Pittsburgh Feature Story - Octogenarian Lou Ann Gallanar
In many ways, a piece of artwork is a hidden trove of the life experience of the artist, waiting for the appreciator to unearth and interpret through the filter of personal experience. Octogenarian Lou Ann Gallanar understands the mysteries of artistic communication, with decades of expression in clay throughout her many life journeys. From a recreational class offered by a southern California park program through exhibits and teaching at art centers, the recently widowed 88-year-old Gallanar works on new “series” in her garage studio, still reaching out to communicate through clay.
Gallanar was born in Seattle and followed her professor husband throughout various universities in the west. While living in southern California, she joined her mother-in-law for a pottery class offered by the local parks department. “I really wasn’t particularly interested but went along. Well, I was hooked for life,” she marvels. She began with hand-building and eventually learned to throw on the wheel. She made a series of terra cotta hanging planters and sold them at street fairs, keying into the culture of the times.
In the early 1970s, the family settled in the small college town of Indiana, home of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Gallanar took advantage of the university programs and became very interested in raku firing. “I learned to use the electric wheel at classes at the university,” she says, “but I really prefer the kick wheel.” Within a decade, she became a well-established potter in the local scene, teaching workshops throughout the region, at Sweetwater Center for the Arts, Touchstone Center for Crafts, and IUP’s summer and community programs. She solo-exhibited at The Clay Place and at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts through the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh.
In her raku work, she began to experiment with texture. “I take a smooth river rock that is nicely polished by the water and use it to burnish the surface of unfired clay,” she explains. “It gives the pot a soft gloss without glazing.” In the firing process, she placed the pieces in clay cylinders, call “saggars”, along with packed straw, sawdust, or various metal filings, creating random flashes of color on the finished pieces. She calls this period one of her “voyages,” an apt metaphor for periods of creative discovery.
Gallanar had recently been on a hiatus from clay but has returned with vigor to her first love – hand-building. She is working on two “series:” a collection of “handlings” and one of small, textured plates. Her handlings grew out of an experience many years ago when she joined IUP professor Don Hedman and a group of students on a trip to museums in Washington, DC. “We were fortunate to have the opportunity to touch a special collection that was brought out of storage by the curator,” she recalls. “These ancient bowls and pots and shards were made by the hands of people centuries ago. As I touched them, I felt a connection with the hands of another potter.” This sense is central to the small pieces she calls handlings – pieces meant to be passed from hand to hand. “They offer comfort,” she says, “and a sense of community with the maker.” She even had an order for several by a local psychiatrist for his waiting room table. They are carried at Indiana’s local shop, “The Artist’s Hand.”
Her other project is a series of small tiles or plates that are inspired by the natural world. She uses leaves and plants to form impressions during the rolling process and imparts patterns with carved rolling pins. “I can’t do raku firing now,” she explains, “because I live in a populous area, but I am using various metals – copper, steel wool – to get interesting effects.” She has recruited the two women who help her with daily tasks, now that she lives alone, to assist with her projects. “I have become a very stubborn old lady,” she says, “and I pursue an idea relentlessly when I get it in my head.” Her daughter Robin, who lives in the northern Pittsburgh suburbs, good-naturedly concurs. She helps out by picking up clay and supplies at Standard.
The many years of life and creativity have brought Gallanar to an implicit understanding and appreciation of the environment. “I am more conscious of what I see around me, of nature,” she says. “The environment makes itself known and I try to connect with that and communicate it.” Like her handlings, Gallanar is a trove of knowing. As appreciators of her art, we are privileged to receive what she “hands on” to us.