Anyone working in clay in India in the early seventies, in the vacuum between the industrial ceramic complex and the traditional rural potter, was a pioneer. Ceramic as art? Well that was an uphill battle everywhere apart from the Far East.
In 1969, I met Deborah Smith in the ceramics department of the University of Southern California. We discovered in each other a vague interest in the philosophies of the East and would meet again in India.
My ceramic background was a mix of Carlton Ball-60s-California-Japanese cone10 functional stoneware with a dash of Clayton Bailey funk. My work had already morphed into sculpture before I finished a BFA in ceramics in 1970.
Deborah’s background in clay was in Japan with ceramic sculptor Araki Takako and master potter Yamamoto Toshu in Bizen. She went to Japan to immerse herself in a craft, to submit to a practice with a master. Clay was not a passion; she was looking for discipline, not a career.
In Los Angeles Deborah encountered The Adventure of Consciousness written by a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. That book was a turning point. We had no idea that what we were beginning would play a major role in filling the vacuum.
Attracted by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, Deborah arrived at his Ashram in Pondicherry in December, 1970. Soon she was sitting before the Mother, who at age 92 sanctioned a glazed pottery unit as part of the ashram activities. One of the Mother’s secretaries had learned that Deborah had studied pot-making in Japan and asked if she would be willing to start a pottery. She agreed, on one condition “if my friend comes and builds me a kiln.”
In May, 1970, Deborah had dropped me off at the Los Angeles International Airport. I had one way ticket to Europe. That fall, while Deborah was in Japan with Professor Susan Peterson who was doing research for her book on Hamada Shoji, I was in the Pyrenees, where I met Brother Cyprian, a 26 year-old Russian Orthodox monk, who was restoring an eight century chapel. We worked together for two weeks, then I headed east overland to India through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a trip that is virtually impossible to make today.
I arrived in Pondicherry three months later; Deborah asked if I would build her a kiln. “Why not?”
She is the golden bridge, the wonderful fire.
The luminous heart of the Unknown is She.
Sri Aurobindo, Savitri
Describing the Divine Mother
The Golden Bridge Pottery began as a 10’ x 20’ coconut leaf shed on wasteland, covered in thorny bushes that bordered the railway line to Villuprum on the south. Adjacent to the north, Swamigun grew rice and to the east was the New Horizon Steel factory. The Mother blessed the project–“it’s a lucky spot.”
The enduring success of the Golden Bridge Pottery is remarkable enough, but understanding its influence means disentangling the intertwined cultural threads: an unlikely confluence of American pioneering spirit, Indian spirituality and Japanese ceramic traditions.1
Deborah intended to work as an individual studio potter producing a very limited line of glazed stoneware. I was going to build her a kiln and move on. We ordered the firebricks: they would be ready in six months! I got a residential permit and built a larger, sheltered space for the pottery. Armed with Daniel Rhodes’ “Kilns: Design, Construction and Operation” I built my first kiln, a 30 cu. ft. cross draft catenary, fired with kerosene and water dripped onto hot iron plates.
In 1971, on the Coromandel Coast of South India, neither Bizenware nor ‘cutting-edge’ ceramic sculpture seemed appropriate. Functional stoneware it was. Kick wheels, clay slaked and sieved into terracotta drying tanks, and natural-draft kilns require no power and were still adequate as production expanded. Raw materials were sourced from India’s well-developed heavy clay industry. After exhausting excursions by bicycle in the treacherous heat in search of a local clay source, romance was overwhelmed by expedience. Now we mix a stoneware body using ingredients purchased directly from mines in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
For the first five years Deb and I worked together with two or three apprentices. As apprentices moved on to establish their own studios, we decided to train young men from the adjacent village.
Now kilns are wood fired—with casuarina, grown locally as a fuel crop—in a 70 cu. ft. car kiln with a Bourry firebox modified to preheat primary combustion air. For over forty years, Deborah managed 16 workers producing a line of more than 200 functional stoneware forms on orders that were more than she could fill, pots, licked by flame and blushed with ash from the firewood, glazed in tenmoku, kaki, chun and egg-shell matts, arguably the finest handmade functional stoneware in India.
A new craft tradition emerged: “Pondicherry pottery.” Buyers from India and abroad now come to Pondicherry/Auroville looking for ceramic product from some 25 workshops varying in size from studio potters working alone to small-scale production units employing up to forty people, making everything from raku to porcelain. Fifty years ago there were none. The makers range from educated Indians and Westerners to unschooled village entrepreneurs.
In 1983 I opened a seven-month training course for students, thus separating teaching activity from the pottery production, with four to six full-time students almost every year since. Students have access to highly skilled production potters at work in all aspects of the process. We turn them loose into abundant infrastructure and give enough direction to get them off the ground. Kilns are big enough to get real work into, wheels are numerous, space is open and extensive, all providing an opportunity to get deeply enough into material and process to develop something of value.
In Delhi, Ray’s solo show 71 Running on view at the Nature Morte Gallery in 2014 coincided with Bridges – Contemporary Ceramics and the Golden Bridge Pottery – a grand show of works by 49 artists who have spent time at the Golden Bridge Pottery over the last 40 years. As Nature Morte gallerist Peter Nagy said, “It is fantastic to see [at Bridges] the influence of his work on so many artists in India, and the range of expression it has spawned.” 2
GBP invites different approaches. Since 1997 we have hosted workshops with artists from abroad, including Susan Peterson, Jane Perryman, Jim Danisch, Mike Dodd, Sandy Brown, Betty Woodman, Jeff Shapiro, Jack Troy, Tim Rowan, Bruce Dehnert and Elena Renker.
‘It’s hard to know what the Indian contemporary ceramic world would have looked like minus the influence of Golden Bridge, but it certainly would have been different,’ says Sharbani Das Gupta, one of the curators of the 2018 triennial. ‘Ray and Deborah created a baseline against which all practitioners would assess their work in a uniquely holistic manner: a quiet and steady stream that has grown into a massive river, shaping and shaped by the land through which it flows.’ All six of the triennial’s original curatorial committee have come through the ‘GBP system’. ‘Rather than a school for ceramics or an institution with mission statements and lofty ideals, Ray and Deborah are Golden Bridge,’ observes co-curator Madhvi Subrahmanian. ‘They lead not so much by instruction as by example: through their attention to detail, the devotion with which they approach their work, and their passion for the material, before form, function and design.’3
Deb retired in 2018. Now the rice fields have given way to housing societies. As workers have retired, the production has slowed down and Deborah and I are looking to the future, perhaps to create an altered space to provide support to contemporary ceramists from India and abroad. Big decisions are in the offing.
Ray Meeker with Deborah Smith
1 Janet Abrams
Crafts (UK) 279, July August2019
2 Anjani Khanna,
Shoulder to the Wheel
ART India. Vol XIX Issue II, 2015.
3 Janet Abrams
Crafts (UK) 279, July August2019