Duality: An Appreciation of the Ceramics of Donna Polseno and Richard Hensley

David W Romtvedt Ceramics Art + Perception 106 2017 Art + Perception Home

Sitting on my desk are two ceramic pieces that I’ve been looking at off and on for several months. Prior to sitting on the desk the same two pots sat for many earlier months on the mantle in my office, and as I worked I’d regularly stop and look at them. One, made by Richard Hensley, is a rather pointed symmetrical oval form twenty inches long by twelve inches wide at the midpoint by an inch and three-quarters deep. It could be used as a serving dish or as a stunningly elegant swimming pool designed for a miniature world. The piece is glazed in a range of beige tones going from matte mustard yellow through a very delicate almost rose color. Two plants with grayish white leaves and seedpods heading toward blue decorate the bottom of the dish. Flowers but I don’t know their names. The seedpods are about to explode sending their seeds everywhere.

The second piece, made by Donna, is a ten-inch tall matte black vessel. Maybe it’s a pitcher for an exotic drink—something taken in small doses—or maybe it’s a cruet to hold olive oil. As Richard Hensley’s serving dish was, this pitcher form is decorated with images of a flowering plant—delicate salmon tone stems with only a few leaves of the same color and, at the ends of the stems, globelike blossoms that are slightly more yellowish than the leaves. These globes are large and so heavy as to bend the entire plant toward the ground.
Swooping arcs.

I first saw these pieces two years ago in a show featuring Polseno’s and Hensley’s work at Margo’s Pottery and Fine Crafts in Buffalo, Wyoming. I was immediately struck by the technical mastery, bold forms, and sophisticated surface decorations revealed in all the pots shown and I’ve thought about the similarities and differences in the two potters’ work ever since. Because Hensley and Polseno are a married couple who have worked together for over forty years, I wondered about how the two had influenced each other, what aspects of their work lives they shared and what they kept separate. I found myself noticing characteristics the pots shared as well as those that illuminated aesthetic contrasts.

Hensley and Polseno’s work ... is so finely attuned to itself as to approach perfection.

Richard Hensley commonly works with wheel thrown porcelain—gas fired in a car kiln, reduction, cone ten. Most of the pieces I saw ranged from satin to glossy glaze finishes. Surfaces were marked sometimes by great washes of color, sometimes by quite painterly images though the painting was fairly loose, impressionistic, implying as much as it portrayed. There was a lot of blue, aqua, and celadon green. The pots were unabashedly and happily functional, ready for daily use in all its forms.

About ten years ago, while out walking, Hensley realized he felt some dissatisfaction with his work. “I knew that something was missing in my pots,” he said. Walking and wondering. What is the missing element? “I realized two things—I love glazes that run and I love making patterns.”

These two loves suggested motion on the surface of the pots. Hensley began to think more about dark and light. “I realized that when I made a mark in leather hard clay the glaze settled into the depression and was thicker and so produced a shinier finished surface, while on unworked clay the same glaze applied in the same way was thinner and ended up matte.”

Combining glazes that run and pattern-making with attention to light and dark space, Hensley’s work became more labor intensive with several stages required to produce a finished pot—throwing and trimming, incising designs, bisque firing, hand painting more designs, waxing over these designs, dipping glazes, more incising, waxing again, dipping again. “It makes me tired thinking about it and I end up throwing away a lot of pots.” But what’s left is filled with motion and both light and dark.

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