“By practicing a potentially usable art and by insisting on its usability, and the commonness and local peculiarity of his materials, he points it toward the older, finer, healthier sort of artistic success: that such excellent workmanship, such beauty and distinction, might again become ordinary.“ — Wendell Berry on Tom Marsh*
If past is indeed prologue, then perhaps we live in the present only by the leave of our ancestors; formative influences, and most especially our teachers. Tom Marsh was a teaching artist in the Greater Louisville area for more than 25 years, first at Silver Creek High School in his native Indiana during the 1960’s, and then as the founder of the Ceramics program at the University of Louisville’s Hite Institute for Art, where he taught until his death, in 1991.
It is also said, by those who loved and admired him the most, that he was demanding. Surely this is a requisite quality for any worthwhile mentor, and, from all accounts, Marsh set expectations as high for his own work as he did for anyone else, and the program he developed for U of L was unorthodox, moving beyond traditional studio parameters. Certainly experience has taught us that innovation often translates for some as ‘difficult’.
Marsh was raised by missionaries, and studied painting with Mary Spencer Nay at the University of Louisville. A missionary trip took him to Mashiko, Japan, where he ended up staying for several years, studying pottery with Sakuma Totaro (1900-1976), and learning various strands of Buddhism, most notably Rinzai. Once he returned to the U.S. he eventually resettled in Borden, Indiana, living his later years in adherence to ethical and spiritual practices born of his time in Japan, building an aesthetically spare house in the secluded woods that featured multi-functional space - the bed was raised on pulleys to make room for working.
This holistic approach was indicative of what University of Louisville colleague and current faculty Jim Grubola calls the, “potter-philosopher” ideal that Marsh strived to embody. He brought it into his teaching, breaking out of the confines of the studio to instruct students in building outdoor kilns as a part of curriculum, a practice that brought many conflicts with both the Louisville Fire Department and University officials.
As for the work, Marsh’s ceramic pottery follows the Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty – “art,” in the strictly functional: large scale vessels for storage (because smaller pieces for daily use were commonly made from lacquer or wood), and tea pots. The full, earthen physicality might seem to contradict the western (mis) perception of delicacy as a defining characteristic of Japanese art; these are full, solid forms of visual and tactile weight. Their functionality never feels in question.
Another U of L associate, retired Print Faculty John Whitesell, describes how Marsh developed his techniques for the “expanded form jar,” in which the walls of the vessel are pushed to their limits and the outer surface begins to “crack”: “He would go beyond what you would imagine was possible… he would just keep working it, and working it.” The resulting complex, “fractured” surface texture became a trademark of Marsh’s work, a careful balance between structural integrity and creative aesthetic. However much the artist valued function, the rustic, earthy beauty of the work was always astonishing.
Whitesell also talks of “the anonymous potter,” which is a term that evolved when Marsh worked alongside his wife, Ginny Marsh. In the images of work shown here, from a 1984 sabbatical exhibit at U of L’s Schneider Galleries, all of the work is identified as simply Marsh Pottery, with no distinction given as to which Marsh created which piece. While there may be some who felt they could detect differences, Grubola, for one, could not be certain, because the nature of the vessels had gone in such an elemental direction: “Particularly towards the end,” says Grubola, “the work became more intuitive and less refined.”
Students came to U of L to study with Marsh specifically tolearn the Japanese-based techniques and life philosophy he expounded. Laura Ross, Wayne Ferguson, Sarah Frederick, Fong Choo, Pam Korte, Bran Hazelet, and Gwen Heffner are but a few notable potters for whom Marsh was a mentor, and many of them still live, work and teach in the area.
All of the concentration suggests that Marsh never did anything halfway. One of his teaching tools were sophisticated, multi-media presentations that he also took all around the U.S. at a time when such things were not common. “For someone so dedicated to a simple agrarian lifestyle,” remembers Whitesell, ”Tom was well-versed in technology, and had multiple projections fading in and out… synched to a pre-recorded soundtrack. It was very impressive.”
"These pots and cups and bowls are not busy calling attention to themselves as 'art objects.' Their preferred habitat is a kitchen, not a museum. They invite use. They are not just viewed. Viewing, by itself, will misunderstand them--just as, by itself, it
will misunderstand the food." — Wendell Berry
Examples of Marsh pottery are in permanent collections of museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in Kamajura, Japan.
Name: Tom Marsh (1934 -1991)
Hometown: Sellersburg, Indiana
Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2017 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.
*From “Tom Marsh/Potter: Twenty Three Years of Clay”, published by University of Louisville, 1979.