One of the photographs on the wall of the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art shows J. Sheldon Carey at the potter's wheel. But there's a twist: Either the wheel or Carey is upside-down.
During his 32-year career at Kansas University, Carey won respect from ceramicists nationwide for his innovations and his artistry, one of which was turning the potter's wheel upside-down to create some long, thin vessels. Now the products of Carey's innovation are on display at the museum, in a show called "Cermaics and Glass by J. Sheldon Carey.'' The exhibit, featuring 27 ceramic and glass sculptures, will be on display at the museum through Aug. 2.
"I like the smooth, clear, graceful lines and the natural shapes and the basic simplicity of his forms,'' said Tracey Cady, a Spencer curatorial intern who put the show together. "They're very graceful in my eyes.''
THE EXHIBIT honors a gift of 19 pieces to the museum from Carey and his wife, Aletha. He still lives in Lawrence, and last week he could be found standing near his sculptures and reminiscing about the techniques he invented.
The most striking innovation is the upside-down potter's wheel, which he first began using in 1954, according to Cady. The technique allowed him to make the tall, thin vessels that are among the most striking pieces on display. Carey first put the clay on the wheel, opened it and then turned the clay and wheel upside down, so that when he formed the vessel the clay was drawn down by its own weight rather than up by the hands of the potter.
"You could pull the clay with gravity instead of against it,'' Carey said.
IN 1964 he invented a way to use Separan 20, a synthetic substance, as a lubricant placed between the clay and the potter's hands. Unlike water, Separan 20 doesn't mix with clay, and as a result the potter's area is a lot less messy.
But the most important aspect of the Spencer show is the artist's work. Carey said that in his many years as a ceramicist, he tried to create pots that looked heavier than they really were.
"The eye gauges weight according to the thickness and the size of the lip,'' Carey said. "If you make those thicker without making the vessel very heavy, then you can get a pleasing sensation when you pick it up. It feels lighter than you thought, and you enjoy picking it up.''
IN ADDITION to the pots, some of Carey's glass sculptures are on display. He began blowing glass in 1968 after attending a demonstration at another university. He came back to KU and, when KU acquired the Chamney Stone Barn west of 15th Street, Carey set up a glass-blowing studio. The barn, now used on a limited basis, awaits renovation to make it meet safety codes.
Because he started blowing glass so late in his career, Carey said he is less confident of his abilities in that medium than in clay.
"I never was able to do some of things the fellow who's there now (Vernon Brejcha, professor of design) can do,'' he said.
Carey was born in 1911 in the rural community of Bath, N.Y., where he studied science in high school.
"MY SCIENCE background has helped me a lot over the years, particularly with the chemistry behind glazes,'' he said.
As part of a history project, Carey produced a bust of Julius Caesar that was so good an art teacher told him to go to art school. He went to the New York State College of Clayworking and Ceramics at Alfred, N.Y., and earned an undergraduate degree. He taught in schools and camps, and he eventually entered the Teachers College of Columbia University in 1941 to earn a master's degree. He joined the KU faculty in 1944 and retired in 1976.
Carey was a pioneer in more than one respect: He was making pottery an art form way before the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a revival in crafts brought in a wave of students to study the techniques.
"He was one of the few major people working in art pottery at that time,'' said Cady, who is completing a master's degree in art history. "There's quite a lot today, but there was hardly any concentration on art pottery back then.''