who had a Fulbright Fellowship to teach French at Pomona College, when she joined one of Petterson's classes. They were married in 1952 and had a daughter, Catherine, in 1954. Marguerite taught French at colleges in the area for many years but also became her husband's business manager, arranging for exhibitions nationwide and working with him on commercial design projects in Japan and Germany. An indefatigable promoter of the arts, she also spearheaded a campaign to establish the Claremont Museum of Art, which opened in 2007.
The year after their marriage, the McIntoshes traveled to Northern California so Harrison could study with Marguerite Wildenhain, a ceramist who was trained at the Bauhaus, an avant-garde school of architecture and applied arts in Germany. Her appreciation for nature's beauty and adherence to principles that adapted design aesthetics to mass production made a lasting impression on McIntosh, but he was open to a wide range of artistic endeavors.
A longtime friend of the late master woodworker Sam Maloof and studio mate of ceramist Rupert Deese, McIntosh has spent his life among artists. He and Marguerite have passed their house along to their daughter and now live in a retirement community of Claremont friends. Harrison's vision is extremely limited, but that has only heightened his love of the classical music that filled his studio for years.
In his early years he was well acquainted with Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner, John Mason and other leaders of the Southern California movement that pushed clay into the free-wheeling territory of expressive fine art. But that wasn't his thing.
"When I tried to work more spontaneously, I found that I was not quite satisfied with the work until I had done more to refine it one way or another," he says. "But Voulkos was always a good friend. I was fascinated with his work. He was one of the most creative people I had known.