(Presented March 19, 2005, NCECA Conference, Baltimore, Maryland)
Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked that "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." These words gain form and substance, indeed, great clarity and power, through even a cursory examination of the life of Harding Black.
From our first meeting in 1989, Harding became a very real and significant mentor for me, as he had for hundreds of others during his life. His manner of living was a manifestation of the ethical and moral parameters espoused by my parents and the Quaker environment in which I was raised. Although committed to his work in ceramics on the most fundamental level, Harding always placed the needs and concerns of others before his own. In his quiet and unpretentious way, he set the standard bar for living and working extremely high, perhaps his greatest gift to those of us fortunate enough to have known him. But the transcendent power of living well inevitably extends beyond the acquaintances of physical life, in Harding's case so much so that clayworkers of the past half century and those in the future who may not even recognize his name touch the gifts of his passion whenever the decision is made to resolve a form through the use of reduction glazes.
Harding created perhaps the largest body of personal glaze research in the United States during the 20th century. Through his obsessive extension of research conducted by Edgar Littlefield, Arthur Baggs, and others, and without any formal academic training, he unlocked the secrets of the elusive glazes of China's Ming and Song Dynasties, the Scandanavian satin matts, and many others. He shared his research freely and with great enthusiasm, requesting only that the recipients continue testing and extending his work.
The late Rudolf Staffel, his boyhood friend who taught Harding how to throw in the early '30's, recalled Harding as a master of glazes and one of the most generous human beings that he'd known.
In 1995, Harding gifted Baylor University with his entire body of glaze research. On the day that my students and I unloaded the over 150 crates of thousands of test tiles, bowls and vases and laid them out on the kiln dock, the secrets of a life of alchemy were revealed in the overwhelming volume and diversity of variations on a single glaze.
Harding is considered by many to be a pioneer of American studio ceramics. I have come to view him as one of our discipline's primary taproots. William Daley, in a 1995 presentation, put it this way: "Overcoming resistance is as near the center of work as dreaming for a master transformer like Harding Black. Harding's pots and the tiles that inform them are transformations that locate the edges of the future. Harding's work is transformed by each of us as we grow to feel its presence as a way to hold our history and our future."
Harding Black was born on April 15, 1912 near Aransas Pass, Texas. On May 2, 2004, at the age of 92, he died of respiratory failure. For most of his adult life, Harding was known in and around Texas as "the Dean of Texas Ceramics", but beyond this region, he received little published recognition for his contributions to 20th century ceramics, in spite of the fact that, beginning in the '50s, potters and university ceramics programs throughout the country were using and teaching the results of his research on copper reds and oilspot glazes, which were published in the early years of the journal Ceramics Monthly.
As a young man, Harding became interested in ceramics while excavating ancient Indian mounds in the Big Bend area of Texas. His investigation into glaze formulation began with low-fired oxidation glazes, using uranium which he discovered in West Texas fifteen years before the federal government discovered the site and built a fence around the deposit. By the early '50's, he had made the transition to high-temperature reduction glazes and was producing magnificent copper reds, celedons, satin matts, lava and oilspot glazes.
To more fully grasp Harding's level of commitment to his discipline and the larger landscape of living, it's important to know that, as a young man, Harding chose his research over marriage. He recognized early on that the extent of his need to explore the ceramic terrain far exceeded the parameters of his physical life. He gave himself to it completely, living like a kid in a candy store with the discipline of Mother Theresa, pouring the cosmos into his bowls and extending the miracle of creation to levels few have had the opportunity to experience. He understood silence and he knew what to do with it.
And yet, he welcomed all into his studio and always made room and took the time to teach anyone interested in learning about the ways of clay and glazes. He was especially sensitive to the needs of at-risk children and trained a number of people whose mission it was to serve them through exposure to ceramics.
I would like to conclude by revisiting a passage of a paper I presented at an earlier NCECA conference. It goes like this:
"...How then, do I presume to isolate Harding Black to a position of uniqueness within the greater community of America, to stand apart from the lives of the many individuals who have brought us to this place where dreams and wakefulness merge and become the reality of our individual and collective potential? I do not know, but in my heart there is a sensing, a flickering image of a child, wide-eyed and innocent, who moves through his world in celebration of beauty and the opportunity to explore and discover. A child who cannot keep a secret, but runs to the highest point and spills it out into the wind for each of us to see and feel and share in its perfection. This child does not see race, gender, or philosophical differences as he busies himself turning over rocks and logs in search of what he cannot know; he sees only the miracle of possibilities and the brevity of opportunity. The Cherokee have named the path he walks: The Red Road, The Beauty Path, the way of rightness and balance. In the sixty-five years that Harding has been working, he has gathered stones from all of our yards to throw into a pool of celebration. We are surrounded by his ripples."