The first time I saw Judith Salomon's ceramics work was back in 1990, around the time she was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize. I awoke to the more angular possibilities of my morning cup of joe. This past April I finally acquired my very own Salomon: It is a sharply angled, empowering cup that accompanies me into my morning writing and studio sessions. When I heard about Beyond Function, a retrospective of her artwork, I immediately tuned in.
Judith Salomon is a badass in the mud world; containers and containment are her thing. She started working with clay and making pots after taking a class when she was 16 years old. "It may be a corny thing to say, but it spoke to me," the artist said about her medium in her Cleveland Arts Prize video. The ceramicist's works are all hand-slab-built and functional. Her work is in private collections as well as in more than 20 major public collections spanning the globe, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and the National Museum of History in Taipei, Taiwan, as well as the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Walking into Beyond Function, we are hailed by Salomon's ceramics from the 1970s. "Very few people have seen this work in Cleveland, as it has never been exhibited here," says Christopher Richards, curator and collections manager at ARTneo. "She always wanted to make something that is functional, even though it didn't always function the way she wanted it to; but the idea of a functional piece was always important to her."
It is easy to recognize the influence of Japanese packaging in this early work. The artist uses rope and raffia to bind the pieces together. Integrating cast paper pulp and clay, Salomon exorcises her interest in mass and weight in five sculptures that are deceptively light. Earth tones, the colors of soil and concrete, dominate. They are examples of the tones of the times.
The evolution from neutrals to layered color, and from rounded edges to razor sharp ones, transitions us right into the 1980s. In 1977 Salomon began teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she was not only influential, but also influenced by how her students were using color. Salomon started creating cake platters and experimenting with form and shapes. Her studio was in the Flats where she observed and studied the architectural elements outside. This atmosphere became an erector set for her Stadium Bowls. Again emphasizing weight and illusion, the bowls, which resemble a stadium or arena, are hollow and in two parts, almost creating a cake to hang atop the platter. "Large White Vase" and "Knotched Rectangular Vase" are both over two feet tall and exude the nostalgia of jelly nougats, those little white candies riddled with chewy fruit jellies. Again, we see the influence of color and architecture that Salomon is known for.
Pulling together a retrospective of an artist's work can be daunting, but this is not the case with Salomon, whose record keeping was key to successfully pulling together the artworks. Garth Clark, who had represented Salomon's work in his galleries in New York, Kansas City and Los Angeles for about 10 years, advised her to make sure she kept at least one example of each series she created, a keen piece of advice she passed on to her students.
The artist retired in 2015 and her former students still hold her in the highest regard. "She is my clay mother," says Brian Sarama, adjunct professor of ceramics and a ceramic technician at Cuyahoga Community College. "Not only was she willing to help during class hours, she was more than willing to go out of her way to do anything we needed. Her generosity knows no bounds. There was a period of six months where she made me a key for her studio and let me work there free of charge, just so I could keep working. She got me to push myself and take risks and continues to do so."
Val Grossman, founder and director at BRICK Ceramic + Design Studio, echoes those sentiments. "Judith is a guiding light in the studio. Her insights were always, and continue to be, spot on. She reminds me to edit, and I pass down her advice to my students, that sometimes the less you touch clay, the better. She continues to be a mentor in my life and career and genuinely cares about her students. In school she had that intuition to ask us how we were doing outside the studio and knew that it affected what we were producing. She is such a gem to have in Cleveland."
Beyond Function leaves us wanting the artist's influence to continue. As the artist, herself, says, "If you really want to be a practicing artist, it's that you're really never done."