Updated: Nov 24, 2022
Chances are that Paul Chaleff immediate ancestors and mine came from the same parts of Western Belarus, then Poland. I met Paul last summer during a visit to his studio in upstate New York, very much upstate. Any further would have been downstate Connecticut. Chaleff is a very strong man, he seems to have been forged in the same anagama kilns he used to produce much of his work, now at the MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Paul and I hit it off from the get-go, and that’s usually a preamble for he will certainly make an extraordinary subject for documentary film. His empirical knowledge of the anagama tradition in Japan, and in America makes him a witness of extraordinary value. In 2012 interview with Judith Schwartz Chaleff framed his early experience as a ceramist in the following terms:
“My initial thoughts include major changes in regards to our attitudes about East Asia especially Japan (China was closed and Korea had a repressive military dictatorship) in the early 70's including the first showing of Japanese Pottery on the balustrade at the Met in 1980, easy travel to Japan and the study options that afforded us, an influx of Japanese students especially women, looking for a less restrictive education (Yoko Ono...) or art scene in the early 1970's.”
Japanese artist and musician Yoko Ono sits in a white-painted half bedroom entitled Half-a-Room, in “Half-a-Memory” exhibition, at the Lisson Gallery, London, 1968. Photo by Roger Jones/Keystone Features/Getty Images.
Paul’s contextualization of his early experiences allowed me to refocus my interest on his work, and evidently that of Joy Brown, subject of my current documentary film project, although under more specific circumstances. Chaleff thinks beyond the clay, and his written work may very well become indispensable to understand the evolution of wood-fire ceramics, not only in the United States, but perhaps in Europe and even in Japan, China, and Korea.
Paul Chaleff belongs to that rare breed of artisans that can see beyond the shape and color into a world where artifacts are shaped by socioeconomic development, and define by war, class, and inherited beliefs. Next Friday I will be driving up north, to where New York meets Connecticut, and where the ancient anagama tradition meets a working-class kid from the Bronx with roots in Belarus. Perhaps this is the start of a new conversation, one that may very well deserve to be preserved and interpreted on a documentary film.