Studio Visit: Marvin Bjurlin

I’m announcing my intention to write more regularly.

My plan is to post shorter pieces more frequently, to worry less about my prose and more about sharing the art that I am privileged of encountering in the course of my work as a curator and gallery director.

Let me know what you think.  Are you still interested in reading Scene Unseen?

"Marvin Bjurlin: Swimming in Fire" at Signature Contemporary Craft in Atlanta, Summer 2014.

“Marvin Bjurlin: Swimming in Fire” at Signature Contemporary Craft in Atlanta, Summer 2014.

One of the first artists I met upon my arrival in Western New York, Marvin Bjurlin is a central figure in the arts community here in Chautauqua County. Although he retired nearly a decade ago–he taught ceramics for forty years at SUNY-Fredonia–Bjurlin continues to work every day. He has designed his life so that he is always engaged with the most essential materials– soil and water–and grounded in the most primary actions–gardening and making tools for life.


I first encountered Bjurlin’s gorgeous wood-fired sculptures of fish forms when I saw a cluster of them hung high on a post, like totems, in his huge backyard vegetable garden (see slide show below).  Presented this way,  jutting out perpendicularly from the top of a wooden pole, they reminded me of Japanse carp kites (Koinobori) and Haniwas, archaic Japanese figures made from tubes of clay.


Bjurlin has been making these fish for some time, and is still very much in the groove of repetition and variation;  each piece looks quite different from the next. “All the large fish sculptures start with a known and named species.”  Bjurlin starts by making drawings from actual fish or illustrations but his designs diverge from the original sources as he builds each sculpture. I don’t know anything about fish anatomy, so I mainly see character and personality in the fish.  Some have menacing teeth and look angry, others look friendly, good-natured or happy. Some are sleek and graceful, while others would likely lumber through the water.

Bjurlin, along with a group of area ceramicists, fires work in a big  kiln located on a friend’s wooded property. Having been invited to one of the festive 48-hour wood firings, I caught a glimpses of the red hot fish profiles “swimming in fire” when the kiln doors opened to feed wood or soda to the flames. The sight of the  glowing hot fish standing on end, as if swimming upward toward the sky, was so beautiful I doubt I will ever forget it. 

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Aside from these sculptures, Bjurlin is a potter at his core. Making ceramic vessels for everyday use is as important to him as is growing the organic food he and his wife Tina eat year round. It seems soil is the center of it all for Bjurlin. He cultivates the soil to grow heirloom vegetables and works clay–which is, of course, a fine-grained soil–into tableware for everyday use.

As he showed me his his recent tableware, Bjurlin said “there is a conceptual marriage of my passion for food and for clay” in this work because of “the exclusive use of leaves from plants I have grown for food” and because “tableware is associated with food.”  Here, Bjurlin brings together the two main parts of his life in an intimate way.


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Bjurlin presses carefully placed sage, kale, chard leaves–he uses leaves from all the plants–into a slab of clay making an impressions, then lays the slab over a mold to shape plates, platters and bowls. To make these impressions stand out, after the bisque firing, he brushes them with a laterite wash. In the final firing the iron in the wash darkens the delicate lines of the mid vein and areole enclosures formed by the ribbing of each leaf’s lateral veins. Falling wood ash and soda too can effect their visibility. When I hold one of Bjurlin’s plates or shallow bowls in my hands these veiny leaves seem hyperreal, somehow more real than life.

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See Bjurlin’s website here.