Vol. 2 | Tony Hepburn: Vignettes | Ben Teague

Tony Hepburn: Vignettes

Ben Teague
Tony told stories when you had some time with him. He would talk about his days at Alfred, throwing with Robert Turner, getting booze for Peter Voulkos. When he told such stories, his griot-like impressions became indelible with details locked in time and space as if fresh from a firing.

Just about every former student remembers the day they got the call. The call that would come “This is Tony Hepburn… I want you to come to (Cranbrook or Alfred).” While many answered immediately, there are a few who nearly missed the boat, or were left entirely “sittin’… wastin’ time.” To miss the boat was so foolish, because when you accepted his invitation, your life changed – forever. We became students of Tony’s, which is a simple enough statement, but something which would prove a Herculean challenge to live up to. What did he teach? He taught lessons about love and aesthetics, how to love, about life, how to live, about art, how to work, how to make and how to play. How did he teach? He taught thoughtfully, thoroughly, and as though it was the most important thing he could do after Pauline, his wife, left this world.


“Old Rockin’ Chair’s got me”
waiting for that bear
his judgement day will be here
“The Impulse
came through
I killed a bear
not as an act of aggression
but of protecting my property,
my family
…permission to kill
this rogue bear
at 2am
sitting in my barn
a cup of coffee
and all the sheep behind me
the Bear tore the door off
I stood
I fired
my first Bullet
and the Bear
fell down dead.”


Once you were in, if you looked and listened closely, you became stuck, mired in Tony Hepburn. He was bright in the mornings – a singular medullary ray, magnificent. So brilliant he became a reflection. It would happen so quickly that you wouldn’t notice until the work was done.


Audrey Flack’s quote was a favorite of Tony’s, “When you start working, all of your teachers, friends and family are there with you. As you continue to work, one by one they leave, until you are left alone. And then YOU leave.”

More to the point (from another conversation): Regarding Voulkos

“I asked the students who they wanted as a visiting artist. They said Voulkos. So I called him up and asked him to come. He said, ‘No Way! I’ve been there, they put me in a motel with nothing to drink and it is cold.’ In response I promised him two things. (1) I would give him a bottle of Scotch when he got off the plane and (2) that he could come in March.” (In England, March was beautiful and Spring-like and was most familiar to Tony as a good time for a visit.) Tony continued: “Instead, that March it snowed a few days before he arrived but I did give him his Scotch upon his arrival at the airport. My daughter had a snookie flask. He asked if he could borrow it. She nodded emphatically, Yes! So he poured his Scotch into it and went to Alfred. He was working on a large plate and it was off kind of like this (Tony wobbles) and an undergraduate says, ‘Mr. Voulkos, your clay is not centered.’ He then replied, ‘I’m completely here.’”


Throwing many of his pots in St. Ives, Bernard would toil each day, throwing, trimming, decorating and firing. All parts of the potter’s process and each aspect of Bernard’s process was masterful and appreciated by nearly everyone. One day, Tony decided to take the Leach cups and put slip on them and fire them again. When Tony talked about this action, it was like listening to someone explain a phenomenon scientifically. It was a way to demystify, to steal the fire, to extinguish the mythology. It was also something, he reconsidered, questioned. To Tony, the quality of the work was directly related to the quality of the questions put to the work. Here it wasn’t a question of should it be done, but why not.


“Some Drawings won’t go to bed.”
“Five Mile Drawings – do one thing close, get back, get close. Track back and forth to the five mile mark.”


“[Clay] has 1000 moments to interact with.”


Tony liked a poster he saw in a physics department that said: “Gravity – not just a good idea, it’s the law.”


“1, 2, 3… Crunch – what was once one shape is now another, and all the while, all you are doing is chewing.” Chomping away at an apple was a way in to Tony’s approach to sculpture. He would bring apples to a lecture to hand out, furthering the audience’s understanding of sculpture and giving a sculpture back to everyone that participated.


In 2004, the Cranbrook Ceramic Department took a trip to Holland. We arrived in the Fall. To see Autumn in Amsterdam was so romantic, so perfect and so still. I will never forget that perfection. We took many trips as a group, but on one occasion, at the Van Gogh Museum, I kept running into Tony. I saw him inspired, awed, even question struck. Once he observed,”(Here is) the first one where material and image are equal.” Next, Tony said, “I had a bet with myself, as to which painting you would like the most … the upside down crab?” He was right! But how? I will never, ever know. This was just another aspect to Tony’s teaching that gets mentioned over and over again – his unbelievable ability to know something about you without knowing you. How could he?

One impression that we spoke about a few times, was the day he asked Pauline to marry him. Certainly a day that he remembered clearly when he changed his direction for love.

He often proved that even when you don’t know someone, you really do, because like you they are skin and bone, tears and laughter, right and wrong, and might prefer, with feet of clay, to rather take a line for a walk than walk any line.


Tony Hepburn, ppplant, 2008. Collection Icheon World Ceramic Center, South Korea. Photo Tim Thayer