A sculpture of a man bent over in agony with his arms bound, the craftsmanship screaming loneliness and longing. Ceramics which seemed to have arms reaching for that which the artist could never have. Vases which had what looked like mouths ready to engulf something, or someone. All of these works were crafted by Frans Wildenhain, whose unpredictable display of creative expression has been described as anything from emotional to innovative, with one backbone of a past.
After a turbulent upbringing, Wildenhain eventually settled in Rochester where he became an everlasting influence on the art community. In 1950, he helped bring the School for American Craftsmen from Dartmouth College to RIT. In his 20 years as a professor he earned many awards and honors while becoming a pioneer and innovator of the ways of ceramic crafting. Now, this fall, over 150 pieces of his ceramics are on display right here at RIT.
In 1943 during World War II, when Wildenhain was a young man, he was drafted into the German Army. As he and his wife Marguerite’s Little Jug pottery shop was shut down, Marguerite, being Jewish, fled to the United States and taught pottery classes in Northern California, according to a New York Times article. “I do everything not to lose the confidence to see you again,” Marguerite wrote in a letter to the husband that was never mailed since his location was lost to her.
In a brave attempt to escape his shackles, Wildenhain fled the army and joined forces with renegade fighters until he was able to leave and reconnect with his lost wife in 1947. Wildenhain, the Times reports, became jealous of his wife’s success under his surname and left her. Making his way to New York with his second wife in 1950, he lived in Rochester for the remainder of his life. He retired in 1970 and
died in 1980.
Bruce Austin, curator for the Frans Wildenhain Exhibit, says that back then, to have an institute that would give someone a degree for something anyone can spend time doing, like making art, was unbelievable. “It was a different world back then … it was rather novel and revolutionary,” says Austin. “Having a college, an institution, or a university that is specifically set up to embrace craft and art was relatively new.” Even Wildenhain’s first wife came to RIT to study under him, regardless of the tension left between the ex-couple.
“I was interested as much in his ceramic art as I was in his business innovation,” claims Austin who actually lives only a mile away from where Wildenhain used to live. According to Austin, Wildenhain and three partners opened a shop in the 1950s called Shop One that sold handcrafted artworks, one of only two shops of its kind in America at the time. “It really was kind of an interesting and genuinely innovative business venture, and it was so outlandish, so crazy that if one were to propose such a thing, even today, any banker would turn you away”
Though revered for his ceramic work, Wildenhain had a history of arrogant attitudes and rough actions with students that Austin says is largely misunderstanding. “[Frans] was kind of an enigmatic character,” he says, recalling reports and even journal entries directly from Wildenhain, “I think it’s fair to say he was, in many ways, a gruff personality.”
Austin used words like “boisterous” and “belligerent” to describe the misunderstood pottery maker. “But in many ways I think that what he was expressing was an absence of patience for the student who would not give one hundred percent to the craft.” Austin believes based on Wildenhain’s notes and journals that what the artist was doing was sharing a “personal disappointment” for lazy students with talent, and he had come
off as insulting.
Women, especially, were harshly judged in his classes; however, they were also appreciative of his passion for the art. Austin says that Wildenhain did not want his time and his students’ time wasted in his classroom, and did not want distractions. “Speakers have intentions, but audiences make meaning,” says Austin. “What he wanted his students to do was first master the craft, then express themselves.”
Robert Bradley Johnson, a retired Kodak engineer, donated almost half of his total collection of Wildenhain pieces to the RIT dedication exhibit. He owned about 330 pieces, which were purchased over a period of almost 30 years. “When you have 330 pieces of art by a single artist, either people think you’re crazy, or they think something’s going on with the art,” Austin says of Johnson. “He saw something in the artwork that was very bold and expressive.”
Johnson was a good caretaker for Wildenhain’s precious pieces of history, and wanted to find a suitable home for the ones he owned. He believed RIT to be the place. “Robert Johnson’s gift is not simply or solely a gift of ceramics, but ... it’s like throwing the proverbial pebble into the pond — it ripples and has all sorts of other effects.”
A catalog of Wildenhain’s works and life story is being sold for $55, and the sales are going towards a fund to support students’ archival-based research at RIT. After the exhibit comes to an end on October 2, the stark reds and blues of Wildenhain’s ceramics will be put away. But as long as the School for American Crafts remains, Wildenhain’s legacy will live on through the Institute.