Pack of Wolffs
One Family — Four Artists
Many can boast of having an artist in the family; some have more than one. But it would be hard to come up with a family of four in which all its members are acclaimed artists of one kind or another and whose artistic bents go back at least one generation. That would be the Wolffs of Bantam.
In the case of patriarch Guy Wolff, it began with his father, Robert Jay Wolff, an abstract expressionist who helped establish the Chicago School of Design – the new Bauhaus. Young Wolff grew up in Litchfield County and thanks to his father was surrounded by the likes of Alexander Calder, Arthur Miller and other esteemed writers and artists who once resided in these environs. Oh, yes, Marcel Breuer just happened to be married to his aunt.
Wolff certainly didn’t envision becoming a potter but the small art high school he attended in New Hampshire had a pottery department and he became intrigued.
“The teacher was so good I became hooked,” recalls Guy. (Because there are so many Wolffs I will break editorial tradition and refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion.) “I began to study every pot I could going all the way back to 1630. You can’t copy old antique pots but you can spend a lifetime trying to understand why they are good and then try to make your own equivalent.”
And that is what he has been doing since he opened his Bantam studio in 1971. At this point in his career, Guy Wolff is a household name nearly as well-known as those who helped make him famous, Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. They have sung his praises and championed his product as has every major design magazine.
Guy is also an accomplished musician, playing the claw hammer banjo which he has done for more than 45 years.
As the apple does not fall far from the tree, it is not surprising that Ben Wolff has followed in his father’s footsteps - having thrown his first pot at 2 years of age.
“I have pieces I wouldn’t consider pots,” explains Ben. “There was no functionality to them but I could make the shapes. I messed around with pottery and the pieces became more refined. After high school I was making number one pots in my Dad’s shop. Then he’d stop by and give me a couple of hundred dollars. My pots had sold and I didn’t even know they were for sale! It was hard to believe someone liked them and bought them.
“I learned from watching my father and it’s hard work but there’s a great satisfaction in making a piece of art, which is really what a potter is doing,” he continued. “Dad goes the traditional route and I try to design out of the box. While historical background sets the tone, I look and wonder what I can do with a new shape.”
And like Guy, Ben loves music and finds a correlation between the two fields.
“I play guitar and mandolin and keyboard and drums. I play in different bands and, if I weren’t a potter, I would be a full-time musician. In both cases I’m creating a form of art and I think one feeds off the other. My mother is a musical genius; she can hear a tune and play it immediately. My dad plays the banjo and my stepmother is a musician as well.”
Which brings us to Guy’s wife, Erica Warnock, who plays glorious music on a viola da gamba. “The viola da gamba came out of the African Muslim tradition by way of Spain,” explains Erica. “All members of the viol family are played upright, unlike the violin or the viola, which are held under the chin. It is a chamber music instrument not an orchestra one. When the cello came in it essentially took over so you don’t see this instrument a lot anymore.”
It was Erica’s father who nurtured her musical talent. He was an artist who came to the United States from Canada after World War II. He finished his education in Boston at the School for Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
“To earn money he cleaned frames and did minor repairs for the museum,” Erica says.
“The curator asked my father to put together an exhibition of musical instruments in their collection. He got to see the guts of these early pieces and became interested in making them. I actually play an instrument that he made for my mother.”
Erica plays locally with two groups - Wykeham Consort and Early Bird. She is very fond of different genres and plays both classical music and modern as well.
“Erica grew up in a wonderful cultural environment,” Guy interjected. Her father was an artist, her mother was an educator, her brother was a chess champion and her sister was a musician. The entire group is amazing.”
That can be said of the Wolff family as well. Along with Guy and Ben, Erica also makes pots.
“It’s really Guy’s wares,” she says. “I don’t have my own line. I tend to make the smaller pieces that Guy needs in the shop.”
Elizabeth Wolff is the fourth member of this artistic quartet and while she has experimented with pottery (quite successfully, by the way) illustration is her strong suit.
“Growing up I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s studio and was given watercolors and crayons and markers to keep me entertained. I loved color and I got farther into drawing. I did lots of them and. just as he did with Ben’s early pots, my dad would sell my drawings out of his shop.
“I love picture books because there is so much to see,” she explained. “People kept comparing my drawings to children’s book illustrations and I have been working towards getting published. It’s not an easy process but the best advice came from the artist Wendell Minor who said that my work has always relied on line and I needed to get away from that. You have to understand mass as well. When you paint you have to do many many lines to create fur or some other texture. And that’s what I’m trying to do now.”
Elizabeth has had several local shows where she repeatedly has sold out all of her works.
Her work is magical and immediately draws the viewer into the world of creatures she has created. Looking at her work evokes memories of childhood and the joy and excitement of books filled with magical illustrations.
Meanwhile, she has moved on to making lamps, just as her father did many years ago. Using a tin can Elizabeth sketches an idea and then proceeds to punch holes to allow the image to be illuminated from the inside. And, recently she has also taken up quilt making.
“I’ve been making quilts for Hole in the Wall for children who have or have had cancer,” she said. “I’m experimenting with making illustrations out of fabric.”
There is an easy camaraderie in this pack of Wolffs. Sitting around the table in the sun-filled living room of the Wolff home, they laugh, interrupting each other with anecdotes. They are each other’s best friends and, ever the professionals, each other’s best critics.