Most people in the craft world are familiar with Robert Arneson. During the 60s and 70s, when crafters were wringing their hands about their exclusion from the art world, Arneson satarized the lowly stature of ceramics by talking about "The World's Most Fascinating Hobby". As a founding member of the "Funk" movement, he embraced the scatological potential of ceramics, which culminated in his "Funk John", which was originally exhibited in 1963, at an exhibition alongside works by Peter Voulkos and John Mason.
When I was going through the Smithsonian's archive of oral histories, I found an extensive interview with Arneson that gives (among a zillion other things) a history of the Funk John. After the piece was unceremoniously removed from its original exhibition, Arneson sold the piece to a former student of his, who installed it in her living room (despite strident objections by her husband). I'll let Arneson finish the story.
Some time later Nina came back to see me at Davis, and she was very upset. She discretely asked me, “How does one fix ceramics?” I didn’t know what she meant. She said, “Well, how do you fix things that are broken?” “Well, what’s broken?” She said, “Well, I must tell you. My husband opened the living room door the other night, took your toilet that was on rollers and rolled it right out to the front porch and down five flights of stairs. It tipped over and was just really pulverized. I gathered up all the pieces and put them in the yard.” So I said, “Well, just bring up all the pieces and let me see what we’ve got.” So she brought up all the pieces back to me. Remarkably, she had them all. It broke in a nice, wholesome manner. There weren’t a lot of little shards, so I restored it to its original.
One thing about my art is that I have always had an impatience with my processing. My work always cracked and did weird things. So I learned to fabricate and repair them. In some cases, I also forgot to make certain sections of my work that were missing, so I always had to fabricate them out of plastics. I really learned how to fit and make pieces belong and come together that were negligent originally in their construction. I put the piece together very nicely. I didn’t give it back to her since I didn’t want a violent act repeated on the piece as I was really liking it. So I asked her, “Now where is it going to go? We have to find a friend of yours.” Eventually Nina was able to finally bring it back to her own home, and hide it in the back of her garden somewhere under a shrub so it wouldn’t be offensive.
Later on when I had my retrospective in 1974 at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, that toilet was certainly one of the pieces that I wanted to have in my exhibition. I made arrangements to borrow it. It had been sitting at the Kelley’s under a shrub for about ten years. Some of the epoxy had deteriorated under the weathering process. I had to bring it back to my studio at Davis and spend about two days on it, etching it in acid and removing some of the shearing epoxy pigments that were coming off, loosening up the epoxy that was wiggling away. I rebuilt it, putting it back together to make it certainly even better than new. And it was a beautiful piece after that.
When that show came down, I had reached the point where I decided – I knew that the toilet was such a crucial piece in my life that I really wanted it back. I offered the Kelly’s the opportunity to have any work that they would wish or they could even commission a piece, for that toilet, which they had originally purchased for $500. At current value in 1974, they could have something closer to $3,000 or $4,000, whatever they wanted, or I would make them a piece, or they could choose a piece within the next few years, irregardless. Anyway, looking back on those toilets, that was the impetus to a body of work on my part that I felt was finally arriving at what Bob Arneson’s art was going to be about.
If you're interested in reading more of the extensive interview with Arneson, follow this LINK. I can wholeheartedly recommend the entire Smithsonian oral history archive, which has transcripts of incredible interviews with artists, crafters, collectors and thinkers. It's a treasure trove that will fuel tons of craft researchers in the new millenium.
LINK to Smithsonian oral history archive