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Foster's Daily Democrat - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Finger puppets, 2001, raku clay. -
courtesy photo by Dick Kaufmann

Jane Kaufmann tells it with clay

Special to Showcase

Some visual artists surreptitiously convey their sentiments through abstract renderings and nebulous wisps of color which are open to viewer interpretation. Others make perfectly utilitarian objects such as jewelry, bowls or furniture. Still others create representational works of art, which, at the very most, give clues about the art on a label listing the title of the work as well as its dimensions and media used.

Durham ceramic artist, Jane Kaufmann, does not belong to any of these categories, which is why the 60-year-old grandmother has earned a special place in the hearts of art-lovers since she began exhibiting in the late 1960s.

Jane Kaufmann at work in her Durham studio. - courtesy photo by Dick Kaufmann

Rather than tip-toe around what message she wants to transmit, New Hampshire's most eminent underground artist leaves little room for confusion regarding the meaning or message behind her myriad artworks. From innumerable pint-sized finger puppet characters that include a hep cat band, computer geek, woman with balls, witches, and operas singers to her interactive towers which she incises with storytelling text on all four sides, Kaufmann leaves little to interpretation. She is an artist who uses clay to tell stories, from personal life experiences and political statements to just-plain-funny figures and painterly, incised plaques devoted to portraiture or the natural world. Her clay pieces are decorative and sculptural rather than the functional objects such as plates, cups and platters most potters favor.

Story tower: The woman who does everything

The woman who does everything makes home made Christmas cards, mows the lawn, shovels the driveway, makes cookies for the library, cuts her own hair, writes thank you notes the next day, sends Christmas boxes at the beginning of November, takes a long walk at night instead of belonging to a gym, e-mails her children everyday, works 40 hours a week, cooks a large pot of chili and freezes some for later. She brings in the basil in the winter and uses it for cooking until spring, divides her garden and gives plants to the neighbors, and one day when she is old and dying the angel of the lord will arrive in a big gold chariot, tap her on the shoulder and say: "Whadda Life."

The bespectacled Kaufmann, as might be imagined from her forthright, affordable story art, is not an indecisive person. Reputed for her biting clay commentary and humorous perspective, she simply announces from her home-based attic studio: "I'm ready to stop doing one-woman shows. Of course, I'll still do the group shows."

The New Hampshire Art Association's Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery hosts Kaufmann's solo finale, entitled Spring Ahead, featuring clay pictures and story pieces, which opened March 28 and will be on display through April 29. Kaufmann's clay works are usually on display in the Levy Gallery window and in League of N. H. Craftsmen shops year-round.

In recent months, she has participated in group shows with the N.H Potters Guild exhibition at The Art Gallery at UNH, the New Hampshire Art Association's exhibition at the Currier Gallery and another at the George Marshall Store Gallery in York, Maine. With more than 60 exhibitions to her credit, staged at university galleries, museums and arts centers from Boston to Portland, and all over the Granite State from Prescott Park to Peterborough, Contoocook to Keene and Manchester to Nashua, Kaufmann has also undertaken at least 10 solo shows.

Story tower: Mom

My Mom knew what she wanted and when she wanted it. She always stood up for what she thought was right. She yelled at store managers, walked out of restaurants and fought with her relatives. If they made her mad they never heard from her again. She could carry a grudge forever. But if she loved you she would let you know it. We moved around a lot. At every house we had a garden. She grew all kinds of vegetables and flowers and she always had a compost pile. She started out with nothing and ended up with a garden of Eden. My mom fought with me and I fought back. I thought I would grow up and walk out of restaurants and fight with everyone and I was afraid. But I grew up, made a garden, stood up for what I thought was right and lived happily ever after. Thanks Mom.

Sitting at a large desk beneath a canopy of verdant plants hanging from sky lights, Kaufmann paints color glazes onto a series of clay wall plaques she drew or incised into with landscapes. Without missing a stroke, Kaufmann recalls the many solo and group shows over a long career. Her first one-woman show, a display of brightly painted Styrofoam bas relief canvases, took place at Colby Sawyer College in New London in 1968, the year she began taking studies in sculpture, ceramics and printmaking at UNH in Durham. The clay comedienne and her husband, Dick, a physics professor, moved to the college campus town from New Mexico in the 60s.

Terming her Styrofoam show her first act of anarchy "My sculpture professor had asked me what I thought I was doing," she says, grinning Kaufmann pauses in her glazing to grab a pile of invitations she has saved from her shows over the years.

After her first exhibition, which also included wind-up trains covered with papier-mâché or organic Styroform forms she field tested in the halls ofNH U's Paul Arts Center, the artist began to experiment with clay forms.

Variations on themes

In the early years, she often participated in "art happenings" or art-in-public-places events such as Glove in 1974 which featured see-through gloves filled with things at her home; an arrangement of ceramic figures placed in the sand, or an environment in the sand, in 1975 called Beach Party; another group show staged in a Concord car dealer's garage and show room in which she made clay trucks for Truck Show in 1976 and another late 70s group show called I Love My Wood Stove, which threaded together works focused on wood and wood stoves.

Finger puppets are items the artist made early on in her career, "as small things to put in between the pots at the university kiln." Other themes emerged, too. "I've done things with themes in series, I've always made political figures," she said, holding cat Sadi in her arms. "For a while I was making a series of people in beds and groupings of sports cars and other vehicles. Then I made a series of ceramic pie wedges for one show."

In 1989, she and daughter, Becky, who had just returned from the Peace Corps, collaborated on a two-woman show featuring small sculptures and by 1990, Kaufmann was making her first story towers - four sided, standing rectangles a few feet high, incised with story text on all four sides that demanded a full-circle glimpse from the viewer, often topped with an incised picture orb or ceramic figure. The story tower, now made in shorter sizes, and the orb, like the finger puppet and political figure, found a permanent place in the artist's distinct inventory.

Kaufmann's considerable skills in drawing, composition and printmaking are more and more evident in the increased number of drawings on clay canvases or plaques she has exhibited. These feature landscapes, portraits and floral renderings and are sold ready to hang. "Another series I've been doing is making raised-relief tiles from a template which allows me to make say 10 daffodil plaques that I get to change with each pressing, Some are pink, some are yellow or white. Each is a bit different and that makes them affordable. Like the plaques, these tiles are very similar to the printmaking process."

A multiple process

Though many instantly identify Kaufmann's menagerie of themes and styles, many may not realize the sheer physical stamina and dedication required in making her work. She typically begins her baking and raku-firing in her driveway at 7 a.m. and is still at it at 3 in the afternoon. First, she creates her works in clay, carries them to her basement to bisque fire and returns them, once cooled, to the studio to hand-glaze. Once more the works are transported two flights down to her driveway where she begins the raku process. She places several art works in her hand-winched, gas-fueled kiln (which fellow students welded for her 30 years ago) located in the driveway. Once they become red hot, she removes the items with oversize tongs: "I peek inside the kiln after 20 or 30 minutes and remove them when the pieces look like ice cubes in the sun." Finally, she places the hot sculptures in metal trash cans filled with pine needles to seal the glazes into a crackly, shiny patina and then carries the pieces back upstairs to her third-floor studio for display.

Looking around her studio rooms, with shelves full of finished and partially finished works, Kaufmann is the epitome of contentment. "It's so good to be encouraged at home. Dick has always encouraged me from the first drawing I did in art class which he hung up to all the things I do now. He's made the bases for the story towers, taken all the pictures, attended all the events, transported my work. He has a good eye."

Story tower: Preppie turned slacker

Everyone knows "W" didn't really win the election. Everyone knows that Cheney is really running the country. Everyone knows that George is just a preppie turned slacker who spends all his time working out, playing video games and weekending with his family. And he can. His parents saw to it, his parents’ cronies saw to it and now we have seen to it. He has learned to say the same four things over and over and we praise him for talking. But will the uniter not the divider take away a woman's right to choose? Oops! Will "W" spend the surplus? Oops! Will that global warming go away with a little oil explorations? Oops! Is this the beginning of the end?

Spring Ahead is on display at the Levy Gallery at 136 State St. in Portsmouth through April 29. An artist's reception takes place at the gallery Saturday from 5-7 p.m. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. For more information call the gallery at 431-4230.

Story tower: The story of Rembrandt, history or gossip?

I love gossip which is just another word for history. I believe and don't believe everything I read and hear. It is said that Rembrandt liked money - that his students painted guilders on the floor to see if he would try to pick them up. Now this might not be the exact truth but it is probably close. His wife liked money too. It is said she talked him into secretly leaving Amsterdam so she could start the rumor he was dead, so she could sell his work at inflated prices. After the work was sold Rembrandt reappeared. Rembrandt made beautiful art and he liked to buy beautiful objects too. He collected art, books, sculpture, Indian miniatures, marine specimens, old knives and costumes. They said he bid so high at auctions that no one else came forward to bid. It's probably not true. Just gossip which is another word for history.