Small ceramic ducks are getting into all kinds of trouble at the Clay Studio.
In one series of ceramic sculptures, they've built a kiln and congratulated themselves a little too early. (It collapses.)
In another series, a duck barber gives another duck a haircut, and is promptly attacked when he cuts too much hair off.
Elsewhere in the gallery, they play imaginary board games. The artist, Doug Baldwin, leaves it to the viewer (or the owner) to decide the rules.
"I just have a good time," Baldwin said. "I really think that if someone sees my work and they smile, it's successful. I've had that sort of attitude, if you make them feel better for a little bit."
Baldwin found those ducks — the subject of his life's work — about 40 years ago in a Baltimore mold factory, where he'd received a grant to work.
He came across a mold of Thomas Gainsborough's classic dandy, nicknamed "The Blue Boy." Baldwin liked it, but he didn't like the head. He looked around for animal heads. A squirrel looked good, but the neck was too big. Then he found a duck that fit just right.
One of the early pieces is on display at the Missoula Art Museum lobby. It's the largest piece he's ever made, with columns of duck soldiers that gradually increase in size the closer they get to the viewer.
That's the last piece he made with low-fire white clay. In the early 1970s, he and his wife took a trip to Greece, where he was transfixed by the warmth and simplicity of red terra cotta clay.
After he returned from abroad, he took a fellow ceramic artist's advice and made what he knows.
He's a sports fan, so he constructed stadiums populated with duck spectators (now much smaller and no longer using the Gainsborough body mold.)
He figures he's made more than 40 stadiums, which have been shown around the country. Several large ones are on display at the Clay Studio exhibition: a long, narrow stadium for an imaginary sport (it's up the viewer), and a circular, Mayan-influenced stadium with two tiers of seating. He's also made a version of Washington-Grizzly Stadium that seats 4,000 ducks. (That one was purchased by the owners of the Press Box.)
He's ventured into humorous stop-motion animated shorts, which will screen at the exhibition. He's selling DVD copies for $6, and all proceeds will go to the nonprofit Clay Studio. He's used their workspaces for some eight years, coming in five days a week. He said he's impressed with the facility's growth over the years: its new kilns and ever-improving resident artists.
Baldwin's family moved to Missoula when he was a sophomore in high school. He studied art at the University of Montana for his undergraduate degree. After getting drafted, he returned for a master's degree. While at UM, he had the chance to learn from ceramics masters like Rudy Autio and James Leedy.
"What a pairing," he said. "You couldn't find better teachers." Autio was always humble, and Baldwin and his fellow students didn't have any idea of his stature in the ceramics world.
"He was famous, but we didn't know it," he said.
He found teaching rewarding, working with students every day and then watching as they developed successful careers. He taught for a year at the University of Wisconsin, followed by 34 years at the Maryland Institute of Art.
His education background is on full display with one of the new series: a duck art history quiz. Twenty-four small ducks stand next to masterworks, accompanied by multiple-choices on the famed creators.
The "game boards" are new as well. Each board is surrounded by ducks, with colored helmets that match the decoration of the tiles. Some reference art history: there's a splattered Pollock board and a comic-like Lichtenstein board. There's an all-white "conceptual" board, surrounded by ducks making quizzical gestures. "The owner makes up the game," he said. "I don't. There's no rules."
He said that in his art, he follows a rule that he imparted to his students: "Keep it simple." And he wants his art to be fun.
"Everybody's so serious," he said. "I'm serious about my fun."