(an editorial thinly disguised as a book review)
A group of potters went to see a “Blue and White” ceramics exhibit at a major museum in a large city. During the trip, one of the potters lamented how she was taught nothing in college about America’s pottery heritage.
Most of the potters in the group, being of more or less the same generation, were taught that Asian porcelain was pottery’s culminating expression. Anything outside that narrative – excepting modern pottery – was background (ie; easily dismissed). Gaping educational holes were partially filled as individual interests randomly wandered.
Daniel Rhodes defined the ‘official’ narrative during my own college years. Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter, revised edition 1973, was our class bible. (Boy, am I dating myself!) Just as important as the book’s technical information were its pictures. I poured over them and absorbed their implied lesson – see the rest, end with the best: Song Dynasty Chinese Imperial porcelain. We were certainly offered a generic overview of the ceramic spectrum, but the ultimate lesson remained.
The Rhodes book had two images of early American pots; A sgraffito plate by Georg Hubener of Bucks County, PA, c.1790, and a mass-produced molded stoneware pitcher in the form of a waterfall or whatever by the American Pottery Company of Trenton, NJ, c.1840. Without context or hint of other efforts, and compared to those oil spot and celadon glazes, I concluded, “no thanks.”
That “no thanks” attitude wasn’t so much like comparing apples to oranges as it was like believing apples for eating were “better” than apples for making cider, or for baking. But why compare at all?
Of course, Daniel Rhodes can’t be all to blame. There were (are) plenty of books about all sorts of pottery types. And yes, old Chinese porcelain deserves respect. But we were poor college students. The pictures in Rhodes’ book and the resulting chatter around the studio were our gateway (there was no internet back then). The range of early American (and European) pottery expression hit me only after some intense overseas time induced reflection on my own background.
If we’re never taught that something has value we can easily assume it has no value; “History is boring!” “Who cares?” “Been there, done that.”
When did you first see beyond these ridiculous notions?
Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Revised edition. Daniel Rhodes. Chilton’s/Radnor, PA. 1973.