Drawn to Clay: The Pottery of Ed Gilliam

Drawn to Clay: The Pottery of Ed Gilliam

Article by  Thomas E. Scanlin 

In 1994, I attended the first show of Steve and Amy Slotin’s Folk Fest in Atlanta, Ga., in pursuit of good “Old Master” self-taught works of art. I had already collected this type of art for approximately 15 years and was hoping to find something really special at this show. As was my custom, I was determined to walk through all the booths before deciding on anything to purchase. About two-thirds of the way through I walked into the booth of a local shop, American Sampler, owned by Carrie Gilliam and her mother, Sandy.

I was quickly scanning the interesting and well-stocked inventory and was about to move on when I noticed a small group of pottery almost hidden in the corner. I have never thought of myself as a pottery collector, but I had purchased a few unique pieces on occasion. I took a few steps closer, and then it came into focus – a pottery charger that would change my collecting life forever. I was riveted, dumbstruck at the masterful handling of the sgraffito (Italian, “to scratch”) decoration that turned a plain, slightly oversize plate into a work of art. It was, in fact, a leaping warthog with a full moon behind it executed with the detail and finesse of a Durer etching. The only other decoration was a single line of text, “Welcome, but close the gate.”

This annotation reminded me of the early (and therefore more restrained), Howard Finster work that has always fascinated me. To this day, “Welcome, but close the gate,” often runs through my head like a bit of Haiku. A mystery to be pondered and hopefully solved. On one level it speaks a great truth: You are welcome here, but just as we as hosts have a responsibility to you, you also have some responsibilities as a guest. Welcome, but close the gate.

As I was standing in the booth, I noticed that everything around the charger had gone into a soft focus, like a romantic film scene with a beautiful 1940’s movie star. As a collector I can say that this has happened a few times over the years when I have been confronted with life-changing art work. It was a sign, a gift from above. I seized the plate and held it like it was my first born. I could not leave the booth without it.

I asked about the artist and was told that he was the dealer’s father, Ed Gilliam, and that he had just started making pottery. Now, 20 years later, (and more than 100 chargers in my collection) I am determined that the rest of the world should have the chance to see a portion of Gilliam’s body of work. And to that end I have been lending his work for various one-man shows.

The latest installation, on view October 23, 2014 to January 18, 2015, was in the Gallery at Paradise Garden, Howard Finster’s epic environment in Summerville, Ga. I think that this is appropriate since Finster always encouraged other artists to create, inviting them to display their work in the Rolling Chair Ramp Gallery in Paradise Garden for all the world to see.

Ed Gilliam is a complex individual with the manners of a highly refined southern gentleman, who gives himself free rein to express himself in his artwork. He was born in Richmond, Va. on September 12, 1930 (a date he often inscribes onto the back of his plates) to an old-line Richmond family. He then moved to New York as a young man, living there from 1956 to 1973. Perhaps this helps explain his dichotomy of quiet demeanor and riotous imagery.

As a child, Gilliam was encouraged to paint and draw. He did his first watercolors at the age of six and took drawing classes from a local artist in his teenage years. Not having any money to pay her, he cut her grass in exchange for his lessons.

But as is often the case, growing up, making a living, getting married and having children left little time for art. He made one painting the entire time he was in New York – a beautiful and moody abstract using a silver metallic paint as the base color.

In 1973, he moved with his family to just outside Atlanta, Ga., where he has lived ever since, having careers as a CPA and as an attorney. Gilliam has also been a principal in a few businesses, including owning nine shoe stores named C. Edgar Ladies Shoes, before retiring and then starting his current career as an artist.

Like Finster, Gilliam was 60 years old when he started making art again, this time with clay. He taught a figure-drawing class at The Roswell Visual Arts Center in exchange for a basic clay class and studio space in Clay West, a branch of that arts organization, and in the humble manipulation of mud he found his muse.

Gilliam does not consider himself a potter but he does use the clay plate form simply as his “canvas” – a friendly surface on which to draw. The fired clay is something more sturdy and tactile than paper but not as formal as canvas. He is free to indulge his whimsical side with this form and will often use the round shape to great advantage in his compositions.

When I look at one of his chargers I feel like I am seeing a snapshot of a story, if I could just figure it out. It’s a sort of cross between Hans Christian Andersen, Howard Finster and Stephen King. Human and non-human figures usually share space (and occasionally body parts) with animals, insects, birds and fish. Often his male figures are thinly veiled self-portraits.
His later work seems to suggest an acute awareness of his own mortality. But with his art he ultimately seems to want to assure us that in the end things will be all right.

Like Finster, he is inclined to use the written word on his art work to instruct us with moral lessons, poetry or simply thought-provoking ideas. In Gilliam’s case those words and phrases are sometimes written in Latin or Sanskrit but with a handy English translation written on the back of the work. His series “Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit,” which loosely translates to “Called or not called, God is always present,” is a way of reassuring us (as well as himself) that no matter what, God is always there for us.

While these writings often reference the drawing, he also refuses to limit this added text to exclusively relating to the images on the plate, reasoning that beautiful words can stand alone. And occasionally images stand alone with nothing written on the front of the piece. He often relies on a slightly subdued shock value to make the viewer wonder about what makes this reclusive artist “tick.”

When one looks at Ed Gilliam’s art one sees the work of a master storyteller and sometimes trickster, traits often admired in Howard Finster as well. For a limited time, visitors could see the stories and lessons of this unique artist and Georgia treasure, Ed Gilliam, in Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden setting.

THOMAS E. SCANLIN is a retired jewelry designer and owner of Studio Jewelers in Dahlonega, Ga.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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