In 1940, young Texan artist Rudolf Staffel couldn’t believe that Boris Blai, then the dean of the Tyler School of Art, invited him to teach ceramics at the lush campus in Elkins Park.
Thirty-eight years later, Staffel advanced the craft arts programs at Temple and left behind a legacy as the school’s first ceramics professor. Today, The Clay Studio at 139 N. 2nd St. in Old City celebrates Staffel’s work alongside three other influential Philadelphia ceramics artists in “Fellowship in Clay,” an exhibit running through Nov. 29.
Along with the work of Staffel, who passed away in 2002, the exhibit showcases works by Paula and Robert Winokur. Robert Winokur took over for Staffel as Temple’s ceramics professor while Paula Winokur taught ceramics at Arcadia University. “Fellowship in Clay” also displays the works of William Daley, a contemporary of Staffel’s and former professor at the University of the Arts.
“All four of these people were in this small Philadelphia craft community, they were all educators so they talked, they shared ideas, they spent time together,” said Jennifer Zwilling,the studio’s curator of artistic programs. “That’s another important thing about the show—it really was a fellowship. They’re all kind of helping each other and supporting each other as part of that community.”
The Clay Studio opened “Fellowship in Clay” in collaboration with Craft NOW, an organization which helps support and showcase Philadelphia’s craft art community.
Each artist has a very distinct style which can be seen within the exhibit, including Staffel’s renown work involving porcelain and light interaction. Until Staffel, not many craft artists worked with porcelain as their artistic medium because of its fragility.
“He tries to capture the beauty that he sees in the natural world with light and capture it somehow with this opaque material,” Zwilling said. “Not only was he a wonderful teacher as a one on one person, but in the larger world, he had a huge influence on studio pottery in general because his work gave permission to other potters to start using porcelain.”
Paula Winokur, who taught under Staffel at Tyler, was very close to him throughout her life.
“His work was always about experimenting. His pieces are very magical, I think,” she said. “There are a lot of people who had him as a teacher who would say he was very influential, but I think ultimately the work is the important thing. He left a legacy of extraordinary pieces.”
By showcasing Staffel’s work alongside the Winokurs’ and Daley’s pieces, the Clay Studio is helping to preserve this legacy and educate younger artists in the Philadelphia area.
“I think it’s incredibly important for these young artists to be really aware of the history of their own field,” Zwilling said. “It will not only make their work more rich, but it will encourage them, seeing the depth and breadth of artists who’ve had longer careers.”
“I always think about the fact that Philadelphia is so full of historical sights,” Zwilling added. “All you have to do is walk through the streets of Philadelphia and you’re going to experience some sort of craft art, whether it’s a contemporary thing or something that was made almost 300 years ago.”
Emily Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.