Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith’s passion for pottery inspired them to make Puducherry their home. In Chennai to participate in the recent bee festival, KAUSALYA SANTHANAM gets chatting with them about their work
The massive ceramic sculpture that welcomes you at the entrance to the Hyatt Regency is dramatic in its impact. Beautiful hues — burnt orange, grey blue and off white — blend across its expanse, accented by snatches of script and symbols. Created from 17 tonnes of clay and rising to a height of 21 ft., “The Passage” is a compelling piece of art.
It reveals why its creator Ray Meeker is such a significant presence in the field today. He and his wife Deborah Smith are among the best known creators of handmade stoneware in the country. Out of the Golden Bridge Pottery Studio they set up in Puducherry 40 years ago has come a range of wood-fired objects — finely designed and painted functional ware, decorative vases, and sculptures in interesting forms and textures. Since 1985, Deborah has been in charge of the production unit which turns out a steady stream of tableware which she makes uniquely her own through her painting. Deborah’s creativity complements Ray’s, whose installations and sculptures are like modern poems. The Golden Bridge Pottery Studio attracts students from all over the country and it has been hosting workshops with artists/educators since 1997.
Within the Hyatt, on the second floor near the deck, are striking ceramic sculptures made by nine former students of the couple. Riveted boxes open to disclose intriguing shapes culled at the bottom. Pillars stand like elegant sentinels guarding the pool. Human and shell-like shapes are located in the garden space among the plants. And among these forceful forms is Deborah’s lovely creation with shades of Japanese art. Made up of white vases painted with blue flowers, the piece stands like a delicate orchid among tropical blooms.
Interdependence of species
Ray and Deborah were in Chennai recently to participate in the Bee Festival organised by designer Rajeev Sethi at the Hyatt. “For this work, we had Rajeev’s brief which is the beehive,” says Ray. “At this site was a 20-year-old building. Its ceiling was covered with hives. From this was born Rajeev’s theme for the art work at the hotel — the interdependence of species. He suggested I co-curate the ceramic art for the hotel and collaborate to redesign the landscape around the pool deck as well,” adds Ray. “I invited Paul Blachefower of the Auroville Botanical Garden to join the team.”
“‘The Passage’ is in a palette I have used generally for the past five or six years,” he explains. “From the arch covered with graffiti you can emerge to a ‘world view’. ‘The Passage’ announces ceramic as a medium for serious outdoor sculpture.”
“Teaching has been an important component of our work,” the couple states. “There are two levels of training. One comprises young people who are generally from the upper middle class and the other, the local Tamil youth.” Ray and Deborah have trained more than 150 students, many of whom have made a mark. “Our real connection to India has been through our students. Also, Golden Bridge Pottery became the model for small scale, handmade production units in India. What we have done is to make people think they can take ceramics seriously and earn a living.”
“I was part of the production process at Golden Bridge Pottery till 1987 when I started doing fired houses,” says Ray. His best known work is Agni Jata, his first fire stabilised mud house for a client in Auroville.
Has the couple helped village potters?
“We have done a lot for them. In 1992, we conducted a workshop for them, organised by the Madras Craft Foundation. Every three or four years, I would get requests from organisations such as The India Foundation for the Arts, to come up with a proposal to save the village potter,” replies Ray. “I don’t know whether they want to be saved,” he adds wryly. “They want to be motor mechanics or computer engineers.”
Ray met Deborah in the Ceramics Department of the University of Southern California 1969. She graduated from Stanford in Japanese language and joined USC after two years in Japan. She apprenticed with eminent potter Yamamoto Toshu in Bizen who was later to be designated Living National Treasure. Ray studied architecture at USC and then obtained a BFA in ceramics.
“I never considered myself to be passionate about ceramics. I’m here by bizarre default,” he says. “When I was studying at the university, a girlfriend who was studying art (“This is before we met,” Deborah interjects) wanted me do a pottery wheel. I fired some things on my own and sold them; I had never touched clay before in my life.”
Studio in Puducherry
Deborah and Ray came to Puducherry attracted by the Ashram and then set up the Golden Bridge Pottery.
Have their expectations been fulfilled in settling in Pondy?
“I’m not unhappy with my choice,” says Deborah. “But Pondy is growing so rapidly. Life is frenetic now. But I’m not finished as yet. It’s very challenging — cups and saucers or 21-Century sculpture.”
“I always wanted to go back initially,” adds Meeker. But there was one thing to be done after another. The years went by…we've invested so much of our life here.”
What does he consider his single greatest achievement?
“In terms of what I have made, it is this,” he says pointing to “The Passage.”