Paul Soldner, a ceramicist and longtime Scripps College teacher who introduced a pottery technique called American raku, died Monday at his home in Claremont after a period of declining health. He was 89.
“He was one of the greats in California ceramics — part of the West Coast scene that came on in the ‘60s with Peter Voulkos, John Mason and Ken Price,” said Doug Casebeer, an artistic director at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colo., which Soldner helped to found. “It was a generation influenced by jazz — the idea of spontaneity and responding to your materials.”
Born in 1921 in Summerfield, Ill., Soldner moved several times in the Midwest for his father’s work as a Mennonite minister. The family landed in the small town of Bluffton, Ohio, where he attended Bluffton College. He didn’t by all accounts have a strong interest in art until he enlisted in the Army medical corps during World War II.
As he later told his family, his desire to become an artist was ignited by the war, or, more specifically, by seeing beauty emerge from terror in the form of charcoal drawings made by Holocaust victims on the barracks walls of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
“He was really struck by the fact that people in such dire circumstances tried to make beauty out of their lives,” said his daughter, Stephanie Soldner Sullivan. As for his Mennonite upbringing, she said that her father and her mother, Ginny, left the church and at one point explored Buddhism, but her father’s work ethic and his “idea that you made the most of whatever you had” persisted.
This resourcefulness came in handy in 1954, when Soldner moved to Los Angeles to became Voulkos’ first graduate student in the new ceramics program at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design). Because the department was so new and the ceramics studio nearly empty, the two had to build their own potter’s wheels from scratch. As Times art critic Christopher Knight once wrote, “Soldner’s welded X-frame kick-wheel became the California classroom standard, while Voulkos’ ceramics changed the direction of the art.” (Today, Soldner wheels and Soldner tubs, used for mixing clay, are still sold at supply stores.)
After his experience with Voulkos, Soldner began teaching at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate School, where he was a visiting professor until 1966, returning as a full professor from 1970 to 1991. Early on, one of his undergraduate students was David Armstrong, who went on to become a close friend, an in-depth collector of his work (he owns more than 100 works by the artist) and the founder of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.
“I was going to be a veterinarian, but Paul changed my life. My whole vocation, avocation, centers on ceramics,” Armstrong, who inaugurated his museum in 2004 with a sweeping Soldner retrospective, said Monday. “He was a phenomenal teacher and an inspiration to countless ceramists.”
Armstrong was with Soldner in 1960 when he developed the technique known as American raku. Long used for tea ceremony ware in Japan, raku traditionally involves firing a pot in a kiln at lower-than-usual temperatures, only to remove it and plunge it in water (or green tea, as the origin story goes) while still red-hot. American raku involves “smoking” the piece instead, by plunging it into combustible materials like sawdust or newspapers instead of water.
According to Armstrong, Soldner discovered this technique while preparing for a demonstration at a local crafts fair. “Paul was a showman and wanted to make the event entertaining. But if you’ve ever been to a ceramics studio, you know it takes a long time to fire a piece on a kiln,” Armstrong said.
So Soldner tried his hand at raku: making an ad-hoc kiln out of a 50-gallon oil drum lined with concrete, formulating the right clay and glazes for it, and choosing a fish pond nearby for plunging the ceramics into cold water. But one bowl didn’t make it to the water. Rushing from the kiln to the pond with tongs in hand, Soldner accidentally dropped the bowl in a bed of pepper-tree leaves, where it started a small fire. The result was visually arresting, with the pot picking up the imprint of the leaves and acquiring a smoky or iridescent sheen.
Soldner, who embraced the beauty of the accidental and unpredictable, saw it as a fundamentally Japanese aesthetic. “In the West, there is this emphasis on perfection. Something that cracks is considered a mistake,” he told a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in 1997, adding that the same “flaw” in the East might be called a “crackle.” “It’s no different than the approach to taming the outdoors. In the West, when you make a garden, you throw the rocks out. In the East, you bring the rocks back in.”
Bringing the rocks back in was not just a metaphor for Soldner, who was attracted to the rugged geology of the western United States. In the 1960s, he helped the developers of Anderson Ranch in Colorado choose its current location and refine its vision as an artists colony and community center. And from 1956 until his wife’s death in 1995, the couple worked on building a summer home in Aspen — by hand. They used rocks and other materials native to the area.
“He worked with rocks and he went to the dump, salvaging and scrounging and recycling materials. He used solar heating before it was on the map,” Casebeer said. “He was an artist, and he was an inventor.”
Besides his daughter, Soldner is survived by two grandchildren and a sister.