At the intersection of craft and art, Nikki Ballere Callnan and her husband William Callnan III have an exhibit that reignites the questions that separate the two forms.

The exhibit, entitled “Unearthed” at the Napa Valley Museum through Jan. 28, is a retrospective of the couple’s work over the last 10 years created at their NBC Pottery Studio in Angwin. But the term “pottery” is far too narrow to describe their ceramic offerings. The organic shapes of their work seem to arise out of the textured materials of clay and wood and fired with subliminal messages.

Each separate installation of their work on the lower floor in the Spotlight Gallery of the museum is a study of both ceramic form and function – the exquisite craft of the ceramicist — combined with an implicit personal and playful challenge to experience the objects themselves as art.

Indeed, one of their installations is consists of a translucent container of split oak firewood situated beneath a tier of 10 necked amphora of various sizes. The textures and the colors of the ceramic pieces mimic the rough consistency of the bark that still clings to the firewood beneath them. But the shapes of the vases are frozen with a silent momentum that rotates and swirls upward to a third translucent tier upon which rests three perfectly symmetrical amphora embodying the earthy browns and golds of the wood itself.

In another installation there are plates displaying the image of the famous Catalonian Surrealist Salvador Dali. Each plate has the identical stencil of Dali’s face, but with a different figured background portraying the ocean, a waterfall, a mountain range, a forest, etc. (Four of the original set of 12 plates could not be brought back for the exhibit, according to Will Callnan.)

This rack of plates is placed above a brightly colored gourd-shaped double-pot containing cartoon-like faces that seem to be consuming one another. This unique pot is, in turn, is placed beside a black pedestal with a raised golden hand. This set sits atop a Plexiglas cube that contains a three dimensional array of 60 dripping plastic jars of ceramic glaze.

The effect in some way translates the coloring components of the dripping glaze jars upward through a kind of surrealistic process — represented by the double gourd pot — onto the common objects of brilliant dinner plates with the visage of Dali staring back at you. The playfulness of the installation – complete with brightly colored glazes – is, according to Will Callnan, homage’ to Dali.

Nothing seems wasted in the meticulousness of these installations. For instance, one piece entitled “Table Deconstructed” is a construction of brown fired clay of broken and reconnected pieces above a cube containing a pile of clay shards of the same material. Another installation is a composite of white porcelain organically composed sink-sized bowls cantilevered beneath a single beautiful upright organic bowl of the same design.

There is also a rack wall of 200 individual unique cups of alternating black and white glazes. As each purchaser chooses a cup to match their fancy, the outline of the cup has been redrawn in chalk on the wall, showing the shape of what was once in its place.

The variety of shapes – and the skill with which they are arrayed in the exhibit – is also an integral and fanciful intersection of art and craft.

There is a long table containing multiple artistic shapes in black and white porcelain that seem to represent the ceramists’ journey to achieving a set of so-called “perfect shapes.” These aren’t “experimental” shapes in any sense of the word – some sort of “trial by error” expression – but finished pieces in and of themselves, showing the breadth of both the artists’ imaginations and their skills in redefining what a finished piece of pottery can be.

In this way, the two Callnans’ joint range of artistic expression has become an exploration into a kind of consciousness – an “unearthing” of expressions that offers the opportunity to transform our understanding of what can be achieved by combining the elements of earth and fire.

Finally, floating in the exhibit’s center, is a tile table suspended from the ceiling with a gorgeous porcelain dinette set: six organically constructed plates and two bowls along with a perfect vase containing a small bouquet of yellow flowers. This installation, surrounded by the array of other installations, seem to challenge us with the question, “Are the day-to-day pottery objects we use merely pieces of craft, or are they pieces of art that emanate from the earth itself?”



Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.