Dick Lehman

Discovery Fuels Lehman’s Artistic Journey

A friend asked me one time why I think Goshen is such a hub for the arts.

I think there are a lot of reasons, but I’ll just share a few. First of all, back when I was at the Old Bag Factory we had the idea of creating a space, an artist area, like a covey of quails—where we could all be next to each other and watching out for each other—and I think this is sort of central theme and a narrative that has held true when it comes to the Goshen arts scene.

In the arts community in Goshen things are very much more collaborative than they are competitive—and that is somewhat rare—and it plays a big part in why there is so much life to the arts community here; people are supporting each other and working with, and for each other, instead of the other way around.

Goshen is also blessed with a very healthy guild network and this is so important; it brings artists together and creates an environment of encouragement. I believe our healthy guild system certainly contributes to the overwhelming feeling of collaboration versus competition.

The academic institutions here also play a big part in the city’s nurturing arts community, and of course Goshen College played a big part in all of this for me. I didn’t start focusing on clay until after I graduated from Goshen College, but my time there had a tremendous effect on me creatively.

I took clay electives with Professor Marvin Bartel when I was at Goshen College, and one thing I will never forget is how much I took away from his approach to teaching, because it’s really helped to shape my whole perspective. I remember we would all always ask him, ‘What do you think would happen if we tried to do this, or that? Will this work? Will that work?’ And he would always just say, ‘I’d guess you better try it and just see what happens.’ This really, I think, is an attitude that I grew into clay with over the years; the idea that there are no limitations on what one can think of, or try, and the idea that failure is a crucial and necessary part of learning.

I think there’s great beauty in that teaching method I witnessed from Marvin. If a student wants to try something, and it might not work, and probably won’t work—and it might even result in something in the workspace being broken or not functioning or even having to be rebuilt—that’s okay. Because the thing can be rebuilt, but no one anywhere can rebuild a student’s crushed sense of creativity. I think that was something very important that Marvin imparted to us, and he probably still teaches that way to this day; he has a small clay space at Greencroft and he volunteers to work with the folks there.

Dick Lehman Pottery
Dick Lehman
Dick Lehman

Photos courtesy of Dick Lehman

I think for me, my approach to clay is that I want to always keep making pots I don’t know how to make yet. If I’m known for my work it’s for trying different things, it’s not for one particular way of firing. That ‘what if’ element is a big part of my work, and that really started with Marvin.

I think discovery has been meaningful for me as a clay artist over the years. Anyone can really sort of remake what they already know will work, but that’s not my style. I’ve discovered new ways of firing, I discovered that the central voice to my art is experimentation. As a seminarian there was a mutual understanding between my professors and I that I was a terrible writer. But in the 1980s I discovered that wasn’t true. I dared to write something for Ceramics Monthly, and that led to a whole other part of my life. I’ve published around 75 articles over the years about my work and my travels and the arts.

I taught about 50 different clay artists during my 30 years at the Old Bag Factory, and many of them are still actively working with clay and I’d say 12 of those 50 are pretty much working full-time on some aspect of ceramics, whether it’s teaching or doing.

When I found out I’d be getting an Indiana Heritage Fellowship Award in 2023, which is normally reserved for something more specific, I was somewhat surprised. No potter had ever won that award. I was told it had to do with the fact that although I didn’t learn my art from my family I’d been a part in building a large community of clay artists, from my time at the Old Bag Factory.

That felt really good, the idea that I’d played a part in building something that extends beyond me.

Dick Lehman is a graduate of Elkhart High School (1971) and Goshen College (1976) and is an internationally-acclaimed ceramics artist and writer. Dozens of articles and photos featuring his techniques and insights have appeared in periodicals and books on ceramic art since 1985, including 34 articles in the U.S.-published Ceramics Monthly, the largest circulating magazine in the field. Lehman—known for his enhancements of three firing techniques; long-wood-fire, side-fire and saggar-fire—is co-founder of the Michiana Pottery Tour and in 2023 he was honored with the Indiana Heritage Fellowship Award. Learn more about Dick Lehman’s work here https://dicklehman.com/.

Written by Jake Sandock

Original publish date August 2023

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