Creative Spirits: Russell Coburn, Elliott McDowell, Laura Wallace
By Lisa Truesdale
Photos by Phil Mumford
Ask Russell Coburn what makes his pottery different, and he’ll offer up no shortage of persuasive answers. “Every ceramic pot has already been done,” he admits, so what’s crucial is that every piece be infused with the artist’s personal experiences and creative vision.
He was young when he threw his first pot—a junior at Boulder High in 1968, part of the first class there that had pottery wheels and a kiln. He was immediately hooked, feeling that it was what he was meant to do. By senior year, Coburn was selling his pots in a gallery on the Hill. He studied pottery in college, then moved to Santa Fe and had success selling his work out of the prestigious Elaine Horwitch Gallery—“the hot spot” at the time, he recalls.
He realized, though, that his anxiety about meeting other people’s deadlines, or creating works based on someone else’s vision, was hampering his creativity. He wanted to learn more about pottery, so he returned to Colorado for graduate-level work in ceramics and archaeology, focusing on Anasazi pottery. He traveled the globe to visit museums and ancient kiln sites in China, Mexico and the U.K.
Coburn’s studies and travels helped to cement the artistic vision that’s apparent in all of his works today. He’s happier when he can dig his own clay, and he rarely buys premade glazes—he creates his own, using 1,000-year-old formulas. He sources minerals, like feldspar and black granite, in Clear Creek Canyon, then pulverizes them into powder and mixes them with wood ash. This is all part of his personal vision that draws upon a deep knowledge of historic and prehistoric pots, and a mastery of the science behind the craft. He calls it “international historical”—or, quite simply: “I can see the human in the pot.”
Artists Then & Now
Coburn and his wife, LeeAnn, opened the Russell Coburn Gallery in June 2017, just a few blocks from their new home in Longmont’s Prospect neighborhood. They decorated it with rugs from Santa Fe, antique books and artifacts from their travels.
Adding another artist to the mix was just a “maybe someday” idea in the back of their minds until the Coburns discovered that Elliott McDowell—an accomplished photographer who had been an acquaintance back in Santa Fe—also lived in Prospect. McDowell loved the idea of a collaboration, and his framed photographs and posters were integrated into the gallery shortly after it opened.
“Our stuff just works well together,” Coburn says. “We are two creative spirits with a shared sensibility and a shared vision, and we both know what it was like to be an artist back in the ’70s.”
All of McDowell’s photographs tell a story, Coburn says. “Each one has a deep, spiritual meaning; they capture a series of events, not just a moment in time.” His black-and-white portrait of Navajo artist R. C. Gorman posing in 1975 with his first car, a Lincoln, is still popular with art collectors, 40 years later. “He was so proud of that car,” McDowell remembers. And as of this past summer, a large copy of another photograph called “Room Service” now hangs prominently behind the front desk of the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, where he took the photo in 1978. That was during a time in Elliott’s career when he was practicing “pre-visualization,” a technique he learned from studying with Ansel Adams.
“I would sketch images that would come to my mind, and then I would go into the field to make the photograph,” he explains. “They always turned out better than I ever dreamed of when making the sketch.”
A third artist’s work was recently welcomed into the gallery—the jewelry of Laura Wallace, who also lives in Prospect. LeeAnn says Wallace’s work fits right in with the other two artists because “it tells a story, too.” These “wearable treasures,” as Wallace calls them, showcase natural materials, gemstones and precious metals that recall mystical, spiritual or religious significance.
Although the gallery is relatively new, the Coburns are comfortable with the progress they’ve made in a short time. Visitors are welcome just to stop by, look around and ask questions. When he’s not working in his studio or out searching for glazeworthy minerals, Coburn enjoys being on hand in the gallery to tell stories about his artistic process. His vases, jars, bowls and plates invite queries that he’s always happy to answer, and he encourages people to fully embrace the tactile experience by running their hands over the contrasting smooth and textured surfaces that result from his unique glazing techniques.
“I’m so grateful to be able to do this, and to have all this creative energy,” Coburn says. “I have always been fascinated by clay, and I will always have my hands in it.”
Russell Coburn Gallery (720-745-8441; www.Coburn-studio.myshopify.com) is located at 700 Tenacity Drive, Unit 102, in Prospect New Town on the south edge of Longmont. Normal hours are Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and by appointment, but check the gallery’s Facebook page for special holiday hours, as well as news about upcoming events and classes.