Mr. Tom McGuire glazing one of his ‘sunset’ bowls

As a college senior majoring in Ceramics at Tyler School of Art, Ryan Wheeler MP’12 has seen a lot of great pots. But back at his high school studio, he handled an intricately glazed bowl almost reverently.

“How does he do that? The colors and the detail…” he said, his voice trailing off as he examined the bowl’s stained glass window design up close.

The colorful bowl is a recent piece glazed by history teacher Mr. Tom McGuire, who has decorated hundreds of bowls for Empty Bowls over the event’s eight years at Malvern Prep.

The bowls glazed by McGuire are some of the most popular selections at Empty Bowls each year. Student organizers believe that the chance to select a McGuire bowl is a main reason that  the line for the event forms early.

The answer to Wheeler’s question may be that McGuire has practiced painting and studied ceramics a lot – ever since high school.

There was not an arts program at Malvern when McGuire graduated in 1975. However, his favorite hobby was painting miniature soldiers. “Not toy soldiers. These were actual models of mostly 18th century soldiers,” he said. “It required great concentration.” [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”It’s one thing to read about ceramics, and it’s another thing to collect ceramics, but it’s a totally different thing to actually make things.”[/pullquote]He was also interested in constructing model railroads and miniature houses. “I was fascinated by models of houses that came from Germany that were all perfectly reduced in scale, and the textures of stone and brick in them, even though they were made of plastic. It might take two or three hours to assemble one,” he said. “A lot of people would take one look and say, ‘you’ve got to be kidding,’ especially the instructions because whatever writing was on them was in German. Selling on the international market, they would just have drawings and arrows.”

McGuire loved the challenge of these miniature works. “When I could focus on this, I could shut out a lot of what was going on around me. It would also – strangely enough – calm me down,” he said.

His interest in ceramics developed when he began working at Valley Forge National Park during college – first at the Historical Museum, and then for the National Park Service. He became fascinated by questions involved in the interpretation of historic sites.

“When the army camped at Valley Forge, they camped on people’s farms,” he said. “When the National Park Service is going to furnish Washington’s headquarters – are they going to furnish it as the house that was here when he arrived, or is it going to look like the headquarters? And it turns out that’s one of the problems with interpretation.”

McGuire first learned about Delftware from archaeologists at Valley Forge, who have “piles and piles of shards,” he said. The distinctive blue-on-white designs of Delftware date back to 16th century Holland. “I found the stuff fascinating, and the more I studied it, the more I started to connect with it,” he said.

McGuire began collecting Delftware in 1980. “I still have the first pieces I ever bought – two tobacco jars and six beer mugs,” he said.

He made a lot of mistakes at first. “If it said ‘hand-painted’ on the bottom, I would buy it,” he said. “When I went to Holland, a Dutch potter told me that the Dutch law said that if you touch a brush on a piece of pottery, you can say it’s hand-painted. A lot of the stuff actually had been transfer-printed, with a few little hand-touches, and a lot of it was souvenir, kitschy kind of stuff.”

“But there’s also beautiful Delftware,” he said. “Then I found that the Dutch were copying Chinese porcelain from 300, 400 years ago. And what the Dutch were making in comparison to the Chinese porcelain was reprehensible. There’s no other way to say it.”[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It’s working with students on a completely different level – I don’t have to worry about grades. We’re sharing experiences.”[/pullquote]McGuire’s interest in ceramics deepened as he began to trace the stories of the pieces he was collecting. “It makes you wonder – how did this piece get from Japan to here, or from China to Holland to America, and now it’s sitting on my shelf. Whose other shelves has it sat on all this time? Who made this? Who threw it? Who painted it?”

McGuire estimates he has handled more than 350 pieces of Delftware since he began collecting the work. He is not sure how many ceramic pieces he currently has in his collection.

“The house is ready to collapse from the weight of all this stuff,” he said. “I probably have two to three hundred pieces. My wife would say, ‘no, you’ve got 10,000 pieces.’ I don’t know.”

“Any of those artifacts is a real connection to history,” he said.

McGuire is motivated by helping others to find those historic connections. He currently teaches Honors European History, Honors East Asia, Honors Historic Preservation, and US History.

“Most of the history courses that I took in school bored the daylights out of me,” he said. “There was never time to find the connection, to go into depth. My goal, ever since I started teaching was to get people to connect to history, one way or another.”

He has found that the challenges of working in ceramics help to keep his teaching energized.

“It’s one thing to read about ceramics, and it’s another thing to collect ceramics, but it’s a totally different thing to actually make things,” he said. “You read about all the different frustrations that potters have had for centuries. Throwing, and then having the stuff explode in the kiln. Or the kiln not fire the way it’s supposed to. The painting itself is a challenge because it’s typically on a curved surface. And you just never know what’s going to happen when it comes out of the kiln.”

Learning about a painting from a painting

McGuire remembers a moment when painting really seemed to click for him.

He was at the Tate Gallery in London in the early 1980s, studying a painting by John Singleton Copely.

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781

“Copley painted clothing like you wouldn’t believe, down to the hooks and eyes on the inside of their coats and inner pockets and stuff. He’s got their hair right, he’s got their cap badges right, the buttons and the folds in the cloth are right – it’s unbelievable. The figures are like three-quarters life-size.

I kept getting closer and closer to this painting, because I wanted to see all this detail.

And all of the sudden, two things happened.

First, the guard asked me not to get any closer to the painting.

Second, the hook and eye disappeared. It turned into a smear of paint.

And it suddenly dawned on me that when Copley is painting this painting, this size – he had to figure out the point where this went from being a smear of paint to a hook and eye that has the gleam of the sun at such an angle that when you stand back three feet from it, it’s three-dimensional.

This gave me an appreciation of the fact that when you get right down to it, the basis of any art is putting those bits and pieces together.”

McGuire also likes the freedom and interaction with students in the studio.

“Coming in here, I’m learning with everybody else. I’m moving at my own pace and I’m trying new things,” he said. “It’s working with students on a completely different level – I don’t have to worry about grades. We’re sharing experiences.”

Some of McGuire’s most popular pieces are his sunrise or sunset bowls. “It’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “On my way to school in the morning or home at night, I watch the sky change colors. I’ll glaze a bowl, and I’ll say, ‘oh, is that really right?’ The answer is, of course it is, and of course it isn’t. None of these are right, and none of them are wrong. The sky is constantly changing. The light bounces all over the place.”

Alumni involved with Empty Bowls are grateful for McGuire’s studio work.

“We’re very lucky to have him as a part of Empty Bowls for as many years as we have. He’s been a crowd favorite over the years – since the beginning,” Michael Stangis ’14 said.

A beat.

“Since the beginning of time,” Stangis added, chuckling. “He could probably tell you about the beginning of time.”

“He probably has some tea or pots from the beginning of time,” Wheeler said, smiling.

Affectionate jokes aside, students and alumni appreciate the talent, wisdom, and generosity McGuire brings to Empty Bowls and the studio.

“He taught me more after school in the ceramics studio than I learned in most classes throughout high school,” Wheeler said.

Some pieces Mr. McGuire has glazed for Empty Bowls 2016: