January 22, 2019

Outsized ceramics — and energy to match

Anna Silver’s two-story home in Westwood Village is filled with teapots of all shapes and sizes. But you would never use them to serve tea.

One is white and gold, the size of a volleyball that’s covered with little round balls; another is massive and bright blue with an oversized handle.

Her former gallerist, Garth Clark, once referred to her comically large “Alice in Wonderland” teapots. A 1989 New York Times reviewer found that her teapots are “rendered hilarious by the conventionality of their shape being stretched to a giant size.”

A series of her oversized painted plates are now on display at the Scripps College Ceramic Annual, billed as the longest continuous exhibition of contemporary ceramics in the United States. She previously had work in the show in 1985.

Her fascination with the teapot dates back to her days as an art student in the 1950s.

“The teapot, when you start to take a ceramics class, is the first thing that they ask you to make. It embodies, it encapsulates, all the problems that you have of making something that works, that’s functional, and you can make it a work of art,” Silver said.

Examples of her work, spanning several decades, fill the corners of her home: plates, vases, abstract sculptures, and chunky painted ceramic necklaces. Some have bright splashes of paint that resemble work by Matisse; others have Picasso-like abstract figures painted on them.

50-color-plateHer home also contains some of her reliquary boxes: tall rectangular boxes each topped with a pyramidal lid. Some have been used as cremation urns. Her pieces often blur the line between classical and modern, and between functional and decorative.

“The striking part of her work was the way she integrated modern and contemporary painting into her vessels,” said gallerist Frank Lloyd. He exhibited Silver’s ceramics at his former gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station.

Hundreds more of her pieces are in private collections and in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and other museums.

Art historian and curator Jo Lauria, who wrote an essay in the catalog for this year’s Scripps ceramics show, said in a phone interview that Silver’s work stands out for its “very ambitious reinvention of Greek classical forms, but with an inimitable color pattern. … No surface of hers is less than bold and really dramatic.”

“I was also very impressed by her scale, which is hard to achieve in any media, especially ceramics,” she added. “Making something big doesn’t necessarily make it better. But when you go big, you have to justify occupying that much physical and visual space. And she does that.”

Silver’s large, colorful ceramic vases are featured prominently in Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff’s restaurants, including Spago, Granita and Chinois. Silver recalls the day the couple walked into a Venice gallery and picked out several of her vases to purchase.

“I closed the door and I said to my husband, ‘I’ll bet we’ll never hear from them,’ ” Silver said. “The next morning they came with a big truck and they bought them all.”

Silver has made menorahs, and her work has been displayed in Jewish museums, but she doesn’t see a direct connection between her Jewish faith and her art.

Silver’s parents were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto before World War II. Their last name was Davis, an adaptation of Davidovich. They weren’t observant, but did occasionally attend Holy Blossom Temple, a Reform synagogue and the oldest Jewish congregation in Toronto. Her family moved to Los Angeles shortly after the war and joined Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“My father came here one winter to see a relative, and he saw the oranges and he just said, ‘That’s it,’ packed up, we got in a big old Packard and came here,” she said.

In the years that followed, she studied at UC Berkeley, UCLA and the Otis College of Design in Los Angeles. For a time, she studied in Paris with the world-renowned Cubist artist Fernand Léger.

Silver’s first marriage was to businessman Marvin Kalin, co-owner of the celebrity-beloved Santa Palm Car Wash. They had three children (Lisa, Matthew and David) within five years. She had some artistic success, but her focus at that time was on her family.

“I didn’t push myself in any way. I didn’t. I was really just more interested in raising my kids. But I always worked at my art and I always went to school,” Silver said.

After her marriage to Kalin ended, she married Alfred Silver, a doctor and psychoanalyst, in 1975 and turned her art focus to working with clay.

50-bwplateToday she works in a converted back house that sits behind red brick stairs that cut through a flower garden bursting with life from recent rains. The studio is sunlit and bright. Inside are three electric kilns, racks of plaster molds, drawers filled with tiny bottles of glazes, and vases and plates in various stages of completion. There are bookcases bulging with art books from every conceivable era and geographic region, and artwork collected from trips around the world. There are also stacks of compact disks, mostly world music and classical, which she listens to as she works.

Silver is in her 80s, an age that belies her bright red hair, boundless energy and impressive productivity. She takes walks and exercises, but her secret to health, she says, is to keep working.

“I do everything. I think I’m 40, but I’m not,” Silver said. “I really do believe that you can be old if you put your mindset to it. I’m not old. Most of my friends are young, and there’s really no difference between us.”

Anna Silver’s work is on display at “Scripps 73rd Ceramic Annual: A Sense of Place” at Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College in Claremont until April 9. Gallery hours: noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, visit rcwg.scrippscollege.edu or call (909) 607-4690.