Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bulls In A China Shop

This tangent brought to you by an uncommon youth. While my fellow teens-to-early-twenties were indulging in chemically-induced shenanigans, I was networking in my future field. I had been trustworthy at collectibles shows since an early age, and later had to be reliable as the lead working student at the barn. As a result, most of my social circle was comprised of adults, already well-established in their lives. The other great thing about mature friends is that they have cars, and are pretty awesome about letting "the kid" tag along for road trips to big model horse shows in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

I jumped at the chances for shorter trips to run errands, visit potters, or going to pick up new models. I was very fortunate to have fallen in with the authors of the first Hagen-Renaker Handbook (now the Charlton Standard Catalog) and other local collectors. My journals of those years record details about visits to the Renakers and some of their designers. One of these personalities was a former moldmaker for Hagen-Renaker. We knew him as the dude with some HRs for sale, which was unusual in the hobby back then, and as a friend who used to play card games with Joan, Susan Candelaria, and little ol' me.

Part of Skip's sales list, from 1993:

Now, you may be thinking, "A misspent youth, going to Vegas and playing cards!" Nope. It was innocent Uno, at Joan's old dining table, under that retractable lamp that was replaced so long ago. The game earned him his nickname: "Skip". Back then, long before Pour Horse had a kiln and added the word "Pottery" to its name, the ceramics fun was where Skip worked. A tile maker had leased a couple Renaker family-owned greenhouses. Skip was using part of that space, and as he was no longer an HR employee, he was working on free-lance moldmaking, including dolls, etc. Looking back on it now, it was a pretty sweet deal for a potter. He was surrounded by molds, samples, discarded pieces, and even had a working fiber kiln. The guy was like an art student on a self-directed semester; he experimented with reglazing, and once, he attempted to immortalize a mouse. Yes, in the kiln, which was in the area where he slept.

"[Skip], moldmaker to H-R at San Marcos, and previously moldmaker to Freelin McFarlane, was a very interesting man. He told us about dipping a dead mouse in slip until it was covered, and then firing it to achieve a perfect (and perfectly useless) shell mold of the mouse. Something tells me that being in the room with the firing kiln that day was not very pleasant. Or, likely, for some time to come. Besides, who wants a mold of a dead mouse? Is that what happens when moldmakers are bored?..."
Joan Berkwitz, March, 2003

When Pour Horse started, Joan was just learning about resin casting. She entrusted our first big venture, the Roped Calf model horse prop, to Skip's moldmaking. This was one of my first full-body sculptures, and I had so much emotionally invested in it. Let's just say, the last thing a nervous novice wants to hear is this, in a deadpan tone:

That would be an accurate self-portrait of that moment, recorded in my journal for February 9th, 1994. And then:
"The guy in the studio next to Skip... saw my [Pour Horse Roped Calf]... And so, my friend Skip introduced my name to him... Laird wants to hire a part-time sculptor to do some modeling* and some relief tile work. He said that people write to him from back East, asking for jobs in his studio... He didn't want to hire someone that was artistically 'set in their ways', but rather a new talent who could be trained and groomed to the business' style."

February 13th, 1994:
"I did a frog tile today! I was interviewed yesterday and accepted as part-time sculptor (designer). Last night, I went out to dinner with Joan, her husband, Susie, and Skip to celebrate. We ended up playing cards 'til midnight, hoarse from laughing."

Of course, only until midnight, as I was a good kid and had to sculpt at Laird's the next morning! In three weeks' time, Laird asked to me spend the Summer working full time as his designer. From there, my dual career was started as a professional commercial sculptor/ceramist.

Sometimes, I rode along on trips to Skip's to pick up very special HRs from his collection, too rare to risk shipping. These pieces were not like his sales list items, some were tests and custom glazes. As a youth, I never dreamed I would ever be able to afford such treasures; I just stared, with eyes like chicken eggs, much as in the drawing above. I'm really glad I kept my ears open and have these memories of the models' provenance.

During one such visit, Skip sold his two custom glazes of the DW Longhorn mold in 1994 or 1995. I have the year 1995 from another source, but my journal timeline leans toward 1994. Skip told us that these Longhorns were originally commissions for a non-hobbyist private collector. One of these customs now resides in the late Karen Grimm's model horse museum collection. Skip made it very clear to us that these were both custom glazes, not tests. These are pretty amazing to have survived at all, as the Longhorn models were very easily tipped over and broken, due to their touchy balance. Here is the other one he sold:

He has a pinpoint of missing color on one horn tip, which is how he came from Skip. It's staying that way, as a sort of salute to his origin. There is no signature to the glaze. He was decorated in the factory, making him a factory custom, in collector terms. When I first saw this bull, he enthralled me; I found his face, hair, and skeletal details so beautiful. He has very crisp mold detail. I was an aspiring cattle artist, with my modest Roped Calf sculpture so weak by comparison. I wished I could capture cattle like his designer, Maureen Love.

In retrospect, it makes me smile that both Skip and this model resonated together with my first apprenticeship, which led to my career. Skip made the people-connection and the same species subject got me "discovered". Let's not forget, Joan got the ball rolling by both introducing me to Skip and commissioning that hapless Roped Calf, in the first place.

Years later, this Longhorn changed collector hands. Fortunately, when he came up for sale a third time, I was in a position to acquire him. Of course, this bull is named, "Skip".

The regular run HR San Marcos DW Longhorn looks quite different, and it was made for only one season (in HR terms, a "season" is half a year), Fall of 1981. The older (Monrovia) regular run color was a dark brown pinto, achieved by some resist or sgraffito technique (or both), and was only made two years. There is one to view at this interesting site. I'm very curious to handle one in person and see exactly how it was decorated. "Skip" the custom bull was decorated by airbrushed spots, in contrast.

It is a great joy when old friends and good times are immortalized by the very ceramics we collect. I like having a bull in my china (work)shop.

* meaning, modeling clay, not catwalk stuff

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