A Magician in Porcelain: Victor Babu (1936 – 2019)

Victor Babu in his studio preparing for a spring 2002 exhibition at the Morgan Gallery (photo by Dan Wayne)

Victor Babu looked nothing like his art. Big and burly, with a voice that could only have been birthed in the Bronx, Babu created porcelain objects so exquisite that a Ming dynasty emperor would have wept to own one. In 2008, Sherry Lacy, an artist and former director of the Kansas City Art Institute’s Charlotte Crosby Kemper Gallery, curated “Remembering Beauty: The Ceramic Work of Victor Babu,” a 50-year retrospective. She said recently: “Victor was a big man, yet like porcelain, his medium of choice, he was capable of translucency. He was strong and resonant, and exhibited such deft, delicate handling of clay it was lyrical to watch.”

Babu taught at KCAI in the ceramics department from 1968 to 2001. His fellow professor until his retirement was George Timock, who arrived in 1973. “Victor and I shared a studio in a three-car garage for eight years,” Timock said. “All we had was a floor heater and a water cooler, so we bonded. He was just amazing.

“The program was really rigorous — all ass and elbows back then. But I still remember how he talked to the students. He would put his hands on his heart, look everyone in the eye, and make them think they were the only ones in the room.

“He never wanted the students to just copy him. The tea bowl was one of his teaching tools. He would bring some to class, and have the students touch, feel and react to each piece. He would be honest with the students about their work, but he was always respectful, and so many of his students adored him.

“He was also a magician when it came to his art, particularly his glazes. I couldn’t believe the bloody reds he could produce.”

Babu was on the search committee when the ceramics department hired Cary Esser to become the head of the department in 1996. She remembers that “Victor had such wit; he taught a lot through storytelling. He was a teacher extraordinaire. There was an immediacy when he talked to you, and what he let his students know was that whatever was inside them was good.

“He was an alchemist when it came to his glazes. To achieve glazes that clear and beautiful, you had to be in tune with all the chemistry and phenomena of ceramic making.”

Babu crafted numerous ceramic forms — jars, casseroles, tea bowls — but is best known for his immense, elegantly painted porcelain chargers. In the last years of his career he saw his artwork enter numerous museum collections, but it wasn’t always that easy.

He loved beauty and insisted on making beautiful objects during a time period — the 1980s and 90s — when identity politics ruled the art world and when beauty was a dirty word. He once talked to this writer about how many of his peers dismissed him for years as being a mere “cake decorator.”

Babu told stories of how, as a child, he would sneak out of church to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and study the ceramics on display. He also talked about how he loved to sit on Persian rugs and analyze the designs. Those were influences he alluded to often when he spoke about his art. But his own design motifs were deeply personal. The snakes, fauna and floral images he invented were tinged with eroticism, and his colors were rich and powerful. These are highly seductive works.

Mo Dickens, a good friend of Babu’s, tells the ultimate story about the artist and his art. “One day I was in his studio, and he had just unloaded a glorious porcelain charger from his kiln. It was truly one of the most beautiful pieces of art I had ever seen. Vic studied it. He asked me to move it to a large table. Then he asked me to cover it with a towel. Then he took a hammer and smashed it to tiny shards. I yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing?!’ He said he was disappointed in one of the colors, and he didn’t want any work of art out in public with his name on it unless he was 100 percent satisfied with it.

“That was over a decade ago, and I’m still trying to process what that kind of commitment means.”

A celebration of life for Victor Babu will be held July 20 from 4 to 6 p.m., 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 by July 12 via Facebook or email cesser@kcai.edu

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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