The Demise of the Quaker Juggernaut

August 23, 2015

Essay Writing (or Ad Copy) Rule #1: Start with an attention grabbing headline.  Hyperbole with an ironic twist works well.  So it is with this title: pure ironic hyperbole.

Unless you actually lived through it.

The Quakers were a powerhouse force in the pottery world of colonial Boston.  They weren’t the only potters in town (Charleston across the bay, actually), but they comprised a substantial proportion of them.  Pottery may not have been regarded as anything more, or less, than a job a person might do.  But it certainly was an integral part of everyday life.  Just look around your kitchen today.  How many things do you have whose sole purpose is to keep things in?  Much of these would have been ceramic during Colonial times.  Continuous hard use meant breakage.  And, as the saying went, “…when it breaks, the potter laughs.” 

Tax roles indicate colonial Boston-area potters were solidly middle class, and sometimes even in the upper percentages of income earners.  Yet after the Revolution, Quakers faded from the pottery making record.  Why? 

The burning of Charleston by the British Navy in 1776 was a huge blow.  The Quakers lost everything.  They and their businesses were scattered to the hinterlands of New England.  But the same troubles befell all of Charleston’s potters.  Many of these others managed to continue quite well. 

A darker force was at work: the approbation of their neighbors during the war.  Quakers held very strong beliefs about remaining aloof from temporal authority.  They refused to take sides in the Revolution.  Because polarization – ‘with us or agin us’ – so easily comes to dominate most conflicts, the Quakers were hated.  They were persecuted.  Boycotted.

As they were during the Civil War.  And during WWI.  And WWII.  Richard Nixon (a Quaker himself) put the Quakers on his infamous “Enemies List” for their anti-Viet Nam war stance.  The American Friends Service Committee was practically an enemy of state during Ronald Reagan’s incursions into Nicaragua… 

It isn’t that Quakers were commies, or hippies, or draft dodgers, or rebel sympathizers, or Tories.  The history of Quakerism in the U.S. only serves to remind us that polarizing discussions of religion and politics really have no place in a harmless little essay about colonial pottery. 

Except when these issues converge to destroy the livelihoods of a group of talented, successful potters who just wanted to do their own thing.

Readings:

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge MA.  1968. 

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

Rules for Radicals.  Saul Alinski.  Vintage Press/New York.  1989.

Spartacus

July 19, 2015

Militia units from surrounding towns faced the angry crowd.  The militia captain demanded, “Who is your leader?”  The entire crowd shouted, “I’m the leader!”  This confrontation might bring to mind a famous scene from the 1960 film Spartacus.  But it actually took place on March 7, 1799 in Easton, PA., during what is known as the Fries Rebellion.

The Fries Rebellion was one of many, like the Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellions, that immediately followed the Revolutionary War.  These uprisings rose from tensions between Revolutionary ideals of egalitarian self-determination, and problems of nation building with a centralized power structure.  In post-Revolutionary terms: (egalitarian) Republicanism vs. (centralized) Federalism.

The Fries Rebellion occurred in German communities of Pennsylvania’s Northampton,  Montgomery, and Bucks counties.  German immigrants had been near the bottom of the social ladder since establishing themselves in the area several decades earlier.  They were drawn to the fringes of colonial society by the allure of freedom from impoverished servitude back home.  Pennsylvanian Anglicans and Quakers, however, considered them ignorant, lawless, and alien.

Along came the Revolutionary War and it’s egalitarian promise.   Here was a chance to socially advance by joining the cause, enlisting in the Continental Army, and proving themselves as patriotic – and equal – citizens.

The Fries Rebellion, like Spartacus’ slave revolt, was quickly put down.  Unlike Spartacus, who was nailed to a pole by the Roman army, the Fries Rebellion’s nominal Republican leader John Fries (the whole point was that there should be no ‘leaders’) got a presidential pardon by Federalist John Adams.  Furthermore, the status of German communities continued to grow.

As Germans fought to secure a place in the new order, they began proudly displaying their ‘German-ness’ for all to see through quilting, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, and other decorative arts.

This was the heady environment that witnessed the flowering of Pennsylvania sgraffito redware pottery, or “Tulip Ware” as it has become affectionately known.  Yes, Tulip Ware is flowery, ornate, and pretty.  It also denotes pride and determination in the face of discrimination and disrespect.  There was no need for individual leaders in that effort, either.

2 dove heart

Reading:

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

Fringe Elements

June 14, 2015

Deflt Detail Southwark 1628The technique was loose and sloppy.  The imagery bordered on abstraction.  The finished product seemed almost tossed together.  But closer examination reveals an intense, studied effort.  This was 17th century delftware from Southwark on the Thames River, opposite London.

What was going through these potters’ minds?  More to the point, what was going on right outside their doors?

Potters, along with painters, glaziers, weavers, metal smiths, wood workers, and artisans of all sorts congregated in Southwark from the 13th century onwards.  Musicians and actors (including Shakespeare and the famous Rose Theater) joined them.

But "congregated" is a generous term.  "Confined" would be more accurate.  Many of Southwark’s artisans, potters included, were "strangers" or "aliens" – immigrants that is: Dutch, French, German, Spanish, etc.  Most were gathered by the Royal family or other local elites wanting the ‘latest and greatest.’  Alien artisans weren’t allowed to settle within London city limits, however, thanks to collusive efforts of London’s various artisan guilds.  (In a true expression of big city mentality, "foreigners" were English nationals from outside London who, like actors and musicians, weren’t much welcomed either.)

London’s guilds continually petitioned the crown to evict, tax, restrain, or otherwise punish those nasty alien ‘job stealers.’  Guild vitriol curiously belied sentiments echoed a little over 100 years later in the newly independent United Colonies of America – that handiwork of foreign artisans seemed superior to local products.

Back in Southwark, restriction had its advantages.  The London guilds’ more extreme efforts rarely stuck because Southwark was outside the authority of London’s bailiffs.  Southwark was a multicultural and aesthetic melting pot spiced with a righteous dose of siege mentality.  The scene was further powered by caffeine, an exotic new stimulant then flooding English society.

Respectable London saw Southwark as a rough, seedy, blue light district full of prostitutes, thieves, aliens, actors and artisans of all stripes (which it was).  But everyone who was anyone wanted what Southwark offered…

Other English delftware pottery centers of Norwich, Liverpool, and Bristol – port towns all – were similar ‘wretched hives of scum and villainy’ (to paraphrase a famous traveler from a galaxy long ago and far away).  These were the dodgy environments that produced some of the most creative art of the era.

Readings:

The King’s Glass.  Carola Hicks.  Random House/London.  2007

The Graves Are Walking.  John Kelly.  Macmillan/London. 2012.

The Hit Parade: The Beat Goes On

May 10, 2015

Central Mosque Djenne 1984 Once again, a big thanks to Rob Hunter and his inspired Ceramics in America 2014 ‘top ten’ issue. 

If my "Hit Parade" were to be about looks alone, I might have included the creative slip applications of English Mocha ware, or the bizarre, twisted explorations of George Orr, or the brilliant cobalt blues of German Westerwald salt-fired stoneware, or the wood-fired stoneware of Richard Bresnahan with whom I did my apprenticeship, etc, etc. etc.

But the genius of this exercise is to explore pottery’s intimate walk with humanity through the ages.  And it invites musing on one’s own relation to this incredible field as well.  Narrowing that down to ten entries is challenge enough!

For example, I could have easily included the Absalom Steadman stoneware jug c. 1823 which received the highest price paid at auction for early American pottery, thus illuminating the status of historic pottery in today’s art economy.  The 1840 William Henry Harrison transfer print pitcher by David Henderson speaks volumes about the part ceramics played in the development of our national politics.  The 11th century Central Mosque in D’jenne, Mali is the world’s largest adobe clay structure.  (But what’s that silly tourist doing there?)  Potters for Peace’s Filtron water purifier project highlights the enormous contributions of pottery to rural community development efforts.  The black pottery of Maria Martinez offers a classic example of pottery and cultural revitalization.  And the curious parallels between Richard Bresnahan’s unique wood firing process and astro-physics is fodder for an entire book in itself.

Every picture tells a story.  So does every pot.  The thing is, when it comes to pottery history’s ‘top 10,’ the story itself is quite often where it’s at.

And the beat goes on

The Hit Parade #1: Lard Pot

April 26, 2015

As mentioned, sequence of appearance here doesn’t imply hierarchy.  But number’s 1 and 10 make nice ‘book-ends.’

Brooks Lard Pot.php Put a group of potters in a room and tell them all to make the same form.  Each will be different.  Each potter puts their own personality into it.  We’ve all been taught to “put yourself into it” – even if we aren’t sure how, or can’t do it very well.

What if the potters in that room were encouraged instead to “put some humanity into it?”  Who can say what that means?

It used to mean pots like the one shown here.  The term “Lard Pot” refers to one use out of many over the course of a millennia.  And along with being a distinct shape during that entire time, within this form lay the seeds of almost all others in the Euro-American potting repertoire; adding a handle makes a ewer; a lid makes a cook pot; holes make a strainer; constricting the opening makes a jug…

When a form spawns so many others, but still distinctly manifests itself over centuries by thousands of potters, across a vast geographic expanse, using different clays, different wheel types, different kilns, in different cultures, even for different final uses, we should take note.

The pot shown here was a truly collaborative effort between makers, materials, markets and time.  It taps into something far deeper than individual taste.  Of course, the old potters were probably too busy just trying to survive to see it that way.  Still, they created the foundation of what we now call “style.” Material culture style is the primary method of describing and understanding entire civilizations, entire eras.

The days when these pots dominated the scene ended fairly recently, just a couple hundred years ago or so.  (That’s something to consider when pondering the trajectory of modern pottery making.)  And it’s fair to say that since then we’ve made quite a few interesting pots by ‘putting ourselves into it.’  The world will always be better off whenever people recognize that everyone has a story that deserves to be told.

But it’s reassuring to know, as we flail about trying to distinguish ourselves from the crowd, that the old ‘lard pots’ existed.  They gave a solid foundation to our own explorations in clay.  More importantly, they were integral to the survival and growth of the world that gave us our existence.

The Hit Parade #2: The Scarab Vase

April 19, 2015

ScarabVase The Scarab Vase is why we have terms like “tour de force.”  It is Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s undisputed American Arts and Crafts era masterpiece.

Every inch of this 17" tall porcelain vase’s surface is covered with intensely detailed carvings.  It’s proportions are pure perfection.  Legend has it that the vase developed a huge crack after months of carving the scarab beetle-inspired patterns.  Many a potter would have been crushed.  Adelaide didn’t give up.  She repaired the vase and successfully re-fired it.  Thus it entered the halls of history…

They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  As such, a list of items that are ‘beautiful to look at’ (ie: famous for being famous) would be never ending, and ever disputed.  A truer (or at least fuller) appreciation of an item’s impact considers it’s context.  This is where the Scarab Vase stands head and shoulders above the crowd. 

The 19th century American Industrial Revolution destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of small-time individual potters.  Hand made pottery was  moribund.  Late-century China Painting barely kept alive the notion of individualized pottery.

But something was missing.  It’s interesting to witness how people throughout history react when they sense a fundamental loss due to mechanization.  Like the Luddites, or the ‘back-to-the-lander’s.’  Looking back years from now, will some definitive, paradigm-shifting work stand out as a reaction to today’s wireless world?  What would that look like?

At the dawn of the 20th century, the reaction against industrialization looked like “The Arts and Crafts movement.”  This movement, defined by works like the Scarab Vase, reignited interest in hand made pottery in this country.  Today’s potters ply their trade because tenacious people like Adelaide Alsop Robineau prepared the way for us.

The Scarab Vase is one of my all time favorite works of ceramic art.  But when I look at this vase, the word that most often comes to mind is “thanks.”

The Hit Parade #3: Mexican Majolica

April 12, 2015

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th Century The “global village” is a messy place.  It began messy, and it will always be messy.

In Puebla, Mexico City, and on presidio’s across Mexico during the early 1500’s, Humanist Italian trained Christian Spanish potters working in the Islamic Arabian style of copying Taoist Chinese porcelains incorporated Aztec Mexican flora and fauna imagery onto their pottery.  Before then, no body of work combined so much direct influence from such a wide geographic and cultural web.

Mexican majolica  is beautiful in its own right.  This ware also manifested the onset of what we now might consider the ‘global village.’

It gets messy, though.  How much does knowing the whole story behind a work of art influence our appreciation for it?  To make this pottery the Muslims had to be evicted, the Aztecs wiped out, the Chinese pulled apart, the Spanish bankrupted, and the Italians sidelined.  Few pottery types illustrate such messy but important questions well as Mexican majolica does.

Can (should) these sorts of questions be carried over to today?  For example, how do we reconcile the final product we produce with the strip mining and horrendous labor exploitation involved in bringing us many of our raw materials?  These aren’t the kinds of things most people think of when considering ceramics, but they exist just the same.

The western hemisphere’s first glazed, blue and white pottery was an impressive achievement, and an important milestone.  Fascinating, but messy.

The Hit Parade #4: Ceramic Insulator for Low Tension Power Lines

April 5, 2015

Insulator Are David and Goliath stories true?  Can a humble insulator be considered among the ceramic greats?  To answer, consider who made this specific insulator, when, and why. 

During the 1980’s in Sandinista-led Nicaragua, the “Organizacion Revolucionario de Descapacitados,” or “Revolutionary Organization of Handicapped Veterans,” (ORD), ran a stoneware pottery shop as part of their rehabilitation training program.

Their clay came from a deposit near the village of El Sauce (“El Sow-se”) that displayed, along the length of a long gully, the entire erosion process from feldspathic rock, to white primary clay, to secondary ball clay, then to earthenware.  Their glaze consisted primarily of dust from Momotombo, Nicaragua’s largest volcano. 

Potters for Peace helped the ORD develop a project to produce ceramic insulators for a fraction of the price of existing insulators bought from Brazil.  (I built a kiln with the ORD for this project). 

A US-created coalition of political parties (an open reality in Nicaragua that included some bizarre bedfellows) electorally ousted the Sandinistas in 1990.  An application for US Agency for International Development (AID) funds was quickly granted.  The AID package included funds to purchase (only) US made insulators at four times the ORD’s price.  With a stroke of a pen, the ORD contract was broken.  Their pottery shop faced closure.

Potters for Peace mounted an awareness/fund-raising campaign featuring various elementary schools in the US asking the AID to amend their package to include ORD insulators.  The kids raffled insulators and wrote letters to their representatives and to the AID.  The campaign worked!  The contract was (partially) renewed.

So once upon a time, a humble little clay object found itself smack in the middle of the Cold War.  A small, impoverished country’s war wounded unwittingly found their gesture of self-determination pitted against an antagonistic super power’s economic might.  With this ceramic insulator as their icon, the underdog won. 

The moral of the story:  Truly progressive, “politically inspired” ceramics efforts encompass projects well beyond the flash and glitz of protest, criticism, and confrontation.  These powerful efforts can be found in the most unlikely of places. 

This beautiful little ceramic insulator, my friends, is the real deal.

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.


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