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Ceramics and Culture, Paul Barchilon

Ceramic artist Paul Barchilon creates intricate designs that take us on a voyage of discovery within the circle, delineating patterns that repeat through different symmetries.

Barchilon was born and lives in Boulder, Colorado.

He studied ceramics at the University of Colorado but it was not until he began to explore Moroccan art that he found his niche. Working from within a 1300 year old tradition of geometric design, Barchilon's original patterns pay homage to their sources but imbue them with a modern sensibility.

We talk to Paul about his love for ceramics, travelling as inspiration and the influence of Islamic geometry in his work.

Tell us about your background and your journey to as a ceramic artist?

I first did ceramics in high school, and immediately loved it. I wanted to break all the rules right off the bat. When the instructor told us we should glaze the pots all over, I immediately wondered why, and made several pots that intentionally left glaze off in certain areas. One of these, a bowl I made almost 40 years ago, is still one of my favorite bowls and I eat from it often. In college I took as many ceramics classes as I could and loved exploring things. I took a few years off while I was in a rock band, but then came back to college again and studied ceramics. This time though, I didn’t feel like I was being taught what I wanted to learn. The dominant aesthetic at that time was a loose flowing style, work that was too precise was considered “uptight,” I was told I needed to loosen up. For something to be “decorative” was almost an insult. That summer, 1991, I returned to Morocco and Spain for a visit. There I fell in love with the incredible zellij tiles, and also the elaborate muqarnas. I thought to myself, “THIS is what you should do with ceramics!”

When I returned to the US, I began incorporating Islamic pattern into my work. I had taken rubbings of patterns in Andalusia, and traced some of them in plaster and stamped my work with them. I began making vases that used the patterns, and I painted each area by hand. At the group critiques, my work was not well received. It was again that everything as too “tight,” I was also told the work was derivative and unoriginal. When I talked to the instructor later, I told her I thought the critique was not appropriate for what I was trying to do. If I had shown this work in Morocco, or Iran, they would have said my work was too “loose,” too sloppy, and that I should practice for years before trying to make these things. She responded by asking why I was in art school if I didn’t want to hear what other people had to say about my work. I thought about that for several days, and decided to drop out of school and pursue ceramics on my own.

You have travelled the world, researching pattern and line designs in India, Turkey, Spain, Peru, and China. What has been your most memorable moment that impacted your creative practice?

In Marrakesh in 1991, while winding my way through a labyrinthine souk, I came across a man making brass platters in a tiny little shop. I was fascinated by his designs and asked him how he made them. He was kind enough to give me a demonstration. Taking a flat sheet of metal he first drew a single circle, and then divided it into six equal sections simply by setting his compass to the radius of the circle and then marking the divisions around the circumference. From there he drew lines between some of the points, and then again crossing into the center. In no time at all a complex interwoven pattern began to appear. He told me that all of his patterns were stored in his head. Many of them he had learned from his father, others sprang out as he played with the lines. I watched him in awe, but also had an inkling that this was something that perhaps I too could learn to do. I bought some paper and crayons at a small stationeer, and everywhere I went I took rubbings of the tiles. Some of my favorite patterns were found in local bars and one was even found in the men's room of the Alcazar in Sevilla.

Your work is influenced by Morrocon heritage, why do you feel a connection to Morroco?

My father was born in Morocco and we are Sephardic Jews on his side. These are the Jews that dispersed to Spain and Portugal after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century. During the middle ages, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony and cooperation in Spain. At this time Jews were persecuted savagely throughout Europe, so my personal history is one of being protected from the Christians by the Muslims. In 1492, all the Muslims and Jews were given the choice of converting to Christianity or being killed. My ancestors fled south to Morocco, where they stayed for 17 generations. This is on my grandmother’s side (Barchilon may well be a name we took from Barcelona as we fled). On my grandfather’s side, he told us his family had been in Morocco since the time of King Solomon, so an ancient heritage indeed! As a child, we visited my grandparents in Morocco often. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of being fascinated by the play of light and water reflecting intricate zellij tiles in a fountain in Morocco. Having grown up in two different cultures, I always knew that there were other ways of doing things, and other ways of being, and that has been key to my development as a person and as an artist.

How did you learn the art of ceramics?