The art community salutes Harrison McIntosh
by Elizabeth Ortiz
photography by Helen Arase
Ceramist Harrison McIntosh expresses little emotion as he sits in a chair at his Mt. San Antonio Gardens home. His story is usually one told by others. It is that way for those who attain guru status. Now he wears a red plaid shirt, khaki pants and thick-lensed glasses and is quietly humble as he ponders his life story words. Nevertheless, in the chair sits a man who is one of the world’s most influential ceramists. At 100 years old, Harrison has influenced his contemporaries and predecessors alike and has been fortunate enough to see his legacy unfold.
Harrison, one of Claremont’s most acclaimed resident artists, celebrated his centennial birthday Sept. 11, 2014, and the community observed the occasion with joy. To mark his birthday milestone, his work was the center of attention that same month at the opening reception of the American Museum of Ceramic Art’s exhibition, “HM 100: a Century Through the Life of Harrison McIntosh.” More than 500 people attended the reception to greet him and admire his 100 most influential pieces. Artists and admirers recognized his works’ precision, perfect proportions, repetitive lines and subtle designs.
Art has been a part of Harrison’s life since his childhood. His parents encouraged him and his brother Robert to pursue artistic endeavors. Growing up, Harrison listened to the musical styling of his father, a classical pianist, who played in an orchestra in Stockton, California. It was there that Harrison’s art passion began at age 7. “Robert and I became interested in architecture as a museum in Stockton was being built,” he says. The Haggin Museum opened in 1928, and the brothers visited it frequently.
There, they began participating in student art competitions hosted by museum director Harry Noyes Pratt, who took a personal interest in the two. Pratt soon introduced them to painter Arthur Haddock, who became their mentor. “Haddock taught us how to make portable easels so we could start painting pictures of outdoor landscapes,” Harrison says.
After traveling across California in his early 20s, Harrison returned to school to take night classes at the University of Southern California with well-known potter Glen Lukens. These classes marked the beginning of Harrison’s interest in ceramics. He stepped up his interest by purchasing all the materials needed for working with clay, including gaining a second-hand kiln so he could fire his pieces. But the World War II draft halted his ceramic career.
After he returned home to the states, he used the G.I. Bill to attend Claremont Graduate School. In 1948, Harrison was accepted as a “special student” and studied in the ceramics program under ceramist Richard Petterson. The program was located on the Scripps College campus, and Harrison found himself as one of the few men studying at the all-women’s college. It was during this time that Harrison began producing wheel thrown pieces and showcasing them in local exhibitions.
After attending Claremont Graduate School for three years, Harrison’s G.I. Bill funds expired. He decided to share an art studio with his close friend ceramist Rupert Deese. The duo worked side-by-side for more than 50 years. Their original ceramic studio was a stone building on Foothill Boulevard in Claremont, across the street from Wolfe’s Market. In 1958, they moved their studio next to Harrison’s new home in Padua Hills. Nestled north of the city of Claremont, Padua Hills became a desirable area for artists to live because the area was part of unincorporated Los Angeles County, meaning no city restrictions were imposed on the artists. “Potters don’t want to be in a city because cities have restrictions on running gas kilns,” Catherine McIntosh, Harrison’s daughter, says.
Harrison and Rupert worked together in the studio, listening to classical music as they threw clay. “There was a real collaboration between him and Rupert Deese. They got along beautifully. They each did their own works, but admired each other freely,” says Judy Jacobs, an AMOCA docent and an avid ceramic collector.
Being a ceramist for more than 60 years, Harrison created thousands of pieces of art. “In many years, he created more than 300 pieces, and in some years, he made as many as 500,” Harrison’s wife Marguerite says. Harrison focused solely on his artwork. He managed to make a living as a full-time artist and never had to work a side job. “He was lucky compared to his contemporaries. He made art his career and focused on creating pieces to sell,” Marguerite says. However, he did spend one semester teaching at the Otis Art Institute. Millard Sheets, who had been appointed as the director of the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now the Otis Art Institute), asked Harrison to substitute for one semester in place of another ceramics professor. Harrison quickly realized teaching did not suit him. After the semester was over, he went back to strictly creating. “All artists have to be teachers,” says Harrison. “But I was extremely privileged.”
Over the years, Harrison’s ceramic style evolved. He began his career working with plaster molds for casting ceramics but eventually adopted the wheel throwing technique. While studying at USC, he focused on creating plaster molds, which create the inverse of the desired design. The clay is then placed around the mold and dries to the shape. Harrison says this method is efficient because the mold can be kept to make hundreds of revisions of the same design. However, the plaster molds did not hold his attention. He was first intrigued by wheel-throwing pottery presented at the Japanese Pavilion at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair. “When wheel-throwing first came about, they took the foot pedals from sewing machines and used them as the pedals for the wheel-throwing machines,” Harrison recalls. The initial technique was unsophisticated, but as technology developed, Harrison incorporated it into his works.
Reflecting on his art, Harrison says that he does not have a favorite piece. “I always made every single piece as good as I can make it.” However, Marguerite says Harrison is proud of his sculptural work, which was displayed at the Pasadena Art Museum as a solo exhibition. During his career, Harrison has participated in more than 100 exhibitions, and his work has been represented in more than 40 museum collections in the United States and internationally, including the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the Louvre in Paris and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles. “His pieces are classic and timeless,” Judy says. It is not difficult to spot one of Harrison’s works. “He has a distinct style, but his shapes are varied. He’s been able to make thousands of differences in his pieces, which makes each piece distinguishable from the others,” Judy says. Harrison’s ceramic style is vessel-oriented, meaning many of his works are in the form of a vase, bowl or plate. They are celebrated for their intricate craftsmanship and fine design. He created many of his pieces during the Mid-Century Modern Movement, which was influenced by Scandinavian and Danish design styles. Simplistic designs and natural shapes characterize the movement and can be seen on Harrison’s pieces. He painted clear lines and vertical pinstripes on many of his creations.
Leaving a lasting legacy
Harrison’s career came to an abrupt end in his 80s. “He began to lose his vision and had to stop working,” says Marguerite. “He began to only be able to see silhouettes.” Although his work ended, his influence on the art world is historic. “The goal of any artist is to make a permanent influence and impression on humanity, for the better, of course,” says Marguerite. This is what Harrison has done during his stellar career. He has connected with many great artists and was either influenced by them, studied with them or left an impression on them. His craftsmanship also tells its own story. Harrison put great care and attention into his works; they tell a story about the time period in which they were made. For example, Harrison’s “Sgraffito Bottle” is reminiscent of California’s Mid-Century Modern Movement. The white pinstripes painted on the blue bottle tell the story of the artists who were influenced by Scandinavian design from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Harrison Macintosh sits back in his chair and sighs. His watch talks to him, saying the time is 4:30 p.m. He abruptly ends the interview, saying, “It is time for dinner.” He himself may be bound by time, but his works are timeless.