Current Issue / DU Alumni

Zen and the art of Zamantakis

“There is a truth there. There’s an affinity between clay and man,” says sculptor and DU alumnus Mark Zamantakis. Photo: Michael Richmond

For more than 50 years, Mark Zamantakis has conducted a conversation with clay.

Make no mistake, the clay talks back. They’re on intimate terms, he and his medium, two partners in a body of work that collectors covet, critics admire and other artists emulate. But after decades of getting to know one another, of collaborating closely to blend form and function, the clay still tantalizes Zamantakis with its possibilities.

“I am interested in the ultimate form—the one that is the most beautiful in shape and spirit,” says Zamantakis, BFA ’50, MA ’51. But, he acknowledges with a chuckle, “The ultimate form is an elusive idea.”

Not, perhaps, as elusive as all that. Since he first began working as a potter during his art student days, Zamantakis’ experiments with form have earned notice. Last December, in “From the Earth,” a retrospective of his work at DU’s Myhren Gallery, patrons followed his progress from questioning student to confident master. They dabbled in his early abstractions, shared his later enthusiasms for Asian and Cretan concepts, and marveled over the lustrous glazes

that animate every piece—from the smallest tea bowls to the largest vases. Taken piece by piece or as an eye-popping whole, his work leaves no doubt as to why Zamantakis ranks among Colorado’s most influential and respected potters.

Zamantakis’ work expresses a very personal philosophy, says DU art Prof. Maynard Tischler, himself a ceramics artist. Tischler, who joined a handful of Zamantakis’ former students in organizing the exhibit, believes the work reflects the artist’s worldview. “His commitment to clay, his work ethic, his interest in art and his travels have all contributed to a kind of Zen approach to ceramics,” Tischler says.

For Zamantakis, the philosophy is as simple as a palm full of modest dirt. He sees the clay as an antidote to the preoccupations of a too-tech world. “There is a truth there. There’s an affinity between clay and man,” he reminds us. After all, he adds, “It’s from the earth.”

Journey to a kiln

In an art-filled cottage in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood, where Zamantakis and his wife, Ivyl Jo, raised their three children, the self-described “humble potter” continues his quest for the ultimate form. Although he’s almost 80, Zamantakis spends hours each week in his basement studio, working the clay, throwing pots and grinding glazes. When he isn’t elbow deep in his own work, he’s fielding calls and questions from other potters, many of them his former students from a 26-year teaching career with Denver Public Schools.

“What’s mysterious is that visions of forms come to your mind. They flash and disappear quickly, disappear in a matter of seconds. Sometimes,” he says, “I can grasp one and work it.”

That determination to grasp and work dates back to his hardscrabble origins in Sunnyside, Utah, where his father, an immigrant from Crete, gave his work week and his health to the coal mines, dying from black lung in 1960. “He always used to say to me, ‘Working in the coal mines is not a way of life. It is degrading to your soul. For you to make a living, you must not use your back. You must use your brain.’ He was a wise old man,” Zamantakis recalls.

Before he could put his brain to work, Zamantakis had a date with the military. After graduating from high school in 1944, he was drafted, sent to gunnery school and assigned to a bomb squadron on a B-17 Flying Fortress. Just as he was about to see action, the war ended. Discharged and with his future a looming question mark, Zamantakis returned to Utah.

Thanks to the G.I. bill—“without it,” he says, “this poor little miner’s son could not have done it”—he enrolled in a community college to study psychology. “But funny thing,” he marvels, “I was more inclined in the art field than psychology.” Acting on a long-cherished impulse to create and paint, he transferred to the University of Denver, where Vance Kirkland was fostering a creative community of artists eager to break new ground.

At DU, Zamantakis’ mentor was John Billmeyer, who not only introduced him to pottery but who also urged him to soak up history and influences, something Zamantakis did—and still does—with passion. Throughout the years, his work has been fired by reverence—for form and clay, of course, but also for history and tradition, for the techniques and tools that bring clay to life, and not least, for the relationship between artist and audience, between teacher and student. In any conversation about clay and its properties or about art and its impact, a majority of his sentences begin: “What fascinates me is…”

What fascinates him is, well, everything. Start with the soil, with the concept of decomposition, the source of the clay itself. As an art teacher at George Washington High School, he emphasized respect for the clay. “I wanted these kids to realize that they were not coming into the classroom to play with mud and dirt,” he recalls. “I would tell them about how the clay was a living thing at one time, buried for several million years. And then it comes to life again as pottery.”

At the same time that he was teaching, Zamantakis was continuing his own education. In 1969, during a teaching exchange at Hiyoshigaoka Arts and Crafts School in Kyoto, Japan, he was introduced to a kiln that ultimately changed his work.

“Every weekend, we would travel through Japan going to different pottery villages,” he recalls. “That’s where I learned a great deal about the wood-burning three-chamber climbing kiln called noborigama. What that means is ‘the climbing fire.’”

Next to the noborigama kiln, with its live, unpredictable flame, Zamantakis’ old electric globar kiln lacked spontaneity and mystique. “The wood-burning kiln establishes a living pot,” he explains. “The most noted and beautiful pieces of work were done by man in these wood-burning kilns. They create this extremely subtle color that you are unable to achieve through gas or electric kilns.”

Enchanted by the kiln’s possibilities, Zamantakis queried one of his Japanese friends about how to build one in Colorado. He was greeted with wariness, advised that Americans misunderstand fire, know it only for its destructive properties. “That struck me,” Zamantakis recalls. “What he really meant was, we don’t understand the living energy of fire.”

Undeterred by his cultural limitations, Zamantakis returned to Colorado eager to build his own wood-burning kiln. His first effort, behind a friend’s studio in Morrison, was shunned by neighbors who disliked its smoke. Before long, he and his wife, known simply as Jo to their friends,

began looking for just the right site—remote and with a suitable slope for the climbing chambers—on which to build. At 10,800 feet, on 10 acres near Fairplay, they found the perfect spot to lay the bricks for the highest noborigama kiln on the continent.

Between 1974 and 1998, Zamantakis worked throughout the winter, throwing pots and pursuing the ultimate form. Then, in early June, he and Jo would carefully truck the unfired pieces to Fairplay, stoke the kiln and tend it for days on end. The care and feeding of the kiln became something of a potters’ festival, with fellow artists and students arriving from as far away as Kansas to join the celebration and perhaps fire a few pots of their own.

“My poor wife,” Zamantakis recalls. “We used to have 40, 50, 60 people come up. She used to do massive cooking for all these people.”

Tom Forte was among them. A former student of Zamantakis’ and the former proprietor of a gallery dedicated to works in clay, Forte remembers the Fairplay extravaganzas fondly. “It was kind of a continuation of Mark’s teaching experience,” he says, noting that Zamantakis generously allowed apprentice potters to try their luck with the demanding kiln. What’s more, he was always available to listen or lend advice. “He was as much a mentor and friend as he was a teacher,” Forte explains.

For friends and students like Forte, the relationship between Zamantakis and his kiln seemed every bit as intriguing as the artist’s dialogue with his medium. To Zamantakis, the noborigama kiln was a temperamental collaborator. “That kiln won’t do anything if you don’t encourage it,” the artist explains, pondering its ability to make or break a piece. “It’s amazing the hold that kiln had on people. I had people leave crying. They were that much touched.”

In 2000, well into his 70s, Zamantakis sold the noborigama kiln. “After 27 years of firing that kiln, I began to understand the idea of wood fire, air and water. All these elements possess life. I learned how to become harmonious with the kiln. I got to the point where I could understand the flame inside the kiln,” he explains.

Today, he fires his pieces at home in a backyard kiln. His output focuses on the functional—tea sets, serving platters, chalices, vases, items he hopes will see use. It’s his goal to put beautiful pieces in the hands and homes of ordinary people, so he disdains high price tags. “If you can’t allow people to own your work because they enjoy it, you defeat yourself as a potter. We price work where the average individual can get it,” he explains, complaining that intimidating prices make a piece “stuck up.” Why price beyond the average individual’s budget? “To show what?” he grouses. “To show the public that you are expensive?”

If he’s adamant about pricing conservatively, he’s ferocious about the role his art should play in daily life. “If you won’t use it, give it back,” he tells one recipient of a gift. “Let it serve you. Its whole existence is to serve you. It must be used for you to appreciate its beauty and its aesthetic.”

Zamantakis takes pleasure in the fact that his work has been collected—and used—for more than half a century. When he surveys his output at “From the Earth,” he dallies down memory lane, greeting sculptures and vases he hasn’t seen in decades. In his thesis pieces from the ’50s, he says, “I see a young individual inspired by pursuing a field of art.” Later, in the abstracts and sculptures, he observes an artist searching for form. By the ’70s and ’80s, the potter’s glazes are showing increased depth and quality, and by the ’90s, his command of form is certain. “But you know,” Zamantakis points out, “style wise, this potter refuses to go away from the functional form.”

The ultimate form. Seductive. Functional. Just out of reach and still whispering possibilities. “Doing what I do has humbled me,” Zamantakis says, contemplating another spin of his kickwheel, another quest for elusive perfection. “I become more humble as I continue to work with the clay.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *