RUTH KRAUSKOPF: Stoneware + Soul
Ruth Krauskopf is a Chilean ceramist whose base is located in an idyllic corner of Santiago’s residential area. She can be found, however, on occasion in China, California or Europe, participating in workshops, creating sculpture or communing with fellow artists. Her artwork is dynamic, dramatic and determined; her utilitarian ware – an integral part of the arsenal of any ceramist who has to finance her operation – is harmonious, gracious and tough. Ruth, as a person, is gentle and polite, yet ruthless in her commitment to her art and craft.
Earth and fire are the basic components of ceramics. Ruth is pure earth, while her essential teacher, Peter Voulkos, represents fire at its most incendiary. Anyone who knew Ruth before her encounter with the legendary bad boy of stoneware could never imagine that she could interiorize the soul behind the exuberant theatrics offered up by contemporary ceramics’ most decisive figure. Like earth itself, Ruth runs deep and solid. She casts Voulkos’ teachings in that mold. True grit is an integral part of art in clay, and Ruth discovered that secret at Voulkos’ California studio in the mid 1980s.
Since that singular learning experience, she has developed her own essence, one which, of course, has a feminine essence. Her style has emerged without the antics of her mentor, whose public demonstrations reverberated like rock concerts, with the vibrations of loud speakers bruising the surface of the mountainous masses of clay the muscular master could make dance on the wheel like a stripper spinning her curves on a pole.
Ruth honors that larger-than-life heritage in a body of work that lets the clay live, the surface breathe, and the form remain free of superficial cosmetics. She achieves textures that scrape the skin, tones that echo the earth itself, volumes that strike the proper balance between harmony and discord. Each primeval shape insinuates its rapport with nature, a shot at universality in its most primitive character. There is no hype, no spin, no artificiality, no superficiality: just the fundamentals.
But she cannot hide her personality: she betrays it with every gesture. Serious in intention and application, a sly trace of humor, an off-centered gaze, an uplifted eyebrow, a spot of color reveal her true self in the work. She is someone who can still be astonished, an inveterate optimist: the truth is just around the corner. Investigation is her second nature. Trial and error is as apt as it was the first day she touched clay. Curiosity drives her, experimentation precedes action; then action encompasses the experiment into her bag of tricks. No wonder she is now a fixture on the international scene, the rare Chilean in an international community that knows the country for its wines and minerals.
If Voulkos achieved his mastery with brute force, superhuman manipulation, monumentality, the macho approach to clay, Ruth found her path on a more personal scale. Still, the dimensions of her sculpture exceed those of the majority of her contemporaries. Anthropomorphic figures can reach heavenward a meter and a half; structures which bring to the mind’s eye reminiscences of archaic constructs stretch a meter or more across the horizon. She is always striving to breach the limits and advance across the other side. Her quest is her motivation; her eye is on the coming challenge. Looking back is not an alternative.
In 2004, Chilean painter and ceramic sculptor Benjamin Lira caught the gist in an introduction to a catalogue of her work: “Esthetically, the work of Krauskopf has its roots in Abstract Expressionism. She questions every idea, meditates on each gesture, on each detail before executing it. She models her ceramics with the precision of a surgeon, only manipulating the clay when necessary, when indispensable. She cuts, shapes her forms to just the right degree, until that point when they require no more information to transmit their vital breathe. This process converts each piece of ceramic in an element that transcends, that transports us to reflect on the mystery of art.”
In her own words, “I now depend on my gut feeling; I’ve learned and continue to learn to listen to my inner voice. I shy away from dependence on glazes, on pure technique, or on academic formalities. I have always felt that it was more important to produce work that was unsettling. My motto has been: beware of an excess of balance, symmetry and perfection.”
Not only does she adhere to that formula, but she shares it with dozens of students and other ceramists that frequent her workshop. An entire generation of potters and artisans has emerged from the rambling sheds that rest beneath the shade of strategically placed trees. Her followers have had all traces of complacency drilled out of them: the emphasis is on deep-felt commitment.
In 1984, Ruth started her workshop, called Huara Huara, a native name given to the short street where her family resides in the foothills of the Andean Cordillera. The geography in part dictates the closeness to nature through its dramatic dimensions. No one can stand under the snow-topped peaks soaring 2,500 meters overhead without experiencing awe, without respecting the granular specks of Mother Earth that are the raw material of clay.
Wrapped in her unflappable calm, she manages to create sculpture, produce pots and plates, teach, manage a busy production facility, make an occasional book, edit and publish a periodical, Esteca, travel, keep a husband happy, children connected and grandchildren amused. Her imagination generates multitudes of potential projects, her mind hones them down to the possible ones, and her will power provides the energy to carry out the fundamental few. Next on the list is to build a wooden workshop/retreat at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, an hour and a half’s drive from Santiago.
Not just an accomplished artist, Ruth also has devised ways for the members of the workshop to commercialize their wares: imagine a table the length of a football field mounted in a riverside park stacked with tableware, thousands of plates, cups, bowls, vases, etc., set out to sell to a Saturday crowd of anxious crafts consumers. For nearly a decade, Huara Huara has been organizing La Mesa Larga (The Long Table) twice a year, in April and October, in an upscale neighborhood, summoning a database of 1500 satisfied customers to return for more.
She has managed to be considered an artist in a country where ceramics has traditionally been considered a pastime to occupy restless housewives. Her relentless crusade to awake her fellow countrymen to the realities of today’s role of art in clay has produced a significant change in Santiago’s sensitivity to the role of both the artistic and utilitarian creations emerging from the city’s kilns. Jose Zalaquett, Chile’s most distinguished personality in the defense of human rights, has given her the honorary title of the country’s Most Distinguished Ceramist.
Ruth, of course, must have an anchor to be able to maintain the pace, renew her energies and share the common responsibilities. That anchor is Miguel, her husband for 30?? years. Miguel is a research physicist and director of ??? at the University of Chile. His profound humanity exceeds his ample academic credentials and he is, in this case, the clay that Ruth’s inner flame converts in creation, a fortuitous meeting of two powerful elements.
Santiago, October 2008