The Hit Parade #5: Thomas Crafts Teapot

March 29, 2015

Full disclosure:  Because the Thomas Crafts homestead is only 20 minutes from my house, he’s sort of a ‘home-town favorite.’ Crafts Teapot

When you hold a Thomas Crafts teapot in your hands, you are in the presence of a master.

He operated an earthenware “Teapot Manufactory” in Whately MA from 1806 until switching to stoneware crocks in 1833.  His teapots were paper thin and perfectly thrown.  The spouts were formed, as was customary, with highly valued, personalized molds.  His mirror black “Jackfield” type glaze required an additional firing, unusual for redware of the time.

The Crafts ascribed teapot shown here sits at the pinnacle of pre-industrial American artisan pottery.  That alone is enough to merit inclusion in any list of pottery greats.  But modern students of pottery can draw several lessons here.

This teapot offers a window into the world Thomas Crafts inhabited.  Records show that, along with an assistant (usually his own kin), he could turn out 2,067 dozen teapots a year.  That’s roughly 88 teapots a day, 5 days a week, 56 weeks a year!  And Crafts was just one of countless American potters making teapots.  Furthermore, they were all competing against a Staffordshire behemoth factory system that flooded America with its own “Brown Betty” teapots.  This was a time and place that worshiped tea.

Thomas Crafts employed what we now call a “production potter” mentality.  It would be easy to equate this mentality to that of an automaton, given the quantity of teapots his “Manufactory” created.  But one would be mistaken to view the sparse character of this teapot as simply “form following function.”  Instead, like so much American redware, it offers a unique and focused study of form and volume.  It’s worth noting that the vast majority of historical masterpieces were produced using similar production mentalities.

To quote an old ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Ceramics Monthly on this same topic, “…which of these two qualities seems more synonymous with great pots; a never-ending quest to make something different that looks kinda neat, or consummate skill?   Skill takes practice, grunt work, and yes, repetition.  Don’t be afraid of it.  It will take you places you never dreamed of.”

The Hit Parade #6: Pete Volkous

March 22, 2015

Volkous It’s hard to avoid the obvious when compiling any sort of greatest hits list.  There are ceramic items, and ceramic artists, who would be obvious choices for almost any pottery list.  One such artist would (should) be Pete Volkous and his famous forays into ceramic Abstract Expressionism.

To be sure he didn’t work in a vacuum.  Many other ceramic artists of his generation also defined the course of contemporary ceramics (Garth Clark’s Ceramics in America, 2014 list only grudgingly acknowledges Volkous.)

Pete Volkous appears here for another reason.  His touch was incredible, but what really hit home was how crazy he was.  He was a real bohemian pottery Rock Star – in the most “Rock Star” meaning of that term.  Pete was like a singular personification of the Beatles, leading an invasion into a world of ceramic Elvis Presley’s

A generation of pottery students were ga ga about him.  He showed us that not only was it possible to do whatever you wanted – the mold was shattered – but you could have a blast doing it.  This was a potent brew for any young, aspiring, and barely responsible art student back in the day…

And like the Beatles, way too much has been written and said about Pete Volkous, to the point that summoning his name has almost become a cliché.  That hardly matters, of course.  After Pete, the cat was out of the bag.

The Hit Parade #7: Space Shuttle Heat Shield Tiles

March 15, 2015

sapce shuttle tilesThe first time I ever logged onto the World Wed Web, I (naturally) began with a search for “ceramics.”  What would I find as I waited for my 15 baud/sec. dial-up connection to complete? 

Way back then, web navigation was still mostly a series of lists, of links.  Unless you knew exactly what you wanted (who did?), you scrolled through pages of options before getting to an actual page of information.  After following a few random links, I found myself on the website of the U.S. Air Force and their use of high-tech ceramic fibers.  Welcome to the web!

At no time more so than today, technology affects the way we interact with, and understand the universe.  Among the many uses of hi-tech ceramics has been our ability to leave the confines of planet Earth.  We’ve even sent probes into interstellar space.  They will continue to exist eons after Earth has disappeared during the sun’s burn-out progression into a red giant star.

Heat shield tiles on multiple-entry vehicles like the Space Shuttle appeal to me most out of all the hi-tech ceramic applications.  Without these tiles, human beings could go beyond, but never return.  And without the shuttle program we wouldn’t have the Hubble Space Telescope, countless other satellites, and (in part) the International Space Station. The blocks of reinforced carbon and LI 900 Silica that are attached to re-usable space craft by (essentially) Velcro are what allow space travelers to tell the rest of us about the view from above.

Granted, such ‘ceramic’ applications as heat shield tiles bear no practical resemblance to the earthen material we make pots with.  But the fundamental building blocks of our messy clay bodies play an essential role in efforts to unlock the universe’s mysteries.  When we work with clay, we take part in a story that stretches from simple expressions of utility to mind-boggling explorations of the limitless expanse that surround us.

That’s an encouraging thought for any potter who feels as though their slogging efforts at keeping the shop going are slowly turning their hair gray.

The Hit Parade #8: Tourist Pottery from San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua

March 8, 2015

Adventures in cross-cultural sampling.

San Juan de Oriente Alan Gallegos was a dear friend.  He came from the village of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, known for it’s many “Pre-Columbian” style potters.  I worked with Alan during my time in Nicaragua with Potters for Peace (PFP).  The burnished, slab molded, 6″d. plate shown  here is from San Juan de Oriente.  But it isn’t Alan’s.   Sadly, I don’t own any of his work.

Alan was large, gentle, and quiet.  He was an extremely talented potter, and a valued member of PFP’s team.  One day Alan’s body was discovered along a roadside.  Did he accidentally fall off a truck while hitch hiking?  Was he robbed and killed?  Nobody knows.

I had left Nicaragua before Alan’s death.  The town I was living in just became a Sister City to a community of repatriated refugees in El Salvador, from that country’s civil war.  Many Salvadorans had fled to Nicaragua during the war.  I knew a group of those refugees who lived next to a PFP pottery project.  Kids from this little group painted the pottery’s seconds to sell for extra cash.  Ironically, their new community was my town’s Sister City.

So there I was, struggling to work on an Empty Bowls fund raiser for the Sister City effort.  That night, after hearing of Alan’ death, I began decorating: a jagged border around the rims (Central America’s many volcanoes) above five panels (the five original Central American countries) blocked out by vertical rows of circles (the Mayan counting system).  Each panel contained a pre-Columbian phoenix.

The thought of using pre-Columbian designs in my own work always felt problematic (due largely to Central America’s history and my European ancestry).  But I had the distinct feeling Alan was beside me as I worked.  I wouldn’t have blinked if he reached over, picked up a bowl, and began talking.

Something then occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about for ages.  Years earlier I apprenticed to Richard Bresnahan, who told me he felt he was communicating with ancient potters of southern Japan (where he had done his own apprenticeship) whenever he applied Japanese-style “mishima” inlay to his pots.  “Neat idea,” I thought at the time, before getting on with the day…

Cultural ‘mining’ can leave a long, painful trail.  Communication that transcends that tale requires healthy doses of respect and empathy.  Now I know how powerful this communication can be.

The Hit Parade #9: The Portland Vase

March 1, 2015

428px-Portland_Vase_V&A I don’t particularly like this vase. I find the style tight and constricted.  But it belongs on any ceramic greatest hits list.

Volumes have been written about Josiah Wedgwood’s Portland Vase, c. 1790.  Essentially, it’s 9½” tall with white sprigging on a black “basalt” body (one of Wedgwood’s many nomenclature shenanigans).  It’s a replica, in ceramic, of a Roman cameo glass vase made around 1AD.  Many have hailed it as a defining Masterpiece for both Wedgwood and  England’s Industrial Revolution.

Josiah Wedgwood made his name with the Portland Vase.  But he made his fortunes with his ensuing “Queen’s Ware” line.  That was only possible because of the technical know-how he amassed previous to making the Vase. 

Wedgwood made the Portland Vase knowing nothing about ceramic chemistry beyond personal observations. (Geology wasn’t even a recognized science for another 20 years.)  And some of his materials came from across an ocean, and in areas owned by people at war with Europeans.  And there were practically no maps or roads in those regions.   And the Vase’s imagery (as on the original cameo glass) was one long continuous sprig.  And that one long continuous sprig didn’t smudged upon application (look at it close up).  And the sprig didn’t deform or crack.  And it stayed on during drying and firing.  And the entire process was made to be repeated.  And these processes coalesced a nascent ceramics supply business into being (where would we be without that?).  And his efforts helped coin an entirely new meaning for the word “industry.”

Many potters see Wedgwood’s industrializing efforts, with their logical conclusion being today’s cheap imported stuff available at any WalMart or shopping mall, as the bane of hand made pottery. 

Perhaps.  But there’s a flip side.  Almost overnight, a wide swath of the working class could now afford refined ceramics.  It was purely a marketing ploy, for sure.  But before this moment, anything terribly fancy was out of reach for most people.  Now the masses could aspire to have fine art in their own homes.

Very few objects carry the wallop that this vase does.

If you doubt that last statement, try doing something like the Portland Vase yourself some time – preferably before you make your own list of ceramic greatest hits…

Reading:

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

The Map That Changed The World.  Simon Winchester.  Harper Perennial/London.  2009.

The Hit Parade #10: The Venus of Doln Věstonice

February 22, 2015

“Where to begin?  Ah yes, at the beginning.” – Bilbo Baggins.

Vénus-de-Dolní-VěstoniceBetween roughly 30-40,000  years ago (+/- a few millennia) somebody got the idea to create art.  Thus began human beings.

Who knows what sorts of wood carving, bark weaving, or natural dye paintings have decayed into nothingness over the centuries.  About all that remains are cave paintings, bone etchings and, of course, clay figurines.

Imagine being the very first person to pull a ceramic object from a fire pit.  You just transmuted one material into an entirely different one – on purpose.

People had used clay to line fire pits, make adobe bricks, and even to model animals (they still sit, unfired, in some of those ancient caves) for a few thousand years before this moment.  But in what is now eastern Europe, something new happened.  Thousands of clay pebbles were made specifically to toss into the hottest parts of an open hearth fire.  Some exploded, others didn’t.  Divination, perhaps?  Or just entertainment – the thrill of pre-historic fireworks?

These same forgotten people also made little clay figures and tossed them into the fire.  The figurine shown here is a survivor of that pit, and of the ensuing 25,000 years.  It was uncovered near the Czech village of Doln Věstonice in 1925.  It’s small, like the many other ceramic objects found at the site.  About 4.4. inches tall by about 1.7 inches at its widest.

This figurine has been dubbed the “Venus of Doln Věstonice.”  It is the most evocative Paleolithic sculpture yet unearthed.  To a modern eye it represents a sophisticated reduction of elements to the utmost essentials.  When looking at this object, the overwhelming impulse is to ask “why?”  And “why” is the most powerful word ever devised.

People will wonder into the unimaginable future why the Venus was made.  There will never be an answer.  I’m content just looking at this awe inspiring figurine as if I’m looking directly into the eyes of the first real humans.  Shivers.

Reading:

The Emergence of Pottery.  Barnett and Hoopes, eds.  Smithsonian Press/Washington DC.  1995.

The Hit Parade

February 15, 2015

The next few rounds of this journal come with a very big tip of the hat to Robert Hunter and his 2014 edition of Ceramics in America.  Rob asked this edition’s contributors to each compile a ‘top ten’ list of ceramic items using whatever criteria was relevant to their perspective situations. 

The resulting lists offer an inspired and surprising overview of ceramic history and beyond – and they motivated me to come up with my own list.  So now I look across centuries and continents, following pottery’s intimate role in the long parade of human development.

Many of my selections are indicative of a certain time, place, or topic.  Other items could have been substituted.  And of course some selections are, inescapably, personal favorites or items that have particularly impacted my life. 

I highly encourage anyone interested in this topic to get a copy of Ceramics in America 2014, and to put some time into configuring your own list.  The results will be impressive. 

My ‘greatest hits’ aren’t necessarily chronological or geographical.  And ranking them for overall importance would be an impossibly arbitrary effort.  They are presented, mainly, in no particular order – except the first one…

Reading:

Ceramics in America, 2014.  Robert Hunter, ed.  Chipstone Press/UNH.  2014.

Art History

January 4, 2015

Professor Christopher Roy of the University of Iowa opened my eyes to the place of African efforts in the art world pantheon.  His lesson began with a look at H.W. Janson’s quintessential art history text book “The History of Art.”

The historical overview in Janson’s sweeping tome went like this: Chapter One: Magic and Ritual, the Art of Prehistoric Man, Chapter Two: The Art of Egypt, Three: the The Art of the Near East, then the Aegean, the Classical Greeks, the Romans, Mediaeval art, the Renaissance, the Mannerists, etc. on up to today.  Here was humanity’s aesthetic progress rising from primordial beginning to sophisticated present.

Janson’s opening “prehistoric” chapter included several images of African wood carved sculptures alongside images of Paleolithic cave paintings.  Professor Roy pointed out that all the African sculptures had been made within 50 years of the book’s publication.  Hmmm.

Here was a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

Later, when studying redware, I found that old sources of information can offer more than stale, ossified opinions.  For example, there is something fresh in reading about “current trends in American pottery,” including an “up and coming” woman named Adelaide Alsop Robineau.

Of course, it doesn’t always come out roses.  Charles Fergus Binns holds a respected position as the founder of Alfred University’s vaunted ceramics program in 1900.  Might a pottery book in his words offer interesting kernels of insight?  His opening chapter on pottery’s historical overview mirrored Hanson’s ‘primordial to sophisticated’ trope.  Binns began with a discussion of American Indian pottery:

“It must always be an open question how much credit for artistic feeling can be given to primitive races…  Crude and unprepared clays were used for the most part but the makers could scarcely have been conscious of the charming color-play produced by the burning of a red clay in a smokey fire.  The pottery of the Indians is artistic in the sense of being an expression of an indigenous art and much of it is beautiful, though whether the makers possessed any real appreciation of beauty is open to doubt.”

He then proceeded from this ‘primordial’ beginning to Classical Greek pottery, then the Romans, etc. etc. etc…

Old knowledge is a valuable resource, not to be ignored lightly.  Just never confuse old knowledge with bankrupt ideas.

Readings:

The History of Art, Second Edition.  H.W. Janson.  Prentis Hall/New York.  1977.

The Potter’s Craft.  Charles F. Binns.  Van Nostrand Co./NY.  1910.

The Pineapple

December 14, 2014

What’s up with the pineapple? 

Pineapple imagery appears on many types of early decorative arts, from grave stones, to hymnals, to quilts, to furniture, to pottery.  Today the pineapple is considered a symbol of hospitality.  Why?  One school of thought explains that serving such a rare, expensive, and highly perishable imported fruit to guests during 18th century social gatherings in England or North America was quite a treat. “Oh my, how hospitable you are!”

The 18th century intelligentsia would have quickly read the intended meaning behind the pineapple image.  They were  well versed both in the language of classical symbolism and the art of social gatherings.  Federalist and Georgian decorative arts, and Neoclassicism in general, was positively replete with  arcane symbolically coded messages.  These messages were mixed and matched to create a variety of commentary to fit whatever occasion presented itself. 

The pineapple was rarely if ever seen on English or North American dinner tables until refrigeration and steam powered transportation made access to it practical.  Pineapples were so rare, in fact, that nobody at the time associated them with anything other than the expensive quirks of the host.  The first recorded reference to the pineapple as a hospitality symbol was in a 1935 promotional booklet about traveling to Hawaii.

What is described today, and reproduced by many in the traditional arts scene, as a pineapple was in fact a pinecone.  18th century socialites well understood the pinecone as a classical symbol of fertility and regeneration. 

In classical Greek mythology, Dionysus the God of Wine held a pinecone topped staff – classical wine making required pine resin.  The famous Dionysian rites were a frolicking romp of fertility and regeneration.  It’s one reason why holiday wreaths often include pinecones instead of pineapples.

Some allowance can be made for mistaking the 18th century pinecone for a pineapple.  When the English first encountered the fruit they visually associated it with the pinecone by calling it a “pine-apple.”  But only a little allowance can be made.  When the classical cannon of symbolism was established nobody in Europe had any idea what a pineapple was.

 Floral Pattern w pineapples c1700

Readings:

Colonial Williamsburg Journal.  Stuff and Nonsense.  Winter 2008.

River Gods

November 16, 2014

A discussion about collecting delftware in 18th century Deerfield, MA titled “River Gods” might seem flirty given that religion and politics are ‘safe’ conversation topics only while lolling about on a sunny beach with close friends.  But who wants to talk religion and politics on a sunny beach?

“River Gods” (the Deerfield River being a major artery of travel and commerce) along with “Mansion People” was a nick-name for Deerfield’s most powerful citizens.  The upper crust.  The one percent. Knowing if these appellations were their idea or everybody else’s might offer telling insight into the personalities of this small group.

The River Gods certainly acted the part of virtual deities.  They rose to prominence during the French And Indian War when necessities of military patronage resulted in consolidated economic clout.  The River Gods came to project an aura of civic righteousness.

Except when it came to delftware.  Delftware was a major status symbol in New England from the beginning of the French And Indian War until the Revolutionary War – precisely when the River Gods held sway.  Delft chargers were popular, but delft punch bowls ruled.  No 18th century social gathering, regardless of social rank, was complete without a round or two of punch, egg pop, sullibub, or other such alcoholic concoction.

The River Gods favored Dutch delftware over English delftware.  Maybe this was because Dutch delftware painting, being directly inspired by Italian faience, was more refined.  Or maybe the Dutch allure stemmed from its unique method of dusting additional layers of glaze over the painted pots, giving an extra glossy veneer.  English delftware by comparison was quirky, less refined, more playful.  This was ironic because the English delftware industry was largely begun by immigrant Dutch potters.

Various parliamentary Navigation Acts dictated that transactions between England’s colonies and the outside world be done via the East India Company.  This assured that non-English goods (Dutch delftware) were either impossible or prohibitively expensive to acquire.  But the River Gods used their own ships for business transactions in the Caribbean.  They simply bypassed the East India Company and purchased Dutch pottery directly in the West Indies.  In legal terms this is called customs fraud, ie: smuggling.

To be a River God was to be the law.  But the adage that nobody is perfect must be applied universally.  Even, or perhaps especially, to River Gods.

Readings:

Delftware at Historic Deerfield 1600 – 1800.  Amanda Lange.  Historic Deerfield/Deerfield MA.  2001.


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