Archive for the ‘Art Pottery’ 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 Hit Parade #2: The Scarab Vase

April 19, 2015

ScarabVase The Scarab Vase is why we have terms like “tour de force.”  It is Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s undisputed American Arts and Crafts era masterpiece.

Every inch of this 17" tall porcelain vase’s surface is covered with intensely detailed carvings.  It’s proportions are pure perfection.  Legend has it that the vase developed a huge crack after months of carving the scarab beetle-inspired patterns.  Many a potter would have been crushed.  Adelaide didn’t give up.  She repaired the vase and successfully re-fired it.  Thus it entered the halls of history…

They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  As such, a list of items that are ‘beautiful to look at’ (ie: famous for being famous) would be never ending, and ever disputed.  A truer (or at least fuller) appreciation of an item’s impact considers it’s context.  This is where the Scarab Vase stands head and shoulders above the crowd. 

The 19th century American Industrial Revolution destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of small-time individual potters.  Hand made pottery was  moribund.  Late-century China Painting barely kept alive the notion of individualized pottery.

But something was missing.  It’s interesting to witness how people throughout history react when they sense a fundamental loss due to mechanization.  Like the Luddites, or the ‘back-to-the-lander’s.’  Looking back years from now, will some definitive, paradigm-shifting work stand out as a reaction to today’s wireless world?  What would that look like?

At the dawn of the 20th century, the reaction against industrialization looked like “The Arts and Crafts movement.”  This movement, defined by works like the Scarab Vase, reignited interest in hand made pottery in this country.  Today’s potters ply their trade because tenacious people like Adelaide Alsop Robineau prepared the way for us.

The Scarab Vase is one of my all time favorite works of ceramic art.  But when I look at this vase, the word that most often comes to mind is “thanks.”

…100 Years from Now

October 10, 2010

Eras usually end because nobody cares.  The latest “thing” gets all the attention.  For example, when American hand-made utilitarian pottery died out in the mid 19th century, nobody ran into the street gnashing teeth and pulling hair.

Only with the passage of time can we really understand what happened, our self-absorbed modern penchant for naming current “eras” notwithstanding (ie; The Information Age, The Digital Age, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, etc. etc. etc.). Who really understands what is happening today?  What will they say of us 100 years from now? Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6

But in 1876 something amazing happened.  We looked back.  We  realized the value of something we once had.  And we acted on that realization.

The catalyst was the first World’s Fair to be held in the US, the “International Exposition of 1876” commonly known as the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  The Civil War was over.  People wanted to move on, to show the world our best.  And we invited the world to stand beside us, show us their best.  The result?  America flopped.

We had lost sight of our heritage.  Our past.  Gone were the uniquely American cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Gone were the playful sgraffito worksRedware was a memory.  The daring porcelains, rockinghams, agates, and parians of our pioneering pottery firms had morphed into a soul-less, mass-produced product.

American artisans flocking to the Exhibition saw in the international exhibits a world that knew where it was coming from and where it wanted to go.  Our exhibits confronted our artisans with questions.  “What had we become?”  “What could we become?”  They came away changed.

This was no bunch of hippie luddites.  They were men and women inspired to preserve the past but also to advance American ceramics.  American women were especially motivated by this watershed event.  For many it began with china painting, the first true ‘ceramic-art’ movement in the US.  Two presidential wives and many future leaders in the movement began as china painters.  But any list of Art Pottery leaders must begin with Mary Louise McLaughlin and Maria Longworth Nichols.

Mary Louise McLaughlin’s Centennial experience motivated her to spearhead in 1879 the Queen City OH Pottery Club, America’s first all-women’s pottery organization.  Her efforts set the stage for Rookwood and the blossoming of Art Pottery in Cincinnati.  Rookwood Pottery was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, another Centennial convert.  No other pottery matched Rookwood’s uniquely American style.

But there were many others; Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans founded specifically to instruct young women; Mary Chase Stratton’s Pewabic Pottery in Detroit; Linna Irelan’s Art Pottery in San Francisco, CA, which exclusively used native Californian clays.  These and many more set the stage for Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s porcelain work beginning in 1904 and culminating in her magisterial Scarab Vase.  The stage was set for America’s Arts and Crafts revolution.

As Edwin Atlee Barber said: “The existence of a true ceramic art in this country may be said to have commenced with the Fair of 1876.”  Sometimes its nice to recognize on whose shoulders we stand.

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

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

The Index of American Design. Erwin O. Christensen.  The Macmillan Company/New York.  1950.