Mark Bell and Bill Irvine
Two artists having “a helluva lot more fun” together than working alone
by Maureen Farr
For the past four years, potter Mark Bell and painter William (Bill) Irvine, who have been friends for years, have been collaborating. Mark makes pots that Bill paints. But their collaboration is more than just putting some paint on a piece of pottery. Mark says that Bill comes to the studio with a sketch from which the shape and size of the pot is determined. Sometimes, Bill selects a pot for which he then goes home and envisions a painting.
William Irvine was born on the west coast of Scotland, attended the Glasgow School of Art. he says he went to London, as a Bohemian – a painter in the 1960s, when London was a very lively city, but no one was buying art at that time. He took up teaching art for a few years before meeting his American-born wife and returning to the US, eventually settling in Maine permanently. His first wife died about 20 years ago, and he has remarried – and remained here, painting every day as he has done for the past 76 years.
Mark Bell has been making pots for 42 years, and has lived in Blue Hill for the past 27. He first came here as an assistant in the clay studio at Haystack while in graduate school at Arizona State University. Like many artists who come to Haystack, he fell in love with the area. He says he needed a place where he could build a kiln and not ever have to move it again.” That place was Blue Hill.
Mark: “These are not my usual pots. There are no finger marks, no lines. Bill doesn’t take one of my pots and have to fit his painting to it. These are made for his paintings.”
Many years ago, Bill had a Picasso ceramic piece that he sold at a time when he needed money, but when he wanted to buy it back the price was too high.
Mark says Bill came to him and said, “Since I can’t buy a Picasso [a ceramic piece] we’ll make our own. We’ll invent our own language and dialogue.”
Bill says now he paints in his own style. “It naturally took over. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s just as you work, you get into your own personal mythology.
Mark: “I mentioned to Bill when we started that a painting might last four or five hundred years, but pottery – if you don’t break it – it could be around for 50,000 years! And Bill thought how nice to think it might last beyond our time for many generations.
“The porcelain clay we’re working with is very hard, and the colors won’t fade over that time. They would hold up very well over that time.”
“Better than we will!” Bill says with a laugh.
Mark: “Bill, how many combined years of making art do we have? How long have you been making art?”
“I started when I was 10, so this is my 76th year of making art,” Bill answers.
“And this is my 42nd,” says Mark. “That’s more than a hundred! So, over a hundred years of experience goes into these pots.”
Bill: “I feel I am working better now than I ever have. It’s like riding a bicycle. After a while it becomes second nature. Whether it’s a painting or a pot, I just find I really get into it, and with much less trouble than it has been in earlier years.
“I am much more comfortable with what I do. I’ve solved a lot of problems. I’ve learned a great deal in my long, long life as an artist.
“Composition… If something is out of place, I can correct it more quickly. In the past, it might puzzle me too long and I would give it up. I can solve the puzzles now more quickly.
“Inspiration is still the thing that matters most in a painting, and that’s something you don’t ever develop into a streamlined thing. It’s just something that you have to have.
“The making itself has become much more comfortable. I can complete paintings now where in the past I might have trouble and give up, or do the wrong thing. I find I can put things together in a more expressive and complete way. That comes with age. I’m better now than I’ve ever been.
“Sometimes I wonder. I must be crazy, spending all this life painting pictures. But there’s nothing else I want to do. I’m very happy, actually, with what I do. I really do like my life, and I feel I’ve been very fortunate.”
Mark: “In the time I’ve known [your] work, you not only have hit your stride – not to say that everything you paint is a masterpiece – but the body of work that you’re doing now…
“You are creating an incredible body of work, whereas most people who are in their mid-80s are tapering off with their energy level. When Bill works here, he’s going, and going, and going…”
“I find, in many ways, I’m more creative than I’ve ever been,” says Bill, and Mark responds, “Time is short, gotta get it done!”
Mark: “Bill comes to the studio with drawings. Quite often he wants to see the pots and goes back and thinks about what he wants to do, and then comes back with drawings.”
A good example of this drawing process can be seen on the next page – a sketch for the three sailors pot with the figures overlaying the shape of the pot.
Painting on a pot is very different from a canvas, Bill tells me.
“You want it to work all around. To be viewed from all angles, from the top as well as from the side.”
One of the most exciting things about the process Mark says, is when he puts a pot on the banding wheel and spins it, “and you literally get the figures, doing their thing. They’re quite amazing, and I think of a Japanese mural that tells a story – like a continual story. That’s kind of how I read the pots.
“Again, I’m making generalizations about the work, but there’s two or three different stories going on. And part of it is me making up the stories that go with the visual painting. But I do feel that there is a continuous story there in each of Bill’s pots.”
He returns to an earlier conversation about one pot (see photo below) which depicts girls skipping rope. Seeing his wife’s young granddaughter skipping rope reminded Bill of a painting he did in his 20s of a girl skipping rope.
“I got the idea of the ropes connecting, and skipping rope around the entire bowl because it’s in the round,” he says. “It’s a different challenge – a vase, a pot – from a painting. A different conception. I’m very happy to have that diversion from my work, but it’s more than a diversion. It’s another avenue for doing something.”
Mark asks if he ever did any sculpture, and he says no, not really. “The trouble with painting,” he says. “It’s so time consuming, but that’s what you really want to do. I probably never would have done pots if not that Mark was here and happy to do it, and we got together on it.
“I always thought I’d like to do pots, but there was never the opportunity, or the moment for it. I’ve often thought that there are moments that not just change your life, but change what you do. I met Mark who happened to be a very good potter, and that’s what brought me to now doing my pots.
“Who knows, I might have met a sculptor and I might be doing sculpture.”
“A glassblower,” says Mark, and Bill responds, “Maybe someone in finance, and I’d be a billionaire!”
“This is a helluva lot more fun!” says Mark.When asked how this collaboration has influenced him, or his work, Mark says, “When you’re really searching for making art pottery, it’s kind of like you’re mining for gold. You can go so far, and you kind of follow a vein. It’s nice to have something you’re working on that relates to what you’re doing. But what Bill and I are doing is completely different and after 50 pots, Bill has learned how to use the materials. We had to develop materials specifically for this because the way I glaze is so different.
“And as you can see, we’re still experimenting on it! You can’t mix two glaze stains together and get a color because they’re oxides. They’re not dyes, they’re different elements. Cobalt does a certain thing, and you can’t mix it. Every test has to be a different itemized thing.
On the April day that I sat with them in Mark’s studio, they were discussing new glaze colors in an effort to satisfy Bill’s desire for more subtle colors than those they can get from premixed glazes. The shelves were filled with pots painted in Bill’s narrative stye and ready for the kiln.
As we looked at those pots, Bill told me how difficult it is for him painting with glazes and not really knowing what the final color will be. Some of the pots have been painted for weeks, and he isn’t sure what some of the colors are any more.
When he points out a pinkish area on one pot and says “This part will be cobalt blue,” Mark laughs. “Maybe!” he says.
Mark: “Bill has always been ready for more colors. He’s wanted a grey color since we began. And so we’re working on tests, and you can kind of work around that. I’ve known potters who’ve made 10,000 glaze tests and still not gotten a color that they want. You kind of get what you get and adjust your work to that.
“But working with Bill, he has a vision and he wants a better palette to work with.”
Bill says the ones they’ve been working with “are deep blue, bright red, deep green… and I was looking for more subtle colors, like greys, pinks, pale blues. Things like that. So now we’re working with these new ones that Mark got, and hopefully that will work out.”
Mark points out that although there are over 3,000 colors to choose from, a lot of them don’t work with the high firing temperatures for porcelain clay.
“I’ve set my parameters for firing, and Bill has to fit in that. We’re not going to fire pots lower in temperature because then they go ‘Thunk Thunk.’ instead of “Ping Ping.’” he says as he flicks his fingers against an imaginary pot.
“I still want clean white porcelain pots. And we’ve decided on a white painting glaze and painting over it.There are dozens of different ways we could approach it, but we had to go back to the basics. What is the simplest way where Bill can paint. Every potter has interpreted it in a hundred different ways, but we have to start somewhere, and go somewhere.”
Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth will host an Artist’s Talk with William Irvine and Mark Bell on Thursday, October 12, from 4-6pm. The talk will be held in conjunction with a show highlighting their collaborative ceramics October 1-30.
There also will be a show of Bill Irvine’s paintings and some of the pots from this collaboration at Courthouse Gallery, July 26 - August 19.
William Irvine also shows at Greenhut Gallery in Portland, and at Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay Harbor, as well as the Paint the Peninsula show at the Blue Hill Library show on Saturday, July 15.
Mark Bell’s pottery is available at his Blue Hill gallery, as well as at Turtle Gallery in Deer Isle. He will host three kiln openings at his Blue Hill studio on July 2, 1pm; August 15, 9am: and October 7, 9am.