Tuesday, November 21, 2017     Volume: 18, Issue: 37
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Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on September 20th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 28 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 28

Orcutt ceramicist Don Frith shows his teapots at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

By REBECCA ROSE

As Don Frith walks a visitor through his Orcutt home, he stops at a small counter near the entryway.

Under the glass on the surface is an article about Frith and his late wife, Barbara, herself a renowned artist who died in 2007. The display is a cluster of pottery, in varying design styles and colors. A single dusty pink rose juts out of a small blue vase in the center.


THE ARTIST AT HOME
At nearly 93, ceramic artist Don Frith is still making stunning teapots that sell for up to $600. Frith continues to use the original ceramic wheel he has been working on for more than 50 years.
PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE

“This was made in 1949,” Frith says, pointing to one of the ceramic works as he passes the display. “I’ve always kept it because it was when I was learning how to do this.”

Once he’s settled in his workshop, Frith comes alive. From a shelf in the garage, he pulls down two of his older pieces, carefully wiping dust away as he takes the pieces apart to point out the finer details in the work. The teapots, each one about 8 inches tall, represent decades of tireless craftsmanship and a lifetime spent perfecting his art form.

Today they are sold all over the world, admired in galleries, and pined for by collectors who favorite his Etsy page. At the age of 92, Frith has earned a reputation as one of the best artisans in the medium, and currently, his works are are all at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, where he is featured in a solo exhibit through Oct. 29.

All of the ceramic teapots were made right here in Frith’s home studio, at a table sandwiched between the family car and what was his late wife’s workspace.


SHORT AND STOUT
Donald Frith’s pieces, like this one offered for sale at his Etsy store, are fully functioning but intended to be treated as fine art.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TEAPOTS BY DON FRITH

“I love the challenge to get this whole thing exactly right,” he said in an interview with the Sun. “And at the stage I am now, I’m making the teapot with a wooden handle and a wooden knob on top, and they are all directly related to design.”

Frith and his wife moved to this home Orcutt in 1989. A former ceramics instructor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Frith had always found some form of success in ceramics, selling pottery and consulting on technical projects. In 1985 he wrote Mold Making for Ceramics, a masterwork detailing the process that many artists who followed in his footsteps still work with today.

But it was in Orcutt where he would develop and perfect an idea for what would catapult him to another level as an artist: A flower-shaped teapot with an ornate wood handle.

The teapots are astoundingly complex, right down to the gently feathered edges of the petals on his specialty flower teapots. There is nothing cartoonish or kitschy about Frith’s work; there is a modernist almost abstract tone to much of the work he produces. And yes, they are actual functioning teapots, albeit ones that are meant to be treated as precious works of fine art. While not all of them are flowers, those are among his most popular styles.


BREAKING THE MOLD
Santa Maria artist Donald Frith’s unique teapots are on display in a new exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through Oct. 29. Frith wrote Mold Making for Ceramics in 1985, a definitive book on the artform which is still used today.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS OBISPO MUSEUM OF ART

“Once I began to intently look at flower blossoms, and even to carefully take them apart to see what each one actually looked like, I was hooked,” Frith wrote in his artist’s statement. “My attempts at making these flowers [were] directed toward creating flower blossoms that seemed to be real, yet are strong enough to stand careful use.”

To just call Frith a ceramicist feels inadequate; he is also an expert fabricator in wood and acrylics. He works in woods such as walnut, creating dynamic and brawny handles that add a complex layer to his teapots. The walnut, crawling with the erratic lines of the grain, swooping into the delicate layers of brightly colored pottery, creates a poetic juxtaposition of elements. But the success of Frith’s work is in how seamlessly intertwined he makes all of these apparently contradictory materials work as one uniformly flowing piece.

Frith, a former Navy Seabee who served in the Philippines during World War II, also has the mind of a well-ordered scientist. He holds a patent for two designs, including one that helps calculate the diameter for ceramic lids to account for shrinkage in the kiln. Each one of his pieces is carefully numbered and logged, a meticulous record of the hundreds and hundreds of pieces he’s created throughout the years.

In bloom
Don Frith’s elaborately crafted teapots are on display in a special exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art (SLOMA) through Oct. 29. The museum is located at 1010 Broad St., San Luis Obispo. More info: 543-8562.

“When I make a teapot, I sign it,” Frith said. “I can look on my list and tell exactly what day it was made.”

Frith also developed the process for fabricating and utilizing the acrylic portion that forms the base of the teapot. At one point he was turning out a teapot at least once a week, a pace he almost keeps up with today.

“I started [making] the flower because I realized how beautiful the flowers were,” he said. “I figured out how to do all this. Nobody makes teapots with a nice acrylic bottom, and it works just beautifully.”

Arts and Lifestyle writer Rebecca Rose is always ready to sip some tea. Contact her at rrose@santamariasun.com.




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Spending time with family and friends.
The food, and eating too much of it.
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