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The Verve: Ceramic artist Monte Colgren has a way with clay

It was a different time in the 1950s for artists. Live music venues were filled to capacity with finger-snapping patrons and painters and ceramic artists were pushing the boundaries and starting movements.

Ceramic artist Monte Colgren, 85, was there during the beat era, moving among circles of creative minds.

Colgren grew up in Spokane. He played the clarinet and then the bass clarinet at Lewis and Clark High School. He also played the bassoon in the Spokane Philharmonic.

A trip to the Chicago Art Museum introduced him to the visual arts, and he became friendly with art students in the area and enjoyed the vibe.

Upon returning to the state, he enrolled at the University of Washington to study art. He was hooked after his first ceramics class and inspired by the instructions of ceramic artist Paul Bonifas (1893-1967) and sculptor Everett DuPen (1912-2005).

“I also painted,” he said, “but I found ceramics more intimate.”

He went on to earn a master’s degree from Mills College in Oakland, California, where he was a student of Antonio Prieto (1912-1967).

Colgren then served in the Army for two years where he taught and demonstrated ceramic art at the service club. He later earned a degree in education from Eastern Washington University and worked as a teaching assistant in design at Mills College, an adjunct instructor at Eastern Washington University and a public school art instructor. He also worked in urban planning and was a partner and appraiser at a gallery of art and antiques.

He has exhibited his work in California, New York and Washington in museums and galleries and has been featured in publications including The Spokesman-Review in 1954 and a newspaper in San Francisco in 1958 that showed Colgren’s first-place jar exhibited at the de Young Museum. His resume is long but not kept digitally. Rather, stored in folders and boxes in his North Side home; hundreds of yellowed documents and carefully wrapped vessels in enamel, porcelain, earthenware and stoneware as well as stacks of paintings done in a mix of realism, modern and expressionism, all testimony to his creative ventures.

His style is based on traditional wheel throwing with the addition of unique elements like hand carvings and paintings put on paper and then pressed onto a glazed surface, giving the impression of a printed design on the vessel. He has developed dozens and dozens of glazes, their formulas are catalogued and filed away, and many are mixed, labeled and stored in buckets at the ceramic department at Spokane Falls Community College where he has been a “student” for the past 15 years.

“Working in clay keeps me going,” he said, “I have health issues and aches and pains but I never think of those things when I’m doing art.”