Donald Munro

June 14, 2014

Munro: Bird and tea make an unlikely, lovely combination

That's one long tail.

That's one long tail.

The exotic African bird perches on the edge of his tidy nest, snug between two branches, pert expression suggesting the vigilance of a night watchman on duty. His impressive tail — nearly twice the length of the rest of his body — makes a graceful arc below.

At first glance, Annette Corcoran's "Paradise Flycatcher, 2012" looks simply like a beautifully crafted ceramic piece depicting a bird in its environment.

But look closer. It's also a teapot.

The tail swoops down to connect with the slender trunk of the tree, forming a handle. A branch is the spout. One of the leaves stuck in the nest is the lid.

"Yes, you can fill it with water and pour," Corcoran says.

Not that you'd want to. These impeccable ceramic works deserve more than a place at the breakfast table.

In fact, a museum is quite a suitable place for them. You can find five of Corcoran's bird teapots in the exhibition "Fantastical Form" at the Fresno Art Museum. The show also includes ceramic works in which the artist has dispensed with the teapot idea altogether, depicting vibrantly colored birds in whimsical and intricate environments.

One thing's for sure: Corcoran has a potent imagination.

"When I get done with a group of work, I think, 'Where did that come from?' " she says. "It's almost like I'm in a dream world when I'm in the studio. I never quite know what's going to happen."

Born in 1930, the Pacific Grove artist still works almost every day in her studio — sometimes up to 12 hours. She didn't start making ceramic art until she was 45. Up till then she'd been a graphic artist. When her husband changed jobs and it was time to move, she "left all my clients in one town and moved to another." She took the opportunity to start over, enrolling in her first clay class at the community college level.

"It was like a light turned on in my head, and I never turned back," she says.

Over the next four decades, she's built a stellar reputation. Corcoran, represented by the Winfield Gallery in Carmel, has seen her work find its way into major museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Some of the works in Fresno were part of a show at the SFMOMA Artists Gallery, a prestigious space at Fort Mason Center affiliated with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The show also had a run at the Monterey Museum of Art.

The first teapot she made — a delicate blue and white work now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — depicted a bird. But she experimented a lot. For a while she made pumpkin teapots, then shifted to a cactus theme. By the early 1980s, however, birds had taken over.

Her first "all bird" show, in 1982 at the Dorothy Weiss Gallery in San Francisco, cemented her signature theme.

It's an extension of a lifelong fascination ever since her childhood in Southern California.

"I used to watch birds as a kid," she says. "I was a great reader, and to get away from my brothers, I would go sit in our huge fig tree out in the backyard, with my book, and the birds were always there eating the figs."

Early in her career she concentrated on birds that were outside her studio window. But she gradually moved toward depicting birds from other parts of the world, particularly ones with vibrant colors. The teapot birds in the Fresno show all depict African birds. Corcoran, an enthusiastic world traveler, recently returned from a trip there.

While at first glance her style seems extremely realistic, in small ways she takes artistic license when it comes to many of her birds: using slightly different colors, for example, or designs on a wing that you wouldn't find in real life. The effect is subtle, but it gives a heightened sense to her depictions.

She usually works on between five and 10 pieces at a time. The laborious process includes molding the work in clay, figuring out a plan for painting it, and repeated firings in one of her three kilns heated to about 2,000 degrees as part of the glazing process. A typical teapot takes about three months, start to finish.

Yet for all of Corcoran's meticulous process and attention to detail, what sets her works apart is a feeling of liveliness and spontaneity. Birds are attentive and forever vigilant creatures, and while these are forever frozen in a moment, the artist manages to convey a sense that they are about to hop or fly away.

Indeed, as I stand looking the "Paradise Flycatcher" teapot, part of me waits for that impressively long tail to follow its owner as he darts into the sky.



Annette Corcoran's "Fantastical Form," 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 24, Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First St., (559) 441-4221. $5. (Note: Museum is closed Sunday, June 15, because of Men Who Cook event.)


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About Don Munro

Don Munro


The leading authority of theater, performing and fine arts in the central San Joaquin Valley. Everything you need to know about new shows, exhibitions and cultural events, plus insights into Fresno's cultural scene. Phone: 559-441-6373. Twitter: @DonaldBeeArts. Email:

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