Mark Shapiro’s ‘Lighthouse’ Boxes

by Scott Norris

NOTE: Although never published, this short essay came to the attention of an American Craft editor who subsequently hired me to write occasional artists’ profiles and reviews for that magazine. That exposure led me to publish a series of additional articles on craft from 2003 through 2012, in magazines that included Ceramics Monthly and Ceramics Art & Perception, as well as American Craft and Under the Sun, a journal published at the University of Tennessee. —SN

Like the seaside beacons they’re named after, Mark Shapiro’s recent ‘lighthouse’ boxes stand before us ambiguously, assertive in their blunt uprightness, bashful in their giraffe-necked awkwardness, soaring confidently in one direction while bracing themselves protectively in the other, both unsure and strong, pushed and pulled.

The architect Romaldo Giurgola once said that some forms are awkward because they are emerging for the first time. His words are true for genuine coastal lighthouses – buildings of a sort not seen before, and not likely to be seen again – as well as for Shapiro’s boxes, which, while seeming to have started as simple jars, appear to have been grasped and stretched upward to a remarkable and unlikely height.

Often darkly colored, Shapiro’s boxes possess some of the weathered, primitive moodiness of Robert Indiana’s early sculpture, yet without Indiana’s signboard-like merging of word and image. Paradoxically, the muteness of some of Shapiro’s boxes is emphasized by a complex calligraphy scrawled across their surfaces, cryptic hieroglyphs that fade in and out of focus, suggesting language while hiding their actual meaning. It is as if Shapiro is using the verbal equivalent of the storyteller’s trick of speaking softly, forcing us to draw close if we want to hear him, a strategy that will surprise no one who knows of his respect for the value of words, or of his fascination with the narrative sophistication of Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel he can describe in painstaking detail.

Distinct types appear among Shapiro’s ‘lighthouse” boxes. Some begin narrowly and rise sharply to peaked lids, often with streaming vertical decorative patterns that emphasize the pots’ quick ascents. They commonly rise on sturdy legs, gaining a head start before beginning to climb. Others are cloverleaf-shaped when viewed from above, their bottommost lobes broad and squat on the ground, their tops flattened to caps rather than pulled to points. Sometime wide, horizontal bands of color accentuate their dense heaviness, like aging men in tee shirts, slouchy, a little dour, unconcerned with appearances. Although tall, they don’t quite soar, seaming reasonably content where they are.

While Shapiro has questioned the practicality of the lighthouse boxes, and sometimes speaks of them as sculpture rather than useful objects, they’re fully functional as traditional household jars. In particular, the lobes of the cloverleaf-shaped boxes provide perfect handles and ideal spouts, however unconventional they may seem, while the boxes’ generous bodies suggest grain silos as much as lighthouses. Even the cloverleaf shape itself, a quasi-agrarian archetype, subtly reminds us of the boxes’ essential usefulness.

Other imagery aside, Shapiro’s ‘lighthouse” boxes also recall the buildings of Turner Brooks, haunted structures standing alone in landlocked meadows, looking both old and new, as if an early American architect had been reborn in the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps any relationship between the work of the two men is nothing but my own invention, growing from the fact that Shapiro and his family live in an ancient farmhouse that rambles across a hillside, forlorn and pretty in a Brooks-like way. Yet when Shapiro and Brooks have the opportunity to write prose – primarily short essays and catalogue entries describing their various projects – the similarities in their introspective, playful, poetic, and mysterious verbal images are striking. More important, Shapiro and Brooks, both New York City-born New Englanders, each imaginatively reshape vernacular forms to make objects that fulfill everyday needs, not effortlessly perhaps, but with immediacy and force, while appearing freshly minted and ageless at the same time.

Viewers of Shapiro’s work in recent years have seen what appears to be a steady refinement of his primary shapes. If that observation is apt, one might expect to find preliminary versions of his ‘lighthouse’ boxes scattered among his other work, because it seems unlikely that such radically elongated boxes would emerge without preparation. But, while Shapiro has produced many jar-like and box-like forms in recent years, the physical and conceptual distance between those pots and the ‘lighthouse’ boxes is enormous, despite any rough similarities, and words like “steady refinement” sound incongruous in relation to the sheer inventiveness that produced the ‘lighthouse’ boxes. In fact, the ‘lighthouses’ may have sprung from nowhere, and their spontaneous genesis, in the context of Shapiro’s evidently patient search for essential forms, isn’t a contradiction so much as another example of the dualities that abound in his work: simultaneously forward-looking yet fascinated with the past, energetic yet thoughtful, produced in large quantities but always crafted with care, sculptural yet functional, pushed and pulled. The ‘lighthouse’ boxes themselves, caught between restlessness and immobility, evoke a comparable sense of simmering disquiet, and with them Shapiro has succeeded in showing how to make objects that come alive, while remaining true to their origins as durable and practical things to be used.