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Island Profile: John Pagliaro, using art to touch the Island’s earliest history

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO John Pagliaro’s works explore masculine and feminine imagery. This is one of his large sculptural works, and includes an element he calls ‘the white spike.’
John Pagliaro’s works explore masculine and feminine imagery. This is one of his large sculptural works, and includes an element he calls ‘the white spike.’

John Pagliaro spends about 300 days a year on the waters around Shelter Island, so he wasn’t all that surprised when his phone rang while he was kayaking in icy conditions between the Island and Southold. A friend on the other end asked if he was O.K.

“There was some of that low-profile ice that doesn’t show up much, and I got stuck on it,” John said. “I started being taken east, so I used the paddle as a claw to get off the ice.  Someone must have seen me stuck on an ice floe, figured it was me and called around to check.”

He paused and added: “I’ve chilled out from my reckless days.”

John is an artist and his work, which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and The Newark Museum, involves the repetitive, painstaking manipulation of a single ball of clay, an ancient pottery-making technique called “pinch potting” that predates all others.

He feels a human connection to the Native American people who created the hundreds of arrowheads he’s found on beaches in Shelter Island and Southold.

“It’s a rhythm that transmits through all cultures,” he said. “An energetic rhythm, the same concept as flinting. Both are very methodical.”

John grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania where his now 93-year-old father was a college professor and his mother a writer. He started making art when he was four, using the same repetitive movements that characterize his technique today. “I was a very spirited child,” he said.

After getting a BA at Swarthmore, John went to the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina and got an MFA in Ceramics at the University of Oregon. His father’s mother built a house on Shelter Island in the early 1950s and the family has spent summers here for decades. After art school, John moved to the Island and has lived here for 18 years.

John’s art requires a certain sturdiness since his works are often large. Plus, working with clay, he’s often stooping and bending. “Artists always make their work at the expense of their posture,” he said.

He describes themes as being about the masculine and the feminine.  “I am always tossing around these ideas.  Objects that are about water are very feminine. The white spike, an image I’ve been making for almost 30 years, is masculine energy,” he said.

John had a show at the Boltax gallery on Shelter Island in 2007, and since 2013 he has had his own gallery, Handwerklab Art on North Ferry Road.

A serious accident on a motor scooter in 2009 left him with a traumatic brain injury. “It was a crisis,” he said. “My broken bones and scars healed, but the brain injury led to a lot of behavioral transitions. It was like waking up with a totally different personality and remembering the old one, but not being able to get there.”

He was launching a new motorboat for the first time after the accident when he found his first arrowhead in 2009 on the beach in front of the Pridwin. The hotel’s owner, Dick Petrie, stopped to help him with the launch. “It was out of the kindness of his heart,” John said. “I was above my competence level.”

Dick suggested John could use boots, went up to the hotel to get some, and as John put them on, he spotted an immaculate white arrowhead in the sand between his feet. He gave it to Dick as thanks for helping him.

Finding that arrowhead felt like a revelation, and John longed to find another. In the aftermath of the brain injury, the quest seemed to help him recuperate.

“I started walking. I was filled with hopelessness and despair, but every time I found an arrowhead, it was like the universe was saying, it’s O.K., just take the next step.”

John got help from an expert, New York State Museum archeologist Jonathan Lothrop, who helped him determine the type and approximate age of the arrowheads, information that has convinced him he’s found several “Dalton point” arrowheads — tools that were used about 9,500 years ago — and a “Clovis point” that may be 10,500-years-old.

His finds have opened him up to the Island’s distant past. “The evidence that is sitting here underfoot tells such a compelling story,” John said.

When he was invited recently to speak to a group of students at Manhattan’s Bank Street School about his arrowhead discoveries, he told them, “It’s important to remember when we hear about American greatness, that American greatness extends back quite a long time.”

John was one of 10 “International Masters” invited to give a lecture at Clay Gulgong 2018, a ceramics conference in Sydney, Australia, where he described his work with arrowheads and how it brought him to a new way of understanding his relationship to art.

“It’s about letting all the clutter and chatter inside fall away and coming to this place of true centeredness and peace,”he said.

Speaking for an hour to an audience at the Prince of Wales Opera House was a terrifying and exhilarating experience, but he learned a lesson: “My motto for this year is, if something scares me, I’m going to say yes to it.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you? An arrowhead in my pocket.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? In my kayak, on Louis’ Beach.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Sydney, Australia. It’s so much more American than America.  Genuinely welcoming, with warm, open, sharing people.

When was the last time you were elated? When I was kayaking and found the nest of an American Oystercatcher.

What exasperates you? I don’t suffer fools lightly.

When was the last time you were afraid? Yesterday. It’s a daily thing. I have anxieties.

Favorite book? Selected Poems of Rumi.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Martín Prechtel, author, artist and Mayan shaman.