Bill Daley…clay pots and night blooming cereus!


Last Saturday, I attended William Daley’s exhibition, “Vesica Explorations,” at Swarthmore College. The exhibition of clay pots executed by Bill over the past 20 years is remarkable. Each piece is reflective of the artist’s fascination with the material of clay and it’s intrinsic link between temporal reality and spiritual transcendence. Bill Daley is the patriarch of the American pottery world and a revered figure in the Delaware Valley.

While walking through the exhibit of these superlative works, I fondly recalled the first meeting I had with Bill Daley’s clay pots. It was at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the foyer of Immaculate Conception Chapel where Bill’s homage to, “Creation,” stood as a sentinel just off the entrance to the chapel. It really had no specific purpose in the foyer other than to proudly stand as a contemporary piece of 20th century American pottery, contrasting boldly with the painted white walls and the green floor.
Every once and a while I would imagine the pot with a plant making another bold statement.

When I was a student in the theology division at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary, one of the positions delegated to me was assistant chapel decorator. Now remember, the position basically amounted to changing the antependiums on the altar, arranging flowers for feast days and once and a while hanging rectangular banners of liturgical colors on each side of the sanctuary. Pretty basic stuff. However the, “Creation,” pot always intrigued me and needed a different place.

During the season of Advent, the Catholic Church assumes the mantle of purple as the liturgical color of the season. Additionally, during this period, the colors of fall dominate the landscape and most plants and shrubs loose their leaves and display magnificent colors. This is especially true on the Seminary campus, so out I went with some loping sheers on a search and recovery mission to find materials to accentuate the Daley pot.

The courtyard walls behind the Seminary’s college building were covered with orange pyracantha and the shrub made a perfect vertical addition for the Daley pottery in the middle aisle of the Immaculate Conception Chapel for the Advent season. After extracting some of the pyracantha overgrowth and dragging it over the vast lawn between college and theology divisions it was time to make the arrangement. The brownish color of the Daley piece created a perfect contrast of colors with the orange of the exfoliated orange pyracantha. A purple cloth interwoven at the base of the plant and the top of the pottery blared the preparatory nature of the liturgical season. After alot of wrestling with plant and pot, I finally placed both in the center of the aisle at the break of the choir stalls in the chapel. It remained there as a poignant reminder of the demise of the seasons, the hope of the Christmas message and the new life heralded in the Incarnation. Every once and a while the procession to the altar encountered the thorns of the orange pyracantha, which was a great reminder to not only keep a fair distance, but to also observe the adage of semper preperatus as we anticipated the coming of Christ at Christmas.

The following spring, I had the chance to visit Bill and Catherine Daley at their home with my liturgy professor, Msgr. John Miller and my classmate Dan Kearns. It was then I had the rare opportunity to watch Bill in the basement studio manipulate clay into remarkable expressions of artistic clay. He explained his process, with drawings on the white wall in his studio, (which he painted over after each piece was completed), explained the transcendence of clay, the mysteries that unfolded in the manual working of such a simple ingredient such as clay and how the material has been an essential part of all human history since man first fashioned a clay vessel for domestic use. Bill cited the Book of Genesis and how God formed man with clay and clay has accompanied man as a essential element ever since. That night when leaving the Daleys, Bill gave me a plant, hylocerius undatus, or a night blooming cereus. Well, it has been in my possession since 1983. It has taken alot of years to bloom, but now potbound it blooms every year with nocturnal glory and demise at dawn. It reminds me of Bill Daley, his profound views on human existence and his works. Unfortunately for me the Daley hylocerius undatus was not in a Daley clay pot.

Bill Daley’s works are quite frankly the ultimate pinnacle in American pottery. Bill over the years has also done works for liturgical functions as well. The Catholic parish, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament (formerly Our Lady of the Rosary), has a baptistry crafted by Bill. This piece to the best of my knowledge is the largest piece ever executed by Bill. It is also flanked by a George Nakishima Paschal candle stand.
Tiles of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with a baptism font grace a Presbyterian church in West Chester, Pa. They are also joined by drawings done by Bill as well.

While Bill Daley is not exclusively a liturgical artist, some of his pieces have been created as vessels to serve liturgical functions. In such works, the instruction of both Paul VI and John-Paul II are accomplished. The artist in providing liturgical art and accessories should utilize the finest forms and materials available as an expression of the glory of God. Bill Daley provides this ultimate expression of God’s glory with the most basic organic material the earth has to offer…clay.

The Daley exhibition at Swarthmore College is overdue . Bill’s life and works deserve not only our admiration and excitement…but also awe over the fantastic integration Bill has achieved between the humble working with clay with our human spiritual and intellectual pursuit of transcendence through the work of his hands.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist writing on Catholic topics and issues. He attended Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where he studied both philosophy and theology. He writes frequently at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com & http://nothing-left-unsaid.blogspot.com . Hugh writes about his Irish Catholic upbringing and educational experiences at http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com . He has contributed works to Catholic News Agency, Catholic Online, The Irish Catholic, Dublin, the British Broadcasting Company, London and the Philadelphia Bulletin, Pewsitter.com, Blogger News Network & The Catholic Business Journal

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