Members of Kansas City's art world will gather on Saturday to toast Victor Babu, a Kansas City Art Institute professor who died in April but whose influence will be felt for generations.
“He would talk to you about the essence of everything, like he'd already boiled it down. And only spoke to you about the things that would lead you somewhere,” says Matt Long, one of Babu's former students. “He never gave you the answer to anything — everything that he would say would have no answer. And then he would walk away and let you just think about that.”
Long now teaches students of his own at the University of Mississippi, where he runs the Ceramics Department. When he arrived as a freshman at KCAI in 1992, Babu hired him as an assistant and the two became lifelong friends. Long says the lessons he learned from Babu are the lessons he teaches his students today.
“Victor looked into your soul and could touch you there,” says Long. “There's not that many people in the world that can touch people that way. He was just an extraordinary human being. And I am so lucky to have been a part of his life.”
Babu taught at the Art Institute from 1968 until he retired in 2001. He talked about his methods during an interview for the Craft in America PBS documentary series, saying it was important to find out where his students were coming from to help them find their artistic voice.
“Try and let them reveal some secrets, not all of them but a few,” said Babu. “That would give you a clue about why they saw things this way or why they handled the material this way.”
Another of his students, Cary Esser, is now KCAI's Kathleen Collins Chair of Ceramics. She says Babu was well known for his large works in clay.
“You can see the size of these things. They're huge. And to make a porcelain platter that size. That requires such tremendous skill because it wants to crack and it wants to move and warp,” she says.
“The forming is pretty remarkable and then the glazing was, in a way, even more remarkable,” Esser continues. “Because he built up these layers of glaze and he really had such an incredible knowledge of what would happen in the kiln.”
Babu decorated his creations with flowers, butterflies and lizards and snakes. As his assistant, one of Long’s tasks was to help Babu as he added multiple layers of glaze to his creations. Building the delicate imagery on Babu’s large works was laborious and could take several days. Long says one massive charger left a big impression on him when it emerged from the kiln.
“It was excruciatingly beautiful,” says Long. “There was this composition of flowers and there was a frog or two and then a butterfly, and this butterfly was beautiful.”
Then Long says he took a closer look. He discovered that the butterfly’s wings were actually snake heads. The moment was transformative for him. He says it was the first time he understood the connection between an artist and their work.
“It's not just that you're putting imagery down on something,” says Long. “When you're creating a line or a mark, there is a true translation of soul of who that person is is on that platter.”
Esser's husband, Mo Dickens, is gallery assistant at the Belger Arts Center. He says Babu’s work was quickly snapped up by collectors and there were long waiting lists for his large chargers.
“In the ceramics world, if they're small, they're plates,” explains Dickens. “If they're larger, they're platters. And if they're the size of a shield, like a soldier would carry, then they're called chargers.”
Dickens says before watching Babu, he’d never seen another potter work on such a large scale.
Babu’s retrospective in 2008 at the Epsten Gallery was a rare chance to see so many pieces in one place. The show “Remembering Beauty: The Ceramic Work of Victor Babu” drew works from 29 public and private collections in the region and included work dated from 1958 to 2007.
Collector Suzie Aron, who is president of Aron Real Estate, a board member of the Crossroads Community Association and a longtime supporter of KCAI and the ceramics department, offered several of Babu's ceramic pieces from her personal collection for the exhibition.
However, there was one special piece Aron was reluctant to lend to his retrospective. When she married her second husband, instead of wedding rings the two decided to buy ceramic art. One of Babu’s snake chargers caught her eye at a gallery in New York.
“I fell in love with this piece that was just gorgeous,” says Aron. “A beautiful, beautiful, snake platter. I decided at that show that I didn't want a wedding ring. I wanted a platter instead. So my husband humored me and gave me the platter instead of a wedding ring.”
Babu teased her about it at the opening. But the piece, for Aron, was just too important to loan out. She says it was a joke the two shared.
“Oh my gosh, he was so mad at me but in the end he forgave me,” remembers Aron. “But he had a large show and a beautiful supportive cast of collectors who were not having to loan their wedding rings for the exhibition.”
"I think he had more fun with the fact that I didn't bring it," says Aron.
Aron remembers the contrast between the man and his work.
“He looked like a wrestler,” she says. “Of course he had to be that big and that strong to throw that much clay but to see all these very delicate, beautiful flowers and insects and butterflies and snakes. He would probably have been the last one that anyone would have identified that would do that work.”
Esser says Babu understood the aspects of making art that can be exposing and can make someone feel vulnerable, and he was willing to be vulnerable with his students.
“Maybe this is something I learned from him," she says. "Acknowledging that vulnerability and tapping into that is perhaps where some of the most fruitful material might reside.”
A celebration of life for Victor Babu, 4-6 p.m. Saturday, July 20, with remarks and a champagne toast at 4:45 p.m., in the Kansas City Art Institute’s Richard J. Stern Ceramics Building, 4410 Warwick Blvd. RSVP via Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.