Archive for the ‘Adaptation’ Category

As It Was In The Beginning

April 12, 2020

Apocalyptic allusions of biblical proportion aren’t ideal introductions to pottery history during, say, a pandemic. This whirlwind discussion instead reminisces on some more charitable – if highly condensed – aspects of human interaction.

We begin with the “crooked but interesting” Egyptian Fatamid Caliphate and a curious phenomenon accompanying, even propelling, the diffusion of ceramic traditions across the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, and Western Hemisphere. Potters flocked to Cairo to learn exciting techniques like “Polychrome Tin-Glazing” and “Lusterware.” When the Fatamids imploded, the potters fanned out, inspiring new traditions along the way.

One landing spot for these exiles was Muslim Spain, from whence “Hispano-Morosque” pottery was exported, via Majorca, to Italy. Once Italian “Maiolica” was established in Faenza and elsewhere, these “Faience” potters exported themselves to France and Holland whose “Delftware” potters hopped over to England.

When English pottery exploded onto the main stage of the Industrial Revolution, Stoke-on-Trent potters regularly shared work with neighbors. There were more “Creamware,” “Pearlware,” and “Ironstone” orders than individual shops could handle alone.

For a shining moment, “Talavera” potters in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) blended east, west, north, and south. Meanwhile, pottery family networks from Virginia to Massachusetts supplied “Redware” to local communities. As the US inexorably sprawled westward, “Salt-Fired Stoneware” potters assembled and re-assembled in successive pottery boom towns; Bennington VT, Trenton NJ, East Liverpool, OH, Monmouth, IL, Redwing, MN.

Finally, at the dawn of the Modern Age, we see perhaps the last great unified tradition that spanned boundaries and defined eras – “Art Pottery.” Potters in these and many other traditions worked together, often jumping from place to place, spreading the word and unifying the output.

But here we stop, a couple decades later as a cocky young Pete Volkous joins the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. We stand on a cusp of major change. What will emerge includes a world of inspiration at the fingertips, a mechanized global supply system, a mature empirical knowledge base, and a studio arts education system that emphasizes personal exploration. A contemporary journey into individual expression will challenge the traditional impulse for interaction and interplay.

What will be gained? What will be lost? More importantly, what has been learned? Pondering the centuries, I think of a seemingly stale cliché: when the effort is made, there truly is strength in numbers. In this case, however, not just strength but a collective eutectic of profound beauty.

Readings:

Five Centuries of Italian Maiolica. Giuseppe Liverani. McGraw-Hill/New York. 1960.

American Art Pottery. Barbara Perry. Harry N. Abrams/New York. 1997.

The Common Goat

October 14, 2018

Thomas Bewick’s riveting 1790 publication “A General History of Quadropeds” includes a chapter titled “The Common Goat.” Prints inserted at every chapter end in Bewick’s tome exemplified, for the reader’s edification, ideal versions of each animal in question. In this case we see a boy, let’s call him Billy, playing with his favorite pet goat.

Why is this relevant? For one thing, Bewick’s book was a goldmine for English potters of the time who needed readily available imagery of warm, fuzzy animals to slap onto cheap transfer print wares for domestic and export markets, including the insatiable American market. A plate featuring Billy’s favorite goat fit right in, given the sentimentalized nature of much of that era’s transfer decoration.

The potters who lifted Billy and his goat asked no permission from Bewick, nor offered any royalties. But even before England’s more stringent 1840’s copyright laws, these potters might touch up the bucolic scenes – a frilly border here, a bit of hand painting there – to make their finished products ever more appealing. They adapted the prints to fit their surfaces and their needs.

I first heard of Billy’s goat plate and Bewick’s source prints in Judie Siddall’s “Dishy News.” Her article led me to consider the roles of adaptation and innovation in ceramics.

Cheap 19th century transferwares will probably not interest today’s ceramic artists (or others) who favor expressions of innovation, rather than adaptation, in their craft. After all, innovation brings something new to the table, a more individual touch, instead of merely rehashing old ground.

But isn’t innovation essentially a yardstick by which we measure the relative impact of a potter’s efforts? Transferwares, for example, were a major innovation of the late 18th century. In turn, adaptation is a manifestation of style; a lens through which we may understand the selection and arrangement of cultural, technical, and decorative resources available to a potter.

Overly emphasizing the endless quest for something new under the sun risks simplified “either/or” judgements: is it or is it not innovative? Clearly acknowledging the value and provenance of our resources, and not just how far we bend these to our wills, can offer insights within a communally engaged environment. Isn’t this a more humane way to appreciate pottery efforts through time – and to make pots today?

If it takes a meditation on maudlin transferwares to realize this point, so be it.

Readings:

Dishy News, A Transferware Blog. “Serendipity, Source Prints, Thomas Bewick, and Transferware.” April 5, 2015. Judie Siddall. Blogspot. Accessed June 15, 2018.