Former Montana ceramic artist Richard Notkin can turn even the humble teapot into a symbolic meditation on war, society or the environment.
Notkin and his artist wife, Phoebe Toland, lived and worked as studio artists in Helena for more than two decades. In June, they moved to Vaughn, Wash., throwing a farewell party at the Archie Bray Foundation in April that Helena won’t soon forget.
It was the Archie Bray that brought Notkin to Helena when he served as an artist in residence in 1981. Notkin grew up on the South Side of Chicago, inspired by his father, who was an immigration attorney and anti-McCarthy Democrat. Notkin’s family attended a synagogue in Chicago where some of the congregants were Holocaust survivors. The experience would forever change Notkin’s world view.
“I only wish to live long enough to see a sane world,” Notkin told The Gazette. “Our political system has gone amok; our elections are now auctions, not elections.”
Notkin conducted an interview via email from Italy, where he is teaching a ceramic arts workshop.
After finishing his master's of fine arts degree at the University of California-Davis, he established himself as an artist with a bent for irreverent, anti-establishment humor and pop-surrealist imagery. Notkin returned to Helena in the mid-1990s.
His work is shown and collected by museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Portland Art Museum.
Yellowstone Art Museum Executive Director Robyn Peterson said she stumbled across one of Notkin’s works at an art museum in Norway.
Notkin’s work is full of surprises as well as political and social messages, said Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, curator of the Portland Art Museum. The museum owns one of Notkin’s major works, “The Gift,” a ceramic wall mural of 1,120 three-inch square tiles that was completed in 1999.
“It is often the piece schoolchildren choose to write about when visiting,” Laing-Malcolmson said. “The photo-real quality of the powerful black and white image of an early nuclear test explosion on closer examination surprises the viewer, as it is comprised of hundreds of three-inch-square tiles modeled with images of skulls, bombs, coffins and other detritus that would result from a nuclear holocaust.”
Laing-Malcolmson said “The Gift” is one of the most important works in the Portland Art Museum’s permanent collection.
The Yellowstone Art Museum has four works by Notkin in its permanent collection, including one of his 300 teapots. The 2000 work, “Nuclear Nuts Teapot (Variation #12)” is on display in the “Un/Conscious Bent: A Survey of Regional Surrealism” exhibit in the Charles M. Bair Family Gallery at the YAM. It was donated by the late Miriam T. Sample in 2001. The exhibit is on display through Aug. 20.
Notkin’s teapots are not the cute ones in your mom’s kitchen. “Nuclear Nuts” has a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion on the lid and petroleum barrels form the spout. Dark humor plays a big role in Notkin’s work, so the teapot is resting on a pile of peanuts.
The irony of this work and Notkin’s other teapots is that they use anti-establishment symbolism but they are created with consummate care, showing the influence of Chinese Yixing teapots. Peterson described Notkin’s work as being executed with a jeweler’s precision.
“Dick is a socially and politically engaged artist, and his work addresses specific concerns with precise and unambiguous use of carefully rendered details,” Peterson said.
Notkin said he always worked against the grain of the times and he learned to accept that.
“I chose to make things that were highly crafted, and was often criticized by my peers for being too ‘small, tight and precious.’ At first it upset me, but when I realized that just meant I was different and following my inner passions, I learned to take that criticism as a compliment.”
Notkin’s 1999 solo exhibit at the YAM, “Passages,” consisted of more than 2,000 individual components, including 1,000 ceramic ears of varying sizes and colors. The work was titled, “Legacy,” because it provided a mirror into the past and a window into the future. At the time, Notkin said he was reviewing the superficial hype of entering the year 2000 but as a nation not heeding the lessons of the past.
“The idea of moving into another century with the mindset of cavemen and the technology of ‘Star Wars’ was a very frightening prospect to me,” he said.
Even though Notkin has left Montana, he said he will continue to follow the legislative sessions in Helena with hopes for a more enlightened Legislature in the future.
Meanwhile, he plans to use his art to make a statement, but he does not criticize other artists or arts patrons for simply enjoying the aesthetics of art.
“The wonderful thing about art is that it has so many forms of expression, so many different media and styles. If we all thought alike, nobody would really be thinking, and, besides, it would be boring.”