Master Potter & Sculptor, Louis Mendez (1929-2012), Leaves A Rich Legacy In American Ceramics History

It is with great sadness that I am writing today about the passing of potter, sculptor, and dear friend, Louis Mendez.

Louis Mendez (Photo:Mendez Family Archive)

For the past couple of years I’ve had the unique opportunity to work alongside Louis on an archival project served to document his long and industrious career. We spent much time scanning, photographing, interviewing, and assembling information; collected over the course of sixty years, with great passion.

Louis Mendez - Little "Little" Devil (SPA Archive Collection)

I am grateful to have had such a vantage point; an amazing opportunity to look into Louis’ world through the articles, slides and other collective artifacts kept stored in folders and boxes. Yet as great as this experience was, it was made infinitely more fulfilling by the sheer fact that with it, came full explanations of the materials by none other than the master himself.

Louis Mendez - Stoneware Bird, c 1953/54 (SPA Archive Collection)

I questioned, Louis answered. I questioned some more, and he kept right on answering the many queries I’d toss out to him. His dedication to work never waned. I soon came to realize that Louis also put focus on interests far past his own. In the truest sense of the word friend, Louis saw the high latitude of my enthusiasm and guided the archivist’s passion within me. (Career in mind, I’m not so sure who was supporting whom!)  The point: Louis simply took delight in celebrating those around him, and is just one of many reasons why he was, and will remain so well-respected among his friends.

Louis & Dianne Mendez

When I say “teamwork,” I’m talking about Dianne Mendez, too. Yes, she’s certainly amazing at memory recall, especially on pinpointing dates! In fact, when I’d ask Louis for a date on something, we’d both pause, only to quickly realize that we were in need of an assist to make the goal, our heads then swung around to see if Dianne was in the room! But with the greatest of all intention for use of the word, the true teamwork here is between Louis and Dianne. Louis himself told me of the “impeccable smarts” Dianne possesses, and the great ideas and insight she’s brought to the table while strolling along their journey together as artists and business owners.

Louis Mendez - Stoneware Bowl, early 1960s (SPA Archive Collection)

And, I’ve discovered the evidence. Having been through the archive, I learned about the Synechia Cultural Center they founded back in the early 1970s, and have read a slew of newspaper clippings for exhibits and events held at their highly successful Pot-Pourri gallery; opened in Florida, NY in 1968; back when they were a newlywed couple. These are two instances of the type of  teamwork Louis spoke of when talking about his Dianne, and take my word, it’s not saying enough when staking claim to the fact that great things happened when these two put their minds to it. My celebration of Louis is also a celebration of Dianne Mendez– each is no less remarkable, no less important than the other when exercising the union they both shared together as artists and as visionaries dedicated to creating a community in which artists’ potential could be explored.

Louis Mendez - Stoneware Vase, 1958 (SPA Archive Collection)

One key point to be made in understanding the legacy that is Louis Mendez is knowing of Louis’ incredible work ethic. He was born in 1929, in Spanish Harlem, New York City, and spent his formative childhood and teenage years in Goshen, NY. While working on the family farm, Louis developed an understanding of what he says was the result of “long days at doing chores”– it was discipline in one’s work; a strong character trait, and one that served him well over his lifetime. 

Louis Mendez - Archaic Bird Man, Raku (SPA Archive collection)

In his days as a student at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred (BFA ’52, MFA ’54), Louis once remarked to me that his insatiable need to throw on the wheel often had him sneaking into the supply closet to replenish the clay he had used up, and further remarking “there just didn’t seem to be enough!”  And although we laughed, from where I sat, I couldn’t help but notice that the handwriting; written early-on in his career, had already been put to the wall.

Louis Mendez - Harlequin #5 - Pit-fired Earthenware, 1977. (SPA Archive Collection)

Louis also told me that on a given day, in his own studio in Goshen, NY, he would produce a gross of mugs (144) by sundown, and sometimes, for a few consecutive days when needed.  This early-period work of the mid 1950s to early 1960s, as Louis pointed out, “was driven into NYC and sold out of the trunk of my car.” As it be, these pilgrimages into the Big Apple were, in part, quintessential to the success of a small upstart company called Pottery Barn. Greater success soon followed and much to buyers’ satisfaction, Louis took to supplying retailers Georg Jensen, America House, Pottery of All Nations, and Holland House with his wares.

Louis Mendez - Phoenix Charger, Stoneware, 1952 (SPA Archive Collection)

Louis Mendez had the wherewithal to produce in quantity, whether this be mugs, or his highly successful line of masks made during the 1980s, and where there was demand, there was Louis ready to fulfill that demand.  And to a whole generation of potters, this fact; Mendez as an output powerhouse, is no secret. Recently, Dianne shared with me these words by Jack Troy, Louis’ friend of  50 years, written just weeks prior to Louis’ passing: “What a mentor he has been to me; truly a pace-setter and is perhaps the most relaxed-seeming, driven person I know. (How to combine those qualities?)”   Troy’s statement wastes no words on superfluous thought.  It simply says it all.  And really, how do you combine those qualities?

Louis Mendez - Abstraction in Bronze, 1970s

What ever the answer may be, the result remains the same: Louis Mendez simply did it –Louis spiritised the clay, and the clay spiritised Louis.  And the beauty of it all? — The work we’re left with will always pay homage to the man.  And although I am deeply saddened to lose such a friend, I look to take comfort in my work; the organizing of one man’s legacy — a continued celebration of a friend for whom I have the supreme pleasure of learning about every day on the job.

Paul Kowalchuk — August 5, 2012

 

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One Response to Master Potter & Sculptor, Louis Mendez (1929-2012), Leaves A Rich Legacy In American Ceramics History

  1. A wonderful article Paul. I had the priviledge to be an apprentice to Louie in the early 70,s. It was a fabulous expience for me. Diane was also makeing pottery and we were all excited about the firing and developing new work. I learned how to hand build by making coiled pots and slabs with stamps. My small animals were sold in the gallery and it gave me confiidence to move on. Louie was fun and energentic and Diane was always so helpful and positive. Her organizational and creative nature led to the opening of the restaurant and enlarged gallery. It was a wonderful environment for self discovery and the total exploration into clay. I remember mixing by hand for hours in big cow tubs different colored clays and drying them on plaster bats. He was a good friend and exceptional teacher for 40 years and I will miss him greatly. The adventures of living can never be replaced and are held firm in memory. However his light shines every day with me in all his work that surrounds me. I feel he is now actually creating on a grander scale.