Visitors to Rick Mahaffey’s one-man show at the Art Gallery at Tacoma Community College could be excused for mistaking the show for an archeological exhibit. Mahaffey’s large, earthy storage jars — which dominate the exhibit — look as if they could have been made centuries ago. That Mahaffey’s pottery has an ancient quality is no accident, since the artist draws much of his inspiration from Japanese pottery emanating from locations known as “the six ancient kilns.”
Named for their regions in Japan, works from each of the six ancient kilns are unique to the pottery tradition of that area. Mahaffey states that he is primarily interested in pottery from the Bizen and Shigaraki areas.
Mahaffey has been hard at work as a potter for decades. He first began to explore the medium in San Francisco, where he grew up. At San Francisco’s City College, he studied with John Whitney, who had been a student of Herbert Sanders, the first potter to obtain a Ph.D. in ceramics and who founded the ceramics program at San Jose State University, where Mahaffey found himself studying a few years later. Sanders (author of the 1967 book “The World of Japanese Ceramics”) had made SJSU a center of interest in Japanese pottery. At SJSU, Mahaffey also studied with the founder of that school’s glass department, Robert Fritz, as well as with the potter James Lovera, known for his volcanic glazes.
In the 1970s, Mahaffey arrived in Tacoma to pursue graduate studies at the University of Puget Sound, and he has been rooted here ever since. At UPS, Mahaffey studied with Carlton Ball and Ken Stevens, two of the pioneers of studio ceramics in the Pacific Northwest. As a long-time professor in TCC’s Art Department, Mahaffey is now a prominent figure in the local ceramics community.
In the mid 90s, Mahaffey was able to split a year-long residency in Japan with Stevens, one of his mentors. This and subsequent interaction with ceramics programs in Japan led to Mahaffey’s becoming a co-founder of the International Society for Ceramic Art Education and Exchange, an organization that has enabled Mahaffey to lead pottery students to participate in ceramics programs in places like China, Kenya, Japan, Turkey, Korea, Mexico and the United Kingdom. During one of his sojourns in Japan, Mahaffey was able to work in the studio of Wasaburo Takahashi, who was designated as a National Living Treasure of Japan in 1963.
For all their rustic, earthy finish, Mahaffey’s big storage jars have a classic shape, a sensual curve with a wide swelling toward the top. His favorite firing method is the Japanese style wood burning kiln called Anagama, in which the fly ash, produced by days of firing, forms a glaze on the unglazed pots or interacts with the glaze applied to other pots. With variables like the type of wood used, the way pots are placed in the kiln, the crew firing the kiln and the clay used to create the pots, the results are always rather unpredictable. Some pots emerge less than remarkable while others emerge as precious treasures.
Mahaffey is a master of many techniques: soda firing, gas firing, saggar firing, raku firing — examples of each are present in his show. Mahaffey has a preference for natural effects and earth tones and seems to avoid making pots with bright colors. Nevertheless, his work is possessed of a wide array of eye-catching surface effects. There are the juicy ash glazes, orange peel textures, dappled effects, drips, streaks, crackles and crusty deposits on pots that were fired down low in the kiln where they mingle with the ash. There are browns, yellows, golds, greenish hues and grays. Some of Mahaffey’s more recent work shows the results of his exploration with “snowflake crackle,” a thick and opaque glaze with a crystalline appearance.
In addition to the big jars, there are dozens of smaller, intimate vessels, many of which are designed and named for use in Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. There are chawan, or tea bowls, as well as other specialized vessels. There are flat platters, dainty sake cups and diminutive soy sauce bottles. Work in the show spans most of Mahaffey’s long career, the oldest piece in the show dating to 1971.
This show is a great chance to get to know the work of one of the great potters of the Northwest. It is worth repeated viewings. The show of Rick Mahaffey’s pottery runs through May 4. An artist’s reception is scheduled for Thursday, April 19 from 4-6 p.m. Mahaffey will give a gallery talk April 27 at 12:30 p.m. For more on the exhibit and the Gallery at TCC, call (253) 460-4306 or visit www.tacomacc.edu/art.