Porcelain with character
Gallery: Peter Saenger art [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
By John Chambless
In Peter Saenger's world, teapots lovingly drape themselves over their cups, salt and pepper shakers lean into each other and vases do a stylish tango, creating a signature style that has carried Saenger through some 40 years as an artist.
To reach Saenger's home off of Paper Mill Road in Newark, you choose an unlikely looking lane, then follow it until it looks like a dead end, then go right. His home, perched on a wooded hillside with a spectacular view of the White Clay valley, is tucked into the terrain in much the same way his cups nuzzle each other like contented puppies. Sitting in his ground-floor studio and exhibition space, Saenger was surrounded by his instantly recognizable pots, vases and cups, as well as some one-of-a-kind pieces that signal a dazzling new direction in his longstanding career.
“I was very fortunate in the timing of when I started. I was the first one in my family to graduate from college,” he said. “I did it in pottery – my poor parents,” he added, laughing. “They were very supportive that I should do what made me happy, but they didn't know how I would make a living. This was also the 'Do your own thing' era, luckily, and the general culture embraced me. I did reduction-fired stoneware – hanging planters, mugs and plates and stuff.”
From his start in the 1970s, Saenger gradually developed tableware that goes well beyond functionality into the realm of sculpture. Sitting in countless craft fair booths over the years, Saenger saw which pieces drew the most attention, and when he gained the ability to cast his pieces instead of creating them on a potter's wheel, his horizons expanded immensely. “You can't throw the things I cast,” he said. “When I started casting, that's when I developed my look.”
At one time employing several people to handle the production of his functional ceramics (“we were just jamming stuff,” he said), Saenger has now stepped back from the grind of turning out the same cups over and over again, and “this is year two of not loading the van and doing craft shows,” he said. “I kind of describe myself as being self-under-employed at this stage.”
He has plenty of inventory on hand that he sells through his website, and he hears from people who have owned his work for years when they write, desperate to replace a broken cup or pot that they have come to love.
That kind of connection with his work is gratifying, Saenger said, but the chance to cast both functional pieces and his own artistic statements is opening a new avenue for him. “I'm not distracted by doing production work, so the kiln can be filled with two kinds of work – some production pieces and some onesies in there,” he said. “I get curious. What happens when I try this? And away I go. That's the driving force.”
There's a unifying style in Saenger's ceramics – a friendly, warm spirit that people have tried to put into words. “I had a surgeon come by my booth years ago who said, 'That looks like organs, the way they fit together,'” Saenger noted with a smile. “It's a fluid shape, it's shapes responding to each other. There's an interplay.”
People buy his teapot sets even though they never drink tea, Saenger said, because they admire the shapes. “Some people never use them,” he said. “Some people use them for special occasions. When they came by the booth, people would say, 'clever,' or 'inventive.' The sugar and creamer – the ones that flow into each other – is kind of sexy, and some people would feel it's a little bit X-rated,” he said, smiling.
“So many people have seen my work and smiled,” he said. “I think that's worth the price. If it puts a smile on your face every day, how can you not want it?”
His work came to the attention of the White House through the connection of former Vice President Joe Biden. “One of the fun things I got to do, being a Delawarean, is that the President, Vice President and Secretary of State, when they travel, they give gifts of state. Seeing as how Joe Biden is a Delawarean, I was among many Delaware artists that was able to have some work given away by both the President and the Vice President. That was a wonderful thing. My big hugging vessels were going to be given to somebody by the Obamas, so I was all over the moon about it. Then I got a note that said 'Peter, we think these are too human, too sexual, so we don't think we should give them as gifts from a head of state.' But that's life in the art world. Unlike the fashion designers, we gift makers can't make a big deal about this while they're in office.”
Another brush with fame came when a gallery owner Saenger worked with submitted his nuzzling teapot and cup set to the production company making “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“A friend called me and said, 'I saw your teapot on TV,'” Saenger recalled, smiling. “I didn't get credited, but it was used.” Still in production, Captain Picard's Tea Set has since won him a legion of admirers among “Star Trek” fans that continues to this day.
Saenger's recent explorations of using liquid slip – basically porcelain in pourable form – to create intricately latticed globe shapes is particularly satisfying for him. “I try to go for that unconscious energy, and the scribbly lines,” he said. “And it pushes my physical limits because I have to hold the molds and swirl the slip inside at the same time. I layer it for strength and to give me textures that I can accentuate with colors later.”
The lacy patterns of the finished pieces are eye-catching and there's a sleight of hand involved in the spheres, which look like they have been spun out of spider webs. “People ask how long it takes, and I say, '40 years.'” Saenger said. “Things roll one into the other. It's just step by step.”
Placing one of the new spheres in the window of his studio revealed ever-changing patterns as the sunlight hit the piece at different angles. There's a time-lapse video on his website showing how the spheres change appearance at various times of day. As lampshades, the pieces throw fascinating shadows, and the glare of the bulb is dimmed in just the right way. That was a process of trial and error, Saenger said, admitting that his initial shades were too thin and allowed the bulb to glare too brightly.
Whether someone buys a set of cups to drink out of, or one of his new sculptural pieces to hang on the wall and admire, Saenger said the reward is the same for him. “One of my friends said the work is really not complete until someone owns it,” he said. “And that's what keeps me going. Of course, it's great if my latest idea is the thing that inspires people.”
Saenger's work is created through his purchase of wind-generated power. “It takes lot of power to run the electric kilns, so using wind power lets me feel as clean as possible,” he said. Even his broken pieces or things that don't work out perfectly are recycled. “Some of my seconds are put in a tub and given to a mosaic artist I know, Celeste Kelly. She cuts them into thumbnail-size pieces,” he said.
Saenger credits his wife for running the business side of things, as well as helping him finish work when the orders back up. When he's not making art, Saenger takes advantage of his proximity to trails along the White Clay to go biking. “I'm a trail rider, and the trail riding here is spectacular,” he said. “I can go right from my back deck, up to White Clay or over to Middle Run, downstream or upstream. I just get on the bike and go.”
Having been a professional artist for so many years, Saenger said he was encouraged by a recent opinion piece in The New York Times. “They said people are at their most creative when they're older. So as an older person, I'm very heartened by that idea. I will do this as long as I can and have the inspiration and the curiosity. Something that inspires you to come down and get to work. My insomnia is well used in those times,” he added with a grin. “That's worked consistently well over the years, that feeling of, 'Aha! Let's try that!'”
For more information, visit www.saengerporcelain.com.