A conversation with Francesc Burgos ranges from ancient ceramic firing methods to the way Mozart visualized a musical composition “almost as a three-dimensional form” before he ever wrote it down, a method not unlike this ceramist and sculptor’s manner of creating his own work.
That intellectual scope is to be expected from a man who holds a multitude of master’s degrees: one in philosophy from the University of Barcelona in his native Spain; one from the University of California at Berkeley in architecture; one in ceramics from the University of Utah where he studied under David Pendell and was awarded his MFA in 1999.
That he applies all of these academic degrees to his work will be evident in his Phillips Gallery show.
Burgos can’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved in visual art. As a teenager he did freelance illustrations for magazines, then went on to furniture design. When he came to this country he made masks for many years, first in papier-mâché, later in synthetic material. Then, working with paper, he came up with a series of forms that became origami masks that were commissioned by the City of Barcelona for Carnaval and later sold in museum gift shops. “Each mask comes flat and creased. You fold along the lines and it becomes a three-dimensional headgear,” Burgos says.
He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years and spent some of that time utilizing his architectural degree. One day, he went to the Asian Art Museum there and saw an exhibition of early ceramics, mostly from the Japanese tea ceremony. “In all my life,” he says, “I had not paid attention to ceramics. When I left the museum, I knew I was at least going to learn about it.” He began taking classes at the local community college and when his wife, Ruth Tsoffar, got a teaching job at the U of U he determined to start over, to “learn ceramics properly.” And so he did.
Today his studio is in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan, where his wife teaches comparative literature and women’s studies and Burgos lectures as an adjunct.
The artist makes unforgettable simple forms and magical abstracted animal shapes of hand-built clay. Several of the pieces for the Phillips show are porcelain and incorporate terra sigillata, a technique used by the Greeks and Romans. A very fine slip fills the surface and enhances the surface texture, Burgos explains in a telephone interview. Although first fired in his electric kiln, these pieces were then surrounded by sawdust and pit fired. “The smoke created by the sawdust creates random patterns on the surface of the pieces,” Burgos says. “It’s a very old method.” American Indians use only the pit and cow dung to create a similar effect, he said. “It’s much more efficient.”
The artist is pleased with the spiral piece he completed for the show. He explains the difficulty with the pieces he makes: “I try to push the structural possibilities of the clay while it is being built, and also afterward, while it is being fired, when the pieces start to become soft at the firing point. I have a certain number of losses,” Burgos says. He frequently will study a form in drawings and templates before starting a piece, sketching “elevations, plans and sections to understand how to build it and how it will support itself.”
The tower was built and also fired on its side. That was necessary so it wouldn’t collapse, Burgos explains. Afterward, most pieces are stable on their own. “I never know if they will stand up as I need them to, but most of the time I get it right.”
He has made three related pieces that he likes; one will be in the show of new work. The first piece sold at Phillips and “to some it looked like an antelope and to others it looked like a Chinese symbol, so we decided it would be the Chinese symbol for an antelope,” he says, laughing. The new piece clearly could come directly from The I Ching, but it is intended as a very abstracted antelope. Another delightfully debatable figure, not in the show, is what Burgos describes as “the Chinese ideogram for a prancing deer.”
Burgos is inspired by geometry and music, specifically “Italian Renaissance up to Mozart” and Irish music. No incongruity there. Each has a very clear structure, he says, the melody is orderly. “Very often in Renaissance and baroque music the rhythm and structure almost has a volume to it – it is organized the way an architectural building is organized. Listening to the music often urges me to sketch.”
He has said his main interest is in vessels, in those structures (natural or human-made) that can “contain and protect life in its multiplicity of form, a hard wall around an empty space . . .” Most of his clay pieces start with a thin slab as a base. He says he then layers and pinches successive coils or wads of clay around the outside, what he terms one of the oldest clay-building techniques.
Burgos has requested wall space for this show. He plans to install murals and free-standing structures of different sizes using wood dowels and porcelain connectors. It’s an art form he developed when he had to transport the large, heavy ceramic pieces from his MFA show to Michigan from Utah. He wanted something in the future that was light and cheap to move. One time he used wine corks instead of porcelain to connect the dowels; another time he used no connectors at all. “I figure out the angles I want the dowels to meet and the junction points and then I build the junction pieces I want the connectors to hold together. Very small variations in the spaces in the connectors will affect how the wood responds. I can assemble the same piece at different times and it will have a completely different impact on the viewer. That interests me,” Burgos says. “Referencing the metaphor of music, it’s like a different interpretation every time I assemble it.”
Gallery-goers will have the opportunity to experience similar structures up close and personal. “If you poke it very gently, the whole piece quivers and sways like giant soap bubbles,” Burgos says. “It’s very difficult to invite viewers at the gallery to poke the pieces because they are very fragile. On the other hand, anyone who has worked with ceramics knows that to truly appreciate something you have to hold it, to touch it.”
Regardless, Phillips Gallery Director Meri DeCaria asks, in the very nicest way, that visitors please not touch the art.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.