McClain with pipe, circa 1959
Late last month, we lost a stalwart Southern California
artist. Ceramic artist, painter, poet and teacher Malcolm "Mac" McClain passed
away at the age of 89 without fanfare. The San Marino native's death
comes in the wake of the Getty's "Pacific Standard Time" initiative,
a massive push to re-examine the growth of art in Southern California
from 1945 to 1980 that involved more than sixty cultural institutions
from San Diego to Santa Barbara. The last of the PST shows closed
up in June.
For many of us, PST's broad range of exhibitions was an opportunity
to "meet" lesser-known-but-equally-interesting artists,
whose work we might not have otherwise encountered. For McClain,
who never cared for the spotlight and whose career was overshadowed
by his ceramic art contemporaries, John Mason and Paul Soldner, Pacific
Standard Time provided some last-minute recognition.
Although he lived in LA, McClain was sadly unable to
enjoy much of this recent attention. Declining health prevented him
from visiting Pomona's American Museum of Ceramic Art, where his
pots were included in the "Common Ground" exhibition, or The Mingei International
Museum in San Diego, which featured his work in its PST show, "San
Diego's Craft Revolution."
Another exhibition, which runs until July 9th at the
Oceanside Museum of Art and was not part of PST but lays claim to
a bit of the same territory, includes several of McClain's ceramic
objects along with paintings, works on paper and a wood cut print.
This collection of McClain's early work is part of "Contemporary Art Wins a Beachhead:
The La Jolla School of Arts 1960-1964," an exhibition focused
on artists who taught at the Art Center in La Jolla, long before
it evolved into today's Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Wounded Bird, 1958, oil on canvas, collection of Richard
Photo: Chip Morton
The works at OMA, which date mostly from the late
1950s and early 1960s, provide a glimpse of a well-rounded artist
at a critical point in his career. When he came to the Art Center
in 1959, McClain had spent more than a decade in serious art studies
around the world. McClain was living in Tijuana when he recalls getting, "one
of the luckiest breaks of my life:" a job running the ceramics
program at what was then an up and coming institution, sympathetic
to youthful contemporary artists.
By this time, the 36 year old McClain had already lived
a life fit for a Beat Generation novel that took him from the front
lines in the Battle of the Bulge, to the artist Peter Voulkos's group
of acclaimed students at the L.A. County Art Institute.
Stoneware Vessels, circa 1959, Holle/Kirby collections.
In 1966 McClain's pottery was featured in the landmark "Abstract
Expressionist Ceramics" exhibition at the University of California,
Irvine. His work was acknowledged for its role in the development
of ceramic art, along with such artists as Voulkos, John Mason, James
Melchert and Kenneth Price. Examples of McClain's work are held by
the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, and as part of the
distinguished Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics at Scripps
McClain photographed by John Waggaman, circa 1967, from Portraits Of Artists.
unpretentious intellectual, McClain had a gruff charisma that drew students
to him throughout his long career as an educator. The 1967 book "Portraits
of Artists" published by the La Jolla Museum of Art, shows McClain in
sunglasses and rumpled clothes, as photographed by John Waggaman. He looks
like someone ready to stick it to the man.
McClain also earned a reputation as a poet, writing and giving
readings under the name Mac McCloud. In 1991 he published a volume of poetry
Kind of Happiness."
Armored Pot, stoneware, circa 1971, American Museum of Ceramic Art
(shown at the Oceanside Museum of Art).
Photo: Chip Morton
From 1965 until 1988 he was a professor of sculpture and
ceramics at California State University, Los Angeles, and until a few years
ago, McCLain lived and worked in the Santa Fe Art Colony in downtown Los Angeles.
A Mac McClain Scholarship for Sculpture has been established at CSULA, where
he served as chair of the Art Department.
Using his own words from emails and interviews, let's follow
along as McClain describes some adventures from a lifetime in art.
I went with 43 other sophomore, junior and senior men from Pomona College,
climbed into a red car and were ferried together down to Fort MacArthur in
San Pedro for induction into the service on May 5, 1943. We were all assigned
to the U.S. Army Infantry and were dispatched a week later to be trained as
G.I.s (cannon fodder for the invasion and assault in Europe) at Camp Roberts
up north of San Luis Obispo.
I was trained as a first gunner in a machine-gun platoon of a
Heavy Weapons Company, 222nd Regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division. The section
of the Battle of the Bulge where the 42nd was assigned was south of the Ardennes,
in Alsace-Lorraine, the southern salient of the German Army attack.
I went on the line on the 26th of December, 1944 and stayed on the front
combat line until the 5th of May, 1945 at the surrender of the German Army.
During that time I accepted a battlefield commission as a Second Lieutenant
and was awarded a Bronze Star.
Paris and New York:
I served in the occupation of Salzburg and Vienna, Austria and managed to get
my discharge from the army in 1946 in Paris, France where I treated myself
to a studio in the Cite Universitaire on the outskirts of Paris and began,
along with other vets and guys arriving from New York, to paint and draw. Stayed
there for about a year and then decided that New York was the place for an
ambitious fledgling artist to be. Moved to New York City in 1947 and enrolled
in the New School of Social Research on 8th St. Classes with Abe Rattner, Louis
Schanker and my favorite teacher, Adja Yunkers.
I left New York in 1953 and went to Mexico City to enroll in La Escuela de
Pintura y Escultura de La Callejon Esmeralda, about one block north of the
Alameda (the big central park of Mexico City). About 3 months later I transferred
to La Escuela de Bellas Artes in Morelia. There I began my study of ceramics
in a rudimentary way, digging clay out of caves, building a rough, wooden throwing
wheel and building our own small kiln from a diagram in Bernard Leach's The
Potter's Book (the early potters amateur guide bible) with Ross Curtis,
a fellow student from San Francisco. We were in love with that idea of being
peasant potters at that time, making simple pots and bottles and urns and stuff
like that. With no firing success to speak of, I determined to return to Pomona
where I hoped to work with Ricky Petterson at Scripps. So it turned out.
I returned to Pomona College in 1955 and became the TA to Ricky Petterson in
the ceramics classes at Scripps College, where I wedged clay for Peter Voulkos
who conducted a clay workshop for students and the public at Scripps. Decided
then that if Pete were to take over the graduate program at the LA County Art
Institute, I would see if he would accept me as a student, which he did after
I graduated in 1956.
At the LA County Art Institute, Paul Soldner built the first
wheels from scratch and I helped him. Peter and I used to drive around with
him, we'd find all the parts and learn how to put these things together and
take 'em apart. It was a lot of fun. I didn't have anybody hanging over me
or forcing me to do it. Peter didn't ever teach, he just made work and he never
gave a critique, he never showed us how to make glazes, he never lectured.
If we didn't know how to do something he said, "Well, just watch me for a while." To
get into the graduate course you had to be reasonably advanced in ceramics,
so you could set your own discipline. It was just super, a kind of atmosphere
I liked in a ceramics shop. I tried to introduce that atmosphere in my classes,
I walked out of the MFA program at Los Angeles County Art Institute
where I had been studying along with Paul Soldner and John Mason in the graduate
program Voulkos had set up. To support myself while attending the school I
had also been working on a commercial project for the Institute’s Director, Millard
Sheets. I quarreled with Sheets over financial division of the project’s
fee and decided to leave the graduate program and the Institute.
I moved to the San Diego area and while living in Tijuana was able to find
a job working for Warren Patterson who owned and ran San Diego Ceramics, a
clay supply and ceramic hobby shop in Mission Valley. For Mr. Patterson, I
loaded and fired kilns, poured slip castings and sold supplies and objects
at the front counter. In those days the border crossings were easier so I commuted
from TJ every day to report for work. Living in Tijuana was easy (and cheaper
than rents in San Diego) and I had been living in Mexico for more than a year,
so I spoke fluent Spanish. Margarita, my first wife was a Mexican citizen from
Mexico City (and very proud of it).
Six months later I heard a rumor that The Art Center in La Jolla
was looking for a ceramics teacher. I knew that they had a small community
ceramic hobby class as well as a sculpture class then taught by Donald Hord,
preeminent sculptor. Out of the blue I wrote a detailed letter to the new director
of the Art Center, Pat Malone, pointing out that I was a student of Pete Voulkos
and had already been a teaching assistant for Rick Petterson at Scripps College
in Claremont. I felt well qualified to set up a going ceramics program in a
situation like that of the Art Center.
A few days later Malone invited me to come up to the Art Center
for an interview. When we talked I discovered that Pat was something of a mover
and shaker himself and the person whom I consider responsible for the exciting
atmosphere that was transforming the Art Center. From my point of view the
teaching situation was ideal. The students in the ceramics class ranged in
age from 17 years old to a strong Finnish woman of 71. One student was a veteran
of the German Army who had served both in WWI and WWII, now settled in La Jolla.
The students and I created a whole table full of pots and clay ideas to raise
money for a Cone 10 kiln and were able to achieve our goal of $1000 to that end.
I plumbed that kiln for installation in the building and we were on our way.
The demise of the Art Center School:
In financial distress, the Art Center board fired Pat Malone and a man named
Robert Tillotson was brought in who promised to put the Museum's budget in
the "black." Which he did by immediately cancelling all the educational
and recreational programs the Art Center, including the School, the movie program,
the music program, the whole shebang! Then he went out and bought himself a
first class telescope so he could watch the whale migration from his office
One of the first things Tillotson ordered was that an outside crew be hired
to sweep clean all the classroom buildings and storerooms. In the process the
crew tossed out a 5 foot high welded sculpture that I had been working on for
seven months. Off to the County Dump in one quick trip. Don Brewer was told
about it and rushed out to the dump, but it had already disappeared under the
growling bulldozers. With the cooperation of my gallery dealer in La Jolla
we sued the Art Center and in Municipal Court I was granted the full insurance
value of the piece. Mr. Tillotson, who attended the hearing, jovially congratulated
me outside the courtroom for winning the case.
I left La Jolla and the faculty of the Art Center dispersed:
to New York, the Bay Area, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and some locally.
Back to LA:
I went from La Jolla directly to Pomona College in 1964 where I taught sculpture
and drawing. In 1965 I started in Ceramics at Cal State LA, where I taught
until 1988, including a final two years as Department Chair.
At Cal State LA I really came into my own. Started casting in
bronze and working on a lot of big sculpture, all kinds of stuff. Having a
great time with a bunch of great students. I liked teaching at Cal State LA
because it was a very diverse student body; lots of African Americans, lots
of Latinos, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, whites, everybody. They weren't
wealthy like the Pomona students, they were all kinda working class people.
Many of them had jobs as they went through school and stuff like that. It was
a different kind of teaching atmosphere and it suited me to a tee. I liked
it very much.