Artist in Profile:
TIMOTHY WEBER’S EAST NASHVILLE STUDIO is filled with all the expected tools of his trade — potter’s wheels, carving tools, paintbrushes, cans of paints and glazes, and large kilns ready to transform the objects he molds from soft clay into solid ceramics.
The results of his work are displayed on the shelves lining his studio. Functional dinnerware, cups, and decorative planters and vases share shelf space with whimsical abstract forms combining pottery with bits of bamboo, wood, and bone, evoking Japanese design filtered through an otherworldly aesthetic.
“The things that people can do with clay are extremely diverse and that’s the heart and soul of what I do,” Weber says. “You can cast it, extrude it, throw it, and liquefy it. There are a lot of ways of working with clay from very controlled and functional to spontaneous and artistic.” A native of Boise, Idaho, Weber discovered the heart and soul of clay while in high school.
“I had two very good art teachers,” Weber says. “They drew me in, encouraged my interests. It really got me excited. I started hanging out at Boise State University where John Takehara was teaching. He encouraged me and allowed me to sit in on classes.”
Takehara, a renowned Korean-American potter, collector, and educator, championed the utilitarian form and aesthetic of traditional Japanese and English potters. Takehara also introduced Weber to the work of Japanese-American artist Toshiko Takaezu, a pivotal figure in elevating ceramics to a fine art. She combined the principles of Eastern philosophy and abstract expressionism into art.
“I was impressed with her work,” Weber says. “I met Toshiko briefly in Boise, probably in 1969, and then years later on several occasions. She encouraged me to do more free-glaze work. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know and how expansive the field is.”
Despite his passion for clay, Weber did not enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school in 1969. The Vietnam War was at its height, and he soon received his draft notice from the U.S. Army. The relatively isolated and politically conservative atmosphere of Boise provided little contact with the antiwar movement, but as Weber’s Army training progressed, he developed serious personal doubts about the job he was being trained for.
“I was in the Army’s leadership school when I started questioning my life and what I was doing,” Weber says. “I finally decided to file as a conscientious objector. I wasn’t a rebel. I followed the rules, although my drill sergeant didn’t like me very well. My dad spent 20 years in the service and supported my decision. I had a choice of getting out or staying in a noncombative role. That led to me becoming an arts and crafts specialist for the U.S. Army.”
Stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., Weber worked with fellow soldiers, teaching art classes in ceramics and working in the base’s recreation center until his discharge in 1972. After briefly returning to Boise, he enrolled in Troy State University in Troy, Ala., where he earned a degree in studio art.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Weber worked in a variety of arts-related positions in Alabama. He served in administrative positons with the state of Alabama, completed residencies at several arts centers, and worked in the Alabama public school system, overseeing pottery workshops in over 100 different schools. In 1992, he moved to Nashville and quickly fell for its charm.
“I could live anyplace, but I love Nashville,” Weber says. “I can’t get enough of the local music scene. The diversity of music is wonderful. I have several friends in that field and I love going to shows. People ask me if I’m a musician all the time. I tell them I’m a mudslinger, not a guitarslinger.”
Weber continued working as an artist, educator, and administrator with the Tennessee Arts Commission, as a program director of the Appalachian Center for Craft, and serving residencies at various Tennessee schools.
“Working in arts administration took me out of the studio,” Weber says. “There are times I wish I hadn’t stepped away from creating, but it gave me a chance to recharge both physically and emotionally. In 2007, just before the recession hit, I returned to the studio full-time, which was just about the worst time to go into business making something that people don’t absolutely need.”
While Weber may sound self-effacing, he is simply recognizing a basic economic reality confronting all artists. “Some people say I can get a bowl anyplace, why do I need this bowl?” Weber says. Pulling a set of four pasta bowls from the shelf, he sets them out on the table in front of him. Although the quartet of dinnerware is uniform in shape and size, each one is decorated with different, seemingly random splashes of blue, burgundy, and other colored glazes.
“People who understand how wonderful it is to live with handmade objects get it,” Weber says. “Even simple, functional pieces can become abstract and spontaneous art through techniques like free-glazing. I deliberately create a specific effect by brushing, dragging, and drawing through the glazes, but allow randomness in the details. The result is bowls that are all the same and yet very different.”
Another technique frequently employed by Weber is sgraffito (Italian: /zgrä'fētō/ to scratch). Weber inscribes the wet clay with an X-Acto knife, creating lines and patterns. He then applies a layer of glaze, allowing it to sink into the inscribed patterns, and wipes the wet glaze from the surface before firing. This technique is used on both functional pieces and purely aesthetic pieces emphasizing clean and simple architecture.
Weber’s extensive work with raku pottery is on the other end of the artistic spectrum. Originally based on 600-year-old traditions for the creation of Japanese tea ceremony ware, raku is characterized by hand-shaped, fairly porous vessels, with unique, often metallic-looking finishes achieved by moving red-hot pottery from a kiln into a container of paper or other combustible material. “Raku is more about form, surface, and spirituality,” Weber says. “The form of the pieces often invokes entrances and gateways. The finishing process is spontaneous and sometimes leads to happy accidents. I refer to raku as working with a state of happy anticipation. You never know what’s going to come out.”
As with the Taoist principle of yin and yang, Weber has found balance in the duality of the commercial and the aesthetic. He teaches both classes and workshops, and divides his time between production of functional pieces and more purely artistic work.
“I’m a poor potter, but I’ve had the chance to see a lot of great stuff and get to know a lot of wonderful people,” Weber says. “I believe living with work that is handmade by someone you have met enriches your life. I hope my work has that effect, but I also know that it’s the richness of the people I’ve met over the years that has been my greatest reward.”