An Essay By Vanessa Bolden & John Natsoulas

For the last 25 years, Joseph Mariscal has been a fixture in contemporary California ceramic art. Mariscal’s ceramic work is figurative in nature, and is derived and inspired by his travels, personal feelings, interactions, reactions and connections to the world and the human condition. From these various sources of inspiration, he extracts a sense of pathos, personality and even humor. Even his darker work like the Prison Series “with its empathy for human suffering” (John Fitzgibbon), has a comic element to the thematic treatment.

Mariscal’s early inspiration came in the late 60’s, through his first ceramic teacher, Bruce Duke. Duke, who taught ceramics at San Joaquin Delta College for 40 years formally introduced the work of Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson to this students. Along with Mariscal, Duke also gave Michael Lucero and Viola Frey their start in clay. Mariscal began experimenting with the ceramic medium, manipulating and altering thrown pots, face molds and experimenting with “Funk Art” concepts. Mariscal’s work never fully entered into the California funk ceramic movement because, in 1969, like many young men his age, he was drafted and sent to serve in Vietnam where he was awarded a Purple Heart.

Upon his discharge from the military, Mariscal relocated to Cholula, Puebla, Mexico in 1972, utilizing the G.I. Bill of Education to attend the Universidad de las Americas, graduating in 1975 with a B.A. in Art History. It was at this time that his exposure to the birthplace of his parents and “Pre-Columbian” ceramics began to influence his work. The early ceramic dogs produced during his graduate work at Sacramento State (1976-79) have a direct connection to the famous “Colima” clay dogs of Western Mexico and the ubiquitous, wily “street dogs” found in every Mexican pueblo. While living in Cholula, and ancient Pre-Columbian Ceramic Center, he learned to burnish his pieces, and also studied with a local Talavera potter, Crecencio Villegas. Although his work is not overtly Mexican or even Latin American in its content or appearance, it is obvious that this heritage often unconsciously makes its way into the work. Mariscal’s portrait masks and miniature tableaus recall the storytelling cultures of South America, relying heavily upon narrative and the facial expression to carry their significance.

Mariscal’s teaching career began in 1975 at San Joaquin Delta College, in Stockton, California while simultaneously seeking a master’s degree in Art at Sacramento State. A contemporary of Yoshio Taylor (with whom he shared a graduate studio at Sac State), Mariscal cites Robert Brady, Peter VandenBerge, Esteban Villa, and Jose Montoya as influences in the development of his work.

Along the way, Mariscal began to change the direction of his artwork, and started dealing with the social commentary that became his signature body of work. Over the years he has turned his form and techniques to create a unique style that sets him apart from other California ceramicists. Mariscal may have been the only ceramic sculptor who was isolated from the group of California ceramic sculptors in the 1970’s and 1980’s by his subject matter. He became well known for exhibitions such as “Ceramics and Social Commentary” with Richard Notkin, that were more concerned with the real life issues. Much different than Arneson and the funk movement, there is little funk in Mariscal’s work, he simply created sculptures that communicated the human condition. His surface treatments are beautiful like Brady and VandenBerge, but are harsh and organic with a variety of earthy tones, from burnishing and smoking, a skill he learned from the Puebla potters of Mexico. This set him aside from al the other sculptors in the California movement.

The relationship between the work of Mariscal, and well-known ceramic sculptor, Arthur Gonzalez is also important. Arthur Gonzalez, like Mariscal, also went through the California State University, Sacramento system at the same time and used similar earth tones in his ceramic sculpture that share an affinity with his cultural background. Although Gonzalez and Mariscal both claim their ethnic background has little to do with their work, it very strongly permeates their sculpture. Mariscal, and Gonzalez (not to mention Richard Notkin, Richard Shaw, Robert Arneson, Michael Lucero) have all dealt with death in their work, as well as other important social issues such as their own personal background and experiences. Death itself is of extreme importance to South American cultures, as are the dogs that Mariscal makes to reflect the influence of the early Mexican dogs he saw in ceramics when he was living in Cholula.

Mariscal brings contemporary images together with a strong sense of history and has created his own personal mythology, which mainly deals with the everyday man, and characters of daily life. Mariscal sculpts prison inmates, the postman, and the students he teaches, as well as acquaintances, friends, and occasionally family. It is the fascination with telling stories and social commentary that has led him to create the majority of his body of work. He seems to find constant fuel for his stories just by observing the people around him, and he finds their unique narratives to be wonderfully interesting and inspirational.

Mariscal’s most well known work is from his Prison Series created between 1981-1984 when Mariscal worked at the Deuel Vocational Prison in Tracy, CA. The people he observed there and the experiences he had, provided him with the inspiration to create a series based on life behind bars. This series resulted in the most productive period of his career. While working at the prison, where he was an artist in residence on a grant from the California Arts council, Mariscal was simultaneously working at the Alan Short Center an art school for developmentally disabled adults. The contrast between the two different venues shows a great diversity of skill and interpretation on Mariscal’s part. His ability to create portraits of the two very different groups of people displays dexterity of imagination and strength.

"Cause and Effect" illustrates the classic pairing of crime and punishment. The oversized ceramic gun and chain from the popular “Prison Series” combine the burnishing techniques Mariscal learned in Mexico, with the subject matter gained from his working a the Deuel Vocational Prison. Again, Mariscal approaches the subject matter with a certain amount of humor, seen here through the exaggerated size of the sculpture. Though he may find the lighter side of these darker themes, Mariscal respects the psychological power they hold over him. He eventually left the prison because the constant barrage of negative energy from men spending their lives behind bars was psychologically draining.

In "The Iron in the Stove", Mariscal uses the ceramic medium as an emotional outlet to explain a childhood memory. The theme of this piece is treated the same way others would treat a journal as a place to vent frustrations and emotions. Here, Mariscal exposes a very private experience (his parents splitting up) in a public manner. His memory of the way he and his mother one day left his father stems from an innocent, childish view in which he believed they were leaving his father because of something to do with their iron, which had been left behind in the stove.

Mariscal’s Mask Installation displays his most recent works from 2002 and 2003. The group of portrait faces depicts people in Mariscal’s life, with whom he may have spent as little as two hours (the time it takes for him to sculpt one of the masks.) The barista at Starbucks, one of his students, the car salesman, a fellow colleague, the postman, his mother; the spectrum of characters that inhabit his everyday life is a constant source of encouragement and inspiration for Mariscal’s creative process.

Each of Mariscal’s pieces has a story. One of the best examples of this is Smiley". As an older gentleman, Smiley is presented with mismatched clothes, a graying beard and a mouth full of broken and chipped teeth. But the story of how Smiley got those teeth is what lends meaning to the character. As Mariscal relates, Smiley bought a brand new set of teeth one day and went home to his wife, who then proceeded to punch him in the mouth over something or other. But, 25 years later, Smiley was still wearing those teeth when Mariscal met him. He explained that was his way, whenever he smiled at his wife, she was reminded of the event and the 1500 dollars she wasted at the expense of her temper.

Joseph Mariscal is one of the most important and under-rated figurative ceramic sculptors in California. Working beside David Gilhooly, Peter VandenBerge, and Robert Brady, has made Mariscal an integral part of the figurative ceramic movement of the Sacramento Valley. Mariscal’s 28 years teaching at Delta College may well be his most poignant mark on society. The influence of his art and his teaching is seen by virtue of his skills as an instructor. Mariscal may be identified as the independent visionary of Northern California figurative sculpture, but with a little color and glaze he can also be identified as one of the primary members of the Sacramento Valley ceramic artists.