Vintage Phoenix Q&A: Halldor Hjalmarson

Categories: Best of Phoenix

Halldor Hjalmarson
Halldor Hjalmarson is that rarest of things: A fine artist who stayed in town, worked hard at his art, and made a name for himself here. His signature style -- three-dimensional, "sprigged" clay vessels depicting Sonoran plants and wildlife, glazed in earth tones and brilliant blues -- is recognizable from 30 feet, and beloved by many. (So, too, are his business cards: small, bright ceramic tokens based on a rather naughty old currency.)

Hjalmarson, long an arts advocate and mover-and-shaker, also promoted downtown's historic preservation well before it was fashionable. For years he's made the tea bowls for the local Japanese gardens, and has, along with wife Gail, maintained the Hjalmarson Pottery Studio in the Roosevelt Historic District for 40 years now. He recently set down his slip long enough to chat about bordello tokens, the best way to freak out the gas company, and the art world, then and now.

Robrt Pela: You've been here forever.

Halldor Hjalmarson: I was born in Phoenix in 1938 and lived on West Willetta Street when I was a kid. I went to Kennilworth School. We moved out to South Mountain later, and I went into the Marine Corps for four years. I came back here and began studying art at ASU in the '60s.

RP: So, right from the beginning, you were going to be an artist.

HH: Well, I minored in Social Studies. I got a Masters in Art Education; ASU didn't have an MFA arts program at the time. I was married and had a kid and I wanted to be able to get a job.

RP: You weren't planning to jump right into clay arts.

HH: I started out as a painter, in watercolor. Most clay artists do. I didn't love ceramics at first. But in the Art Ed Masters program, you had to take at least one ceramics class. I did, and nothing happened. I took a second one, and the bug bit immediately. I've been doing clay work ever since -- for more than 50 years. I had my first studio out at South Mountain.

RP: What changed your mind?

HH: I don't know. I became more confident after the second class, I suppose. I got a kiln and enclosed my carport and after that it was Katie, bar the door.

RP: You were instrumental in historic preservation and one of the earliest downtown preservationists.

HH: Gail and I worked on a committee or two, back then. People thought we were nuts when we moved back downtown in 1973. This whole part of town was just a mess. Nobody had a yard, or kept their lawns up. It wasn't really a lot of artists down here, back then. There were a lot of people who just left for work in the morning with their lunch in a brown bag.

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