By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Go big, or go home.
That’s the motto that could well be applied to the latest work to come out of Bob Crystal’s Cornwall ceramics studio, on display now at the Jackson Gallery at the Middlebury Town Hall Theater.
It’s an exhibit that embraces a spirit of collaboration, unveiling work Crystal has undertaken in a new partnership with his 19-year-old son, Aaron. But for Crystal, who at one time worked solely in functional ceramics (bowls, vases and the like), the showcase similarly celebrates a bold new trend toward experimentation.
Unconventional and startlingly lovely, Crystal’s latest work stretches in expansive murals across the walls of the theater’s basement gallery. Interspersed are large wheel-thrown vessels and bowls, but the eye-catching stars of this latest show are the mosaic-like wall hangings crafted from massive slabs of clay.
“The larger pieces present a bigger challenge,” Crystal admitted. “But that was a challenge I’ve been wanting more and more.”
Back at his Cornwall studio, and by way of explanation, Crystal hefted a large platter, around 30 or 31 inches wide, from one of his shelves. (One of its “sisters” is on display in the Town Hall Theater.) This, he explained, is as wide a piece of pottery as he can throw on the wheel.
The shallow bowl shows off decorative glaze work in rusty earth tones that Crystal often uses on most of his pottery. The glaze was applied in broad, organic swoops and swirls, ornamented in turn with occasional splashes of bright color.
But even at 30 inches, Crystal wasn’t satisfied.
“If this is a canvas,” he said, placing the bowl back on the shelf, “then my canvas wasn’t big enough for what I wanted to do.”
So, for the last two years or so, he’s taken to rolling out the enormous slabs of clay that now make up his murals. His son joined him in the studio for the first time, initially as a set of helping hands and soon enough as a collaborator.
Their show at the Town Hall Theater is the first large-scale exhibition of their new work.
As it turns out, Aaron caught the ceramics bug around the same age that it bit his father. Bob Crystal, 59, first stepped into a ceramics studio as a college student in 1969. He was studying history at the University of Maryland, but one of his roommates tipped him off to a ceramics elective being offered in the college of home economics — which meant, Crystal said with a smile, a class full of girls.
The professor, he remembered, was a big, 6-foot-3 ex-Marine.
“He was making this huge pot,” Crystal said. “He was pulling up the wall, and the clay was rippling, and his muscles were rippling — and the girls were quivering. I said, ‘This is great. This is what I want to do.’”
The next semester, Crystal enrolled in an afternoon ceramics class that met a handful of times per week. He started staying on late in the studio, and then he began showing up early, too. Before long, he was cutting history classes in order to spend the vast majority of almost every day in the ceramics studio.
When you spend all day, every day, working at the wheel, you get good fast, Crystal said — and that’s exactly what happened. After just three months, he knew that he wanted to make pottery his livelihood. (History had fallen by the wayside, Crystal’s other career choice having something to do with joining his brother’s rock band.)
So he bounced around a bit, working in upstate New York before relocating to central Florida. For years, he worked solely as a functional potter. Everything was created on the wheel, and most of his glazes were simple.
That aesthetic has changed gradually over the years. Now, Crystal experiments regularly with altering wheel-thrown pieces after he takes them off the wheel. He focuses, he said, more on balance than symmetry. His glazing techniques have evolved, too — now he talks about “decorating” his ceramics with splashes of color rather than just bands of oxide glaze.
CERAMIC WALL HANGINGS
And then there’s the matter of the wall hangings. Made up of multiple ceramic panels, the largest of Crystal’s murals so far — called “Pandora’s Sister” — is more than five feet tall and 15 feet long. The interlocking pieces juxtapose the clean, smooth cuts that Crystal and his son make in the clay with the jagged edges created by the process of rolling out the slabs.
This medium — one that has benefited from two sets of hands and two sets of eyes — caught Aaron’s eye in a way that ceramics hadn’t before.
He grew up around pottery, and when he turned five, his father gave him lessons for his birthday on the wheel. (“A cheap birthday,” the father quipped.) But he didn’t take to the wheel. Then, when his father began rolling out those large slabs of clay, Aaron perked up.
“There’s so much you can do with this,” Aaron said. “There’s not much else that interests me like this does.”
And so, pottery is something of a family affair out in Cornwall these days. Crystal’s daughter, Rachel, has long been accompanying him to art shows, showing an aptitude even at age 11 or 12 for dealing with buyers and handling her father’s business.
“She was golden,” he remembers.
On a recent brisk January morning, Crystal’s wife, Ann Huckaby, was in the studio, too, meeting with a client. And now Aaron, who studies art at Johnson State College almost two hours away, comes home regularly and spends long vacations with his father working on their murals.
“He sees a lot of thing that I don’t, and we just work really, really well together,” Crystal said. “There’s a mutual respect.”
That shows on the walls of the Jackson Gallery at the Town Hall Theater. Crystal paused beside “Collaboration II,” a mural in three panels. The middle panel was cut into a circle and offset slightly. Broad swaths of black and gold glaze cut across the three panels, interspersed with dollops of rust and green.
The color and glaze work is Crystal’s specialty — but he said that he doesn’t see “a lot of the physical, spatial possibilities that Aaron does.”
“This seems like a good fit,” Crystal said. “It’s a rare thing to be able to work with your son like this.”
Later, father and son tried to remember just what each had contributed to “Collaboration II” — without luck. That, in part, is what makes them such a successful team.
“Well,” the elder Crystal joked, glancing over again at “Collaboration II,” “it says ‘Crystal’ on it. That’s what matters.”
But the pair’s friendly camaraderie aside, the work speaks for itself: bold, colorful, and defiantly original, the murals are a treat not to miss.
Bob and Aaron Crystal kick off their show, which is slated to run through the third week in February, in earnest this Friday with an artists’ reception at the Town Hall Theater from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.