“I was born with clay in my veins.” —Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates is a Black Chicago-based artist known for an expanded practice that encompasses art-making, performance, archival preservation, and urban regeneration. Trained in art, urban planning, and religion, Gates asserts that clay and vessel-making have been foundational and sustaining to his work. As he explains, “I always find myself returning to the vessel. It is part of the intellectual life force of my practice and it precedes all other forms of making.” He studied ceramics during his undergraduate years at Iowa State University, spent a post-college year apprenticing with Japanese potter Koichi Ohara in Tokoname, Japan, and worked as a studio potter for the first several years of his career.
Vessel #12 comprises a hand-coiled, manganese-glazed stoneware vessel on a pedestal of reclaimed ash. The piece references both the quintessential forms and dripping surfaces of Tokoname ware and the utilitarian vessels of the enslaved Black potter David Drake of Edgefield, South Carolina. As one of very few named Black potters in the 1850s, Drake was a revelation for Gates. Drake famously wrote short couplets on his large storage pots, demonstrating his literacy and poetic gifts at a time when enslaved people were legally forbidden to read and write. Gates channels Drake’s defiance on Vessel #12 by inscribing the text of the deed that transferred ownership of one of his Chicago buildings to his non-profit. Once glazed, the text is obscured, but is preserved in perpetuity through the firing process, asserting a permanent Black autonomy in physical space, a piece of real property that cannot be stolen.
The milled wood pedestal that supports the vessel is made of a salvaged ash tree damaged by emerald ash borer beetles, one of several compromised logs donated by the city of Chicago to Gates’s studio. Like his archival preservation efforts, the adaptive reuse of the ash log exemplifies Gates’s commitment to give new life to discarded materials and instill pride in objects deemed useless.
Considering clay integral to his prolific practice, Gates has returned to the medium and the vessel form in recent years. In 2021, he realized The Question of Clay, an ambitious, multivenue London project shown at the Whitechapel Gallery, the Serpentine, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Vessel #12, made in the same year that this project germinated, is a stunningly beautiful example of this work, rich with references to Gates’s own history and the history of ceramics broadly.
During our 37th annual Collectors Committee Weekend (April 21–22, 2023), members of LACMA's Collectors Committee generously helped the museum acquire 10 works of art spanning a breadth of eras and cultures. We'll be sharing information about these acquisitions throughout the week here on Unframed.