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Harrison McIntosh: A Life Well-shaped

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Harrison McIntosh scratches a mishima line into a jar in 1979. | Photo: Catherine McIntosh.

A segment on KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" is based on this story.

 

In Mt. San Antonio Gardens' assisted living building, Harrison McIntosh and his wife Marguerite live in a well-appointed apartment. The walls are adorned with paintings -- a portrait of McIntosh by his brother Robert, one of their daughter Catherine by his mother-in-law. Art books and ceramic pieces are displayed on the shelves and the coffee table, but nothing else -- certainly not McIntosh's quite, soft-spoken demeanor -- belie that McIntosh is one of California's most important ceramists.

The 89-year-old Marguerite greets me at the door in a glam green tracksuit, and leads me over to where McIntosh is waiting for me. He's partially blind and doesn't see me reach over to shake his hand in greeting, but he's in good health, and is eager to talk about his work and his career.

It's one that spans eight decades, and his work -- vessels and sculpture created with a purity of form -- has helped shape the postwar crafts movement in California. On Saturday (through Oct. 26), the American Museum of Ceramic Art, in conjunction with the Claremont Museum of Art, will exhibit "HM100: A Century through the Life of Harrison McIntosh."

Harrison McIntosh, sits in "Sam's chair" at his home in Claremont on January 15, 2014. He is holding a footed bowl he made in 1976. The chair was a gift made in 1961 by his good friend Sam Maloof. | Photo: Catherine McIntosh
Harrison McIntosh, sits in "Sam's chair" at his home in Claremont on January 15, 2014. He is holding a footed bowl he made in 1976. The chair was a gift made in 1961 by his good friend Sam Maloof. | Photo: Catherine McIntosh.

Timed to coincide with McIntosh's 100th birthday, the exhibit will not only display McIntosh's work of vessels and sculpture that he created in his Claremont studio for more than 60 years, but will also show his pieces in the context of the modern design aesthetic that was popular during his heyday.

"In my pieces I was always trying to achieve a certain quality, a serenity that you could live with, since I was making things for people to use in their homes," McIntosh said.
Juxtaposed alongside the work of his contemporaries and friends such as furniture designer Sam Maloof, painter Karl Benjamin and mixed-media artist James Heuter, McIntosh's work can be seen in terms by which it can be fully understood and assessed.

Born in Vallejo in 1914, McIntosh came of age with the state California. He moved to Los Angeles and studied with Glen Lutens at the University of Southern California, but after the war, in 1948, he was lured to Claremont. It was there that celebrated painter Millard Sheets started the the Claremont School of Arts, and hired Richard Petterson to teach ceramics at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate School. Under Petterson's tutelage, McIntosh was able to define his style, rooted in modern design, and started actively producing the classical vessel forms that became a trademark: strong, graceful shapes enhanced by delicate surface decoration.

Three bottle vases, 1963-1977. Collection of Catherine McIntosh | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA
Three bottle vases, 1963-1977. Collection of Catherine McIntosh. | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA.
Platter, 1975. Glazed, cone 5 stoneware with mishima lines, 2 1/2" x 15 1/2" dia. Collection of Catherine McIntosh. | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA
Platter, 1975. Glazed, cone 5 stoneware with mishima lines, 2 1/2" x 15 1/2" dia. Collection of Catherine McIntosh. | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA.

"[Petterson] was the reason I moved to Claremont," McIntosh said. "When I started a class with him, I found I could learn a lot more from being there everyday. The big advantage of his classes was the ceramics studios were open 24 hours a day, which was unusual. Usually it was only open during class hours."

Petterson helped McIntosh and fellow ceramist Rupert Deese establish their first shared studio, helping them source equipment and materials. Eventually, McIntosh built a studio attached to his home in the hills of Claremont, in a beautiful mid-century modern house designed by Fred McDowell, overlooking the city.

Harrison McIntosh applies brush work to a large bowl in his first studio, Foothill Blvd., Claremont, CA, c. 1953
Harrison McIntosh applies brush work to a large bowl in his first studio, Foothill Blvd., Claremont, CA, c. 1953.

In his home and workspace, there's a sense of beauty and order that's clearly reflected in McIntosh's pieces. "In my studio, I always had classical music playing on the radio because I always felt that my pieces had the same feeling as the music," he said. "There's harmony, but there's always structure in classical music," added his wife Marguerite. "It's rational and emotional at the same time. That's why people like it so much," she said.

Aside from his art, McIntosh and his wife as a team spent many years as a design consultant for firms such as Mikasa in Japan (for dinnerware) and Spiegelau in Germany (for crystal).
Through designing, he also helped form an industry that was beginning to include artists in making mass-produced, commercial work, AMOCA director Gerstein said.

McIntosh didn't feel like this consulting work was a distraction from his art; if anything, "I looked at it the other way. The dinnerware we were making was mass-produced, and I always thought that maybe some of the character and qualities that I used in my studio work could be applied to these items -- not by copying it, but by giving it that subtle character."

Bowl, 1994. Glazed, cone 5 stoneware with sgraffito lines, 3 1/2" x 10 ½. Collection of the Artist | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA
Bowl, 1994. Glazed, cone 5 stoneware with sgraffito lines, 3 1/2" x 10 ½. Collection of the Artist | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA.
Floating Disc, 1973. First of Limited Edition. Chromed steel base and thrown, glazed stoneware, 13" x 10 3/4" dia. Collection of Catherine McIntosh | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA
Floating Disc, 1973. First of Limited Edition. Chromed steel base and thrown, glazed stoneware, 13" x 10 3/4" dia. Collection of Catherine McIntosh. | Photo: Cynthia Madrigal/AMOCA.

McIntosh's eyesight started degenerating about a decade ago, and he hasn't created new work in year. Still, his influence is felt throughout Claremont -- and the country, through his work and the communities he formed. Today, McIntosh's work is in museums around the globe. His work is represented in more than 40 museum collections including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., the Museum of Decorative Arts, The Louvre, Paris, National Museum of Art in Tokyo, Boston Museum of Art and locally at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Huntington and American Museum of Ceramic Art.

"A whole colony of artists developed in Claremont because of Millard Sheets -- painters, sculptors -- and we all became good friends," Marguerite said. McIntosh's daughter Catherine credits the G.I. Bill -- a law that provided benefits for World War II veterans such as low-cost mortgages, and tuition and living expenses -- with the blossoming of Claremont as an art community. "Many Claremont artists used that bill to go back to school; without it we couldn't have gone to art school."

According to Beth Ann Gerstein, executive director of AMOCA, McIntosh represents what was happening in ceramics during mid-century in California. "He's one of the most important mid-century potters in the state, and is beloved regionally, but he is definitely acknowledged and rises to the top [when talking about ceramics] across the country."

Harrison McIntosh presses his chop into the foot of a bowl in 1962. | Photo: Sam Calder.
Harrison McIntosh presses his chop into the foot of a bowl in 1962. | Photo: Sam Calder.

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