Phoenix natives like to mention if they were born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and Halldor Hjalmarson is among their number.
“I was supposed to be born at Good Sam,” he explained last Saturday morning, seated on a sofa in his bright backyard ceramics studio. “But an impetigo plague was going around Good Sam, and the doctor moved my birth to the St. Joe's.”
Halldor was raised in downtown Phoenix, and attended Kenilworth School until fourth grade. The family relocated near South Mountain, where he went to one of the Roosevelt schools.
He grew up to be that rarest of things: a renowned ceramics artist. His work wins prizes and shows in galleries and museums far and wide and is, he readily admitted, pretty recognizable. Birds and fishes and cactuses burst from Halldor’s art pottery — bowls and pitchers and globes layered with three-dimensional Sonoran creatures and plant life, glazed in desert palette colors.
“I prefer to call it low-level sculpture rather than ceramics,” he said. He and his wife and business partner, Gail, had just finished packing boxes of artwork for a show later that day at the Japanese Friendship Garden. He’s already creating work for an August exhibit in Sedona.
Back when he started, making pottery wasn’t really a thing. “It was sort of a secretive craft back then,” he said. “I started out doing functional work, vessels mostly, and then one day about 30 years ago I was at the art museum, looking at a show from China, and one of the artists had attached a lizard to a pot. I could tell it was cast.”
Halldor’s work offers, he explained, a micro environment of Sonoran life. “I’m creating an interaction between the plants and animals in each piece. I started out just putting one or two things on a vessel, to give it a little pizzazz. Now, those things are the focus. Rather than adding something to a functional piece, it’s become the piece itself.”
He didn’t make a beeline for pottery, Halldor confided. “I was studying art education at ASU in the mid-'60s, and you had to take either ceramics or a crafts class. I took ceramics, and this addiction started. Within six months, I had a kiln at my house.”
“He was working out of our carport, so when he needed water he had to come inside,” Gail said. “We had a lot of clay in the kitchen back then. It was on the floor, and it was on the light switches.”
In 1973, Halldor returned to the downtown Phoenix neighborhood where he grew up. “This house is small, and it was probably too small for us to raise our kids in,” Gail confessed. “But it had this guest house that we could turn into a studio.”
She pointed to the ceiling of the studio. “And here we still are.”
Halldor taught ceramics at high schools and at Phoenix College in the ‘60s and ‘70s while he perfected his craft. “I was doing mostly functional work. In those days, we built our own kilns. I remember when they tore down the Phoenix aluminum plant; it was a goldmine for firebricks to build kilns out of.”
More recently, he’d been experimenting with mud-cracking. “It’s an icon for global warming. I’m pouring clay out and then letting it crack naturally. For some reason, they usually dry in a six-sided shape.”
A recent piece depicts a boat surrounded by prickly pear cactuses. “I’m Icelandic,” he said. “That one’s a Viking ship discovering Arizona.” Another newer series, titled “Gourmet Meals,” replicated cast-iron frying pans filled with fish and horned toads. The mushrooms and chili peppers were made by hand, rather than cast from molds.
Occasionally, visitors to his studio mistook Halldor for a dish manufacturer. “I get real put off when someone wants to dictate the size or color or look of a piece,” he said with a small smile. “I’ll get sarcastic and say, ‘Well, you seem to know exactly what you want — why don’t you do it yourself?’”
He had heard that people collect the round, colorful ceramic business cards — he called them “rocks” — that he leaves in cafes around town. “One woman came in and wanted to buy 30 of them,” he said. “She used them to plug up holes in the foundation of her house.”
Halldor stood outside his ceramic studio. Nearby, a brown-striped cat took a languid sun bath. Halldor agreed that people seem to like his artwork. “It’s a good thing when you can recognize an artist’s work,” he said. “I think the best thing I can say about my pottery is that when people see it, they know exactly who did it.”