In the early 1970s, two boys were trespassing in the Tea Gardens, an abandoned estate atop the Montecito hills. Along the way, they found some clay and made simple pinch pots with the moist mud while enjoying the property’s legendary view. One boy secretly smuggled some of the pots home in his backpack, cooked them in La Colina Junior High’s kiln, and then gave one to his younger buddy, a Hope Ranch kid named James Haggerty.
“I thought it was interesting to literally take a piece of earth and turn it into something,” remembered Haggerty, now a 45-year-old professional potter. “That was my first introduction to clay.”
Soon afterward, Haggerty started junior high at La Colina, where on his first day of art class, he was shown a video of Gertrud and Otto Natzler-potters famous for their ceramic glazes-throwing flammable materials into their kilns, causing flames to leap over the sides. “I was hooked,” said Haggerty. “At that point, I knew what I wanted to do. I was 12 at the time.” He spent the summer collecting golf balls from the La Cumbre Country Club lake to save up for his first kiln, which he bought while still in seventh grade. The next year, he had his first pottery sale at Santa Barbara Unity Church.
Today, more than 30 years later, the Vieja Valley, La Colina, and San Marcos High alum is considered one of the best ceramicists in California, if not the world, and collectors covet his work because it’s coated in glistening, iridescent, and otherworldly glazes, all formulated from scratch by Haggerty. And while many Santa Barbarans have collected Haggerty’s small and large pieces over the years-including this writer-he’s now getting a proper hometown debut, with his first show at the Sullivan Goss gallery, the premier venue for contemporary art in town. Though the nearly two dozen works have been on display since early September, Haggerty’s exhibit has its official reception tonight, October 2, as part of First Thursday.
Good History and Ghost
When he’s not working in the studio behind his West Figueroa Street home where he’s lived for 16 years, Haggerty can often be found scouring bookstore shelves for tomes on Santa Barbara history. His fascination with yesteryear is fitting, because Haggerty is very much a product of this town’s 20th century trajectory: In 1969 when Haggerty was seven, his family moved here from Massachusetts because his dad got a job in the burgeoning aerospace industry.
Once here, Haggerty lived the carefree, beach-loving life we’ve all heard about from longtime locals, and then found pottery, a craft that’s thrived in Santa Barbara since the early 20th century, when Frederick Rhead-who holds the record for the most expensive American pottery piece ever sold-began a studio here. In the years since, Santa Barbara has remained a hotbed for pottery, so much so that in 2008, Haggerty explains, “If you go to the beach art show on Sundays, you end up seeing a great diversity of ceramics, and it’s really hard to see that anywhere.”
After high school, Haggerty put in work at Santa Barbara Ceramic Design, and then headed north to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. But that didn’t offer enough technical training-especially when it came to glazes-so Haggerty headed to Otis-Parsons in Los Angeles, where he received a BFA. While pursuing a master’s degree at Long Beach State, Haggerty taught glaze calculation and industrial molding and wandered toward an academic existence. “But that’s not really where my heart was at,” he said, explaining that he was simultaneously making custom glazes for industrial design companies in Burbank. “My heart was in making ceramics.”
In Haggerty’s best L.A. story, he relayed that passion to an emerging movie star named Demi Moore, who came by his studio to get some pointers on working the pottery wheel for her role in the film Ghost. “We taught her how to fake it,” laughed Haggerty. “But a ceramicist with a trained eye can watch that movie and see that she only fakes it so well.”
In 1992, seven years after leaving Santa Barbara, Haggerty followed his heart back home to be with Linda Janos-a woman he’d befriended years before at S.B. Ceramic Design and would later marry-and the town he loved. Since then, he’s pursued his craft relentlessly, ever focused on making the most beautiful pots, bowls, cups, and vases and persistent in his pursuit of the most fantastic glaze.
His retinue of collectors has grown over the years to include the rich and influential, some of whom would show off Haggerty’s stuff at the annual Los Angeles Pottery Show, billed as the top venue for antique and collectible ceramics. About six years ago, Haggerty was invited to have his own space at the Pasadena-based show, making him only the second contemporary artist invited to display his wares there; the other is 91-year-old Barbara Willis. “From that show, I got a lot of exposure to really serious collectors,” said Haggerty. “It really sparked everything.”
The Luster Lover
Aside from Haggerty’s pottery wheel skills-his thin-walled, delicately thrown pieces are pleasingly uncomplicated yet beautifully demure-what sets his work apart is the glaze. Whether it’s a “mini” that fits in the palm of your hand or a vase that rises to your waist, Haggerty’s work is treated with a “strike reduction” technique; that means he lets the kiln cook the ceramics and then, while it cools, he tosses in flammable materials (usually the plentiful, pleasant-smelling, and fast-burning wood from eucalyptus trees) to cause the glaze to react by unleashing various colors and textures.
One of the only people on the planet to use this risky technique-also known as “Persian luster” and related, somewhat, to raku firing-Haggerty has slowly perfected the process: Initially, he would lose 85 to 90 percent of his pots in each batch, but now his loss rate is less than five percent. “It’s not only the formula of the glaze. It’s actually manipulating the kiln as a tool,” he said, explaining that the combustible additives are what give his pots the metallic sheen and wicked textures. “It’s not something a lot of potters want to play with. If you put materials in at 10 degrees different, everything comes out black.”
That’s not to say he’s stopped experimenting. Although he sometimes revisits an old formula, Haggerty estimates that he makes more than 500 new glazes each year. “Every kiln load I try to have something that’s a test glaze,” he explained. “Every time I open the kiln, I get to be surprised.”
In the case of the Sullivan Goss show, Haggerty sketched the space, and then made original pieces to best reflect the lighting and layout. The results are already strong, with more than a half dozen of his pieces selling within days of being put on display, including one that sold to an Army major serving in Afghanistan, who buys art online at night to help himself go to sleep. Haggerty is most proud of that sale, but said that the whole experience has been “very reaffirming.” As if the master glazer of Figueroa Street needed any more encouragement.
A reception will be held for James Haggerty’s show at Sullivan Goss tonight, Thursday, October 2, from 5-8 p.m. The show runs through November 2. For more information, visit haggertyceramics.com or sullivangoss.com.