The Eye is the Window to the Soul

July 17, 2016

Charles looks out at passers-by who only pause, “how strange,” before moving on.  It isn’t Charles’ fault.  He was painted that way.  Of all the commemorative delftware plates on all the museum shelves all the world over, this is one of those select few bizarre portraits with eyes blatantly, even intentionally, off kilter.

King Charles II of England wasn’t the only one to get this strange eye treatment.  It is occasionally found on delftware plates depicting all the last Stuart monarchs from Charles II, to James II, to Mary, and finally Anne, along with the first Hanoverian King George I just after her.  But, curiously, no other gentry portrait plates, nor royalty images on forms other than plates, include such odd eyes.  Books and magazines are silent about this ‘royal treatment.’  This is a job for the experts.

A museum curator explained most of these plates originated in Holland, where Mary and her Dutch co-Regent William of Orange were quite popular.  A collector counter-claimed that most, if not all, of these plates came from Bristol.  But why the eyes?  Another curator mused, “Were the potters trying to ‘show perspective’ by slanting the eyes?”  Even the experts admit being flummoxed.

Worried that my query might fizzle out into suggestions and ‘what-if’s,’ I turned to that ultimate arbiter of wisdom – Facebook:

“I was reading just yesterday about Mary’s death, and then William’s, and then about Anne’s succession, and her sad life losing 16 children…I think that Mary was unkind to Anne. I get the feeling this potter did not like Mary,” posted a fellow interlocutor.

Maybe the potter didn’t like Mary (Mary certainly didn’t like her sister Anne).  And maybe other potters didn’t like Charles (the puritans didn’t), or James (not many people at all liked James), or Anne (an important patron of the arts who struggled to be liked), or George (who, being a king of a whole new line, had his own share of troubles).

Are we left clinging to the slippery slope of 17th and 18th century English royalty popularity contests?  Or do we just admit the limits of worn out cliches when studying human nature.

I look at Charles, and Charles looks back.  The potter who painted him remains opaque.  I continue looking…

Eyes Charles

Readings:

Queen Anne, Patroness of Arts.  James Anderson Wynn.  Oxford University Press/London.  2014.

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

English Delftware.  F. H. Garner.  Faber and Faber/London.  1972.

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The Coptic Dot

June 26, 2016

Pretty much everything mentioned below actually happened.  The only question is – did it?

Can a dot be more than just a dot?  Who knows?  Who cares?

Perhaps we should back up a bit.  My first serious encounter with early pottery, and with making pottery in those styles, began with my tenure at the living history museum of Old Sturbridge Village.  Among those old pots which grabbed my attention were curiously dotted 18th century English slipwares.  When I saw a jar replete with a dotted slipware bird attributed to 19th century Connecticut potter Hervey Brooks, whose work is interpreted at OSV, a somewhat snarky thought struck me: to make slipware look old, just stick some dots on it!

Later, while exploring delftware, I noticed dots regularly lining borders and filling spaces on tin-glazed pottery across the spectrum.

Where did all these dots come from?

Years earlier I had come across an illustrated history of the Book of Kells.  Dots galore!  Given the proselytizing nature of 6th century Irish monks throughout the British Isles, maybe their dotted imagery inspired later slipware potters via old illuminated parish bibles.  But why did the Irish dot their imagery in the first place?  And what of those delft dots?

Dipping back into Irish monastic history, these Scholastic monks traveled far and wide to collect the most valued commodity of their time: books.  This is how the Irish “saved Western civilization from the Dark Ages.”  Did roaming Irish monks collect Egyptian Coptic Christian manuscripts during their sojourns in Venice, Alexandria or Sicily?  The Copts decorated their texts with a plethora of dense, sinewy, floral designs – including lots of dots.  Might these dotted Coptic patterns have inspired the illumination masters of Iona, Lindesfarne and Kells?

When Islam washed across Egypt a century later, did the Umayyad imams adopt the Coptic dot for their own illumination purposes?  Were their Korans among the loot pillaged by rampaging Mongols and brought back to China?  If so, this persistent little dot would be present when equally dense cobalt blue designs blossomed on white Chinese porcelain.  The dot certainly re-invaded 16th century Europe by latching onto carrack porcelain, inspiring delftware (among other styles) and forever changing pottery history.

Is the dot a sort of visual virus, attaching onto a host for survival and propagation?  I’ve seen no scholarly opinion supporting this thesis.  I’ve seen none about dots at all.  So I’ll just leave it out there…

Readings:
English Slipware Dishes, 1650 – 1850.  Ronald Cooper.  Transatlantic Arts/New York.  1968

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860.  Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta/New York.  1969.

English and Irish Delftware, 1570 – 1840.  Aileen Dawson.  British Museum Press/London.  2010.

The Book of Kells.  Edward Sullivan.  Crescent Books/New York.  1986.

How the Irish Saved Civilization.  Thomas Cahill.  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/New York.  1995.

A Thousand Years of Linguistics

May 15, 2016

caveat: the following train of thought happened entirely after the fact.  The plate shown here resulted purely from a confluence of design ideas, time constraints, and physical limitations.  Thus it ever was for the potter…

Charger, fish
If an efficient way to destroy a culture is to destroy it’s language (or simply kill off it’s  population), then a good way to honor a culture is to learn it’s language (and leave the people  be) – likewise for a culture’s artistic heritage.  But a culture’s visual language can take on a curious life of its own while traveling through the ages.

So, let’s talk delft.  Delft is a creole ceramic expression.  What began in the Arabian peninsula as a blue decorated tin-glazed response to white Chinese porcelain traveled back to China and then sprayed out in various forms, blanketing the globe.  Each stop along the way sprouted whole new styles of expression (like delftware), even as local potters freely drew from what came before.

How cool it would be to trace this language by following a single image or decorative device along it’s entire historical arc!  By seeing that image express change and/or constancy in the hands of an Arabian, Chinese, Indian, Yemeni, Persian, East and North African, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Irish, or Mexican potter.  Maybe curators, collectors, or scholars could identify such an image.  I can’t.  The big picture is too sprawling.

I’ll have to do like the old potters did and make my own ‘little picture.’  This one begins with a collision of two motives – to paint a fish (thus joining the ranks of fish-painting potters), and to wrap my head around an ‘Italianate’ delftware border pattern – combined with a diminishing inventory of blank plates as the clock ran out before a show.

Floating in the background were a 12th century Yuan Dynasty export porcelain bowl intended for the Indian Ocean trade, an early Dutch plate possibly made by an immigrant Italian faience potter, an obsession with Southwark floral imagery that creeps into every unguarded corner when I decorate, my brush and stick learning curve, a vague possibility that I may be related to early Delft potters, and a healthy dose of repetitive muscle strain.

Can one respectfully interpret the range, spirit, and boundaries of a historical style while still telling a unique story?  Who knows?  On the other hand nothing the potter makes exists within, or comes from, a vacuum.

The tale I offer goes something like this: “Here’s me wandering along in the language of pottery history.”

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The Home Front

February 28, 2016

Nothing new to report just yet from the front lines of pottery history.  Instead, here’s a look at what’s been going on around here.

Blue Dash Bird and Bugs 1

Test of Time

January 31, 2016

History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…

700AThe M’ing Dynasty Chinese judged their export porcelain as purely 2nd rate fodder for a lower-browed European audience.  And the European foreigners who gobbled up export porcelain were, to the M’ing, strange, impenetrable, exotic, dangerous aliens. 

But not all M’ing Chinese looked down on export ware, or those who bought it.  Before East India Trade delegations became commonplace in Canton, Macao, and elsewhere, a few officials (a very few) collected export porcelain as expressions of those foreigners who were, to them, strange, exotic, impenetrable, curious aliens.

Chinese export porcelain opened up a completely new world for 16th century Europeans.  Entire industries were spawned to get more, and to make it cheaper themselves.  Until that occurred, Europeans saw the foreign Chinese who made this wonderful work as strange, exotic, impenetrable, glamorous aliens. 

In the years since the China Trade, many scholars have understood the wider view that export porcelain indeed expressed European culture of the time as much as it did the capabilities of M’ing potters.  Take, for example, a typical export item known as the klapmut.  Both Chinese and Dutch used soup bowls.  The Chinese drank thin broths right from the bowl.  Dutch stews needed spoons.  The narrow Chinese drinking rim didn’t allow resting space for spoons, so the Dutch directed Chinese potters to include a wide spoon rest rim: voila, the awkward sounding klapmut.  Today’s elegant wide rimmed bowl began life as a foreign shape for Chinese potters – strange, exotic, impenetrable, unusual, and alien. 

Does any of this old history matter today?  It’s nice, as a potter, to know why I make bowls with wide rims.  Deeper historical analogies can be less satisfying because history never repeats itself perfectly.  Witness the current fear-mongering and election year lunacy, fueled in part by masses of people fleeing violence in the Mid East and beyond.  Europeans and Americans have sympathized with the refugees who bring with them only what they can carry and remember.  But many now struggle with the growing vitriol swirling around these foreign, strange, exotic, impenetrable, desperate aliens.

The refugee crisis needs, among many things, large doses of human decency and is quite a large topic of itself.  But as for the jingoistic xenophobia?  If contemplating the history of Chinese export porcelain (or of history in general) offers any small consolation it is this one immutable guarantee: “This too shall pass.”

Readings:

Vermeer’s Hat, The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

Where We All Belong

December 20, 2015

Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them.  This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.

Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure.  European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since.  Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’  Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations.  It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money… 

From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans. 

These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares.  But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile.  So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times.  They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire.  A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes. 

Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics.  It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.

Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters.  Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.  

And why not?  Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery.  Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.

Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status.  Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name.  But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic.  And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries.  Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.

Readings:

Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

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

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.

The Used To Be Highway

November 29, 2015

The modern redware potter drives home from a show pondering crazy thoughts like “why am I doing all this,” and “does everything I do look backward?” (stylistically to earlier eras, financially to better shows, etc.)  The redware potter is traveling the Used To Be Highway.

Such a highway exists, of course, but not necessarily in the depressing way described above.  Interpreting historical styles, like redware, falls solidly along a venerable continuum of reproductions, copies, and revivals (and fakes and forgeries) made since ancient times.

Romans, fascinated by earlier Etruscan pottery, commissioned Etruscan style work for many of their lavish pavilions.  Chinese potters copied older work to honor past masters.  Medieval European artisans made historical reproductions for holy pilgrimage tourists.  Copies of 16th century Siegburg stoneware, often from original 16th century molds, were popular during the late 19th century German Gothic revival.  The nascent 19th century American tourist industry considered historical work a patriotic act.  And maintaining traditional cultural expressions in the face of changing times has motivated artists throughout time.

Blue and white pottery gets complicated.  This idea went back and forth in so many ways across the globe that it almost resembles light.  Is light (for example) a wave or a particle?  Is Delft (for example) a copy or an original style?

Then there’s fakes and forgeries. What appears to be simple malfeasance (and often is) can also be a complex issue.  Was early Delftware a forgery?  Are fakes worse than pilfered archeological sites?  What of desperate families peddling fake artifacts in impoverished but historically significant areas, or the work of Ai Wei?

Copying masterpieces was for centuries a principle method of arts instruction.  Intense observational and technical skills are required, and honed, when studying historical artifacts in this way.  A simple test illustrates this point: make two mugs, one which you thought up in your head, the other as an exact replica of someone else’s mug.  Ask yourself afterwards which effort stretched your skills more?

It’s tempting to draw some meaningful conclusion about why potters today might work within historical styles, given the array of available paths.  (Or are these stylistic options just interpretations of a different sort?).  But regardless of the route they took to get there, or the bumps along the way, many potters (and other artisans) who make historically based work will tell you – it’s just tremendously fun to do.

Readings:

Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America.  Donald Webster.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain.  Pitcairn Knowles.  Scribner’s/New York.  1940.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/ New York.  1960.

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.   John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence.  Exhibition Catalogue.  Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA.  1984.

Double Hernias and Their Attendant Complications for the Potter

October 18, 2015

A Gothic Tale from the Year 2000 AD.  Intended for perspective Students seeking to Learn the Secrets and Hidden Mysteries of the potter’s Craft.

First, the moral:
There are no pottery heroes, only herniated potters.  Every 50 lb. bag of feldspar is a post-operation stomach staple.

The Operation:
Check in, change into robes, lay on a Gurney.  Wake to a world of shit.  Leave the hospital (if you are insane), or get a room (if you have any sanity left).

Day One:
Pain comes.  Feel dizzy from the anesthesia.  Take the offered shot whether you need it or not. You need it.  You’re offered Jell-O (but you could vomit, bad idea).  Nurses force you to walk.  This hurts.

Day Two:
Peeing (reaching for the urinal) is painful.  You can’t push anything out.  It dribbles out on it’s own.  Eating means clearing the throat.  It hurts.  Intestines begin settling back into place.  This bizarre feeling lasts a week or so.  Nurses force you walk.  It feels like white hot, barbed, razor sharp knives jabbing the groin.  Go home (with the urinal).  Get into a car without stabbing pain?  Is there a ramp at home?  Are several mattresses piled up (not so far down to travel)?  Laying down causes back, neck, and knee pain.  Get the 4 hour pain medicine.  Fudge the timing of doses.

Day Three:
The day starts painful.  Getting up and walking are (almost) easier.  Pee in the toilet.  Hips and butt would develop bedsores if you were older and nobody turned you.  When will you shit?  How can that not hurt?  Considerable groin swelling.  Not painful but shocking.  See the  implanted staples when the incision tape comes off.  Looks painful, but just feels weird.  Stomach cramps begin.  Feel an extremely odd gurgling noise all the way through the intestines.

Day Four:
Feel better. Walk too much.  Help clear the table (your spouse has been doing everything).  Converse without whispering.   Take your first shower!  Have your first shit (less painful than you imagined).  The day’s exertion sets you back two days.

Day Five:
Get up using one, not two chairs for support.  Use the urinal only for emergencies.  Coughing is easier.  You can almost blow your nose.  You fear the first sneeze.

Day Six:
Continue 4 hour pain medication.  It’s needed only half the time, but you’re addicted.

Day Seven:
Medicate only in the morning, when the pain is the worse.  Stretching hurts.  Up to now, you’ve stayed up till 1am, to get one last pill in, the next one at 5am, which you easily wake for.  Sit in regular chairs.  The swelling is almost gone.

Day Eight:
Leave the house (by yourself even)!  The doctor rips the staples out with a big nasty pair of pliers.  Feels like pulling out earrings.  Stash the last pill (just in case).  You can almost do stuff.  Sneeze (it stings).  The butt and hip sores are almost visible bedsores.  You’re extremely bored.

Day Nine:
Sleep on your side.  Feel ready to be productive again.  It isn’t possible to stand longer than 5 minutes at a time.  The hip and butt sores almost feel like cuts.  To prevent sneezing, blow your nose often.

Day Ten:
Pick up the pieces of your shattered life.  Small errands, light house cleaning.  In the evening, the recovery process still haunts.  Fast movement and sneezing stings, but it’s a remembrance of times past.

Day Eleven:
Start the day sore but ok.  The incision is still a bit numb.  Wonder if the mesh put in to keep the intestines in place has popped out.  Re-herniated paranoia sets in.  Go crazy from boredom and bedsores.

Day Twelve:
The stinging aspect of pain is gone.  Bend over, awkwardly, to pick things up.  You still must temper your movements.  Remove the tape that replaced the staples.  It’s now just you and the scar.  Hint: to remove tape from pubic hairs, do it in the bath tub.

Day Fourteen:
An almost painful pressure catches up fast when you do things.  The sting now emanates from farther within.  This is the worse part of recovery: almost able to get back to work, but still having to wait.

Day Twenty One:
The sharp, stabbing pain’s been gone for a week but you still feel it.  Sneezing is ok.  Have an unpleasant feeling of a large balloon inside your groin area where the operation was.  Sleep on your stomach, giving your back and butt a break.  Tire very easily.

Day Twenty Two:
First half day back at work.  No actual production, just puttering about.  You’re exhausted.

Post Script, January 7, 2001:
The car’s back tire goes out.  Middle of the night.  Middle of nowhere.  The lug nuts won’t come lose.  Tug with all your might.  Feel a stinging pain.  Nothing like before, but the body’s message is clear: “Don’t mess with me.”

Everybody’s Day in the Sun

September 27, 2015

Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
    – a Swahili poet, 1815

Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean.  This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.

By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each.  The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel.  Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors.  Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though.  The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.

China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD.  Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply.  Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy.  How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.

What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade?  In a word, nothing.  A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods.  Somalia and Yemen never recovered.

Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain.  Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain.  But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe.  M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous.  Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…

Why the different reactions?  Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague.  During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit.  Some might call this a fool’s paradise.  Others call it sophistication.

Readings:

The Lost Cities of Africa.  Basil Davidson.  Little Brown Book Co./New York.  1970.

Yemeni Pottery.  Sarah Posey.  British Museum Press/London.  1994.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

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.


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