Archive for the ‘Bernard leach’ Category

How I Learned To Hate Everything

August 31, 2014

(an editorial thinly disguised as a book review)

A group of potters went to see a “Blue and White” ceramics exhibit at a major museum in a large city.  During the trip, one of the potters lamented how she was taught nothing in college about America’s pottery heritage. 

Most of the potters in the group, being of more or less the same generation, were taught that Asian porcelain was pottery’s culminating expression.  Anything outside that narrative – excepting modern pottery – was background (ie; easily dismissed).  Gaping educational holes were partially filled as individual interests randomly wandered.

Daniel Rhodes defined the ‘official’ narrative during my own college years.  Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter, revised edition 1973, was our class bible.  (Boy, am I dating myself!)  Just as important as the book’s technical information were its pictures.  I poured over them and absorbed their implied lesson – see the rest, end with the best: Song Dynasty Chinese Imperial porcelain.  We were certainly offered a generic overview of the ceramic spectrum, but the ultimate lesson remained.

The Rhodes book had two images of early American pots; A sgraffito plate by Georg Hubener of Bucks County, PA, c.1790, and a mass-produced molded stoneware pitcher in the form of a waterfall or whatever by the American Pottery Company of Trenton, NJ, c.1840.  Without context or hint of other efforts, and compared to those oil spot and celadon glazes, I concluded, “no thanks.”

That “no thanks” attitude wasn’t so much like comparing apples to oranges as it was like believing apples for eating were “better” than apples for making cider, or for baking.  But why compare at all? 

Of course, Daniel Rhodes can’t be all to blame.  There were (are) plenty of books about all sorts of pottery types.  And yes, old Chinese porcelain deserves respect.  But we were poor college students.  The pictures in Rhodes’ book and the resulting chatter around the studio were our gateway (there was no internet back then).  The range of early American (and European) pottery expression hit me only after some intense overseas time induced reflection on my own background.

If we’re never taught that something has value we can easily assume it has no value;  “History is boring!”  “Who cares?”  “Been there, done that.”

When did you first see beyond these ridiculous notions?

Readings:

Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Revised edition.  Daniel Rhodes.  Chilton’s/Radnor, PA.  1973.

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A Treatise on Superfluous Things

December 15, 2013

We owe it all to Wen Zhenheng.  Everything we were taught in college about old Chinese porcelain being the pinnacle of the ceramic art.  Maybe it’s even true.

But Wen didn’t direct his lesson to modern European and American art students.  Wen sought to enlighten his own late Ming Dynasty’s growing ‘middle class.’  His task was tricky.  Wealth from trade with European devils had trickled down to mid-level functionaries.  It was an era of uncomfortable accommodation between the newly well off and the long-time well bred.

Of course the newcomers had no idea what they were doing.  Like their European trading partners, they desired the cultured trappings associated with porcelain.  Unlike Europeans, they knew enough not to settle for gaudy export stuff.  But without access Imperial wares, what were they to do?

Wen’s early 17th century “Treatise on Superfluous Things” showed them the way.  This “Do’s and Don’ts” compilation claimed to be the definitive arbiter of taste for the gentlemanly art of porcelain collecting (amongst other gentlemanly artistic pursuits).

True gentlemen only collected the finest porcelain, according to Wen – ie; porcelain made no later than 200 years before his time (early Ming or before).  The ideal piece should be “as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a chime.”   Wen and his peers emphatically believed in China’s past cultural superiority.  Anyone who owned old porcelain could feel connected to those days of yore.

But just owning fine porcelain wasn’t enough.  One had to show it off in the right way at the right time.  Certain vases could only be shown on tables “in the Japanese style.”  Nothing else would do.   One must “avoid vases with rings, and never arrange them in pairs.”  If flowers were included, “any more than 2 stems and your room will end up looking like a tavern.”

Wen’s dictums were strict.  They had to be.  Then as now, ostentatious wealth bred, more often than it suppressed, vulgarity.  Wen sought to protect cultural ‘insiders’ – that is, anyone who bought his book.

Centuries later Dale Carnegie, Martha Stewart, and even Bernard Leach bought in, each in their own unique way.  Yes, we owe it all to Wen Zenheng.

Early Ming

Readings:

Vermeers Hat. The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

 

Cowboys and Indians

September 8, 2013

First time visitors to the US often travel with (somewhat) irrational fears.  Will gangsters shoot it out while de-boarding the plane?  Our global cultural projection of carnage, sex and twisted history runs deep.  In 1991 a group of Nicaraguan women working in the Matagalpa black pottery tradition traveled with some of this baggage to visit Tewa black pottery descendants of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, NM. 

The Potters for Peace facilitated trip was predicated on a question: What would happen if women from very different rural backgrounds who work in a similar style were left alone together for a week?  PFP’s Ron Rivera served as translator and guide. 

Hand-built “black pottery” is burnished to a high gloss, pit fired, and smoked until jet black.  Women throughout the Americas and parts of Africa have made black pottery for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Modern North American black pottery tends to be much more polished and lower fired (thus blacker) than originally.  It’s now considered primarily a decorative art.  

Black potters are intensely proud of their work.  Maria Martinez is perhaps the most famous North American practitioner.  Mexicans might counter that Doña Rosa Real who revived the Oaxaca black pottery tradition in the 1950’s  holds the ‘most famous’ title.  Maria Martinez resuscitated the almost forgotten Pueblo style while working with archeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett at the Frijoles Canyon excavation in 1908.  Maria’s pottery even made Bernard Leach eat crow “…it belonged to America.  North America – it was arresting.”  (An irrelevant point, but I couldn’t resist.)

But women of the northern mountainous coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua say their black pottery making reaches back, unbroken from mother to daughter for over a millennium.  Their work occupies a highly regarded position in the Nicaraguan ceramic world.  Like other black potters  they tend to stick together.  And like other rural Nicaraguan’s they rarely travel far from home.

The New Mexico trip was an eye opener for everyone involved.  The Tewa’s were blown away at the delicacy of form and the superior mirror black polish of the Matagalpan pottery.  The Nica’s were astonished at the Tewas’ playful variations of form and gloss, and at their astronomical prices. 

But another thing perplexed the Nica’s.  One of them took Ron aside.  If these women they had come to visit were real “American Indians,” where were the feathers and tomahawks?

Readings
The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez.  Susan Peterson.  Kodansha International/New York.  1977.

 

The Bloody Duke of Alva

December 7, 2009

Bernard Leach…

…I suppose it was only a matter of time before his name popped up…

…Well, I first heard about Leach, and his famous book on pottery, in college.  Some say Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” almost singlehandedly reformed craft ceramics.  In it he certainly sought to establish a standard that would be eternal.  When I finally saw the tome – it was just a little red book – my first thought was of another little red book.  This one by Chairman Mao.  “That’s it?”

I mention Leach because his book created an impression (at least in my eager mind) of a ‘golden age’ of English pottery during the Middle Ages.  We’d certainly be less today if Leach hadn’t expounded his ideas, and I do enjoy Medieval English pottery.  But by and large, English pottery from 600 to 1400AD was still in a pretty crude state.  True, a few monastic potters late in the period tried to keep up with continental trends.  But in general, the forms were limited to the “potts and panns” (pots simply being more tall than wide, and pans the opposite) of the dairy economy.  Households ate off treen ware (wooden items).  Food storage was crude.  Food preparation was cruder – unless you could afford glass, silver, and a household staff…

Between 1566 and 1648, many things changed.  A group of Spanish provinces, known today as “The Netherlands,” revolted.  The Calvinist Reformation was involved, but harsh foreign rule, as is usually the case, propelled the Dutch Republicans to fight.  Spain sought to snuff out this peasant uprising.  The man hired to do the dirty work was the Duke of Alva.  With his “Blood Court” behind him, the Duke encouraged his troops to a level of depravity not seen again for several centuries.  And that’s saying something!  (ie: Issuing, and trying to carry out, a death warrant against every living soul in the provinces.)  Eventually the Dutch cause won out.  But not before waves of refugees poured into increasingly Puritan (thanks again to Calvin) England.

Those Dutch refugees brought with them their food ways.  They drank from individual cups instead of one big bowl passed from hand to hand, they ate off of ceramic plates, etc.  Dutch potters brought their skill and knowledge.  In a few short years, whole villages of “cuppers” would form.  English potters would be copying Delftware.  And English pottery would blossom…

It is said that great beauty can arise from adversity.  English pottery was certainly enriched by refugees from the wanton devastation of Dutch society.  But if Spain had left the Dutch in peace, the English would have eventually figured it all out by themselves.  That would have been much better.

Readings:
English Delftware. GF Garner.  Van Nostrand Co., Inc./New York.  1948.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques. Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach.  Transatlantic Arts, Inc./New York.  1976 (reprinted).

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noel Hume.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg.  2006.