North Coast Journal


Blurred lines of reality

by Cathy Ray Pierson

Louis Marak is a study in perfection, so it's a bit of a surprise that one of this sculptor's favorite texturing tools is a combination whisk broom/ice scraper found in many cars.

"(It lets you) open your beer, clean ice off your windshield and texture clay, all with the same tool," he said.

Marak's ceramic studio is as pristine as a clay studio can be. His colored slips -- watered down clay in a liquid form -- are arranged in neat little rows according to the palette, and the huge collection of tiles colored with Duncan and Amaco glazes is cataloged according to product number. He keeps copious notes on each firing for future reference.

Marak's sculptures shimmer with movement. The mesmerizing trompe l'oeil treatment of the sculpture is a symphony of textures, shades, humor and color. What's real and unreal is merely perceptual with Marak's work.

Marak is not just a studio sculptor: Since 1969 he also has taught art as a professor at Humboldt State University. He came to both HSU and to ceramics in a roundabout way.

He grew up in Shawnee, Okla., and went to St. Gregory's junior college, majoring in business administration.

"I really didn't know what I wanted to do, but my cousin, whose name is also Louis Marak (and who also is an artist), encouraged me to consider art school. I went to the University of Illinois for industrial design, assuming that it would have some commonality with business and art. One of my required classes was in ceramics or pottery."

His teachers encouraged him to explore ceramics as a profession and to enroll at their alma mater, Alfred University in New York, for graduate school. There Marak received his master's degree and began teaching at Keuka College in 1967.

Richard Shaw, a Bay Area ceramist, was a classmate of Marak's at Alfred, and turned Marak's eyes toward California.

"Through (Shaw), I became more aware of the kinds of things happening with clay on the West Coast, and I was anxious to move to California to be closer to these influences," Marak said.

He interviewed for the HSU job while attending a College Art Association Conference.

"Due to university budget constraints, my wife, Noelle, and I moved out here in the fall of 1969 without ever seeing the place. We have never once regretted our decision," said Marak.

Along with Reese Bullen, Marak was hired to bring something other than wheel throwing to HSU's art curriculum. Since Bullen retired, the university's ceramics faculty has been comprised of Marak, Charles Di Costanzo, Jim Crawford and Keith Schneider.

Marak's whimsical designs come from the desire to put two-dimensional images on three-dimensional forms.

"I look for things that are out of place, or out of sync. I like to draw, paint and sculpt, and in the process I realize my ideas allow me to involve all of these activities," he said.

The meanings conveyed by these elements through allusion and insinuation are a factor in Marak's work. He's interested in the way people interpret ordinary objects, and how the perceived meanings of these objects can change, especially when the objects are placed in uncommon situations. This dichotomy creates the illusionism for which his work is known.

"Illusionism has a strong influence on my work in that it blurs the lines between what is true or real and what you can convince the viewer could be true or real. My work is about the subjectivity of objects," he said.

In his Freshwater studio last summer he devoted five weeks to a piece he called "Red Rose Water."

He began with a full size 19 x 24 drawing, the size of the slabs he will use. The clay slabs were rolled out onto plaster slabs that were textured with wrinkled aluminum foil. This produced the appearance of iron and the effect of a low relief.

Using the drawing as a template, Marak traced it with a wooden tool, embedding the design into the clay. He defined the lines and cut the slabs into the basic shape of the piece.

With the aid of a bucket of water and a Clorox bottle, Marak manipulated the first two of the half-inch thick slabs together and joined them to the base. He scored each edge before the assembly and used slip as glue. At the end of his work day, he sprayed the piece with water and covered it with plastic to keep it damp enough to resume the next day. (Each piece takes about a week to dry.)

Two hours into the piece, the basic form was almost assembled. At this point Marak climbed atop his work table and used a small flashlight hanging from his neck to see the bottom of the piece. He extruded coils made from the same clay body and added them to the bottom and sides of the final section to reinforce the joints of the vertical and horizontal walls.

He then used a sculpting knife to carefully carve away or build up the design. Any additions are built separately and attached after they are leather-hard.

Working with a knife, a bucket of slip, and an elephant-ear sponge, Marak has made about 100 sculptures this way in the past 10 years. He feels he has honed his work to a finer degree. The assembly is the fastest part of the process, while glazing and staining take more time.

While the piece was still leather-hard, he applied a porcelain slip colored with Mason stain. This gave Marak his first layer of color. When dry, the stain was wiped off and the entire piece bisque-fired to about 1,800 Fahrenheit. He then applied a black stain to bring out all the surface texture, and sponged on the final two layers of color. The piece was fired to set the colors.

Marak airbrushed the darker values throughout the piece to create the illusion of shadows.

Marak's work is represented by the Dorothy Weiss Gallery in San Francisco and is included in numerous group exhibits at museums in this country and abroad. Included are the American Crafts Museum in New York City, the Renwick Gallery of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., the Everson Museum in Syracuse, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the National Museum of Jakarta, Indonesia, and the Suntory Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan.

His work is also in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the Smits Collection and has been auctioned by Sotheby's, New York.

"I consider the final stage of the creative process to be a public exhibition of the work," he said. "If visual art is to be considered a form of communication or expression, it must not only be created but also be available for others to see and experience."

Cathy Ray Pierson is a local free-lance writer who "has been in love with the clay art form for 25 years."

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