LIMA, Ohio - At first glance, Jack Earl's ceramic tableaux say tchotchke: the little dresser with an open drawer and a tiny lamp, book, and back scratcher on top; a man in a booth at a diner; a shirtless guy, beer bottle in hand, stretched out on a folding chair in his yard.
No edgy, urban art here; these are reminiscent of the molded ceramics a hobbyist would purchase and paint. Earl doesn't mind if people think it's the product of an unschooled artist.
"If someone wants to call it folk art, that's OK," he says. After all, last week, he delivered several pieces to the Perimeter Gallery in Chicago that represents him (a New York City gallery also sells his work). The price for a large piece, typically a month's worth of work, was set at $14,000.
And, his work is on view now through most of November at a dual show, "Jack Earl - Ohio Artist" at Artspace Lima (a retrospective) and Bluffton University (recent works).
"He plays on that [folksiness]. He's really a brilliant artist," says Scott Ashley, associate director at the Perimeter Gallery, which has shown Earl's art since 1985 and sold dozens of his pieces ranging from $500 on up. His story-like scenes blend whimsy with sophistication, and the result has broad appeal, Ashley says.
Earl's work is owned by both individuals and museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Earl is a master of both clay and paint, brandishing brilliant oils with meticulous detail. He's something of a stream-of-conscious poet, too, and often gives his pieces long names. The title of the small dresser evolving out of a tree trunk begins, "I knew a guy who made his own toothpicks. I didn't think too much 'a him makin' his own toothpicks."
He starts by coiling light clay. "I don't want any warping or cracking and it develops slowly so you can make adjustments." A friend fires it. "I was never very good at firing. I'd be impatient and fire it too fast."
He scrawls "Ohio" on several pieces. "Corn and beans," says Earl, 71, whose home and studio is on Indian Lake, 30 miles southeast of Lima. "I live and have lived for almost all my life in rural areas of Ohio."
A frequent character is Bill, a red-ball-cap wearing down-home fellow, patterned after Earl's mutt-loving late father-in-law, Roy Hanson. "He lived on a farm. I spent a lot of time there."
A departure from his small tableaux is a large triptych. Painted on its exterior doors is a medieval couple exchanging rings on a balcony overlooking a river; in the distance are midwestern farmsteads with laundry pinned to clotheslines, and beyond, a castle.
"I like for my work to represent where I'm from," he says.
Here, Earl plays off the sumptuous Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an illustrated manuscript commissioned in the early 1400s by the brother of French King Charles V. In the manuscript's representation of April, a more ornately-clad couple exchange rings in front of an idyllic pond and castle.
But inside the triptych's doors is something entirely different: the three-dimensional treasure of Earl's elderly mother. Her eyes are bright blue, white hair strands away from her forehead, her face and neck are deeply articulated with wrinkles and folds of skin.
He made a series of almost life-sized busts based on comic-book characters from his youth that had "the right power:" Prince Valiant, the Joker, Jughead, Olive Oil, Brutus. Gleaming with high gloss, he's also crafted busts of the Joker, Uncle Sam, and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, as well as fanciful characters: Medicine Man (a suit-clad torso with a fully-stocked medicine cabinet for a head), the Nosegay Guy (the head is a colorful bouquet, with eyes of white flowers, an oblong leaf for a tongue, and a red ball cap on top), and Stone Man with Steely Eyes (rising out of a proper suit, his head is a block of rock and his eyes are giant bolts).
A smaller work is a pair of busts called Louis XIV Sun Dog and Puppy Companion. They are a male and female, apparently 18th-century royalty, but the male has whiskers and she's got long black hairs sticking out of a large mole on her porcelain back. Their teeth and tongues are canine.
Earl doesn't claim to be analytical or political. "If politics change, your work is no longer relevant."
A strange couple on a park bench isn't about homelessness.
A David-and-Goliath tableaux has David in toga with slingshot and a wrench in his back pocket. The enemy's big, wounded head is stuffed into a garbage can. "I thought that was an appropriate place to put Goliath's head."
He draws creative energy from the first 30 years of his life. "I think those are the most influential years."
The son of a welder and homemaker, Earl grew up in the village of Uniopolis and graduated from Wapakoneta High School in 1952, a few years after astronaut Neil Armstrong. He earned a degree from Bluffton, a master's degree from Ohio State University, and taught public school. From 1964 to 1972, he taught at the Toledo Museum of Art's school of design and left to teach at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He was influenced by the slab-building expressionism of Montana ceramicist Rudy Autio.
"I decided I wanted to make something that people appreciate. I was working at the [Toledo] museum. I knew the most appreciated form was European porcelain. I copied these pieces from around 1700 to 1850. And I'd decorate them with animals and female figures."
Within three years, had a show at a contemporary museum in New York. Married and the father of three, grandfather of nine, he has earned a living from art since 1978.
In 1988, he received a prestigious $25,000 National Endowment of the Arts award. In 1997, he was one of five artists inducted as a fellow in the American Craft Council, and in 1990, he was made an honorary member of the National Council on the Education of Ceramics Arts.
"Jack Earl - Ohio Artist" opens with a reception today, 2 to 4 p.m. in the Sauder Visual Art Center at Bluffton University in Bluffton. Another reception will be Oct. 15, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. as part of homecoming weekend. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon. through Fri. and 1 to 5 p.m. Sat. and Sun/, through Nov. 22. Information: 419-358-3249.
A retrospective exhibit of Earl's work is at Artspace Lima, 65 Town Square, Lima, through Nov. 26. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon. through Fri., noon to 4 p.m. Sat., and by appointment on Sunday. Information: 419-222-1721.
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