Saturday, November 30, 2013

Jim Kemp

I 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 craftsman.

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.


  1. Thanks for writing this ~ so that someone like me, who was also an admirer of JK, might stumble upon it and be reminded of his greatness, his craftsmanship and his humility. I knew him first as a loving father. I was the school bus driver who picked up his two sons in elementary school. From there, he encouraged me to enter art fairs (I'm a stained glass artist) and that's how our friendship continued. I still can't believe he's gone.

    1. Thanks so much for the reply. I just now stumbled upon your message. Blogs seem to work that way -- they stay in the background of the whirl of the internet. It's nice when someone stumbles across something they connect with. Again, thanks.


  2. Hello -- I am looking for Jim Kemp pottery for sale. You site came up in an online search. I purchased two pieces before he passed away and would love to add to my collection. Do you have any info that might help?