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Friday, January 20, 2017
David Batz (1944-1994)
David Batz (1944-1994)
The Man Who “Gave Up Time Forever.
By Chris Glaser
David Batz scaled the steps to the 246-foot-high summit of the Pyramid of the Sun in the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan. Like his trips to England to study the Druid megaliths at Stonehenge and to France to examine the Paleolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, the annual spring-break trek to Mexico’s religious temples offered an “energy of nature” that he could incorporate into his artwork. The globetrotting stints of research resulted in a career that produced some of the most celebrated masterpieces of earthenware and porcelain ceramics ever designed by a Northeast Ohio artist.
In the fall of 1962 -- a month before his 18th birthday -- David started to take classes in the five-year architecture program of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Crestfallen with the length of time it took for an architect to design a building, he switched his major to ceramics a year later because of the faster speed it took to transfer the images in his head to solid works of art. Clay became his best friend “to create an object, freely alter it at will and freeze it permanently into final form,” he wrote in a 1990 news release for his installation, "Frozen in Fire."
David received his undergraduate degree in 1968 and accepted a two-year teaching fellowship in the school’s Master of Fine Arts program. Under the tutorial wings of master ceramicist Norm Schulman, he developed a passion for East Asian art, especially that of Sumi-e ink painters of China, Japan and Korea. The way they used few brush strokes to create a single image fascinated him. Once he perfected his own technique with a Sumi-e brush, he routinely decorated his pieces of clay pottery with simple insect and floral designs.
Armed with a Master’s degree after his 1970 graduation, David set up stakes in Northeast Ohio as the new ceramics professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He also established and taught at the school’s satellite project in France, the Atelier Garrigues, in Garrigues-et-Sainte-Eulalie, in the Provence region north of the French Riviera and the Mediterranean coastline. There, in the summer of 1971, he stopped wearing a wristwatch. “He told me, ‘I walked out on the Pont-du-Gard one night and tossed my watch into the river. I gave up time forever,’”Cleveland Heights artist Robert Jursinski wrote in a 2000 tribute. “With the philosophers and mystics he admired -- with Buber, Camus and Ouspensky -- David believed that time was the opponent of life. He had so much to do.”
To say the least. Upon his return to his classroom duties for the Autumn semester at the institute, David also displayed his art pieces at public exhibits, beginning with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show. Between 1971 and 1992, his porcelain, stoneware and copper-glazed works captivated fans at the show because of their practicality. Juries awarded him special-mention honors for his ceramics in 1972 and 1976 and for his sculptures in 1983.“They felt good, they looked good, and they had a way of connecting with numerous kinds of people. Yet, they were not so delicate as to prohibit daily use and daily enjoyment,” said Stuart Zolten, who owned the Omni Gallery in the Arcade on Euclid Avenue in the mid-’80s. “I have known few other people who had his level of enthusiasm, energy and total happiness with the art of the potter.”
David left his teaching position in 1974 for the independent life of a studio artist. He continued to present his work at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Museum of the College of Wooster. He also met silkscreen printmaker Susan Fiori in 1979, when she started to book him to exhibit in her eponymous gallery at 2072 Murray Hill Rd. in Little Italy. The showplace later provided the backdrop for a pivotal point in his career.
He experimented with polychromed stoneware and unglazed porcelain to create his jaw-dropping "Totemic Structures" project. Inspired by both Native American totem poles and the Holy Roman Empire columns that he saw in Southern Europe, the whimsical pieces -- some standing more than three feet high -- featured geometric shapes, including cones, cubes and circles. “His work was so different, just so imaginative and spiritual and extremely well-spun,” said fellow potter Ann Caywood Brown, a five-year president of the Cleveland Artists Foundation in the ’90s. “I was impressed because I was never able to achieve that level of sensitivity and exuberance.”
David continued to show his ceramic and porcelain pieces around Northeast Ohio, from the Beachwood Museum of Art and FAVA Gallery in Oberlin to the Beck Center for the Cultural Arts in Lakewood and Art Space in the heart of downtown Cleveland. He also exhibited beyond Ohio’s borders with shows in New York, Chicago and suburban Baltimore. “Collectors were enthralled with the beautiful functional ware that he created during that time period,” Brown said. “(He) educated many art lovers and collectors about the aesthetic qualities to be found when the shape of the object is wed perfectly to the glaze that is used to enhance it.”
David’s boon year came in 1985, when he applied for and won a $3,875 grant from the Ohio Arts Council. He put the money to good use by producing three separate bodies of work: the "Magma Series" of stoneware pots; the "Reflection Series" of porcelain platters, bowls and vases; and the "Guardian Series" of porcelain vessels adorned with the faces of ghosts that were inspired by images drawn by his nephews and nieces. If the challenge to finish the trio of projects by the end of the grant year wasn’t enough, he also was elected to a two-year term as the president of the Murray Hill Area Arts Association in Little Italy.
In 1986, David suffered a blow to his creativity when a doctor diagnosed him with a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a debilitating disease that weakens the muscles in the hand. The physician even told him to stop throwing clay pots on his spinning wheel. The order only put David in search of another medium. He settled on abaca paper.
Made from the dried leaves of a banana plant that’s native to the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra, abaca is similar to clay in that its durability and flexibility allow an artist to shape it into functional items such as vacuum and tea bags. Its rope-like fibers also provide the sturdiness to manufacture heavier goods like clothing and carpeting. And the best part for David is that abaca shrinks when it’s in the drying process. “It was a medium that suited him because it had sculptural qualities akin to those of clay,” curator Rota Sackerlotzky of Shaker Heights said. “Flower vases, abstract images, talking animals, and animated cooking pots soon materialized on sheets of handmade paper.”
The "Odyssey Series" of glazed platters and impressed earthenware marked one of David’s most ambitious projects. Begun in 1988, the collection included pieces with spiritual titles like “Buddha” and “Madonna and Child.” Each part of the series addressed his fears for the environment. “It deals with our planet, Mother Earth,” he wrote. “We have abused this planet -- the air, the water, the soil -- and this series represents a pledge to the planet to help heal civilization’s wounds.”
Two years later, as David continued to add to the Odyssey anthology, he worked on his "Mad Hatter Series," an assortment of brightly glazed tea sets and vases with oversized spouts and handles that “Alice would find on the other side of the looking glass,” he said. He also began a four-year relationship with Case Western Reserve University to teach ceramics classes in its art studio. And his schedule of public exhibits seemed nonstop, with shows at places like the Valley Art Center in Chagrin Falls, the Kent State University Gallery and the Sandusky Cultural Art Center. David returned to throwing clay in 1991 after a five-year respite. The reunion between artist and technique resulted in his next series, "New Functional Stoneware," the following year with a freshly made set of colorful platters, tiles and teapots. His regular clientele clamored for his latest pieces. “He was always a half-step away from selling $1,000 pieces to selling $10,000 pieces,” Mark Hoffman, a friend and attorney, told the "Plain Dealer" in 1994. Late 1992 and 1993 were spent producing proofs of electrostatic and photostatic prints of his "Odyssey" collection. As part of the "Odyssey Structures" package, he planned to use the two-dimensional graphics as background settings for a new earthenware series that spotlighted ancient Norse runes.
David made his last trip abroad in the summer of 1994 to vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. At brunch on the morning of Thursday, June 23, David collapsed and died of sudden myocardial infarction, or, in layman’s terms, a massive heart attack. He wouldn’t complete his two final commissioned pieces -- the doors to the arches at both St. Alban Episcopal Church on Euclid Heights Boulevard in Cleveland Heights and the Temple Israel Ner Tamid on Lander Road in Mayfield Heights. His death sent his Cleveland contemporaries into deep mourning. “He was someone you would see at every event,” Brown said. “We were pretty shocked. He was such a social, sweet, nice person. And that’s hard to come by.”
During the summer of 2000, the Cleveland Artists Foundation staged a three-month exhibit of David’s art at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Billed as "David Batz: An Impassioned Journey," the 85-piece retrospective included prints, pottery and sculptures from such collections as the "Odyssey" and "Mad Hatter" series. “There is much to see in the various iconography presented and much to interpret,” wrote Christine Fowler Shearer, the foundation’s executive director, in the introduction of an accompanying 56-page catalog. “While Batz was a potter by choice, it is our hope that all who see this retrospective will leave with a greater understanding of David Batz, the creator.”
Freelance arts critic Charles Yannapoulos didn’t quite see it that way. In a review published in "Cleveland Scene" magazine, he wrote that David’s work was “lamentable,” “insubstantial," and “tired.” He analogized the artist as part of a psychedelic movement of the late-1960s, “with an overlay of Eastern philosophy, topped by a heaping dose of Jungian philosophy.” “Their mixture of high and low, of idealism and pessimism, was a response to the cultural ferment of the time,” he explained in his critique. “If the mainstream art world didn’t really take it seriously, other young people did. And they liked to see this stuff on album covers and on the posters that they hung in their college dorm rooms: Art to get stoned to.”
Yannapolous further trashed the exhibit as “a disappointment.” He pinned adjectives like “slapdash” and “uncaring” on David’s body of work. “During a career that spanned more than 20 years, it doesn’t seem that his vision became deeper or richer,” he railed. “It’s a faded notion…that everything an artist touches is of some value, just because he has touched it. Perhaps, this was Batz’s view.”
Curator Sackerlotzky couldn’t have disagreed more with Yannapoulos’ assessment. She summed up the pieces in the display as “haunting,” “narrative,” and “powerful.” Above all else, they exemplified David’s objective to incorporate symbolism into his art to “heal our decaying civilization.” “This group of works documents not only Batz’s preoccupation with the riddle of the universe ruled by the dynamic tension between opposing forces, at once creative and destructive, but also his striving to bring the opposites into a life-preserving, harmonious balance,” Sackerlotzky said. “As an artist, Batz felt obligated to bring to our awareness the problems cultural development and civilization caused for the health of our planet, Earth.”