Older white man with a beard and glasses smiles, lightly resting his chin on his hand. He's sitting in a living room, with a painting and lamp behind him.
Jim Melchert. Credit: Griff Williams

Noted ceramics artist and UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Jim Melchert died peacefully on June 1 at his home in Oakland from complications of a stroke. He was 92.

In his artwork, Jim embraced experimentation and aspects of game-playing, exploring media from ceramics to film, photography, and performance art. Critics have variously categorized his work as part of the West Coast Funk movement, as Abstract Expressionist Ceramics, and as conceptual art.  

Jim was a favorite instructor of students who found renown in the art world, such as sculptor Charles Simonds, conceptual artist Bruce Nauman, and former director of the Yale University Art Gallery, Jock Reynolds. 

He taught ceramics and sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1960s, sharing studio space with painter Carlos Villa, before moving to UC Berkeley, where he taught until his retirement in 1994. His work is found in private collections and museums around the world, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, and he’s led juries of numerous art competitions. His papers are in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Jim’s career took two detours from studio work, first in 1976 when, for four years, he was the visual arts program director of the National Endowment for the Arts. Then in 1985, he moved to Italy to be director of the American Academy in Rome. 

From Ohio to the “Pot Shop” at Cal

Jim was born at home in New Bremen, Ohio, on Dec. 2, 1930, to Rev. John Carl Melchert and Hulda Egli. He was the couple’s third and youngest son. He graduated from Mansfield High in 1948 and attended Princeton University on scholarship.  

After graduation, Jim declared himself a conscientious objector and was granted alternative service to the Korean War through teaching English in Japan. He would live and work in Sendai, at the Tohoku Gakuin University and its high school, for four years. 

It was there that he met Mary Ann Hostetler, whom he married in Tokyo. They had two sons before moving to the U.S. so Jim could earn his MFA in painting at the University of Chicago in 1956. It was a loving marriage that lasted until her death in 2005.  

An art teaching position at Carthage College, Illinois, prompted Jim to take up ceramics classes, which exposed him to an exhibition of radical clay work by Peter Voulkos. Horrified and confounded by the work, Jim decided to enroll in a summer ceramics class taught by Voulkos in Missoula, Montana. It was a life-changing experience as he realized the endless possibilities for clay. In 1959, shortly after the birth of their daughter, the young family moved to Berkeley so that Jim could earn an MA in design at Cal, where he worked as Voulkos’ studio assistant.

A black and white imagine of a man leaning over a vat of clay. His entire head and face are caked in the clay.
Jim Melchert after dunking his head in a vat of clay slip during his 1972 Netherlands performance piece “Changes.” Credit: Mieke Hille

Work at the Pot Shop, as Cal’s shared studio and graduate student ceramics teaching space was known, was physically demanding and a rich environment for ideas and invention. Student artists faced Voulkos’ proficiency requirement of creating oversize vessels on the wheel. Jim’s “leg pots” from this period initially bewildered many critics. 

Performance works included a now-celebrated event in the Netherlands called “Changes,” featuring Dutch artists as participants. Each person, in turn, immersed their head in wet clay slip and was led to sit on benches positioned between a block of ice and a heat source. The slip slowly dried and cracked.  

Many years later, cracked ceramic tiles would become a rich area of inspiration and exploration. Jim’s first major tile works, called “Children’s Walls,” were brightly glazed experiments in playful randomness. 

A “gregarious loner” remembered by many loved ones

In tributes, friends and former students of Jim’s have described his kindness, playful class assignments, and willingness to listen. Wielding a booming, infectious laugh, Jim was an expert at winking, and his engaging sense of humor will be greatly missed. California art critic Jeff Kelley called him “a mentor of decorousness; he waited his turn.”  

Jim enjoyed helping and mentoring emerging young artists and rarely refused requests to write letters of recommendation for former students and colleagues.

Once calling himself “a gregarious loner,” Jim loved the company of other artists and entertained often at his home, but he tended to eschew group art activities and alliances, going his own way as an artist. His contribution to the seminal 1966 Slant Step show, “Anti Slant Step” (Yale University Art Gallery), is an example of his individualistic streak.

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A longtime Oakland resident, Jim would always say that the city had the lake and the beautiful trees, but it was the people who made it special. His favorite food haunts were La Farine, Market Hall, and Bay Wolf, which was his go-to celebration dinner venue. He also would treat friends and family to dinners at Chez Panisse. 

Practicing piano nearly every day, from childhood up until the day of the stroke, Jim was a great admirer of Glenn Gould, Duke Ellington, and Nina Simone. Listening to music, either on the radio or recordings from his extensive classical music collection, was a daily joy. He served on the board of the Kronos Quartet and supported the Other Minds music festival.

Jim is survived by his children, Christoph Melchert of Oxford, United Kingdom, David Seth Melchert of Oakland, and Renee Melchert Thorpe of Bali, Indonesia; five grandchildren, Evan Thorpe and Ariel Thorpe of Hong Kong, Alyra Mikkelson, Dale Melchert, and Galen Melchert, of Oakland; and three great-grandchildren.