Lee Kavaljian, 84, and Tony Natsoulas, 51, are the odd couple of art.
Natsoulas, despite his small stature, seems larger than life. Outgoing, boisterous, full of energy, he’s a force of nature. Kavaljian, also diminutive, is quiet, shy, diffident and self-effacing. Yet they are the best of friends, and both are strong ceramic artists who are sharing a show at Solomon Dubnick Gallery.
Their works are as different as their personas. Natsoulas, who was described as one of the top 100 artists in the country in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archive of American Art, is known for brightly colored, large-scale figures and busts that range from guitar players and shoe salesmen to characters from popular culture and Greek mythology.
Kavaljian makes small- scale “spirit houses” based on various forms of Asian architectural miniatures that were placed in graves in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Intricate and ethereal, they are delicately daubed with as many as 11 layers of glaze that give them rich but restrained surfaces.
You would expect Natsoulas to overwhelm Kavaljian, but once you get him talking, he more than holds his own with the younger and more famous artist.
Now retired but still teaching biology and botany at California State University, Sacramento, Kavaljian came to making ceramics almost by accident. In 1956, he had some students in class who were art majors but were having difficulty doing botanical drawings. When Kavaljian teased them about not being able to draw, they explained that they were ceramics students, not draftsmen.
In self-defense, they challenged Kavaljian, who could draw on the blackboard with two hands, to try making a clay pot. To their delight, his first attempt failed absolutely as the clay flew off the potter’s wheel. But they invited him to come to the ceramics lab on Saturdays and keep trying. Eventually Kavaljian succeeded, and his work wound up in a show at the Richmond Art Center.
After that he was hooked. He continued studying ceramics with Ruth Rippon, Yoshio Taylor and other prominent regional ceramists. Eventually he developed his own method of constructing clay sculptures using leather-hard ceramics as opposed to the wet clay used for throwing pots.
A student and teacher of Asian art, who will appraise Oriental objects at the Crocker Art Museum’s appraisal day in May, Kavaljian became entranced by ancient Chinese “spirit houses” made to ease the passage of the deceased in the afterlife. Not being able to afford one, he decided to try making one. He was so successful that he was given a show of his efforts at the Judith Weintraub Gallery in 1990. Since then his spirit houses have won many awards and have been featured in Lincoln’s annual “Feats of Clay” exhibitions and in California State Fair art shows.
In contrast, Natsoulas settled on a career as a ceramic artist at age 11. While still in high school, he took concurrent classes in ceramics at the University of California, Davis, where internationally known neurontin ceramic sculptor Robert Arneson taught. It was the beginning of a long academic journey where he studied at California State University, Sacramento, with Rippon, Bob Brady and Gerald Walberg; at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore; and again at UC Davis, where he got his master of arts degree in 1985.
Over the years, he has done public art commissions, including monumental ceramic figures for the Downtown Plaza and municipal projects for the city of Sacramento and most recently, Stockton. His works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shigeraku, Japan; the University of Iowa; and many California museums, including the Crocker, the San Jose Museum, Oakland Museum, Laguna Museum and Triton Museum.
Natsoulas’ early works were raucous, expressionistic figures influenced by the Funk school of ceramics founded by Arneson and David Gilhooly. In recent years he has focused on entertainers, from the Beatles to Audrey Hepburn; a series of campy, over-the-top 18th century figures; and his current work, which relates to mythological figures from a variety of cultures.
Drawing on his Greek ancestry, he gives us a bust of Hephaestus, the Greek god of metal forging, sculpting Pandora. The oversized head of the figure is modeled on Natsoulas’ friend sculptor Joe Scarpa, and the small body is surrounded by attributes of the deity, who was also the god of volcanoes and employed the Cyclops and two robots of his own making in his studio.
Kavaljian is the model for another of his works titled “Lee Counts His Snails Under the Bodhi Tree,” which illustrates a story about the Buddha. In it, Kavaljian’s head is covered with snails, calling up the legend that when the Buddha was meditating to gain enlightenment, his head was burning in the hot sun until a congregation of snails came to rest on his head to protect it. It’s a charming piece and a good likeness of Kavaljian, which won the Best of Show Award at last year’s California State Fair.
In other works Natsoulas looks at Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam who preceded Eve, and a series of mythical creatures including a sea monster and a Philippine version of bigfoot. Also on hand are examples of his cartoonlike footwear, including a pair of “Banana Slippers” and “Break Shoes,” which are decorated with coffee and doughnuts.
Kavaljian’s works range from the tall, pagodalike structure “Dancer’s Spirit House” and the folk art- flavored “Bird Palace,” to the ethereal, powder-blue “Crystal Spirit House” and the innovative “East Meets West in a Roman Ruin,” which blends elements of classical Roman and Asian art in a semicircular structure that houses a small Thai Buddha. Fanciful and ornate, the houses seem to contain dark recesses in which spirits might dwell – not only the spirits of the deceased but, in some cases, the spirits of the land where modern structures were built. In either case, they are magical.