A mere 30 years ago, when I was still a kid, two potters were busy throwing, glazing and firing their work with great vigor. The energy of these early days marked the start of their ascent up the industry’s totem pole.
The potters I’m talking about are Angela Fina and Malcolm Davis – master potters known for their own significant contributions to the field of studio pottery, and both of whom were connected not only as friends and colleagues, but also by the work itself.
Angela and Malcolm’s history goes back as early as 1980. These were the formative years, and a time in which Fina already had 15-plus years of potting experience under her belt. Davis, was a full-time potter (1984) who had first touched clay in 1974, but who had yet to open his first studio — that would come in 1985.
Fina reflects on meeting for the first time, “I can’t remember the year, but it was probably 1980. He knew I was doing a craft fair at Fredericksburg, VA and he drove over and spent the day. He was his exuberant self and I knew right away he would be a good friend.” The two did become good friends and eventually found themselves exhibiting together as invitees at Karen Karnes’ Old Church Exhibit & Sale, in Demarest, NJ in the mid 1980s.
Early on, the friendship took on a quasi-role of teacher and student. Other than a workshop at Lee Art Center, Davis was never, as Fina puts “formally my student”, yet there was a gratuitous exchange of information, originating with Fina, that helped Davis find his voice in clay. This exchange is also directly evident in Malcolm’s work from this timeframe. Said Fina, “Malcolm’s earliest pots were an amalgam of my pots, Cynthia Bringle’s pots and Sandy Simon’s pots. He went on to develop his own pots from that borrowed beginning. He was immensely talented, a quick study, and developed his own wonderful pots as he grew, but the fact that he got good enough to imitate my pots for a while seemed kind of normal in my life.”
By “normal” Fina means the reoccurrence of the normal creative curve that artists follow when developing their own style. Employed as a college ceramics teacher for 16 years and several sabbatical replacement positions (Scripps for Paul Soldner, RIT for Hobart Cowles; twice, and at Miami U. in Athens, Ohio) as well as multiple Penland 8-week concentrations, Fina describes one role as teacher:
“Having had so many students, I was used to beginning students; they got skilled enough being imitators of my work, at least for a while. I never promoted imitation or rewarded imitators but it always happened as a stage they went through, one that I would guide them out of as fast as possible.”
Fina’s work from this early period is faceted porcelain, either glazed in Shino or clear glazed with slip-trail decoration. The latter is a style that not only became popular with collectors, but became signature to Fina’s career during the early to mid 1980s. Once, while visiting the home of Mikhail Zakin, and because of the style’s inclusion into SPA’s archive collection, I quickly recognized an example of this Fina technique holding its rightful spot among other fine works … or so I thought. Upon commenting about how much I admire Fina’s work, Zakin informed me that the covered jam pot I was looking at was indeed made by Davis. Logic would soon follow: If this then is Davis, my next question, naturally, was “what are its origins?”
This question lay dormant for about one year, yet the impetus for connecting this direct visual link between Fina and Davis originates in my persistent quest for information, but in this case, not particularly related to Fina’s faceted ‘80s style– I recently purchased a barium-glazed vase by Fina from a secondary source, and wrote to Fina for particulars. In our conversation, I thought to ask her that question; the one tucked away in the back of my mind, and the one that had me leaning towards the notion that, at one time, there existed some sort of collaborative effort between Fina and Davis.
Ms. Fina obliged and shared with me some fond memories she has of Malcolm. Back then it was one enthusiastic potter sharing what she’d learned, as a potter who was equally enthusiastic, listened. Fina tells of this good interaction:
“He [Davis] poured over my pots and asked a million questions. He also came to the 1983 ACC Baltimore Craft Fair where I was exhibiting the faceted Shino pots, and again, lots of talk and questions. After I switched to clear glazed porcelain faceted pots with white slip trailing he also spent a day here at my studio on his way to Vermont, where he owned some property.”
The switch to clear glazed pots commenced Shino as an “era” for Fina, but for Davis, Fina’s work in Shino was a precursor of sorts, an introduction in discussion to a glaze that would eventually capture his full attention and subsequently replace the slip-trailed wares that comprised his production line of porcelain work up to about 1988. Yet letting go for Fina wasn’t so much a decision of wanting to, but rather was done out of necessity.
Shino glazed porcelain was well-placed in her heart, yet collectors were just not inclined to buy such wares at the time. Fina explains the dynamic that led to her putting Shino down, and Davis picking it up:
“I was ahead of my time and no one except other potters was interested [in Shino]. I needed to sell enough to make a living (no spouse, no “good” divorce, no trust fund… I had to support myself) and Malcolm didn’t have to, so he was able to keep making Shinos even though he couldn’t sell enough at first to even support a studio. Later, when he developed the carbon trapping he could sell a lot more at much higher prices. But he was never dependent on his pottery sales to support himself and so he had the freedom to make the pots he wanted to make.”
The path taken by Malcolm Davis from the early point of producing Shino glazed porcelain wares and onward to his own unique discovery is all good history, and all to the agreement of Fina herself. The match in style that typified both artists at one time is also good history, and offers a unique view into the mindset and gregarious nature of potters who openly share information with fellow potters so that they may reach new heights.
When looking at Malcolm Davis’ career, Fina proudly recognizes her input, and humbly acknowledges the full scope of his career, “I don’t take credit, except as one of his early influences, for the wonderful pots he made in his prime.”
And the feeling of admiration was mutual.
In 2010, SPA arrived at Old Church to cover the annual event, and also to grab an opportunity to meet Angela Fina. Due to health reasons, Fina wasn’t in attendance, but Davis, who wasn’t exhibiting that year, was present. Acting as an unofficial representative for Fina, I saw, firsthand, his appreciation and respect for Angela Fina as both woman and potter. I asked Davis his opinion regarding Fina’s career accomplishments – mind you, I didn’t know of the full scope of their friendship – only to receive a 30 minute discourse on Fina’s forms, glazes and impeccable knowledge as a technician. In retrospect, I see that the discussion was also Davis paying high-homage to his good friend Angela, and today, I have a new and deeper appreciation for that cherished conversation, and for Malcolm Davis himself.
c. 2012 — StudioPotterArchive
Vintage images of Angela Fina and her work used with permission by Angela Fina, c 2012.