Received in the Spirit: The Ceramic Art of Brother Thomas
“When, however, a thing of art is truly received in the spirit, it reveals not only the beauty concretized in the thing, but the beauty beyond the thing and, in the sweetest transcendental resonance of all, the beauty within ourselves.”
–Brother Thomas Bezanson
When reading the words, “many potters when they have discovered a range of good workable glazes…prefer to experiment with them rather than keep trying out different glazes,” written by Emmanuel Cooper, a leading voice in the world of functional ceramics throughout the mid-century, it becomes very apparent that certain potters fail to fit this mold. In fact, Cooper’s words help us understand that Brother Thomas Bezanson (1929-2007) was an exceptionally unique potter blessed with a strong spiritual center to create graceful and otherworldly works of Art. Having been primarily self-taught and having worked in relatively isolated monastic communities in Weston, Vermont and Erie, Pennsylvania, Brother Thomas had the artistic and spiritual freedom to experiment relentlessly with forms and glazes. His body of work exhibits a bewildering range of shapes and colors, such that many new to his pots are surprised that the same individual composed them all. However, it is palpable that the same spirit conceived them, as they all posses a distinct quality of incommunicable beauty.
Starting from a wad of
unrealized porcelain, Brother Thomas remained open to where his spirit would
take him and his pottery. Rather than meticulously planning each form and
accompanying glaze, Brother Thomas was led by how the piece moved him. While
Brother Thomas rejected the concept that skill and Art are interchangeable, his
technique and deep understanding of the medium served as vehicles for the
concretization of his intuition, or “Art’s guiding power.”
Sometimes work in its bisqued state, after the first firing, would remain on a shelf for years. These works would not be forgotten, but instead in limbo; open to transformation in whichever direction Brother Thomas’s intuition took them. Taking this time to contemplate the piece allowed him to not only see the works at a stage of open potential, but also to absorb the feeling of their presence. If he had no strong feeling about a glaze for a bisqued piece, he was unrushed to complete it. He wrote in an essay, “Only love and creative experiences seem to engender a notion of eternity, for it seems to the human spirit that it takes an eternity to explore their knowability.” Art for Brother Thomas transcended all notions of technical skill, science, and measurability. It was a feeling, or the journey toward an experience, that informed the direction of his work.
His time at the Benedictine Monastery at Weston Priory in Vermont as a monk and a potter established the pace and quality of his work. While he entered the monastery for spiritual reasons, a kiln was donated weeks after his arrival. To him, it was a sign. The ceramic arts chose Brother Thomas as a messenger; a messenger of the Beautiful that could only come from the realization of his creative and spiritual intuition. “Art is not the work-of-art,” he wrote, but rather the concretization of something unseeable inside each and every one of us.
At the end of 25 productive and enlightening years at the Weston Priory, Brother Thomas left to pursue a studio practice for his ceramics. After a long year of searching for a space, an opportunity arose for him to become the artist-in-residence at Mount Saint Benedict with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. Brother Thomas’s studio was his “chapel, the inner mountain, the place apart where silence and solitude are the doorway to the center of creativity.” In this environment, Brother Thomas found nourishment and the freedom to materialize what is “beautiful, good, true, and what unites and does not divide.”
This actualization of Brother Thomas’ spirit was cultivated in a remarkable variety of wholly original forms and glazes. When he first arrived at Weston Priory, Brother Thomas was creating glazes with additions from common kitchen materials, such as baking soda and the pure copper from scrubbers. Soon thereafter, donations of minerals and chemicals were brought to the monastery, but Brother Thomas maintained his curiosity and stayed true to his personal exploration of the ceramic arts. Over time, Brother Thomas developed his own language of glazes. Each piece speaks and has something different to say.
The works by Brother Thomas are electrifying, calming, exciting, and comforting. They are both bright and dark. They fill the space and melt into it. Many of his pieces in this exhibition present the transformative might a glaze possesses over a thrown or molded form. In this exhibition, focused on four primary shapes —the globular vase, the plate, the heart-shaped vase, and the egg vase — Brother Thomas completely metamorphoses our experience of the piece through his glazing.
Beginning with the globular vase form, which captures the purity of the sphere, Brother Thomas created objects that glow with distinctive auras. The rounded vase with rhodonite mineral glaze (TH2055B) appears ancient and ominous, while another covered in an opalescent copper red glaze (TH2080B), is light, young, and fresh. TH1977B mimics the royal blue sky of a clear summer’s night and sits quiet and proud. The perfectly spherical white vase (TH606B) is slowly being engulfed in a wave of pink-purple, while the decorative glazing on TH895B and TH1884 evokes a quick splash, flick, or pour that continues to drip down the curves of the vase. In many instances, the porcelain forms defy the push of gravity, while the glazing emphasizes it. Glazes frozen mid-drip are scattered across the surfaces of vessels or plates, reminding us of the tension between the ceramic body’s acceptance and rejection of the glaze.
The collection of large plate forms in this exhibition share a strong and firm presence, and often demonstrate the fluidity of the glaze during its firing. On TH427B, the lavender copper glaze melted off the rim and collected down in the center, forming a pool of glossy purples, pastel blues, and pinks at the heart of the plate. On others, Brother Thomas contrasted the geometric plate shape, complete with angles and sharp corners, with loose and dramatic glaze decorations. TH103B, a masterful hexagonal plate, exhibits a fiery red glaze poured diagonally across a cool, celadon glaze background. TH1341B, TH1335B, TH1621B, and TH1340B echo the dynamism of Japanese mingei, or Japanese folk art, and Shoji Hamada’s gestural and calligraphic decorations.
The heart-shaped vase form is voluptuous and filled with a unique kind of energy, like the Venus of Willendorf of ceramic vessels. Often covered evenly in glazes like rose red, copper red, nightsky blue, and tender green celadon, this form moves effortlessly through the spectrum of warmth and coolness. On TH437B, Brother Thomas has nearly created the effect of a landscape. The textured white glaze appears like ice or snow-capped mountains with the iron yellow glaze shining through like a molten center melting the earth above. Each successful piece gave Brother Thomas another reason to keep moving forward, creating more materialized prayers and giving life to his inner spirit.
The egg shaped vases feature an equally wide-ranging display of voices. The egg shape acts as a precious form that welcomed Brother Thomas’s velvety covering of glazes. Balancing on a narrow base, the ovoid form is lifted toward the heavens. Assorted variations in the form make the vase appear like the bud of a tulip, begging for the chance to bloom. Giving the work life, crystal rutile glaze drips over the folded petals from the heart of the vessel in TH1760. Brother Thomas’s iron yellow glaze (TH1258) is simply breathtaking, especially as it exhibits gradations of various tones inside the soft curve of the egg shape.
Despite the fortuitous nature of glazing and firing ceramic works, Brother Thomas maintained incredible control over the entire process. Temperature, length of firing, the glaze thickness, the application of the glaze, and the firing atmosphere can all affect the final appearance of a ceramic work. Brother Thomas welcomed the power and unpredictability of the fire, yet to limit the element of chance to the best of his ability, he created cylindrical forms to test glazes in each zone of his kiln to find the optimal position for each glaze. Through his work, he continually sought something that seemed out of reach: a sort of nirvana embodied in a pot. Still, it was when a work matched his intuition, inner spirit, and symbolized his personal journey, that it stayed in this world to be shared, contemplated, admired, and revered. His own words communicate this sentiment perfectly: “The artist whose special optic is the Beautiful, knows that his/her intuition of the Beautiful longs to be concretized.”
–Kimberly A. Curhan
Kimberly A. Curhan is a 2015 graduate of Boston University, where she studied Art History. She is an arts leader, artisan, and keen social media communicator, who believes in the power of art to build and shape community. Kim is the Exhibitions and Marketing Associate at Pucker Gallery.