Portrait of an Artist: David Furman

David Furman is an internationally recognized ceramicist and artist. His work emerges from not material but ideas, which grow out of his personal experiences and explorations of the people and world around him. He has received numerous fellowships and honors from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Program, and has served as the U.S. State Department’s cultural envoy to Honduras.

Furman’s latest works are part of an exhibit at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton entitled “Fresh Figurines: A New Look at a Historic Art Form.” This past Thursday, he lectured at the Harvard Ceramics Studio and shared a survey of his 40 years of commitment to the arts.

The Harvard Crimson: You have exhibited in more than 500 exhibitions and have delivered over 150 public lectures and workshops, but you have also recently worked to share your art with children in impoverished communities in Peru and Honduras. In what way does that impact the way you view your art, humanity, and the human image?

David Furman:     I think starting in about 1989 or 1990, I set up a little ceramics facility at the Ontario Teen Center, which is near Claremont, California, where I taught for 35 years. … The pretext, of course, was ceramics, but the real issue was being able to swap stories and find common ground and to feel safe and secure in an area that’s ravaged by the more negative aspects of our cultures. … So I like to think that what we did there, that was a beginning for me, but as kind of a catalytic change for the community. But, for me, it really spun me around and had me think about possibilities that heretofore I hadn’t really considered seriously.

THC: You are perhaps best known for your ‘trompe l’oeil’ works and erotic vegetable teapots, and everything is described as very whimsical. What prompted you to turn 180 degrees from such vibrancy and complexity and color to mannequins?

DF: Actually, I have had this idea for some time, at least a year or so before I began the project … I wanted my figures to be sensual and erotic like the work that I saw and that I was aware of in China ... I wanted to marry two different aesthetic sensibilities: that of ancient China with contemporary American. What grew out of that were these pieces that were traditionally glazed in a very Chinese style with figures that were covered with what they call a Celedon glaze which is a very traditional, elegant glaze developed in China.

THC: The Office for the Arts at Harvard claims that your newest work explores human interaction by using the mannequin, an anonymous figure. Can you tell me a bit about your exhibit and why did you choose to express your art through anonymity?

DF:    Those little wooden mannequin figures are typically used in art classes and teaching figure and perspective and relationships. Yet they were always interesting, sort of ambiguous, androgynous, anonymous figures with no breath of emotion connected to them. And so my thought was, here is this perfect iconic image that I could transform. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage,” and so I could kind of create the stage where I could use subtleties, nuance, and suggested intimacy to breathe life into these otherwise lifeless figures that are used for a very different purpose … The thing that you’ll find in common is a sense of humor maybe, a sense of passion, a curiosity, but all stemming from ideas rather than a material.

THC: Would you be surprised to hear that most students here probably do not know very much about ceramics or sculpting? You’ve taught at universities, so what do you think students need to know or be exposed to in order to appreciate these subjects more?

DF:  The truth of the matter is I didn’t teach there to make a bunch of artists. My goal wasn’t to create little miniature David Furmans. You know, one is enough … Rather than producing people who become artists, I want to create an environment where people can have an artful experience, where they can problem-solve by utilizing hands-on techniques to explore aesthetic sensibility. Ninety-five percent of the people that I’ve taught weren’t art majors, but I hope that I’ve created an experience for them to come to terms with understanding, at least in part, what that artful process is like. If they can impart that or have dialogue about that with their family when they grow up, with their children, when they look at a pot, they’ll say, “I understand that on a level that lets me know how that was made and how difficult it was, and how passionate the individual has to be to make that, to bring it into fruition.”

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