Hooked on Clay

Longtime TMA staffer John McNulty at long last steps into the solo art spotlight

John McNulty claims he became a ceramicist because he couldn't draw.

"I wanted to be an artist," he says, but he was discouraged about his drawing prowess, or lack thereof, when he was an art student at the State University of New York at Potsdam—so discouraged, in fact, that he added a second major and planned to get certified as a social-studies teacher.

Then, one day, he had a chance encounter with clay.

"I happened to go downstairs in the art building and saw someone throwing a pot," he remembers. "'Ah!' I thought, 'That looks like a skill that can be learned.'

"I fell in love with ceramics. I got hooked on clay."

That was 40 years ago; McNulty has been making ceramic art ever since. He recently opened a sumptuous show of 38 wall pieces at Tucson's Temple Gallery.

Veering between functional and fine art, every piece is a mirror that works, but each has a frame that's brilliantly colored and adorned with strange and fanciful McNulty creations. Roses and grapes, angels and skulls, turkeys and flamingos dance across his lively 3-D surfaces, as do the moon, the sun and the stars.

A Bacchus head grins out of the wreath "Grapes of Wrath I," a celebration of the grape in circular ceramic. A hapless Ophelia is about to slip beneath the glassy surface of her mirror in the eponymous "Ophelia," while joyous roses tumble over each other with abandon in the "TT's Roses" series.

The colors of the glazes that drench these objects are extraordinary. A swoon-inducing shade called orange juice—a pale orange tinged with peach—is paired with solar yellow in "TT's Roses I." The charming roses, burning with the hot shades of the sun, are entwined around a square mirror, curling and overlapping and pushing their way into the third dimension.

"From the Garden," a horizontal stretch of lawn wrapped around a rectangular mirror, has the rich greens and pale pinks and yellows of summer in New York's far north, where McNulty grew up. In "DOD" and "The Katrinas," skulls and skeletons inspired by the recent season of the Day of the Dead are deathly mementos mori in charcoal and red.

These glistening pieces are not so much sculptures as "paintings in clay," as the artist aptly explains.

Given McNulty's mastery of his medium, it's hard to believe that this is his first solo exhibition. His works have appeared in group shows of all sorts over the decades, and ceramics-lovers in the know go to a Christmas sale at his house every year. The real reason for the neglect is that instead of promoting his own career, McNulty has spent the last three decades lionizing other artists in town.

For most of the last 30 years, he's been manager of the Tucson Museum of Art's museum shop, an enterprise that under his direction is a superb crafts gallery, light years away from a gift shop. McNulty curates, offering premium exhibition space to jewelers, glass artists, fiber artists, painters in tin, ceramicists and the occasional painter. During the museum's troubled years a decade or more ago, McNulty's store—and its artists—were the best things going in the museum.

He also worked as a janitor at the museum, long ago, and once curated its Arizona Biennial. He even directed the museum's school for a time, bustling over his young charges like a kindly mother hen. (Years ago, when I was a stay-at-home mom, my daughter went to the school. One frantic day during the blazing summer, my son fell ill, and director McNulty was kind enough to bring my daughter out to my car himself after school, so I wouldn't have to dislodge my sick toddler from his car seat.)

He knew about kids, he says, because he was the oldest of seven in his Irish Catholic family, back home in Watertown, north of Syracuse and south of the St. Lawrence River.

McNulty left the frozen country in 1972, traveling with a group of artist friends to Tucson. "One woman was doing grad work at the UA," he says. Early on, he settled into an old adobe in Dunbar Spring, a sprawling place that was once a boarding house for railroad workers. Now elaborately decorated and restored, the house has been featured in design magazines.

His kiln is at the house, and whenever he has a spare moment from the museum, he's out in the studio working clay. He's been fashioning the pieces for the Temple show since August.

His first step in the complicated process of making the mirrored wall pieces is alighting on the right found object to use as a mold. (He also makes thrown pots on a wheel, but they're not in this show.)

The hearts in a series of Valentine pieces at the Temple, all pink and red and white, were cookie-cutters, he explains, and the abstract designs in his "Out of India" works came from patterned picture frames.

He rolls out the clay, and then presses the picture frame or the cookie-cutter into its yielding surface, eking out patterned crevices or slicing out a heart. Then he pours latex or plastic into the shaped clay, to create a mold "negative," and fires it up into the kiln to harden it.

Once the mold is ready, he fills it with clay and fires that up, until, finally, he's got an array of white ceramic hearts or roses or ropes or angels. Once they're dry, he paints each one with three layers of commercial glaze, allowing time to dry in between coats.

Then the colored pieces go back into the kiln, where they're subjected to a heat of 1,400 to 1,800 degrees.

He makes one piece at a time, and though he keeps notes of his molds and colors, no two works are exactly alike. He builds up the layers around his thrift-shop mirrors, rose upon rose, heart upon heart, covering up seams as he goes.

"Gluing it together is the last stage," he says. "That's where the variability comes in. And that's where the artistry is."

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