More MS news articles for November 2000

Their Lives Poured Into Clay

A husband-and-wife team's wide-ranging experiences--including illness--are reflected in their noted ceramics.

Sunday, November 19, 2000


Michael and Magdalena Frimkess occupy a unique place in the history of American ceramics. Married in life and in art, they have created an improbable body of work that wraps Michael's classical clay forms in Magdalena's contemporary narrative painting. Imagine a perfectly symmetrical, Greek-style bowl glazed with images of Snoopy the World War I flying ace and you have an idea of what these artists are up to.

In their first major exhibition since 1982--at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood--46 stoneware jars, vases, bowls and teapots are decorated with everything from cartoon characters to palm trees, fast food, Bible story illustrations, Chinese dragons, and images of the artists' friends and family. Titled "Vessels of Satire," the show gives new meaning to the popular concept of a melting pot.

Walking around "Little Pleasures," a large pot glazed in blue and brown tones, one discovers a Japanese geisha cavorting with Popeye and Olive Oyl next to a cheerful view of the ocean and a "Welcome to Edwards Air Force Base" sign. A traditional teapot has an image of Betty Boop on one side and Popeye on the other. A tall, Chinese-style vase, called "Year of the Horse," is decorated with a Western carousel. Among other surprises, Frankenstein looms large on a small lidded jar, while dozens of animals peer out of arched windows on a bottle-like piece inspired by Noah's ark.

What does it all mean?

"I don't know. I just paint," says Magdalena, in an interview at the Frimkesses' studio in Venice.

"She's amazing. She doesn't know what she's going to do even after she loads the brush," says Michael, who throws paper-thin pots on an electric wheel, then hands them over to his wife.

When pressed, Magdalena says the ideas "just come" in the course of her daily activities. She gathers images unconsciously, but they bubble up in artworks that compose a sort of diary of "where I go, what I see, what I do and how I feel."

One pot has special meaning for her, however. Called "Ma Familia," it's an 18-inch-tall jar that portrays members of her family, including her Chilean-born son and daughter from a previous relationship who live in Los Angeles. Unlike more typical Frimkess creations, in which stream-of-consciousness narratives wrap formal pottery in multicolored crazy quilts, this piece features solid black silhouettes lined up on unglazed stoneware.

"I spent a lot of time on that one, trying to copy the Greeks," she says, referring to black-figured Greek pottery, made in the middle of the BC 5th century. The style of "Ma Familia" also reminds her of cloisonne, a porcelain enamel technique in which areas of color are separated by metal wire.

Things are often more complicated than they appear in the work of Michael and Magdalena Frimkess. Known for a funky mix of high art and popular culture, the artists say their trademark social commentary includes bittersweet observations about the difficulties of achieving harmony amid ethnic and political diversity.

* * *

They have arrived at this aesthetic position naturally, but not easily. While their work mirrors life in a mixed-up world, it also reflects their experience with personal challenges and physical adversity.

And therein lies a convoluted story.

Michael, 63, has battled multiple sclerosis for nearly half his life. A native of Los Angeles, he grew up in Boyle Heights and graduated from Hollywood High School. His father was an artist who made a living in graphic design, and both he and his wife encouraged their son's artistic proclivities.

A bright child who excelled both in music and visual art, Michael played piano and saxophone, and developed his talent for drawing and sculpture. At 17, he won a scholarship at what would later become known as Otis College of Art and Design, just as Peter Voulkos and his soon-to-be-famous students were transforming ceramics from a traditional utilitarian craft to a muscular, expressive art form--the clay equivalent of Abstract Expressionist painting.

Frimkess was younger than the adventurous clay workers, most of whom had returned to school after military service, and he had no interest in their artistic revolution. "I looked down on ceramics," he says. And, as he tells the story, his disdain was repaid with vandalism. On several occasions, large-scale figurative sculptures he was working on in an adjacent classroom were purposely damaged.

He attributes his conversion to a peyote trip. In 1956, during a period when he had dropped out of Otis and was trying to find his own direction in art and music, he took the advice of a fellow musician who used peyote. Frimkess swallowed what may have been an overdose of the drug.

The story is part of the scrappy literature that documents his career, but Frimkess retells it as if it happened yesterday. He describes being awake for 24 hours, then having a vision like "a glow in my forehead." What he saw was material being shaped into a vessel, a process that he had glimpsed at Otis but never tried. "I thought, that must be pottery. I must be throwing pots. That's the answer," he says.

Propelled by the strange experience, he went to Otis and asked Voulkos to enroll him in his class. Voulkos agreed, but young Frimkess had to agree to fulfill academic requirements at Los Angeles City College before Otis would admit him. He studied with Voulkos in 1956-57 among a group of artists that included Paul Soldner, Billy Al Bengston, Jerry Rothman, Henry Takemoto, Ken Price and Malcolm McCloud (then Malcolm McClain).

During the summer of 1957, Frimkess had another formative experience. On a trip to Italy with his parents, his father arranged for him to work in a small ceramic factory where Michael became acquainted with traditional production methods and learned to love the ancient pottery that would influence his mature work.

Back in Los Angeles, he continued to work with Voulkos, but his mentor moved to the Bay Area and began teaching at UC Berkeley in 1959. A couple of years later, Frimkess followed him to study bronze and aluminum casting. He exhibited his sculpture extensively, but in 1963 he moved across the country and returned to clay. At Voulkos' behest, Frimkess took an internship at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, N.Y., a workshop that attracted an international group of potters and sculptors.

That's where Magdalena Suarez, now 71, entered his life. Born in Venezuela, she was sent to an orphanage at the age of 7, when her mother died and her father couldn't take care of her. She studied at the School of Plastic Arts in Caracas from 1943 to 1945 and hoped to pursue a career as an artist. But in 1947, when she was 18 and had no means of support, she entered into a union with a man who had left his wife but wasn't divorced.

Magdalena and her partner moved to Chile, where they had two children. As their son and daughter began to grow up, Magdalena resumed her study of art at Catholic University in Santiago. By 1962, she had become so accomplished in clay sculpture that a report in Art in America, a major New York art journal, named her "the most daring sculptor now working in Chile."

Public recognition of her talent had a profound effect on her life. "In those days, women didn't leave home," Magdalena says. But New York beckoned and she accepted a fellowship at the Clay Art Center. "The man I lived with said, 'If you leave, that's it,' but I did." She arrived at the center a few months after Michael had settled in.

It may not have been love at first sight, but Michael and Magdalena say they were immediately attracted to each other. "I loved her work," Michael says. When she laughs, he adds: "Well, I liked the whole package."

While affiliated with the ceramic center, he landed a position as a factory potter in nearby Pennsylvania. "It was a wonderful job," Michael says. Under the supervision of ceramist Claire Rosen, he learned the highly unusual and demanding technique of making pots without water, and he has continued to work in that fashion. While most potters continually lubricate the clay as they form pots on a wheel, he works with relatively dry clay and produces amazingly thin-walled pottery.

Working in the factory also allowed him to fulfill his peyote-inspired vision and rekindled his interest in ancient pottery. He had been making "little Voulkoses," he says, referring to his early, free-form pieces in the style of his mentor at Otis and Berkeley. But now Frimkess had the skill to make carefully controlled, symmetrical forms. And that led him to study classical Greek and Chinese pottery in the collections of New York museums. His reinterpretations of those forms and his development of a method for firing stoneware in as little as 55 minutes, instead of many hours, are among the achievements that have distinguished him from his peers.

* * *

Michael wanted to marry Magdalena, but she longed to be with her children and returned to Chile when her yearlong fellowship was over. She was unwelcome at home, so she made her way back to New York and Michael. Struggling to make ends meet after the birth of their daughter, Luisa, in 1964, they moved to Los Angeles, where Michael's parents helped them start a new life. (Magdalena's daughter, Delia Fuentes, moved to the U.S. in the late 1970s, and her son, Sergio Fuentes, followed a few years later.)

The Frimkesses recall an extremely stressful period capped by the revelation in 1971 that Michael had multiple sclerosis. He admits to blaming his wife for his physical problem before his diagnosis, but says he never thought the disease would end his creative life.

"I didn't doubt that I would be continuing even though I was wobbling all over the place when I would walk," he says. "I just knew I had new limitations and I had to figure out how to deal with them."

He credits his survival to friends who insisted that he learn transcendental meditation and to the practice of tai chi. Essential as he believes it is, his current regimen of 6 1/2 hours a day of stretching, tai chi, other exercise and meditation limits the time he can devote to his creative work.

His illness has shaped Magdalena's artistic career as well. They began collaborating occasionally in the 1960s, but she gave up her independent work after the disease struck.

Expressing no regrets, Magdalena says it was a practical move, "a fact of marriage." But painting her husband's pots as well as ceramic tiles and her own hand-formed pottery is satisfying, she says. It also helps her cope with the pressures of their circumscribed life. "I paint and I forget," she says.

At this point, Michael deems their collaboration "a miracle."

Still, the couple's output has been minimal in recent years, and the Frimkesses have worried that, despite long resumes of exhibitions, they were being forgotten.

But things are looking up.

Their current exhibition was organized by Magdalene Mills, an artist and graduate student at Cal State Fullerton who became interested in their work and met them about a year ago. Mills contacted dealer Louis Stern, who was delighted to have a Frimkess show, and she encouraged them to complete several unfinished pieces that had been sitting on their shelves for years.

The show has given the Frimkesses a big boost, they say. And just a few weeks ago they received a letter from the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, requesting help with an oral history and other documentation of their work for a permanent record. They have also been invited to participate in a major international ceramics exhibition next fall at Seoul National University.

Buoyed by these developments, Michael says he has an idea for a series of clay sculptures that would provide him and his wife with a fresh challenge. "We've talked about it," he says, without revealing details. "I have to get rolling again." *

* "Vessels of Satire: The Art of Magdalena and Michael Frimkess," Louis
Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Ends Jan. 6. (310)