was maybe 24 years old. I followed Jackie Lord – director of the sales
gallery at the Indianapolis Museum of Art – back through the dimly lit
maze of shelves that made a patchwork wall of oddly marked boxes,
gallery kitsch, frames, and sculptures. We were carefully making our
way to the section that held the extra inventory of pottery the museum
shop carried at the time. Behind me I towed my cart that held boxes
filled with oil lamps, honey pots, and little else. Certainly no
pottery memorable enough to mention. It was just the work that was
paying my way in the world – my entry into the world of functional
handmade pottery. I was, at that point, flattered that the museum shop
even wanted to carry my work.
But it was when Jackie stopped in
front of a rack of open shelving, saying, “Go ahead and stack your
things on this shelf….” that my eyes came to light on the porcelain
pottery that filled the shelf next to mine.
The world tilted beneath my feet.
There in that dim light of a backroom storage area I saw the most
animated, well-crafted porcelain teapots I had ever seen in my life. My
heart started pounding. And I felt small. Both at the same time. I
was witnessing greatness, and simultaneously wondering what in the heck I
was doing trying to make a living in the world of pottery when there
was the quality of this pottery loose in the world.
“Who the heck is that?” I stammered out. Barely.
“Oh, that’s Jim Kemp. Doesn’t he do fine work?”
“Fine work.” That comment still holds up well in my “Biggest Understatements EVER Hall Of Fame”.
I started noticing Jim and his work at a few of the art fairs I was
breaking into – Broad Ripple, Talbot Street, Lafayette. And that same
sense of awe and wonder that visited me in that dim, crowded storage
room returned each time I saw Jim’s work.
Jim’s work is the
most singular voice in Hoosier pottery -- probably for the past 30
years. It was strong and clear back then – animated, humorous, but with
the constant of flawless craftsmanship so transparent that, though
undeniably human to the core, each and every piece spoke for itself.
And then one year I saw Jim turn on a dime. No more the porcelain so
light and airy that it fairly floated above the table on which is sat.
No, in the space of one show season Jim entirely re-invented his work –
reinterpreted it in earthenware. And, if anything, this work was even
more whimsical. I couldn’t walk BY his booth, much less stand in the
midst of it, without my autonomic smile system going off. I swear, I
think I might have even laughed the first time I saw it – it was that
joyful. It was that playful.
For the thirty-five plus years
I’ve known him, there has been no more creative, inspirational,
hard-working potter in Indiana. Certainly there has been no better
I don’t write this as a friend of Jim’s. Oh, we
were casual acquaintances, and we’d usually talk a bit about how things
were going, ‘how’s the family’, ‘what’s new’ kind of stuff. To be
perfectly honest? ….I admired Jim too much for me to be very much fun
for him to hang around. Not Jim’s fault. He was accessible and
friendly. I was just simply too enamored.
I’m glad I got the
chance to tell him, though -- even if I generally stammered it out in
nearly incoherent gushing streams – exactly what I’ve written here. I
told him how important I thought his work was to the world of clay. I
told him that I loved his work. I told him that my breath caught in my
throat nearly every time I saw his work. And I told him often.
I’ll miss seeing Jim around. The clay world just lost one of its
brightest lights. I doubt I’ll see anything brighter in my lifetime.