Tony Hepburn. An Obituary.

Paul Kotula

Tony Hepburn
Photo Brian Olgosbee

Anthony “Tony” Hepburn was born September 9, 1942 in Manchester, England. While he had been groomed since youth to be a professional soccer player, he chose the path of artist. It may have been the result of an injury, but his early education was uncommon. Tony suffered a turbulent childhood and learning was difficult, especially as a “lefty” was only taught to write right-handed. Fortunately at the age of eleven, when children in England were tested to define their future education, it would be determined that Hepburn would be admitted into Manchester High School for Art, a school whose progressive program evolved around learning through visual making and recording. There Tony’s challenges were resolved effectively and his deep respect for art, education, and the written word emerged.

Tony Hepburn studied at Camberwell College of Art in London, receiving his National Diploma in Design in 1963 and later at London University earning his Art Teachers Diploma in 1965. He trained under esteemed faculty at both schools including renowned Modern potters Hans Coper and Lucie Rie and celebrated painters Frank Auerbach and Ron Kitaj, all pivotal to his studio practice involving a consistent embrace of ceramics and drawing. Hepburn developed highly defined traditional skills through his rigorous training, yet he had adventuresome inclinations. He was destined to become an important figure in ceramics from the very onset. Scottish singer, songwriter and guitarist Donovan gave him a place to live after learning he could not afford housing. He threw pots as the Duke of Edinburgh watched on, had tea with the Queen and traveled diamonds to the US for her in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. (I am not sure if the invitation to tea came before or after successful delivery.) His influential “Letter from London” column that appeared in Craft Horizons (now American Craft) from 1967 to 1970 introduced Hepburn to his American contemporaries and he began to travel to the United States beginning in 1968 as part of an exchange program sponsored by the British Crafts Council, but it was his visit in 1970 that would be transforming. Jane Hartsook invited Hepburn to teach the summer session at Greenwich House Pottery in New York. He taught surrounded by the work of Peter Voulkos and others of this circle and spent evenings with his roommate Joseph Kosuth who was developing his conceptual practice later to be known as part of the Art & Language movement. Hepburn was struck by the newness of each. He stated, “… I never really found my way back (to England).”

At the same time, his career at home was gaining ground. In 1969 his work was included in The Digswell Experiment presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Seibu Gallery, Tokyo; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. In 1970 he was awarded the Gold Medal for his work included in the prestigious Ceramic Biennale in Faenza, Italy. And, a highly significant solo exhibition, Recent Work (Materials Pieces) presented at Camden Arts Centre in London in 1971, affirmed Hepburn’s growing disposition toward a new presence in ceramics. Clay in varying degrees of process and form including extrusions, and often supported by systems of metal and rope, represented the medium through gravity rather than its more common impulse of volume.

In 1971, Tony Hepburn became Principal Lecturer in Fine Art at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry (now Coventry University) and remained there through 1975. At Coventry he became affiliated with a group of conceptual artists collaborating under the title of Art & Language, including founders Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Harold Hurrell; it rekindled that summer spent with Joseph Kosuth. During the 1974-75 academic year, Hepburn took a position as Visiting Artist and Head of Crafts at the Art Institute of Chicago and the following year (1976) he became Head of the Division of Art and Design at the noted New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University where he continued as Professor of Ceramics until 1992. Hepburn, his wife and artist Pauline, their two daughters Laura and Abby (Tony adopted both of Pauline’s children from two previous relationships), would begin life in a country whose vibrant contemporary ceramics movement was always appealing to Hepburn.

Tony Hepburn, Korean Gate, 2006. Collection Clayarch Gimhae Museum, South Korea. Photo Tim Thayer

At Alfred, Hepburn’s work shifted to test concepts, such as placement, location, and the security given by containment walls and later to celebrate the people who sought and made life in rural America. He formed still life using the cup and varying combinations and states of unglazed, yet fired clay to form precarious and tenuous situations. Hepburn also formed works with represented and real objects. Sculpted and found watering cans, boots, an array of mallets and funnels, etc., were common symbols for veneration and humanity. His use of representation was two-fold. It was essential to archive objects in which the actions of the body were recorded and also to record in clay, in a one-to-one ratio, as a means to understand them. Analogues through shifts in material manifestation invited closer observation of both the real and represented images. A key work from this period, R.T., pays homage to his colleague and neighbor the late Robert Turner. On the center of a wooden, alter-like supporting structure is Turner’s Canyon. It is flanked equally by three sensitively hand-built studies by Hepburn. They transition from clay representations to a metal funnel with a twig attached (to represent a mark on the Turner pot). Under the table lies a very large mallet set upon a stand as if it were a gavel. Hepburn considered Turner amongst the finest artists and his work a standard by which art should be judged. Hepburn would later co-author a monograph “Robert Turner: Shaping Silence, A Life in Clay” with former critic and art writer Marsha Miro (who would become the founding director of Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit).

Larger structures, ‘Gates’, also emerged in multiple forms during his years at Alfred, mostly during on-site installations in solo projects or collaborative ones with Jun Kaneko. Drawing, which was a continuous aspect of this studio production, became an active component of his installations, too, presenting them directly on walls for temporary experiences. Hepburn had numerous solo exhibitions during his tenure at Alfred University including those at Theo Portnoy Gallery, New York; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England; Exhibit A, Chicago; The New Gallery, Bemis Project, Omaha; Bellas Artes, Santa Fe, and Ester Saks, Chicago. His work was also included in 100 Years of American Ceramics, Everson Museum of Art, Everson, NY; Clay Revisions: Plate/Cup/Bowl, Seattle Art Museum, WA; The Eloquent Object, Philbrook Art Museum, Tulsa, OK; American Ceramics, Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul; and Drawings, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

In fall of 1992, Tony Hepburn accepted a temporary position as Visiting Head of Ceramics at Cranbrook Academy of Art while its then Artist-in-Residence, Graham Marks, was on leave. What was to be a one-year placement, turned into a sixteen-year commitment. Cranbrook felt ‘right’ to Hepburn, as did Detroit. He once stated, “Detroit reminds me of my native Manchester.” His first studio, designed by the esteemed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, was soon filled with remnants of ongoing experiments that he began at Alfred, but added castings of mannequin heads replete with blindfolds would later be presented in long rows within his commanding 1993 installation and performance Do Not Think About the Blue Door presented at the institution’s art museum. As part of the installation, Hepburn also built and remained within a cylindrical vessel with a rounded shoulder (a reference to Turner’s Dome series) in a scale that would contain his body. It’s interior was accessible by ladder supported by an “A” frame structure, both built by Hepburn and also then drawn onto one of the gallery walls during the exhibition. Large blue doors welcomed you to the space. This was an intensely vital time for Hepburn. He would soon enter three residencies at the European Ceramics Workcentre (EKWC) in `s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, that would transform Hepburn’s practice. There he formed bodies of work based on the paintings of the city’s namesake Hieronymus Bosch, Salman Rushdie’s writings on hybridity, and confluence of image and text by connecting a digitally designed font with pottery form. All of this work made utilized ceramic materials and technologies less common to his practice and the work explored multiple histories simultaneously.

Hepburn’s experiences at EKWC influenced more than his studio research. He based the design of the new ceramics studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art on those of EKWC making the new studio at Cranbrook among the most advanced in the country. And, as Hepburn’s growing interest in new technologies surrounded him, he began producing photographs based on centrifuge; his camera was at the center of each work, Photoshop his drawing tool. His life then changed drastically. His wife Pauline’s illness and passing from cancer overwhelmed him, so Hepburn created potent, yet mournful hymns in clay and other media that incorporated images and objects representing the technologically advanced medical equipment that was used in an attempt to cure his wife’s disease and to alleviate her pain. One work, a 4-foot-square black Formica-covered board (black squares appeared many times in his earlier drawings) supported by over- scaled prescription bottles and protected by chrome bed railings, contained in its very center two small vessels, one a dark and roughly textured simple pot that holds the other, a cast, delicate, smooth porcelain bottle.

During his Cranbrook years, Hepburn’s work was presented in solo exhibitions at Revolution, Detroit and New York; Dorothy Weiss Gallery, San Francisco; Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock; and the Clay Studio, Philadelphia. It was also included in such significant group exhibitions as Interventions, Detroit Institute of Arts; Ceramics Annual 2000, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont; World Ceramic Exposition, World Ceramic Center, Seoul; Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics 1950-2000, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The coffee was very slow in coming, Paul Kotula Projects, Detroit; and Ceramic Modernism: Hans Coper, Lucie Rie and Their Legacy, The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto.

In his late years at the Academy, Hepburn also committed to a large-scale invitational commission. His Korean Gate is installed at Clayarch Gimhae Museum, South Gyeongsang, Korea. After retiring from Cranbrook in 2008, he moved to Chicago where he continued to draw and write. Along with his column for Craft Horizons and his co-authorship of Robert Turner: Shaping Silence, a Life in Clay, Hepburn’s words have appeared in such periodicals as American Craft, Ceramics: Art and Perception, The New Art Examiner, and Ceramic Review. His work has also been the subject of many writers, from book authors to critics.

When asked about his vast and varying bodies of work Hepburn stated, “I have never wanted my work to be visually coherent or stylistically linear; the world changes, so too does my work…the mediating condition that resists confusion is the choice of clay as my… filter through which things pass.”

Hepburn received many awards during his lifetime including those from The American Craft Council (2008), The Virginia Groot Foundation (1991), the New York State Council on the Arts (‘90/’86) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1985). His work is included in numerous public collections such as Icheon World Ceramic Center, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul; Racine Art Museum, Racine, WI; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Kanazawa Art Museum, Japan; The Museum of Contemporary Art, `s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands; Mint Museum of Art, Charlottesville, NC; International Ceramics Museum, Faenza, Italy; Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI; and H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II, England. He became an American citizen in 2000.

Tony Hepburn also engendered hundreds of students with his knowledge and adventuresome inclination. They continue his legacy through their work, writing, and teaching. Hepburn had an uncanny ability to know each of his students before they knew themselves. He was brilliant, sometimes frighteningly so, but his students’ understanding of who they are and what art could be perpetually pushes them forward. Hepburn was for many, like the funnels that are represented over the years in his work, the ‘conduit’ for our creativity.

My last visit with Tony was spent mostly in silence; it was simply a connection of touch that formed our bond that day. It was a simple ending to our years of collaboration and friendship and, yet, also a complex one. It was like his art. In an article by Vincent McGourty published in Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 40 in 2000 (the same year Hepburn became an American citizen), the author addresses Hepburn’s performance: putting a red ceramic funnel on the head of a neglected statue of Hieronymous Bosch during a residency at ECWC. McGourty wrote:

An absence that speaks of a presence is an important factor of this and all the work (made during his residency). And it reminded me of another confluence strongly suggested by the cultural and geographical context of Hepburn’s encounter with the ECWC. At the beginning of the emerging Dutch republic, an empty hat was adopted as the symbol of liberty: coins were struck, for instance, with such an image. ‘To be called to the hat’ was a phrase that signified personal liberty; the end of bondage. At other times in history, that hat has carried the meaning of the outsider, the other, not subject to the rules and customs of the tribe. Liberation is something that the artist is concerned with here: to find the most direct means to present the work without the obstruction of his habitual decision-making, his aesthetic choices. Not to repress but to step aside. To alienate the familiar through a fundamental displacement urging the viewer to look past the cult of the artist’s personality and access the work directly. The physicist Richard Feynman has commented that our individuality is but a dance of atoms, in this sense individuality can be seen as plural. A work of art and its meanings also share this plurality, this unbounded flowing. In seeking simplicity and clarity the artist has achieved a dynamic that is, above all, expansive.