Archive for June, 2010

The End of Time

June 20, 2010

Iron is the oldest and most versatile of all the potter’s pigments.  Iron was an easy choice for early decorative application because it occurs naturally in most clays, is easy to isolate, and applies easily.  It is one of the most abundant materials on earth.  Today, potters have a nearly unlimited array of color pigments to choose from.  But Iron provides the widest range of color a single element can offer.  Black, blue, green, red, yellow, brown, almost any color but white.  The Digitalfire Ceramic Materials Database indicates Iron, being non carcinogenic, is considerably safer to use than many other metallic oxides used in ceramic color formulation.  (But too much of even a good thing can be hazardous…)

Iron has been good to pottery and pottery has reciprocated.  Iron (and Bronze before it) propelled the great Ages of civilizing progress towards the mess we now live in.  But there had to be a Pottery Age first.  Forges and furnaces are impossible without a working knowledge of refractories.

Iron (Fe, atomic weight 26) occupies a special place on the Periodic Table of Elements.  Smack in the middle of d-block’s transitional metals.  This position allows Iron a phenomenal degree of versatility.  With a perfect balance of protons to electrons, Iron provides a very stable environment to attach, then drop off catalysts when necessary.  Potters know its crucial role in reduction atmospheres during kiln firings.  Iron transports Nitrogen to where it is needed as a fertilizer in soil.  Oxygen easily sticks to Iron molecules, and as easily drops off when needed in the blood system.  And of course by varying the amount of oxygen mixed with Iron in a forge, steel results.

And so on, and so on.  Yes, a very handy element indeed.

So when Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics – increased entropy – is applied to Iron in relation to the entire universe and everything in it, a curious possibility presents itself.  Unless any number of other things destroys the universe first, it can be assumed that all matter will eventually disintegrate.  But because Iron’s nucleus is so powerfully bound together, it will be the last element to exist.  Anywhere.  After that, all will be simply radiation.

Quite an image.

Periodic Kingdom.  P.W. Atkins.  Harper Collins/NY.  1995.

The Emergence of Pottery. William Barnett and John Hoopes, ed.s Smithsonian Institute Press/Washington DC.  1995.

Clay and Glazes for the Potter. Daniel Rhodes.  Hilton Book Company/Radnor, PA.  1973.

Lady’s Slippers

June 6, 2010

A great thing happens on the hills overlooking my town in early June.  The lady’s slippers blossom.  These ‘slipper’ or lung shaped orchids grow wild here.  Years of avid lady’s slipper appreciation has made them almost extinct.  They are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.  But in the mid 1800’s they grew outside many a potter’s door.  They were a favorite of the stoneware slip decorators.  Or maybe they were just a safe bet.

Just about anything could be – and was – fodder for decoration.  Nautical scenes, imaginary animals, sarcastic cartoons, brazen political sloganeering.  Many of these had that “keep me” look, saving them from the trash pit.  But specialized motifs could backfire.  Maybe the crock would travel inland where nautical scenes wouldn’t make sense.  Maybe the bizarre animal or the sarcasm would fall flat or insult.  Who would want that in their kitchen?  Even the Bald Eagle, symbol of the United States, could rub the wrong way.  Perhaps the party in office was a bungling, corrupt monstrosity seeking refuge behind the flag…

But flowers were safe.  Lady’s slippers were (and are) a visually distinct form, masterfully executed by various decorators whose names are now forgotten.  Mostly.  The Smith Pottery in Norwalk, CT, employed a man named Chichester who’s slip trailed penmanship was renowned.

And it wasn’t uncommon for potters to employ their daughters as decorators.  Trailing tools could be passed down to next in line when a girl ‘reached age.’  Some even hold that Maria Crafts Kellog, niece of Thomas Crafts, only decorated jugs and crocks made in Whately MA (because “women didn’t make pottery…”).

Another “in house” arrangement was to own the decorators.  Many southern plantation potteries employed male slaves for throwers and female slaves for decorators.  The plantation owner was the ‘potter’ – he owned the pottery.

In other parts, itinerant decorators might have followed itinerant throwers.  As late as the 1930’s vagrant throwers stayed long enough to fill the shop, earn enough to buy a bottle, and move on.  I’ve only seen passing mention of itinerant decorators.  But their existence can be inferred in the uniformity of design on pots from a variety of places.

Of all the possible decorating methods, I feel the itinerant slippers present the most intimate definition of genuine folk art expression.  Something spanning time and space.  I like that image.

Lura Woodside Watkins.

The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

American Stonewares. Georgeanna Greer.  American Stonewares.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

A Guide to Whately Potters. Henry Baldwin.  Paradise Copies/Northampton, MA.  1999.

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.

Raised in Clay. Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.