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Meet Mac McClain
By Dave Hampton, June 2012


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 Allen Morris.
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.
Photo: Chip Morton

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 College.


McClain photographed by John Waggaman, circa 1967, from Portraits Of Artists.

An 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 called "Some 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.

The War:
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.

Mexico:
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.

Los Angeles:
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, too.

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.

Tijuana/La Jolla:
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, San Diego’s 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 upstairs.
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.