Anthony Natsoulas
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Tony Natsoulas (born 1959), like his art, is funny, offbeat and awkwardly charming. "I just do what the little voices tell me to," reads the bumper sticker on his pick-up, a statement that seems not far from the truth. A bard, a sonneteer, and a prankster in clay, Natsoulas wants us to appreciate the humor in the banal, and to look nostalgically at some of history's self-indulgent pleasures.

Small in stature-his wife Donna holds his ankles lest he fall in while stacking his top-loading kiln. It is the pounds-per-square-inch of energy and charisma that make Natsoulas a force of nature. His ebullient personality is matched only by his work in clay, which surmounts various technical challenges to become monumental sculpture that shocks, entertains and amuses.

The humor and irreverence of Natsoulas's art should come as no surprise, considering the inspired lunacy of his mentors. A descendant of Pop and California Funk, Natsoulas's work goes beyond both. Embracing what may be best termed "camp"-that which is outrageous in its artificiality, affected, and referencing the out-of-date in an amusing manner-he has manufactured a style distinctly his own.

Natsoulas received his bachelor's of arts degree in 1982 at the University of California, Davis, and his master's of fine arts in 1985 from the same institution. He studied with many celebrated names in California painting and sculpture-Robert Brady, Roy DeForest, Wayne Thiebaud-and has also been an informal student of artists David Gilhooly and Clayton Bailey, who have both greatly influenced him. His most significant teacher was the sculptor/ceramist Robert Arneson, who Natsoulas credits with changing his life by giving him the incentive to pursue art as a career.

As an undergraduate, Natsoulas began sculpting full-length figures that sell shoes, play guitars, drive automobiles and wait tables-the everyday activities with which he readily related as an artist just starting out. His more recent work has focused on larger-than-life busts of famous-or infamous-characters. With huge flat heads and tiny torsos, these busts exist in two seeming dimensions, subverting the third. Each piece narrows when viewed from the side, a technique that he first saw and liked in a sculpture by Robert Arneson. The intended views are the front and back, sculpted as if by a painter of portraits or a caricaturist. He lavishes attention on features that grab his attention and minimizes those that do not.

In the past year, Natsoulas has begun a new series of busts inspired by the eighteenth century. Looking to both the Baroque and Rococo eras, he coined his creations Barococo. Loving the extravagance and decoration of the period's costume, hairstyles and make-up, Natsoulas lovingly details powdered wigs, ruffles and penciled beauty marks. Not stopping there, he pushes this abundance to absurd levels through flowers, birds, pets and other accoutrements. The dynamism this adds to his pieces is seen in the figure of an eighteenth-century woman who wears an enormous wig teeming with hummingbirds; in a cane-sporting gentleman who clutches a pug dog by the scruff of the neck; and in a fashionable vixen who nearly drowns in the abundance of bows on her dress. While the figures are not universally recognizable, they do represent the artist's spouse, friends and colleagues he uses as models.

In creating these parodies of the past, Natsoulas at times looks to Hollywood, and art history. He is particularly enamored with French period artists and portraitists such as Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Francois Boucher, and distills humor and biting commentary from the famed English satirist William Hogarth. Other eighteenth-century prototypes specific to Natsoulas's medium are figurines produced at the Meissen porcelain factory. He uses these figural groups like maquettes for his own work, borrowing costumes, hairstyles, and expressions, as well as color and approach to ornament. By blowing them up to colossal scale, Natsoulas eradicates the preciousness of the originals, instead making them bold and engaging, humorous and challenging to the viewer. Because the sculptures are so unabashedly silly, the artist reminds us that perhaps we needn't take art and history-and by extension ourselves-quite so seriously.

Scott Shields, Crocker Art Museum.

Artist Bio

    Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Tony Natsoulas and his family would travel from California to New York City to visit relatives who were Greek immigrants from Symi and Cyprus. One of the benefits of these visits was being exposed to the city’s incredible art galleries and museums, which his parents dutifully brought him to. The museums and their collections impacted him, but the then-contemporary art movement of the day, pop art, influenced him the most, particularly the work of Claes Oldenburg and George Segal.

    Natsoulas grew up in Davis, California, where his father was a professor of psychology at the University of California. In grade school, he went on field trips to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, where he saw David Gilhooly’s ceramic work for the first time. He never forgot seeing a sculptural ceramic casserole dish with a multi-breasted frog goddess of fertility on its lid. At that moment, he knew that art would be his vocation. Just eleven, he began to dabble in clay and has never stopped.

     In 1977, Natsoulas started making large ceramic sculptures at Davis Senior High School. His teacher, Donna Hands, was impressed with his work and recommended he take concurrent classes at the University of California at Davis. His teacher there would be Robert Arneson, a man that Natsoulas would later credit with giving him the incentive to pursue art as a career. Also influential was artist Clayton Bailey, who Natsoulas met during a visit to the artist’s studio on a class field trip. Bailey shared his “THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD MUSEUM” with the eager students. It was a captivating moment for Natsoulas, who was fascinated with Bailey’s fabricated Big-Foot bones, Cyclops skulls, a mad scientist laboratory, and other incredible paraphernalia. After taking two classes with Arneson while still in high school, Natsoulas graduated and went on to attend California State University, Sacramento. There, he took ceramic classes from Robert Brady and Ruth Rippon. In 1979, he returned to the University of California at Davis, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1982. His teachers included Roy de Forest, Wayne Thiebaud, Manuel Neri, and other prestigious artists. They were not only very successful in their teaching professions, but were also great role models in that they produced art and exhibited.

    In 1983, Natsoulas was accepted to Maryland Institute, College of Art, for graduate school, feeling that he needed to attend an East Coast school for a different perspective on art. He met fellow artist Eddie Bisese, a graduate student in painting there. Bisese’s series of paintings of people with large heads and expressive faces struck a chord with Natsoulas.  Yet, after a year in Maryland Natsoulas grew homesick for California and the art department at Davis. Before enrolling in the Davis MFA program in 1985, however, Natsoulas attended the Skowhegan summer school of art in Maine, where he worked with several artists including Judy Pfaff and Francisco Clemente.

   During his art training, Natsoulas began to produce life sized figurative ceramic sculptures, concentrating on form and gesture. Standing directly on the floor, they drew viewers to them, demanding interaction.  He used these figures to work out his feelings and thoughts about social issues, phobias, politics, and his own internal conflicts. Shortly after leaving graduate school in 1985, Natsoulas was invited to exhibit at the Rena Bransten gallery in San Francisco, where he had two successful shows.

     In 1993, Natsoulas married Donna George, who he credits as his primary inspiration and muse. Although his wife has served as the direct inspiration for numerous works, she also shares and champions the popular culture influences that inform almost all of Natsoulas’s work. Absurd television shows, people, toys, cartoons, plays and nostalgic movies inspire Natsoulas the most, and the artist references them through larger-than-life exaggerated ceramic busts which he began making in 1997. For example, as a child he watched the 1950's T.V. sitcom The Honeymooners starring Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, an overweight, loud and opinionated man married to Alice, played by Audrey Meadows. When the show aired, women were portrayed as mothers, wives, and happy homemakers. They had few opinions, made no fuss, and their lives were neat and tidy packaged drivel. Alice, however, was different. She stood up for what she believed; she was not afraid of her loud and overbearing husband.  She was wise, firm, and loving, yet still feminine. Natsoulas sculpted the feisty and admirable Alice as part of a series of busts that also included Inspector Clouseau, Uncle Fester, Auntie Mame, The Duchess from Alice in Wonderland, and more.

     In 2001, Natsoulas continued to sculpt another series of more of his favorite celebrities. He depicted Pablo Picasso because he epitomized a fine artist who not only painted but worked with clay. He also depicted Clayton Bailey’s alter ego, Dr. Gladstone. From the silver screen he portrayed Audrey Hepburn, known for her beauty, grace, and her humanitarian work. He also sculpted all four Beatles, each from different periods in their history.  The series also included portraits of Carmen Miranda, Rosalind Russell, Eddie Izzard, Pee Wee Herman and Hercule Poirot.

    In 2002, Natsoulas had a successful exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum, which included 12 large busts of his wife and friends as 18th century characters. He loves the outrageous colors and attitudes of that era. The show was installed in the Crocker's ballroom, which made a fantastic environment for the work. The show traveled to the Triton Museum of Art.

   In 2002 Donna and Tony bought their first house after looking for about two years. It was also a Streng Brothers house like Tony’s childhood house. It is a three-bedroom two-bath ranch with a darkroom and a two-car garage. The garage has been completely renovated, insulated, the electrical all updated to illuminate the working space, making it a state of the art, working art studio.

   In 2004 he was chosen as “ONE of the Top 100 Artists living in the USA today” by the Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian Museum and the American Craft Museum in NY. The Archivist for the Smithsonian came out to interview Tony and the interview will be kept at American Archives, at the Smithsonian Museum and the interview is now on their website and is housed at the Smithsonian.

   In 2006 He was invited to go to Japan for five weeks as a Artist in Residence at the Shigaraki Cultural Ceramic Park. The Shigaraki Museum of Ceramic Art in Japan flew out to meet with Natsoulas and invite him to show in the first exhibition of figurative ceramics in Japan. They chose three larger than life sized sculptures to be included in the exhibition. The show traveled to other museums throughout Japan for a year. One of his pieces from the show is in the now in the museum's permanent collection.

   For the next 3 years Natsoulas won three large commissions to do several bronze sculptures in parks in Sacramento and Stockton.

  Currently, he is working on a series of large bust of more friends that will be drawn from more stories and folk tales.

Since I was a child, I have been making, breathing, and living art. My parents took me to museums in the ’60s and ’70s in New York City while visiting relatives. In high school I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I did not want to do a receptive job; I wanted to do something creative, so I chose art. I figured I was good at it after winning prizes in high school art contests. While still in high school, I took some classes at the University of California, Davis, where Robert Arneson was teaching. People bought my work, and I got a positive reaction to my art even at a young age, so I wanted to make a go of living off of my artwork, and working doing something I loved and enjoyed.

I have been able to make my living making my art. The folks who buy my work are fine art collectors, museums, craft collectors, restaurant owners, gallery owners, teachers, curators, friends, neighbors, and cities that commission me to do pieces for them. I also do workshops and PowerPoint lectures for schools, create websites and curate shows at two galleries; the Blue Line Gallery and Shimo Center for the Arts.

As far as promotion goes, I have put together a large website, and do public presentations for commissions. I have landed several museum shows by sending the directors and curators a portfolio and résumé. I have been fortunate; people aware of my art, our art collection, who have seen a show, seen me lecture, or do workshops, have asked to feature my work in articles, books, magazines, television, and such. Kind of like a snowball effect, I put myself out there and it grows from there. I also send announcements via email and Facebook when ever I finish a new sculpture or am having a show.

The advantages of how I market are that I get to control my own career, prices, money, how my art is represented and presented—and whom I want to see it. The money I earn is not split with anyone but my wife and cat. The artist is his or her own best advocate. When you control what is sent out on your behalf, you know it is all to your high standards and that the material written is correct. I can feel good about how I am being represented, because I take the responsibility in representing myself for the most part.

Current economic conditions really haven’t made me change or adjust anything. I am able to do more of my own work, now that the public commissions have slowed down. And my perception of the sculptor’s life hasn’t changed much over time. I have one rule: If you keep your overhead down, you have the freedom to do anything you want and enjoy. It has certainly worked for me.

I look at as much art (all mediums) as I can. I go to museums, galleries, studio visits, lectures, art and craft shows, talk to fellow artists, subscribe to many magazines, travel, go to movies, and am always aware of what is out there and what is going on in the world.

Ceramics should not be in a category by itself; it should be just another medium in the fine arts world. I don’t get it when I hear that critics don’t understand or know about ceramics so they can’t write about it. It is just another sculpture. Why do we have any shows, magazines, collectors, galleries or museums dedicated to one media? I don’t get it.

When I graduated from undergraduate school and was going to off to Maryland Institute College of Art, Arneson said to go to New York City and get a gallery and a studio. I wanted to keep making large-scale ceramic sculpture and could not see how I could do it there due to the high cost of living and the lack of big, affordable studio space. I have several friends who went to New York and had to wait tables and try to get artwork done in their time off. I feel like I may have missed out on getting a good fine arts gallery to represent my work on the East Coast at that time, but I think by staying here on the West Coast, I got a lot more work done. Looking at it now, I think I made the right decision for myself.

I am on health insurance through my wife’s work. Before that, we paid for our health care every month and the premiums were very expensive. I have never mixed glazes or clay due to the danger it poses to have dry chemicals and dust floating around the studio. My philosophy is that the commercial glaze and clay companies mix this stuff better and more efficiently than I do, with more consistency. I do try to stay fit and have in the last year given up using all leaded glazes on my work after finding more lead in my blood than the average person. Since then, it is lower than the average person. I try to wash out my studio once a week, and keep the large garage doors open so that I am not breathing that much dust from the clay and glazes I use.

If you’re interested in pursuing sculptural ceramics as a profession, take control. Be responsible for yourself, your art, and your own career. Be involved with every aspect of the business and keep your overhead as low as possible. Also, make what is in your heart and what you love or have some passionate feeling about. Get to know your medium, what it can do and what it can’t do. Learn your technique; you have to learn to spell and put words together before you can write a great poem. Look, look, look at everything and as much art as you can. Also, try to stay as humble as you can.