William Daley is a quintessential artist exemplar of the Contemporary Studio Craft Movement. His experiences reflect the influences of World War II, the rise of university art programs, and the drive to combine tradition, meaning and new technology. The movement was forged out of World War II; Daley served, was shot down and held in a German prisoner of war camp. The first wave of the Movement saw hundreds of new teaching positions created in university craft, art and design programs across the country; Daley spent four decades teaching in a combination of these programs, including industrial design, drawing and ceramics. A common characteristic of the Movement has been a focus on combining traditional crafts, modern art concepts and new techniques; Daley is a master of forming clay skillfully, infusing his forms with meaning and developing new techniques to achieve his vision.
William Daley was born in 1925 in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. A strong and supportive family and community encouraged his artistic talent from an early age.
He was intensely affected by school trips to the museums in New York City. At the Museum of Modern Art he communed with works by Calder, Picasso and Brancusi.
Like many young men of his generation he joined the military as the United States entered the conflicts of World War II. Very early in his service he was shot down and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. While he doesn’t speak much of the physical discomforts of his imprisonment, he does note the intense boredom and ensuing mental exhaustion. To escape from that psychological distress Daley read and reread a few philosophy books with a fellow prisoner. The books included the Oxford Guide to Classical Literature and a collection of philosophical essays by William Hazlitt. Being held as a prisoner of war had a major impact on Daley’s philosophy of life, his positive outlook was amplified, rather than quashed by the intense experience. As Ruth Fine quotes in her excellent essay “Whacked Geometry,” the experience helped to form and strengthen his “belief in overcoming resistance with verve and belief in possibility becoming.”1
Upon his return he studied Art Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Art. As was the case during his imprisonment, books and philosophical writings served to open his receptive mind even further, He went on to teach in several art schools but spent the bulk of his teaching career at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), where he had a powerful impact on the art world of the region and beyond. A self-described Mud Man, Daley’s pots resonate with references to ancient cultures, philosophy and originality. The words wizard, philosopher, and guru are brought to mind by his presence and his musings on the essential nature of clay as part of earth, and therefore its special ability to convey deep human emotion and meaning. This seriousness is matched by his impish nature and the sparkle in his eye.
Daley’s monumental stoneware vessels are complex, he creates them using combinations of carved forms he has shaped over the years. The pots are not glazed, he wants to celebrate the earthiness of clay. The surfaces have texture from inclusions as well a smooth sheen from oil finish. The viewer yearns to reach out to caress the sensual surfaces. Touching helps connect the viewer to the artist’s ideas, you are drawn into the vessels, through tunnels, into corners, around labyrinths and spirals. Eternal concepts are connected to the present moment through ancient shapes that allow the viewer a moment of peace and meditation as they gaze into the vessel.
Like Rudolf Staffel, Daley has always pushed the boundaries of his material, experimenting to find the perfect clay body and the most effective method to create his large-scale vessels. His work seems at once to be ephemeral and as old as the cosmos. He explores the geometry of ancient architecture, symbology, and the joy of possibilities. Daley himself contains multitudes; he is spiritual and even spritely, while being deeply grounded in the earth: a “Mud Man.”
The facts of Daley’s life line up with many important concepts of Studio Craft and the art world in the mid-to-late 20th century, but it is the spark of his artist’s soul that makes him rise to the forefront of the Studio Craft Movement. William Daley’s skill, concept and spirit of openness characterize the Contemporary Studio Craft Movement from 1946 to the present. He is a towering figure and an exemplar of the Movement.
1 Ruth Fine, “Whacked Geometry,” William Daley Ceramic Artist. Schiffer Publications (2013), p. 8.