Ira Winarsky: Iridescent Art

Sculptor and artist Ira Winarsky (1942-2015) spent the last 25 years of his life entirely focused on exploring the potential of ceramic. Using clay as a fine art medium in the manner of George Ohr, Peter Volkous and Kenneth Price, Winarsky spent decades perfecting the difficult and temperamental process of creating iridescent lustre glazes in order to create sculpture that captures nature's true rainbows and movement, from a shimmering sunset on water, to the delicate prism of a peacock's feather, to dramatic hills and valleys and mountains seen from miles into the atmosphere.

Ira Winarsky was deeply interested in ways of representing our connection to nature, to land, and to the full spectrum of colors the world has to offer. A true individualist, Winarsky lived alone on a rural parcel of land in Florida surrounded by his peacocks, geese and dog, in a house and studio building-with kilns-that he built with his own hands. Forest near ira's studio He was first professor of sustainable architecture at the University of Florida, and had both a Ph.D. of Architecture and a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture. Winarsky was deeply committed to ideas about our relationship to the land and environment in both his professional field and his art work, believing his pieces to be about form, structure, movement, and an organic connection to the earth. He was known for trying to instill in his students an appreciation of landscape and its inherent beauty, and became one of the earliest professors of the field that is now known as sustainable architecture (Winarsky titled his specific concern, "ecological landscapes and sustainable design"). His early sculpture began with a focus on cast metals, then-when frustrated by the fixed nature of the medium-moving on to electronically interactive sculpture. What followed was an exploration into kitsch, and phosphorescent plastic environmental art.

A passionate love of the sensuality of color and form met Winarsky's interest in landscape, environment and technology in his final oeuvre of iridescent, abstract ceramic landscapes. Through years of dedicated study and experimentation, Winarsky was able to produce a rainbow of iridescent lustre glazes. All of these glazes interactively change color with the light they are bathed in, and with each person who sees them. Iridescent glazes have been made for centuries; their formulae and development almost always die with the artist. Ira's cabin As most artists in the medium must do, Winarsky had to create these colors from scratch: the technology to make the iridescence came entirely from years of his original research. He created every step of the process that allowed them to come to fruition, from the design and construction of my his own studio on his land, to the use of carefully controlled firing, with detailed temperature and atmospheric sensors. Winarsky was religious about the rigorous discipline required to record the process of producing every art piece and each new glaze formula. Each firing included documentation of the firing program, the plan of every kiln shelf, the glaze formulae and application methodology, and over thirty other significant elements of data. The resultant paper trail allowed Ira to better replicate a successful glaze when it was developed, and he was able to replicate a remarkable number of these notoriously temperamental and difficult lustre glazes again and again.

Winarsky dedicated his lifetime to the production of his art and exploring his passion. He was often quoted as saying, "Art is its own reward," and that it was the process of making art that gave him the most pleasure. He also used to say that his greatest claim to fame was having the world's largest collection of Ira Winarsky's Art. Since his passing, his family has taken custodianship of this important body of sculptural work and hope to give it a place in the history of modern art.

Iridescent Glazes

Iridescent ceramic glazes-an integral part of Ira Winarsky's ceramic art-have historically been considered a type of alchemy, closely related to the search to transform base metals into gold. The formulae for making them has been kept secret for centuries. The alchemists and artists using these glazes never disclosed how they made them; when they died, they died with their secrets. To this date, it is extraordinarily rare to find iridescent glazes, particularly in a broad spectrum of colors.

During a trip to New York City, Winarsky visited to the Garth Clark Gallery, where he saw firsthand the art of Beatrice Wood. Most of her glazes were metallic glazes-luster glazes-however a few were iridescent and changed color in the light. Winarsky was entranced.He researched everything that Beatrice Wood ever wrote, as well as the writings of George Ohr and others, dating back to the Picoloposso Ceramic Treatise of 1558. But there was very little existing literature, and none of it instructive enough to recreate the glazes. The making of iridescent glazes is and always has been considered a form of alchemy, and alchemists do not give out their secrets. Even Beatrice Wood, who died on March 12, 1998, died with hers.

Winarsky had to start his research with the basic chemistry of glazes and metals and the physics of light. The glazes go into the kiln a clear milky white; after firing they emerge-if lucky-into brilliant metallic colors of gold, silver, and more. The iridescent glaze had to function as a thin prism, emulating Sir Isaac Newton's glass prism that divided natural daylight into a rainbow of colors. The process is notoriously finicky, depending on a huge variety of factoros that include chemical composition, firing, placement, timing, and a host of uncontrollable influences as well. Different colors and thicknesses of glaze layers and different numbers of layers create different iridescent effects.

"Ceramic glazes are a kind of glass that has bonded to the ceramic clay," Winarsky wrote. "The glaze must expand and contract at the same rate as the clay, and it must mature at the same temperature as the clay. The iridescent color of the glaze is the result of a chemical process that creates thin layers of glaze that reflect and refract the light that strikes its surface. Some light bounces off the top layer of the glaze and stays the same color. Additional light goes through this layer and is refracted, that is, bent in the same way a prism bends light, creating different colors of the rainbow. Different layers create different iridiscent effects."

Winarsky's first success came with a few basic colors. At the time of his death Winarsky had hundreds of iridescent glazes that encompass the entire rainbow of colors, the result of over 3000 tests and over 300 firings.

In a lecture given at the Harn Museum, Winarsky described the iridescence at work: "The glazes are iridescent and they change with the light because they are designed to be like a prism, reflecting some light from their top surface while refracting and diffracting light below its surface. This changes the frequency of the exiting light to produce a different set of colors that what had entered. Of course each kind of artificial light will produce a more limited range of colors, and each glaze will also produce its own range of reflections and diffracted colors. The glazes allow me to sculpt with light."

At the time of that lecture, Winarsky had tested over 2500 glaze recipes, and was working on more. Winarsky felt his glazes were getting better and better with all he learned, resulting in the best glazes as the most recent, and that spurred him on to continue his research. He described the opening of a kiln with test pieces and sculptures in it as either "an exhilarating event, or a devastating one. When one loses an entire month's work because of some glitch in the clay, the art piece, the glaze, or the kiln firing, it's hard to get back to work. At those times I remember what my father told me to do, when I was thrown from riding a horse. That was 'Get back on, right away.'"

Winarsky kept all the glaze test failures as well as successes, because he had learned several methodologies that helped him to turn a failure into a success.

Winarsky's glazes are forever changing, alive in light and motion, emphasizing or de-emphasizing the landscape forms they cover. Each glaze represents its own unique light wave length. Winarsky felt they possessed sensuality and intimacy because their colors are never the same, responding to changes to the color of natural light during the day and interact with the viewer. They reflect both the environment that encompasses the art, and the person viewing it.

'All iridescent art is a kind of miracle," Ira Winarsky wrote. At the time of his death, Winarsky was writing a book on the basic technology and process that allowed him to create his glazes. But like most other masters of the genre, in the end he took his secrets for his magical iridescent alchemy with him to the next great adventure.