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“…giving form to the ineffable: ” An Interview with William Daley, by guest blogger Deborah Krieger

Guest blogger Deborah Krieger interviewed William Daley, whose ceramics will be on view at the PAA from January 23rd through March 9th, about his career and his take on art, philosophy, and life. Deborah blogs about the Philadelphia art scene and beyond at I On the Arts. Enjoy excerpts from her interview with Daley below and check out Deborah’s blog for the full piece. Deborah Krieger is a Swarthmore College Art History student and emerging art writer and curator. 

I On the Arts: For my first question: can you talk about how “14 for 7”, your upcoming show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, came about?

Bill Daley: Well, my children just made a book for me, William Daley: Ceramic Artist, and we presented the book in Chicago at a book signing and so on, but after the book was about to be hatched, we contacted the Art Alliance. I had a show there in ’68 and was in group shows before that, and they offered to show some work at the Art Alliance and have a book signing.  So that was sort of the core for the beginning of it…with seven decades of work, we picked two pots for each decade and came up with “14 for 7”.

IOtA: So, going back a little bit: What is your artistic background and your training? What was that like?

BD: Well, I went to art school as a G.I. after World War II at the Massachusetts School of Art. Now it’s the Massachusetts College of Art. And from there I went to Columbia Teachers’ College and got my Master’s in Art Education. And then from that I began teaching. My first job was in Iowa, in Cedar Falls; my second job was in New Paltz, New York—part of SUNY; and my third job was at the Philadelphia College of Art [PCA], which at that time was called the Museum School of Art. It later became the University of the Arts. Most of my tenure was at the Philadelphia College of Art [for] thirty-something-plus years. I taught one year at the University of New Mexico as a guest professor, and I also taught at …SUNY Fredonia from PCA, and went back to PCA at that time in ’63, and continued there until my retirement in 1990…

IOtA: That’s quite a range of experiences!

BD:  (laughing) Well, I kept always moving.  One time I quit in protest because they thought we were all Communists!  Because [they] thought modern art was subversive… but anyway, the rest of the times I changed because I needed a change, or there was a better opportunity.

IOtA: Where did you quit from, if I may ask?

BD: Well, they didn’t actually accuse us. It was in Ulster County, New York, which is a very conservative county, and they just were not used to having contemporary artists in the art department at New Paltz. So they were really pretty upset by it, and we were a bunch of radicals. They fired—they relieved—two-thirds of the faculty of their positions and two of us resisted and quit. And we didn’t get any support from the college at large so I began my career at the Museum School of Art. I got a job there, and it was really a great boon that I had quit, ’cause the Philadelphia experience has been at the core of my experience since, and that’s been great. And it’s still great, because this is my second show at the Art Alliance.  In ’68 I had the first show by the Philadelphia Council of Professional Craftsmen, of which I was a member, and they gave me the first show that they gave an earnest, worthy worker, I guess, to exhibit.  And so I had a show there in ’68…

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IOtA:  Let’s see… so, how did you choose your medium?

BD: Well, when I started out I wanted to be a painter. And I was pretty successful as a veteran, a novitiate painter, and I had work in the Institute of Contemporary Art, which had just begun in Boston. Anyway, I took a ceramic class and I [had] liked clay when I was in high school, but I was so taken with this new teacher and I was smitten by the medium, and I just knew that that was it, although I was pretty bad at it. So that’s how I chose it—it chose me!…That’s how I got started with being seduced by mud. It’s a great medium. It’s the most primal, metamorphic material because it changes from rock, to dust, to mud, to something you can form, and then [it] dries out and you bake it or you fire it, and it turns back into stone. So it moves a whole cycle of what material can become. It’s a marvelous material. It’s also very seductive to use—it just feels great and slippery and all of it. It’s great stuff. I recommend it…

IOtA:  How have your relationship with art and your journey as an artist changed over the course of your career?

BD: Well, when I first began, I was a little child—I knew I was going to be an artist in kindergarten, which sounds bizarre to say. But my father was a house-painter, and my mother let us paint with spinach juice and beet juice on brown paper bags, my sister and I, and she’d hang them up on the clothesline in the kitchen. And my father would come home and look at ’em and tell us how wonderful we were. So when I got to kindergarten and… all the way through school, art was my total focus. And then when I went in the army, I had a chance to have experiences that convinced me that that was what I should be doing with my life. So anyway, by the time I was at art school, when I went through high school, which had a marvelous art department… we went to the museums, all the museums in New York City, regularly on the school bus. And I did all kinds of airbrush work and painting and block-printing, the whole works, as a high school student. So I was hooked early. And then I went to art school…my interest has been of such long duration that my changes have been mostly going as kind of a spiral. It’s not a circle where you repeat and go around and around, it’s as you graduate…there’s a marvelous educator named Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, [who] talks about education for the left hand, the other way of knowing, the intuitive way.  There’s a great book by a guy named Benedetto Croce called Aesthetics that says that intuition is the highest form of knowledge, not information or conceptual [didacticism]. So I’ve really been prone to be persuaded by people who feel that the unknown is still largely unknown, and we can find it by working material, and my material is clay. 

So I guess that’s some part of the core that keeps me revved up, that I’m always finding the boundary of finding out things…they’re are moving to me, and they’re moving to other people because they’ve sought my work out over time and wanted to have it in their lives. So art’s not complete until it completes a cycle. You have the maker, and the made, the object or thing, the offering, and then you have the audience. You have persons you are communicating with. So the artist is in community—the idea of the romantic artist in the attic…is a romantic misunderstanding. Artists are really [some] of the persons in the community that get some of the signals about what’s important, just as early as the scientists and philosophers and so on.  And I’m not saying artists as in always physical artists; I think poets and singers and instrumentalists…the whole thing is all the same. Different form, but totally about giving form to the ineffable. It sounds pompous as can be, but I find it very compelling.

IOtA: This last question that I’m going to ask is what I always conclude interviews with.  What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?

BD: That’s a good question! Well, what I would like them to do is to experience it, and I know that sounds corny, but I would like them to touch it. I would like them to respond to its form by… I’ll call it caressing it or searching it out with their eyes closed. I’d like them to understand that it’s about the inside of the inside of things, and it’s about the outside of the outside of things. In other words, I’d like them to use what they feel and touch and see and sense to imagine things that call up experience in their own being that permit them to tune it on it. So I do a lot of different things with different textures and different roughness, I [do] bumps and holes.   I’m interested about open spaces, I’m interested in intimate, closed spaces, I’m interested in transitions from wonderful—like you were sliding down a hill in a sled or down a canyon or into a whirl, into a helix…I think of it almost as psychic physicality that I would like people to have about it. And as they wonder about it, they can wonder if it’s a palace or a temple…or a monument. I give them all names and that’s a little kind of clue to what they might be about.  Right now, I’m making cisterns. A cistern is a vessel that holds some substance for either ritual or for preserving life. That’s either water, or holy water, or rain, or wine… so I’m making cisterns that are for libations and for…symbolic conservation. You can put them in your yard, or you can fill them with things for a party. And I’m having a great time doing it. But I’ve made hanging planters and baptismal fonts and many different kinds of vessels or containers for evoking feelings about being a human being… and my pots about body parts. I’m not a literal artist…I make objects that are about feelings. And I see feelings as touch, and I see it as touching your mind, and I see it as touching your whole spirit, about experience you’ve had to the present when you come to this object…