Archive for January, 2013

The Potter Makes Everything

January 20, 2013

Nobody messed with Johannes Neesz and got away with it.  Or maybe he just had a peculiar sense of humor.  Once upon a time a minister invited Johannes to lunch to discuss an order of dishes the minister wanted, adorned with pious sayings.  Johannes arrived promptly but was kept waiting for 2 hours.  One of the plates finally delivered read, “I have never been in a place where people eat their dinner so late.  Anno in the year 1812.”

Enigmas, or inside jokes, defined  late 18th – early 19th century Bucks and Montgomery County PA Germanic “tulip wares.”  Flowers, people and animals that no sane person could ever tire of looking at were paired with commentary (maybe or maybe not arcanely reflecting religious sentiments) around the rim.   A plate with a beautiful peacock surrounded by vined flowers by Georg Hübener (active 1785 – 1798) read, “Surely no hawk will seize this bird because the tulips bend over it.  The kraut is well pickled but badly greased, Master Cook.” Other oddities included “I am very much afraid my naughty daughter will get no man” (Henry Roudebuth, 1813).  “Early in the morning I fry a sausage in sour gravy” (Michael Scholl, c.1811).  “To consume everything in gluttony and intemperance before my end makes a just testament” (Jacob Scholl).

German emigration beginning in the 1680’s brought a well developed sgraffito style with copper green highlights (unlike English counterparts) to the area.  But the late 18th century uniquely American development of the fruit pie caused an explosion in decorated dishes.  Dishes by Johannes Neesz (sometimes spelled Nase, or Nesz, as on his 1867 gravestone) stood out.  He experimented with black backgrounds for his sgraffito.  He combined sgraffito with colored slips.

More importantly, he carried sgraffito beyond just pie plates and onto all sorts of thrown works, from tea sets to pickle jars, shaving basins, and more.  Others previously had dallied with this.  Others since would go further.  But Johannes purposefully pushed the boundaries of what was possible in tulip ware.

That last point is a godsend for modern redware potters.  It’s how we justify our ‘interpretive drift’ of splashing sgraffito on just about anything.  Because of Johannes, we can substitute “historically accurate” for “this is what I prefer to do.”

Johannes Neesz might respond with another popular sgraffito adage, “Out of earth with understanding the potter makes everything.”

Readings:
Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

Lead Glazed Pottery.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia.  1907.

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Valentin Lopez Visits the United States

January 6, 2013

(Adventures in Community Development)

In early 1994 Valentin Lopez made his first, and probably only, trip to the United States.  His voyage from his home in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua (sponsored by Potters for Peace) was part educational effort for Americans to learn about Nicaragua,  part fund raiser for PFP, and part marketing opportunity for Valentin.  Valentin is an incredibly talented traditional Pre-Columbian Maya style potter.  He can eloquently describe his work, his inspirations, and his community.  He is also very much what Nicaraguans call an “indio;” very Mayan in appearance, with little Spanish influence. 

I was asked to show Valentin around when some free time opened up in his schedule.  Maybe get him into a classroom.  Maybe introduce him to a collector. 

We visited the wealthy collector first.  He owned a walk-through history of Pre-Columbian pottery; Aztec to Maya; Inca to Oaxaca.  Mind boggling.  But the jerk didn’t buy anything.  Was Valentin’s work not “real” enough?  As we drove away, I wondered what Valentin thought of the encounter.

The only teacher I knew then worked in a kindergarten.  So off we went to visit a bunch of 6 year olds.  (Great trip so far, Steve!)  We immediately noticed that the classroom was divided.  “Anglo” kids sat up front.  Hispanic kids in the back.  The teachers seemed resigned to riding shotgun around the Hispanic kids, one girl in particular, to keep them focused on the day’s activities.

The girl giggled when I began translating.  She knew what Valentin was saying better than I did.  We let her  translate.  The change was electric.  Suddenly Spanish was a benefit, not a stigma.  This ‘problem kid’ was now a valued leader, showing others the way. 

I had brought some coloring books on Pre-Columbian pottery designs PFP made for an education  project in Nicaragua where books of any kind were scarce.  The kids dove into the books after the presentation.  It was the most productive day the teachers had seen.

I think of that girl.  Where is she now?  Did that day impart any notion that her abilities were strengths?  Did she grow up to be a potter?  Will she be the first Hispanic female President?  Or maybe, reflecting on the worlds of potters and presidential campaigns, she just grew up to be a decent person.  That’s my hope.

Reading:
Dibujos de las Tatara Tatarabuelas.  Ron Rivera and Barbara Donachy.  Ceramistas Por La Paz/Managua, Nicaragua.  1993.