Oakland ceramist gives shape to monsters, robots at de Young

When ceramist Josh Margolis went on a Birthright Israel trip more than a decade ago, it wasn’t praying at the Western Wall that had a profound impact on him: It was the ceramic pot he found while digging underneath it.

Josh Margolis in his studio photos/daisy mayorga

As Margolis unearthed ancient artifacts during an archaeological dig, he discovered shards of stoneware that he says solidified his relationship to Judaism and to Israel.

“I found this pot during the dig and it somehow represented me 2,000 years ago,” Margolis said from the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco art studio. “It became my specific connector to the land.”

Pottery has run through the veins of the 39-year-old seasoned art teacher and Oakland artist for most of his life. For the past eight years, Margolis has taught art classes to children and adults at the JCCSF.

This month he is the artist-in-residence at San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and is showcasing “Monsters and Robots Project: A Visual Dialogue” through Aug. 3 in the museum’s Kimball Education Gallery. The exhibit is free and does not require admission to the museum.

Margolis, who is the first clay artist the museum has hosted in five years, describes the project as a “nonverbal collaborative dialogue.” It’s an extension of a project he conceived in his studio six years ago during Art Murmur, a monthly art walk in Oakland.

“Obesity, Not Just a Human Problem” from “Monsters and Robots Project”

“I wrote a sign that read, ‘Draw a robot or monster in my sketchbook and maybe I’ll make it out of clay,’ ” he said. “By the end of the night, I had 35 submissions, and the next month, I doubled that. People were waiting in line to draw a sketch.”

Some people, Margolis said, would draw for 30 seconds, while others would carefully design an image for over half an hour.

He made about four dozen three-dimensional clay figurines based on the drawings strangers gave him. “Now I’ve refined the project and I’m bringing it to the de Young on a grander scale,” he said. “It’s also going to be how I complete the project.”

The soft-spoken artist was born and raised in a Conservative Jewish household in upstate New York. He got into clay when he was 14 at a summer arts camp. “I followed my buddy and had no real arts skills at the time. He took clay, so I took clay,” Margolis recalled.

“Elebee” from “Monsters and Robots Project”

Margolis said his experience at summer camp was the first time in his life that he received encouragement for the work he was doing. “I was a horrible student and I failed at everything I did from sports to academics,” he said, “but at camp I had my first confidence spark and it had a profound impact on me.”

That experience led to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he graduated with a degree in ceramics. He later worked under renowned artist and professor Jack King in Florida before moving to the Bay Area in 2003. He says his artistic influences run across the spectrum, but they don’t usually fall into the category of “traditional art.”

“I’m a product of the ’80s,” Margolis said. “I was really into comic books and was influenced by people like George Lucas and Jim Henson. I was really into innovators in other fields, not just ceramics.”

The majority of Margolis’ clay work is done with slab and pinch pots. He doesn’t use a wheel because most of the work he produces is not governed by symmetry or restricted to a specific shape.

How does he envision his project at the de Young?

 “People will sit down and draw and I will make what they draw out of clay,” he said. “ It’s a great way to get people involved in a creative and whimsical project. I’m really excited to work on the new pieces and stay fresh.”