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McIntosh turns 100, shines in AMOCA retrospective

One of Claremont’s most acclaimed residents turned 100 on September 11, an occasion that has been marked with fitting jubilation.
On his big day, newly-minted centenarian Harrison McIntosh was feted with a party at Mt. San Antonio Gardens, were he lives with his wife Marguerite.  
And this past Saturday, the ceramic artist held court at the opening of the American Museum of Ceramic Art’s retrospective, “HM100: a Century Through the Life of Harrison McIntosh. ”
The event drew more than 500 friends and fans, eager to see 100 works by Mr. McIntosh and to wish the artist a happy birthday. If you missed the celebrations, you can still enjoy the exhibit, which is on view through October 26.
Earlier this week, the COURIER stopped by AMOCA to meet Mr. McIntosh. He was accompanied by Marguerite and his daughter Catherine McIntosh, who is on the board of directors for the Claremont Museum of Art (CMA).
The show is housed in an airy space in the museum, beneath an enormous mosaic mural created by Millard Sheets and his workshop assistants. It includes three vignettes curated by the CMA and featuring works by “The Four Friends”—Mr. McIntosh and fellow artists ceramicist Rupert Deese, sculptural painter James Hueter and furniture designer and woodworker Sam Maloof. Two of these living spaces, which epitomize mid-century grace, also feature the vibrant abstract paintings of Claremont painter Karl Benjamin.  
Mr. McIntosh made himself at home in one of these vignettes, ensconced in a Maloof chair drawn from his own collection. He has lost much of his vision in recent years, but his interest in the art world remains unwavering.
“They all look like silhouettes, so I don’t see any actual pieces,” Mr. McIntosh said.
When asked if he had felt the works in order to reacquaint himself, he waved his hand dismissively. “I know what they feel like already. I made all of them.”
A few of the works on view are sculptures but the majority of his work consists of one thing. The viewer inevitably becomes curious: Why the fascination with vessels?
“Why was I dumb enough to keep making the same thing for 60 years?” he asked. “It’s taken me 100 years to learn.”
“He never duplicated the same form,” Marguerite added. “He followed his inspiration, one piece at a time.”
Mr. McIntosh’s process is an intuitive one, he explained.
“I’ve never made a drawing of a piece I’m planning to make,” he said. “I may do a lot of sketches suggesting shapes, but I’m designing pieces while they are on the wheel.”
Mr. McIntosh’s latest show is in the neighboring city of Pomona but the story it tells is steeped in the cultural history of Claremont. He was one of a number of artists who, after military service in World War II, studied art at the Claremont Graduate School. Classes were held at Scripps, under the guidance of artist and architect Millard Sheets.
Mr. McIntosh made Claremont his home, sharing a studio with Mr. Deese for decades. At first, the ceramic artists’ headquarters were a stone building on Foothill Boulevard, across the street from Wolfe’s Market in a spot now occupied by the Claremont School of Theology. In 1958, they moved their studio to a space next to the McIntoshes’ new home in Padua Hills.
Mr. McIntosh liked to listen to classical music while he worked and Mr. Deese preferred radio plays and theater, but they got along fine, particularly because Mr. McIntosh was an early riser while Mr. Deese was a night owl.
Mr. McIntosh demurs when he is asked whether he considers himself prolific. However, looking around at the AMOCA show, which is comprised of only a small sampling of his output, it is evident that he has managed to create an astounding amount of art.
“He was not a production potter, making lots of plates and cups,” Catherine said. “But many years he created more than 300 pieces, and in some he made more than 500.”
One reason he was able to accomplish so much is that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he never opted for a day job. He taught for one summer semester at Otis Art Institute in 1955, but quickly concluded that professorship was not his calling.
“I’ve been extremely privileged,” Mr. McIntosh said. “All artists have to be teachers.”
Given that you are still healthy enough to enjoy yourself, old age is a privilege in itself. Mr. McIntosh took a moment to reflect on what it is like to be a hundred.
“You don’t feel much different than you felt last week,” he said.
“His heart is better than mine,” 90-year-old Marguerite noted.
Asked if any of the pieces on view at AMOCA have a particular place in his heart, Mr. McIntosh shook his head.
“I don’t have any favorites,” he said. “I always make every piece the best I can.”
Marguerite, however, pointed out one piece of which she says her husband is especially proud. “The Race,” which Mr. McIntosh created during a period when he began working with metal bases, features two stoneware disks seemingly careening down a chromed steel ramp.
Sometimes family members disagree. Mr. McIntosh says that in his sculptural work, his aim has simply been to create a dichotomy in which a piece’s solidity is belied by seeming buoyance. Marguerite believes he had a grander vision.
“I think he was inspired by the cosmos in his sculpture, the feeling of space, weight, vertical movement,” she said. “There is a feeling of weightlessness, as though they are floating in the air.”
Mr. McIntosh’s more sculptural work has included some public art pieces, including one that is still in Claremont today. The bank building currently occupied by California Bank & Trust is home to a large-scale creation by Mr. McIntosh. He was approached by the architect, who asked the ceramic artist to create an enormous set of wind chimes to be hung in a tower he was building. The chimes couldn’t be made from clay, Mr. McIntosh said, because the material is too fragile. Nonetheless, he took on the project, commissioning two metal chimes, eight and 10 feet long, respectively, from a company in Pomona. He bolted large ceramic disks onto the chimes, which he had tuned by a friend who was an expert carillon maker.
For 10 years, the chimes rang gently when the wind blew in the Claremont Village, but then the metal chain from which Mr. McIntosh’s creation is suspended rusted.
The need for this piece to be repaired resonates strongly today, at a time when Claremont has just concluded a new Public Art Master Plan. One aspect of the plan, according to David Shearer, director of Claremont Heritage, involves taking stock of the public art that already exists in Claremont. It is a task that he said should include an inventory of significant works of art that are mounted in private spaces and businesses.
“We’re primarily thinking of new installations, but it makes sense that we do revive and celebrate our older existing pieces as well,” he said. “There are probably companies or even foundations that might be willing to support some of that. Heritage certainly wants to be involved in that process of helping to identify and develop strategies for restoring and celebrating some of these pieces.”
Since he took the helm of Claremont Heritage more than two years ago, Mr. Shearer, whose background is in architecture, has been instrumental in the organization’s increasing promotion of Claremont’s rich history of mid-century buildings and art. Naturally, he is a fan of Mr. McIntosh’s work.
“His process is very mathematical, from an engineering standpoint,” Mr. Shearer said. “The way he works on his pieces, structurally, is very interesting. His attention to detail and being able to measure the thickness of the walls of the vessels is just amazing.
“He is such a wonderful talent,” he continued. “He brings together the right and left sides of the brain and creates something that is very beautiful but very functional.”
You are invited to “HM100: A Century Through the Life of Harrison McIntosh” during museum hours, which are from noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. AMOCA is also open on the second Saturday of each month, during Downtown Pomona’s Artwalk, from noon to 9 p.m.
Guests can also visit AMOCA and the McIntosh collection on the next Family Free Day, set for Saturday, September 27 from 1 to 4 p.m. Space is limited on free days, so visitors are asked to RSVP at areyes@amoca.org.
The American Museum of Ceramic Art is located at 399 N. Garey Ave. in Pomona. For information, call (909) 865-3146 or visit amoca.org.
—Sarah Torribio
storribio@claremont-courier.com

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