Louis Mendez: August 7, 1929 - July 27, 2012
Louis Mendez was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan of Puerto Rican, Spanish and Irish heritage. He spent his early years in Spanish Harlem, where his family owned a restaurant at 108th and Madison. In the mid-1930s, his family sold the business and moved to Goshen, NY, where his high school teachers recognized his unusual talent in drawing and sculpture. Louis went on to earn BFA ('52) and MFA ('54) degrees from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. His years there were deeply formative, as he became a protégé and friend of Professors Charles Harder and Daniel Rhodes, influential authors and among the mid-century leaders of the American studio ceramics movement.
While still a student at Alfred, Louis began driving into Manhattan with a trunk full of his newly minted pottery, which he sold to clients like Paul Secon, the founder of the Pottery Barn, to finance his education at Alfred. By the early 1960s he had added Georg Jensen, America House, Pottery of All Nations and Holland House to his client list. After college, Louis became the first designer hired by fellow Alfred alumnus David Gil, at Bennington Potters in Vermont. He later worked as a designer at Lenox China in Trenton, NJ, before entering the field of education, teaching first at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, then at the Philadelphia College of Art, and ultimately at the Ohio State University in Columbus, where he was an Associate Professor of Art and Chairman of the Graduate Faculty in the Ceramics Department.
Louis was a highly engaging teacher. Aside from the aforementioned professorial appointments, he taught more casually, but with no less enthusiasm, at numerous venues, including New Jersey City University, the Ceramic Education Center and Monmouth County Park in New Jersey, Brookfield Craft Center (CT), Santa Fe's Art+Clay (NM), Valle de Bravo (MX), Juniata College, (PA), and with special joy at the 92nd Street Y 60+ Program in New York City.
Pottery was only the starting point of his adventures in clay. From the 1960s onward his output included masks, wall-reliefs, mosaics, and freestanding sculptures both large and small. As the physical dimension and artistic expression of his work evolved, Louis developed his signature "Spanish Handbuilding Technique," using highly textured slabs, whose surface designs are suggestive of archetypal images that tend to recur across many ancient cultures. The technique contributed materially to the transformation of ceramics from "craft" to "art form," allowing the construction and firing of works in clay without the use of an armature.
Louis is best known for largely figurative ceramic sculpture inspired by a consistent esthetic allied to both the ancient origins of cultures and a modernist treatment of forms and surfaces. His work appeals to an engaging sense of myth and an enigmatic playfulness within the context of historic ceramic styles. In his quest to capture the remnant vitality of ancient images and to interpret these forms in a highly personal idiom, he created a body of work at once decorative, evocative, and original.
An acknowledged master of his medium, his awards included a Louis Comfort Tiffany grant for the design and development of large-scale ceramic art in architecture (1964), The Carlton Atherton Memorial Award from the Columbus Gallery of Fine Art (1966), The Skillbecks Purchase Award at Springfest in Charlotte, NC (1985), First Prize for Sculpture from the Bruce Museum (1998), an Audubon Artist's Society award for sculpture (1999), and a Lorenzo il Magnifico award for sculpture at the 2001 Florence Biennale.