Best of Phoenix

Vintage Phoenix Q&A: Halldor Hjalmarson

Halldor Hjalmarson is that rarest of things: A fine artist who stayed in town, worked hard at his art, and made a name for himself here. His signature style -- three-dimensional, "sprigged" clay vessels depicting Sonoran plants and wildlife, glazed in earth tones and brilliant blues -- is recognizable from 30 feet, and beloved by many. (So, too, are his business cards: small, bright ceramic tokens based on a rather naughty old currency.)

Hjalmarson, long an arts advocate and mover-and-shaker, also promoted downtown's historic preservation well before it was fashionable. For years he's made the tea bowls for the local Japanese gardens, and has, along with wife Gail, maintained the Hjalmarson Pottery Studio in the Roosevelt Historic District for 40 years now. He recently set down his slip long enough to chat about bordello tokens, the best way to freak out the gas company, and the art world, then and now.

Robrt Pela: You've been here forever.

Halldor Hjalmarson: I was born in Phoenix in 1938 and lived on West Willetta Street when I was a kid. I went to Kennilworth School. We moved out to South Mountain later, and I went into the Marine Corps for four years. I came back here and began studying art at ASU in the '60s.

RP: So, right from the beginning, you were going to be an artist.

HH: Well, I minored in Social Studies. I got a Masters in Art Education; ASU didn't have an MFA arts program at the time. I was married and had a kid and I wanted to be able to get a job.

RP: You weren't planning to jump right into clay arts.

HH: I started out as a painter, in watercolor. Most clay artists do. I didn't love ceramics at first. But in the Art Ed Masters program, you had to take at least one ceramics class. I did, and nothing happened. I took a second one, and the bug bit immediately. I've been doing clay work ever since -- for more than 50 years. I had my first studio out at South Mountain.

RP: What changed your mind?

HH: I don't know. I became more confident after the second class, I suppose. I got a kiln and enclosed my carport and after that it was Katie, bar the door.

RP: You were instrumental in historic preservation and one of the earliest downtown preservationists.

HH: Gail and I worked on a committee or two, back then. People thought we were nuts when we moved back downtown in 1973. This whole part of town was just a mess. Nobody had a yard, or kept their lawns up. It wasn't really a lot of artists down here, back then. There were a lot of people who just left for work in the morning with their lunch in a brown bag.

RP: So, you built a kiln out back and you were one of the few working artists downtown, back then.

HH: I was teaching all year by then, so I fired up the kiln a lot in the summertime. And every summer, we'd get the guy from the gas company out here looking for a leak in the gas line, because our gas use would spike in the summertime. They couldn't figure out why we were using so much gas in July -- more than we used in the winter.

RP: Tell me about sprigging.

HH: It's an old technique, and there aren't many who are foolish enough to do it today. I sculpt things out of clay, and I make molds of different Sonoran plants and wildlife, and then I cohere the clay to a finished vessel. I throw the vessels first, as sort of a blank canvas, and then compose the pieces on them later. It's like painting, only it's three dimensional.

RP: Your business cards are little pieces of art, themselves. I take one whenever I see a pile of them in a coffee shop. Aren't they expensive?

HH: They're free. And it takes no time at all for me to make them. I slip in a hundred or more with each firing I do. They're based on bordello tokens.

RP: Bordello tokens?

HH: They were little coins that were used as advertising for brothels or brothel bars, about a hundred years ago. Mostly in Europe, I think.

RP: Where were you selling your work in the early days?

HH: Galleries in Jerome and Prescott. Scottsdale, too. And we did craft fairs -- eight or ten a year. It wasn't like it is now. Back then, you just put a blanket down and spread your work out on top of it. Today, you have to have a regulation-sized table, with the proper draping, and you have to provide a photo in advance of what your setup is going to look like. Some potters today wouldn't dream of going to all this trouble --they're just too damn lazy.

RP: Has clay work itself changed?

HH: It has, in general. It's more glitzy today -- all art is. And I don't think there's as much skill as there once was. I like to joke about how, if a potter can't sell a pot for $50, he'll ask $500. A lot of bad craft is being passed off as clay art, these days.

RP: I suppose you wind up showing alongside a lot of craftspeople.

HH: It used to be in order to be a studio potter like myself, you had to do all the work yourself. You had to rent the space, and create your own means of production -- a wheel, a kiln. Today, we have a mess of what I call institutional potters -- they're doing all their work at an art center or a college. Someplace where someone fires the kiln for you, mixes the clay for you, mops the floor for you. There's always an instructor standing by in case you need something, like finding the bathroom. I'll bet they'll wipe your ass for you, too.

RP: Yikes.

HH: That's sarcastic of me, I know. But it's disheartening, too. Most of the competitive potters today are doing their work at colleges or other borrowed spaces, and it affects the work.

RP: Where are you showing now?

HH: I'm in a gallery in Tucson, but I'm slowly turning the business inward, so that I am selling more of my work from my studio. I do just as well. I have a steady clientele, and they know where to find me.

RP: Why do you make art?

HH: (laughing) Well, there's a good question. I usually tell people I've always worked with my hands. But I suppose making art is the result of a misspent youth.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela