We are One: A Tribute to Bill Grace
Pottery has it’s own language and inherent laws, and words have theirs, and neither can be bound by the other. Nevertheless a certain amount of translation and interpretation is possible provided a potter can find the words, or a writer insight into pottery.
Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book.
It is a daunting task to find the words to convey the contribution of the life and work of Bill Grace. Particularly for Bill, these two – life and work – were bound up in one another. His art projected his philosophy of life. For Bill, to be an artist was to be a humanitarian. Environmentalist, teacher, philosopher, craftsman – one was inseparable from the others.
It was Shuah, Bill’s wife, who suggested the title for this memorial exhibition. « We Are One » was a favourite phrase which summed up Bill’s belief in collective social responsibility, an obligation to care for one another and the planet we occupy communally. It was through the creation of his art that this philosophy was so eloquently expressed and through its dissemination that it was shared. This exhibition focuses on Bill’s pottery as well as his paintings and sculptures and the collectors who acquired his work. Collectors often acquired multiple pieces of Bill’s work over a number of years. This is evidence of the way in which the artist touched the lives of his admirers through his work and it is through this work that his spirit and philosophy continue to radiate.
Walter Benjamin has described collecting as a process of renewal. The collector has a mysterious relationship to the objects he or she possesses, one which does not emphasize their utilitarian function, but rather values and loves them as “the stage of their fate.”
The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership – for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object. In this circumscribed area, then, it may be surmised how the great physiognomists – and collectors are the physiognomists of the world of objects – turn into interpreters of fate. One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.
Collectors speak of the first Bill Grace pot they acquired or they refer to the particular exhibition or a special day in Bill’s studio when an object was first seen. The ceramic pieces in particular are preciously handled by their owners with the knowledge that they could never be replaced. Collectors pick up a work, rotating it slowly in their hands to reveal the changing effects of the glazed surface or the subtle asymmetry. The studied admiration shared between the collector and a visitor is similar to that exchange first shared with the artist in his studio. Bill was the humblest of artists, but the opening of the kiln was an event and you could learn much about what to look for in a ceramic piece by watching the artist as he became re-acquainted with his newly fired works.
The relationship between a gifted artist and a knowing collector is an invaluable one. Bill genuinely enjoyed people and loved to share – whether it was conversation, music, a good meal, a happy moment, or the admiration of a newly fired pot. His work was a way of connecting to people. In his essay written for this exhibition, Stanley Greaves describes how friends visiting the artist’s studio needed to be cautious when admiring a pot since this would often be offered as a gift. Bill had a collaborative spirit. Goldie and David Spieler at Earthworks, Stanley Greaves, Alison Chapman Andrews Heidi Berger all shared space and time and projects with Bill over the years. He was also a generous and enlightened teacher. He once initiated a collective project with his students to design a chair using found objects littering the studios and corridors of the Division of Fine Arts at the Barbados Community College, solving two problems at once – a scarcity of traditional working materials, and a scarcity of chairs. The mode of production took on a moral imperative; the creative process could solve real-life challenges.
Since the work that went into the kiln was inevitably different from the one that came out after firing, ceramics in particular held a mysterious beauty in its ability to assert a certain autonomy beyond the artist’s craftsmanship and technical control. In this way, he could share an admiration for the work with the viewer that was somehow removed as the maker. He spoke of the accidental gifts, the marks of process embracing the impossibility of controlling all facets of the creation.
This translated into the coral stone sculptures. Bill could admire the same qualities of texture, form and colour in the rocks. The process of selection became an artistic act that would include juxtaposing one stone with others or with ceramic forms. Initially Bill would hesitate if the work of art came to him too easily but he also knew to trust his own sensibilities. The coral works quickly grew in scale and monumentality. Pools of melted glass, cast stone, fired and glazed clay all celebrated a process of metamorphosis that lay at the heart of Bill’s work. It contained an elemental symbiosis with nature. The work paid homage to beauty in nature and also advocated for its preservation.
Collectors often bring unique insights to the work because of the opportunity to live with the objects. Artist Ras Akyem Ramsay once observed that Bill’s pots appeared to be larger on the inside than the outside. What does a pot do? It contains and preserves and protects. A pot molds and harnesses space. It is simultaneously sturdy but breakable. Bill’s ceramics reference something beyond the quotidian, gesturing towards the cosmic or spiritual. This is most visibly evident in the artist’s fascination with the ancient forms of the mandala and the obelisk.
The mandala is a ritual and spiritual symbol representing the cosmos or universe. In various traditions, mandalas could be used by practitioners as a tool for spiritual guidance, to focus attention, as an aid to meditation or to establish a sacred space. The obelisk is another form dating back to the ancient world, particularly Ancient Egypt. Associated with the sun god Ra, it was used to mark the entrance ways to temples. Both the mandalas and the obelisks reference elemental forces of energy as both radiating and entropic. They speak of continuity and endurance across time, an observation that is archeological in its unearthing, revealed as ancient and reborn in the now.
Alison Chapman recalls the first work she purchased from Bill, a large blue bowl: “I was undecided over spending that $35. Beware future collectors. That was the most difficult, and after that I as off. It wasn’t just a second as he said: it was a trap.” Ultimately what Bill was able to do was speak through his work about the inherent laws, not just of pottery or art but of existence, endurance and change. The viewer pauses for a moment to contemplate these things. But the collector lives with them. The nuances continue to unfold in the changing light of time. And in this way, Bill speaks to us still.
 Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 60-61.