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Page 7 - Rev. 6/6/05

began my odyssey with clay 50 years ago when, at ten, I wandered into a sort of lagoon-type area near my house.  Construction of the new George J. Ryan Junior High School in Flushing, Queens, Long Island had uncovered a large stretch of clay.  It was very plastic and stuck to everything.  I had always loved to throw things (I had not discovered the wheel yet), and my first public art occurred when I literally threw clay, a small ball of it.  I threw it high on the wall of what would be my new school.  I never told anyone and thought that it would soon dry and fall off.  To my amazement, it would remain for more than 40 years.

One day while still in grade school, which was about 5 blocks away from the new junior high, we, the first graduating class, walked in mass with our teachers along Fresh Meadow Lane to our new home, the beautifully equipped modern school.  There I soon elected to take all the shop classes I could.  Being good with my hands, I couldn't wait to get to class each day.  I found English, math and some of the science and history classes boring as they really had little to do with my love of creating art.  When I got to my ceramics class I was in heaven.  I gobbled up everything my young teacher provided, creating works of art that are still on exhibit (I'm told) in a case in the main lobby of the school.

Being so artistic in nature and a dreamer, art began to encompass all my thoughts. Oh, I should mention that my dad, who passed on when I was 8, was a great artist and was establishing a wonderful career as a muralist when he died, so art was always in the air.

I graduated from George J. Ryan Junior High with the New York City Ceramics Award and got to sit in the front row with what we called back then "the brains."  It was a great honor and helped my self-esteem considerably.  Oh yes, I was also a crossing guard with a badge, chosen on the merits of being tall and husky.  It seems one day I was 5 feet tall and the next morning I was 6 feet plus.  I remember the day Anthony Alfearie chose me.  It must have been the same day I woke up seeing my pajamas up to my knees.

From time to time, I checked my clay ball thrown up on the wall and it was still there.  Strange, I thought.  Our teacher, Mr. Harmon, filled our heads with stories of new ground being broken on the west coast of California where, in 1955, a revolution in clay was happening and the likes of Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner and Ken Price, to mention a few, were treating clay differently—ripping, throwing, and constructing with clay in new ways.  Discovering early Pablo Picasso works, I can now see how they might have influenced even these young radical potters.  So I made a foot note of these new generation potters and the knowledge that people knew about their art.  My public art, however, went unnoticed except for me.  I guess you could say I was an early minimalist.  I think I did show the lump to a couple of buddies but they didn't believe me. They said something like, "Workers might have left chalking putty or something."

Off to high school at Jamaica, Queens, about 1/2 hour ride from my neighborhood where the bus stopped and dropped us off very near my junior high and in sight of my wad of clay.  In high school, Mr. Wolf became my first real mentor in clay—"Julian" he would later say I should call him but it still came out Mr. Wolf.  He gave me the basics of jewelry making, casting of silver and tubs and tubs of clay, both new and recycled. To this day I probably only discard 1%, using everything in my studio and shop.  We often had quizzes and we became learned in the P.C. of clay lingo.  I was proud to know the differences of residual and sedimentary clays.  Purchasing elephant ear sponges, making of bats, etc. years later when I too became a teacher and followed in Mr. Wolf's steps, made me and my students feel we were special and empowered us.  And in many ways, it gave us as crafts-workers a validation that we were just as important as everyone else in the professional career world, even though we were usually covered with dirt, even though a good bath still left telltale signs under the fingernails.

As I reflect on this at this moment, when arts and crafts are being taken out of schools for lack of budget and worth to the formation of the students, I see that we need to stop this and if anything, we need to increase and nurture creativity of the arts.  For we must awaken to the fact that we are in a new world, and a real renaissance in every field of endeavor is going on.  Arts and crafts give us soul food, the visuals and the tactiles to our sensibilities, and to deepen this nurturing is so very important.

Well, I went on to graduate Jamaica High with another New York City Ceramics Award, again being among a select chosen few at the graduation but the only one with mud on his shoes.

I married, had children, and introduced them to my public art installation, the lump now a permanent feature of my old alma mater.  Living in California for almost a quarter-century, I had the occasion in 1997 to visit Queens and my old neighborhood with my youngest ceramic-making, clay-pounding daughter Anastasia.  We checked the site and the lump.  And it was gone!  So I have been thinking it might be time for a new public installation, one of which I can share with everyone.

Zak Zaikine
April 2002

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