Archive for the ‘Apprenticeship’ Category

The Hit Parade #8: Tourist Pottery from San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua

March 8, 2015

Adventures in cross-cultural sampling.

San Juan de Oriente Alan Gallegos was a dear friend.  He came from the village of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, known for it’s many “Pre-Columbian” style potters.  I worked with Alan during my time in Nicaragua with Potters for Peace (PFP).  The burnished, slab molded, 6″d. plate shown  here is from San Juan de Oriente.  But it isn’t Alan’s.   Sadly, I don’t own any of his work.

Alan was large, gentle, and quiet.  He was an extremely talented potter, and a valued member of PFP’s team.  One day Alan’s body was discovered along a roadside.  Did he accidentally fall off a truck while hitch hiking?  Was he robbed and killed?  Nobody knows.

I had left Nicaragua before Alan’s death.  The town I was living in just became a Sister City to a community of repatriated refugees in El Salvador, from that country’s civil war.  Many Salvadorans had fled to Nicaragua during the war.  I knew a group of those refugees who lived next to a PFP pottery project.  Kids from this little group painted the pottery’s seconds to sell for extra cash.  Ironically, their new community was my town’s Sister City.

So there I was, struggling to work on an Empty Bowls fund raiser for the Sister City effort.  That night, after hearing of Alan’ death, I began decorating: a jagged border around the rims (Central America’s many volcanoes) above five panels (the five original Central American countries) blocked out by vertical rows of circles (the Mayan counting system).  Each panel contained a pre-Columbian phoenix.

The thought of using pre-Columbian designs in my own work always felt problematic (due largely to Central America’s history and my European ancestry).  But I had the distinct feeling Alan was beside me as I worked.  I wouldn’t have blinked if he reached over, picked up a bowl, and began talking.

Something then occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about for ages.  Years earlier I apprenticed to Richard Bresnahan, who told me he felt he was communicating with ancient potters of southern Japan (where he had done his own apprenticeship) whenever he applied Japanese-style “mishima” inlay to his pots.  “Neat idea,” I thought at the time, before getting on with the day…

Cultural ‘mining’ can leave a long, painful trail.  Communication that transcends that tale requires healthy doses of respect and empathy.  Now I know how powerful this communication can be.

Advertisements

Woodstock

October 13, 2013

The Moravian community of Salem NC, founded in the mid 18th century, believed in austere living and strict religious observance.  But it shouldn’t be surprising that a group this stodgy would produce flowery and exuberant earthenware.  It was all part of their world view.

Then again, as with adherents to any doctrine, Moravian potters were not always above reproach.  Rudolf Christ was the most talented and successful apprentice of Salem’s first master potter Gottfried Aust.  Rudolf also proved to be one of Aust’s more “arrogant and rebellious” charges.  He was a “stupid ass, like other children in the Community.”  And as with unsupervised children anywhere at any time, Rudolf was given to vague but ominous  “evil doings.”

The Moravian Lovefeast perhaps added fuel to the fire.  Lovefeast was (still is) a popular Moravian institution.  Goodwill and congeniality combined to break down social barriers and celebrate fellowship.  Its roots trace back to the beginnings of Christianity.  But congeniality and lack of social barriers are a potent combination.  The early church dropped Lovefeast in favor of stability.

The Moravians brought Lovefeast back in the mid 1770’s.  A large coffee urn by Rudolf Christ bears an inscription on its bottom referencing one such event.  This  Lovefeast would be Rudolf’s last.  He retired from pottery making two months later.

Today we celebrate Lovefeast.
That you can tell by the good turnout.
When this urn is full of coffee
How few are missed.
And when it’s full, then I’m right there.
And when it’s empty, then we’ll sing Hallelujah.
March 12, 1821.

The rebellious, unconventional Rudolf loved a good party, replete with large crowds and stimulating refreshments.  It sounds like he went out with a bang.  Woodstock move over!

Readings:
The Moravian Potters in North Carolina.  John Bivins.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill.  1972.

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

Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, Ed.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2009.

 

Letters From A Neutral Packet

November 25, 2012

Hervey Brooks (Goshen CT, b.1779 – d.1873) loved the Sacred Harp.  He named his two sons Isaac and Watts in honor of Isaac Watts, an 18th century publisher of Sacred Harp music.  Hervey also loved to make redware.  He continued the trade long after most others in the neighborhood had quit.

Hervey must have had high hopes for at least one of his sons to inherit the shop.  Isaac was, in fact, his apprentice.  As such Isaac shared the entire enterprise including selling clams, trading rags, logging, road repair, and of course farming, along with his potting duties.  At one point Hervey had a wagon load of clocks to trade in Georgia.  Isaac was tasked with the journey.  Isaac made it to Georgia and promptly sent word that he would never return home!

History does not record Hervey’s initial reaction to Isaac’s letter.  But an indication of Hervey’s ire appeared in his ledger: “Due from Isaac Brooks – 1 load clocks, 1 wagon, two years apprenticeship training.”  Isaac owed him big!  This entry stayed in Hervey’s ledger for years.

Isaac would never set foot on New England soil again.  One wonders why.  But years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Isaac’s daughter began sending Hervey letters via neutral packets that sailed between Charleston SC and New Haven CT.  Her letters apparently softened Hervey’s wrath enough to cancel the debt.  After the war, with Hervey widowed and aging, she moved up to Goshen to tend to him in his twilight years.

This bittersweet tale hardly rates a footnote in the trajectory of pottery making in America.  But it does suggest a picture of someone, Hervey, so engrossed in his work that for years he was unable to see the interests of others, especially those closest to him.  Ever a danger to the self employed.

Yet redemption is still possible.

Readings:
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.

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

 

The Dutch and The Deacon

March 18, 2012

Since 1653 the settlers of Huntington, Long Island struggled to establish a pottery.  But their clay was no good.  In the mid 1700’s Adam Staats, a newly emigrated Dutch stoneware potter, identified the ungainly local clay as stoneware, useless for lead glazed redware.  On October 22, 1751 the town agreed to let Staats dig, at one shilling per cord, “…from a walnut sapling on ye side of ye bank to the eastward of Jehiel Seamer’s northerly to a rock near low water mark to carry away as much as he can gitt to ye west of said bounds…”

Staats moved to Norwich, CT in 1772 with fellow potter Christopher Leffingwell.  But his move to Greenwich, CT shortly thereafter resulted in the first sustained stoneware pottery in New England (Grace Parker was the first stoneware potter in New England, but her shop failed soon after her passing).  Wherever he went, Staats imported clay from his Long Island deposits.  He Anglicized his name to Adam States as business grew, but he was always known as “the Dutch Potter.”

One of the Dutch Potter’s many apprentices was a lad named Abraham Mead.  Apparently Abraham soaked up his lessons like a sponge.  As legend has it, early on in his apprenticeship young Abraham took advantage of a prolonged absence by his master to fire a kiln all by himself.  Adam came home early (of course) just as Abraham was salting the kiln at the end of the firing.  Rather than punish the lad, Adam proudly exclaimed “He’s got it!  He’s got it!”

Abraham Mead eventually took over the shop.  Being in a port city, Mead, like Staats before him, was able to thrive by shipping his wares far and wide along the coast in his own barges.  But being in a port city also meant that business ground to a halt during the blockade years of the Revolutionary War.  Afterward, Mead picked up the pieces and kept the shop going.

Mead was active in Greenwich society.  He was town treasurer for many years.  He also took great interest in the local Congregational Church.  At one point he paid the church’s outstanding mortgage by donating an entire boatload of pottery for the purpose.  People called him “the Deacon Potter.” 

The only question is, was this Deacon-hood bestowed before or after the mortgage settlement?

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

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

 

Legacy

February 19, 2012

Benjamin Dodge began a redware pottery shop in Portland, ME in 1798 at 24 years of age.  Other Maine potters of the time sought to build huge manufacturing empires.  Benjamin took a more creative path.

His specialty was elaborately decorated jars and pitchers.  He would often incorporate the initials of the person ordering the item into it’s decoration.  Apparently his work made quite an impression.  According to a later (anonymous?) reminiscence:

“Busts of people received more care.  Most of these were in profile.  After the pieces were finished they were set in another room to dry, and it was a favorite amusement with some bad boys, whom the good man tolerated notwithstanding, to disfigure the human faces by drawing down the corners of the mouths to produce a ludicrous expression.  This disfiguring, the potter did not observe until it was too late to mend, and it was fired in the kiln with the others, set away on the shelf, and sold at reduced prices.”

The 1825 U.S. tour of the Marquis de Lafayette inspired potters across the country to commemorative themes.  When Lafayette passed through Portland, Benjamin made pieces sporting “what purported to be a likeness of Lafayette.”

Dodge’s artistic talents kept the pottery going long enough to pass it on to his son, Benjamin Junior.  Sadly, the old man began suffering what was then called “melancholy” and ultimately killed himself on June 1, 1838.

Benjamin Jr ‘took the wheel’ as the stoneware industry was carving out huge slices of the market, ultimately swamping most redware potters.  But Benjamin Jr saw opportunity where others saw a dead end.  He minimized the type of work offered and exploited qualities of earthenware unavailable in stoneware; exotic glazes.  A particularly striking green glaze earned him a diploma in 1839 at the Second Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association.  Some of his flower pots with this glaze can still be seen at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.  Terms included the de riguer “Country produce taken in exchange for ware.”

One of the longest lived and most creative redware potteries in Maine closed upon Benjamin Jr’s death in 1875.  Like his father, Benjamin Jr died by his own hand.

Readings:
The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine.  M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

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

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

Squanamagonic; Land of Clay Hills.

January 22, 2012

Gonic New Hampshire got it’s name, like countless other New England towns, by mangling the original inhabitants name for the place.  There are many indigenous place names referring to pottery across the Americas.  Gonic, known to the local Pennacook Indians as “land of the clay hills,” is particularly interesting because European colonists and their progeny continued the namesake tradition.

19th century pottery making in Gonic was synonymous with the Osborne family.  They were a branch of the Quaker clan from Danvers, MA whose pottery dynasty reached back into the previous century.  In those days, trades like pottery tended to stay within certain families.  Some historians today believe this was due to the particularly long apprenticeship required to become a master.  It made a certain sense as a natural extension of family ties to incorporate relations as they came of age (to get a Master of Fine Arts Degree today takes only two years and parental co-signing of $50,000 in loans).  But another argument (probably from those with teen aged sons) considers the benefits of consigning a strapping young boy to a relative’s household so they can feed him for his teen years…

We can’t know what the Gonic Osbornes’ ulterior motives towards their teenagers were.  But we do know that their mottled green glaze rivaled that of the Tauton, MA potteries who went through positively scandalous amounts of copper.  And apparently the Gonic Osborne’s did a good trade in shaving mugs, or at least many of these have survived.

At some point, brick making must also have been part of the Osborne resume.  Their rectangular corbel arched kilns were akin to brick makers’ scove kilns.  The Osborne’s even used the so called “brick maker’s method” of clay preparation designed to wash out soluble salts before production.  Hillsides were scraped to expose clay seams.  They were plowed and harrowed before a rain, then sun dried.  The clay lumps were broken up and carted off to the pottery.

Labor intensive?  Perhaps.  But that’s what teen aged apprentices were for.

Readings

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

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

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware.  Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.

About the Pig’s Blood Comment

January 8, 2012

Pottery history is not drenched in blood, despite some blood related comments in this journal – most recently how some rural potters used animal blood to give their glazes a darker tint…

That bit probably should be explained.

Charles Mehwaldt was a third generation potter born in Bruessow Germany in 1808.  After his apprenticeship Mehwaldt worked as a journeyman potter first in Russia and eventually in Lebanon (that an early 19th century German potter would do his journeyman work in the Middle East is interesting enough).  Ultimately he returned to a Germany in the throes of revolution

In 1851 Mehwaldt heard that a colony of Bruessow Germans had formed seven years earlier in Bergholtz, New York.  He and his family emigrated but they almost didn’t make it.  Their ship sank off Long Island.  A tub attached to a cable pulled them ashore.  A barge along the Erie Canal pulled them the rest of the way to Bergholtz.

Mehwaldt cared less for the fabled American clays than those of the old country.  Still, he managed to produced a wide range of utilitarian redware.  At Christmas he made little toy dinner sets and toy whistles.  His daughter recalled years later how “We children helped grind the lead for the glaze [They used a grinding stone basin, a “quern,” which was spun by a long wooden pole.] …My brother and I would count to 100 then rest.”  She also mentioned how Charles used pigs blood to tint his glazes from time to time.

Whitewares pushed the boundaries of pottery making into the thick of the Industrial Revolution.  But darker colored pottery defined the pragmatism of borderland communities like Bergholtz.  It didn’t show dirt.  Remoteness combined with pragmatism has always led potters to find their oxides where they could be found.  Considering the life cycles of farm living, pig’s blood isn’t that big of a leap.

Readings:

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

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

 

A Bad Ending

November 14, 2011

One cent reward – runaway from the service of the subscriber on the 7th ult. An indented apprentice to the Potting Business by the name of Jason Merrills, about 17 years of age.  Rather large of his age, stocky built, has a large head, large blue eyes, and lightish hair.  Had on when he went away a blue surtout coat, a blue undercoat, blue mixt satinett pantaloons, and is supposed to have had some other clothes with him.  Whoever will return said apprentice shall be entitled to the above reward and no charges.  All persons are forbid harboring or trusting said apprentice on penalty of the law.
Absalom Day
Norwalk March 10, 1824.

“Apprenticeship” is a vague term.  Some believe swapping a few lessons in exchange for studio space counts.  Others consider an in-depth immersion into the daily grunt work of a shop for an extended time to be closer to the mark.  Today, of course, if you pay someone it’s called “employment” (withholding taxes, insurance, overtime, workman’s comp, etc.).

Two centuries ago being an apprentice meant more than just working for someone.  An apprentice became part of the family.  They slept with the kids – usually in the same bed.  They ate at the table.  They worked the farm.  They ‘kept the family secrets.’  They shared the entire life.

Such proximity resulted in all sorts of outcomes.  Some people hit it off.  Some tolerated the situation.  And some hated it.  A fair few of these later sorts, Jason Merrills evidently included, performed some variation of a ‘disappearing act.’

Reading the above Norwalk (CT) Gazette ad one can almost feel the anger Absalom Day felt toward the ‘large headed’ Merrills.  “All persons are forbid harboring or trusting said apprentice…”  This kid was rotten.  He was a lump.  He’ll probably turn out no good.  You’ll see.  As like as not spend all his time in ale houses and watching plays.  A sure sign of a bad character.

Despite Day’s threats, potters had few legal options when a badly needed apprentice disappeared, or disappeared at a badly needed time.  The ad was intended as much to malign Jason Merrills publically as anything.

So if Merrills was that bad, why would Day want him back?

Of course, Absalom Day gives us his answer in the first line of the ad.  Bounty hunters, think about it.

Readings:

Norwalk Potteries.  Andrew and Kate Winton.  Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH.  1981.