Patrick Gordon didn’t realize when he began working with fellow artist Steve Liggett that he would have to learn a whole new language.
“You see,” Gordon said, indicating the curvaceous gray clay form resting on a stack of pillows in front of him, “I would call this a ‘pot.’ However, I have been informed many times that this is NOT a pot. Rather, it’s —”
“A vessel,” Liggett called out from the other side of the worktable, where he was at work shaping yet another object.
“Yes, a ‘vessel,’” Gordon said as he meticulously traced the petals of a rose on the surface. “You see? Slowly but surely I’m gaining all this knowledge so I’ll be able to speak ceramic.”
He lowered his voice a bit and added, “I still think it’s a pot.”
Whatever one might call it, this object — once the surface is covered with images of roses, painted and glazed, then fired and cooled — will become part of a unique exhibit that brings together for the first time the work of two icons of the visual arts in Tulsa.
For 26 years, Liggett was the director of Living Arts of Tulsa, where he explored a variety of artistic media, from performance art to video to installations, while providing opportunities for artists and audiences to discover and share new ways of viewing the world and creating art. Since his retirement, Liggett has returned to ceramics, the medium that first interested him as an artist.
Gordon has been working as painter for more than 40 years, and his watercolor and oil paintings — complex still lifes, portraits and images of flowers — can be found in private and public collections throughout the city and country.
Liggett oversaw the recent reinstallation of the Tulsa PAC’s art collection, which contains four of Gordon’s works.
The two men have been friends since they attended the University of Tulsa together, but they had never worked together before.
“I’ve never worked with anyone before,” Gordon said. “I suppose if there is a drawback to the artist’s life, is that it’s a very solitary life. I’ve basically spent the last 40 years of my life sitting alone in a room painting.
“But I have to tell you,” he said, “I am having the most fun doing this.”
Liggett has worked with other artists in his time with Living Arts, but he also is new to the idea of working with another artist on a project.
“We started this about 10 months ago, just to see what would happen,” Liggett said. “When we started to accumulate all these pieces, we thought, ‘Maybe we had better do an exhibit of these things.’ And I know that we’ll probably keep making things together once the show is over.”
That show, “Botanica,” will open Thursday, Dec. 5, at Liggett Studio. Exactly how many pieces will make up the show is still to be determined, but the relatively cozy confines of Liggett’s pottery studio in the East Village are slowly being filled with finished works — vessels and platters bearing Gordon’s signature flowers.
“The subject matter doesn’t change,” Gordon said. “We’re both indulging in our obsessions. For me, it’s just that the surface has changed. I’m used to things being flat.”
Liggett said the idea of working with Gordon was sparked when Living Arts presented Gordon with its first “Living Legend” award, which coincided with a show of never-before-seen paintings — a series of men in elaborate ballgowns titled “Mrs. Lennox and the Gift of Falling Snow.”
“No one would touch those paintings,” Gordon said. “I approached galleries in New York City and San Francisco, and they turned them down. But Steve was the only person who showed any interest.”
“It was the sort of show I always looked for when I was with Living Arts,” Liggett said. “It was great work that needed to be seen, that no one else wanted. And it was because we sort of reconnected through that show, I brought up the idea of the two of us working together on a project.”
The project had a rocky start, as the earliest vessels would end up cracked once they were fired.
“That went on for three months,” Liggett said. “It took us a while to find the right medium, which was low-fire white clay. After that, we didn’t have any cracking problems.”
“Painting on this clay is a little like doing watercolor,” Gordon said. “It’s the same principle — you work from light to dark. And Steve is good at understanding about glazes, as how the colors are likely to change when the pieces come out of the oven.”
“I like the bright colors you can get with the low-fire range,” Liggett said.
“Of course, there is a bit of a mystery as to what we’re going to end up with. But that’s one of the fascinating things about working with ceramics.
“That’s also something that comes from working with Pat,” he said. “I love how he can look at what I give him, that I might have a pretty good idea of how it will ultimately look, and then he will take it in an entirely new direction. That’s why we plan to continue doing this.”
For Gordon, this project “shows a side of myself that I never expected. It’s made me be a little more risky — even though I’m still painting flowers, which I love to do.”