Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Remembering a friend and mentor

The name of Paul Soldner may not be familiar to those outside of the ceramics world, however in his passing last week, we lost an important and innovative artisan, not to mention a Bluffton graduate and friend. Paul Soldner was a family friend and mentor of Bluffton grad and art professor Gregg Luginbuhl ’71, whose reflections follow.
LA Times obituary
New York Times obituary

Soldner piece in Sauder Visual Arts Center
Paul Soldner was the son of a Mennonite pastor, and it was his father’s career that brought the family to Bluffton when Paul was in junior high school. Paul and my father, Darvin Luginbuhl, became close friends.

They shared an interest in photography. Dad remembers working in the basement of Paul’s home, where they mounted an enlarger to the floor joists, projecting to the floor to make large prints. Paul struggled to keep the family activity on the main floor quiet, so that the enlarger would not jiggle during the long exposures that were required for the large format prints.

The Soldner Mixer, still in everyday use after 46 years, has prepared clay for more than two generations of Bluffton art students.

They both entered Bluffton College in 1939 where they were art majors studying under professor John Klassen. Their interest in photography continued, and while there were no formal photography classes, they continued their work in a makeshift darkroom in the attic of College Hall, where the art department was then housed. They continued to make large format prints of campus scenes, some of which received their final rinse in Riley Creek. A few of these prints can still be found framed on the walls of campus hallways and offices.

UntitledW.W.II service in the military’s medical corps interrupted the college education of both young men. Both came back to Bluffton to complete their undergraduate degrees in 1946, and initially took their first jobs as high school art teachers. While my father pursued graduate work in art at Ohio State, receiving a master’s degree in art education, Soldner entered graduate study at the University of Colorado, and later launched his career in ceramics when he joined the influential and iconic mentor Peter Voulkos at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

My father was hired to teach at Bluffton College in 1959. During his tenure, he continued to communicate with Soldner, who had begun to develop a national reputation through his development of a new approach to the ceramic medium, which came to be known as American Raku.

Paul’s trips to Bluffton to visit his family became occasions for dialogue between the two old friends, and Soldner would occasionally provide ceramic workshops for Bluffton students. My family often visited the Soldner family in Aspen, Colo. We enjoyed frequent sightseeing trips, with meals off the tailgate of Soldners’ Plymouth Suburban.

In 1965, Soldner, who had begun building and marketing potter’s wheels, was working on the design of a clay mixer to add to his product line. He made a prototype of one of those machines available to the Bluffton ceramics program at a very minimal price. It is a testimony to the quality of his design, that this same Soldner Mixer, still in everyday use after 46 years, has prepared clay for more than two generations of Bluffton art students.

Soldner also made two kick wheels of his own design available to Bluffton in those early years, and they too are still in use in our studio. As the Soldner electric potter’s wheels became the standard for smooth, quiet, powerful operation, I added 10 wheels that bear his name to our Bluffton studio in the 1990s.

Wall plateIn the summer of 1967, the year that I graduated from high school, I lived with the Soldners for 10 weeks. While Paul and the family were away for a series of workshops that summer, I lived with, and was nurtured by, his artwork, land and buildings. My tasks were to feed and water the horses, water the plants and young trees Paul had started in the dry Aspen climate, and shoot the pesky ground squirrels that proliferated in the area.

Those activities left a lot of time for working on my budding potter’s wheel skills. Paul had given me one lesson before his departure, and provided a large barrel of clay, which he said I should use completely before asking further questions.

Perhaps most importantly, I was exposed to a lifestyle that was inviting, and started me down the path toward a 35-year adventure as a college art teacher.

When I was a young teacher, at Findlay College in the late 70’s, Soldner provided a workshop for my students who were duly impressed with my friend and mentor, and worked with greater energy and abandon after his visit. Paul was always at home in a ceramics studio and among students.

Early in my tenure at Bluffton, Paul came for a show and workshop. A deluge of artists and students came from a 150-mile radius for an energetic event in the new Sauder Visual Art Center that featured the creation of one of Paul’s signature forms and a free exchange of ideas, including Paul’s best advice concerning the building of hot tubs.

On many occasions Soldner supported Bluffton by participating in events planned around him. In 1990, I invited Bluffton ceramics graduates to provide work for a show that I mounted at the NCECA conference at the University of Cincinnati. The show included work by two artists who had received the honor of being named Fellows of the organization: Paul Soldner and Jack Earl. Paul shipped a wonderful piece for our exhibit, and showed up for the opening party on the first night of the conference. Later, he consented to be part of a show of “Mennonite Artists” that was organized at the Canton Art Institute.

Most recently, in 1999, as we planned the Sculpture Garden Walkway around the new Centennial Hall, Soldner donated one of his signature winged forms to the project. The Untitled bronze piece is located near the College Avenue entrance to Centennial, and is a fitting monument to Soldner’s longstanding relationship with Bluffton.

My father and Paul Klassen purchased two of Soldner’s salt fumed works from his last Bluffton show in 2000, and donated them to Bluffton. These pieces are on permanent display in public locations on campus: a wall plaque with pink fuming and some free brush work adorns the wall behind Sally Siferd’s desk in the president’s office; and a classic Soldner ceramic winged form with stamped surface impressions and copper green fuming is in the outer room of the art department office complex in Sauder Visual Art Center.

For at least the last three decades, Soldner has been at or near the top of his field of ceramics. It could be argued that the combined influence of his inspirational teaching, his energetic and gregarious personality, his design of ceramic equipment and, most importantly, his extensive and outstanding body of work, make him the most influential ceramic artist of his generation.

Though much of the impetus for Soldner’s success was acquired after his undergraduate career at Bluffton, he retained a pride in his home base, and was supportive of Bluffton and its art tradition.

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