Archive for the ‘pottery and politics’ Category

Test of Time

January 31, 2016

History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…

700AThe M’ing Dynasty Chinese judged their export porcelain as purely 2nd rate fodder for a lower-browed European audience.  And the European foreigners who gobbled up export porcelain were, to the M’ing, strange, impenetrable, exotic, dangerous aliens. 

But not all M’ing Chinese looked down on export ware, or those who bought it.  Before East India Trade delegations became commonplace in Canton, Macao, and elsewhere, a few officials (a very few) collected export porcelain as expressions of those foreigners who were, to them, strange, exotic, impenetrable, curious aliens.

Chinese export porcelain opened up a completely new world for 16th century Europeans.  Entire industries were spawned to get more, and to make it cheaper themselves.  Until that occurred, Europeans saw the foreign Chinese who made this wonderful work as strange, exotic, impenetrable, glamorous aliens. 

In the years since the China Trade, many scholars have understood the wider view that export porcelain indeed expressed European culture of the time as much as it did the capabilities of M’ing potters.  Take, for example, a typical export item known as the klapmut.  Both Chinese and Dutch used soup bowls.  The Chinese drank thin broths right from the bowl.  Dutch stews needed spoons.  The narrow Chinese drinking rim didn’t allow resting space for spoons, so the Dutch directed Chinese potters to include a wide spoon rest rim: voila, the awkward sounding klapmut.  Today’s elegant wide rimmed bowl began life as a foreign shape for Chinese potters – strange, exotic, impenetrable, unusual, and alien. 

Does any of this old history matter today?  It’s nice, as a potter, to know why I make bowls with wide rims.  Deeper historical analogies can be less satisfying because history never repeats itself perfectly.  Witness the current fear-mongering and election year lunacy, fueled in part by masses of people fleeing violence in the Mid East and beyond.  Europeans and Americans have sympathized with the refugees who bring with them only what they can carry and remember.  But many now struggle with the growing vitriol swirling around these foreign, strange, exotic, impenetrable, desperate aliens.

The refugee crisis needs, among many things, large doses of human decency and is quite a large topic of itself.  But as for the jingoistic xenophobia?  If contemplating the history of Chinese export porcelain (or of history in general) offers any small consolation it is this one immutable guarantee: “This too shall pass.”

Readings:

Vermeer’s Hat, The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

Everybody’s Day in the Sun

September 27, 2015

Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
    – a Swahili poet, 1815

Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean.  This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.

By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each.  The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel.  Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors.  Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though.  The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.

China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD.  Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply.  Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy.  How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.

What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade?  In a word, nothing.  A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods.  Somalia and Yemen never recovered.

Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain.  Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain.  But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe.  M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous.  Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…

Why the different reactions?  Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague.  During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit.  Some might call this a fool’s paradise.  Others call it sophistication.

Readings:

The Lost Cities of Africa.  Basil Davidson.  Little Brown Book Co./New York.  1970.

Yemeni Pottery.  Sarah Posey.  British Museum Press/London.  1994.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

The Demise of the Quaker Juggernaut

August 23, 2015

Essay Writing (or Ad Copy) Rule #1: Start with an attention grabbing headline.  Hyperbole with an ironic twist works well.  So it is with this title: pure ironic hyperbole.

Unless you actually lived through it.

The Quakers were a powerhouse force in the pottery world of colonial Boston.  They weren’t the only potters in town (Charleston across the bay, actually), but they comprised a substantial proportion of them.  Pottery may not have been regarded as anything more, or less, than a job a person might do.  But it certainly was an integral part of everyday life.  Just look around your kitchen today.  How many things do you have whose sole purpose is to keep things in?  Much of these would have been ceramic during Colonial times.  Continuous hard use meant breakage.  And, as the saying went, “…when it breaks, the potter laughs.” 

Tax roles indicate colonial Boston-area potters were solidly middle class, and sometimes even in the upper percentages of income earners.  Yet after the Revolution, Quakers faded from the pottery making record.  Why? 

The burning of Charleston by the British Navy in 1776 was a huge blow.  The Quakers lost everything.  They and their businesses were scattered to the hinterlands of New England.  But the same troubles befell all of Charleston’s potters.  Many of these others managed to continue quite well. 

A darker force was at work: the approbation of their neighbors during the war.  Quakers held very strong beliefs about remaining aloof from temporal authority.  They refused to take sides in the Revolution.  Because polarization – ‘with us or agin us’ – so easily comes to dominate most conflicts, the Quakers were hated.  They were persecuted.  Boycotted.

As they were during the Civil War.  And during WWI.  And WWII.  Richard Nixon (a Quaker himself) put the Quakers on his infamous “Enemies List” for their anti-Viet Nam war stance.  The American Friends Service Committee was practically an enemy of state during Ronald Reagan’s incursions into Nicaragua… 

It isn’t that Quakers were commies, or hippies, or draft dodgers, or rebel sympathizers, or Tories.  The history of Quakerism in the U.S. only serves to remind us that polarizing discussions of religion and politics really have no place in a harmless little essay about colonial pottery. 

Except when these issues converge to destroy the livelihoods of a group of talented, successful potters who just wanted to do their own thing.

Readings:

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

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

Rules for Radicals.  Saul Alinski.  Vintage Press/New York.  1989.

Spartacus

July 19, 2015

Militia units from surrounding towns faced the angry crowd.  The militia captain demanded, “Who is your leader?”  The entire crowd shouted, “I’m the leader!”  This confrontation might bring to mind a famous scene from the 1960 film Spartacus.  But it actually took place on March 7, 1799 in Easton, PA., during what is known as the Fries Rebellion.

The Fries Rebellion was one of many, like the Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellions, that immediately followed the Revolutionary War.  These uprisings rose from tensions between Revolutionary ideals of egalitarian self-determination, and problems of nation building with a centralized power structure.  In post-Revolutionary terms: (egalitarian) Republicanism vs. (centralized) Federalism.

The Fries Rebellion occurred in German communities of Pennsylvania’s Northampton,  Montgomery, and Bucks counties.  German immigrants had been near the bottom of the social ladder since establishing themselves in the area several decades earlier.  They were drawn to the fringes of colonial society by the allure of freedom from impoverished servitude back home.  Pennsylvanian Anglicans and Quakers, however, considered them ignorant, lawless, and alien.

Along came the Revolutionary War and it’s egalitarian promise.   Here was a chance to socially advance by joining the cause, enlisting in the Continental Army, and proving themselves as patriotic – and equal – citizens.

The Fries Rebellion, like Spartacus’ slave revolt, was quickly put down.  Unlike Spartacus, who was nailed to a pole by the Roman army, the Fries Rebellion’s nominal Republican leader John Fries (the whole point was that there should be no ‘leaders’) got a presidential pardon by Federalist John Adams.  Furthermore, the status of German communities continued to grow.

As Germans fought to secure a place in the new order, they began proudly displaying their ‘German-ness’ for all to see through quilting, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, and other decorative arts.

This was the heady environment that witnessed the flowering of Pennsylvania sgraffito redware pottery, or “Tulip Ware” as it has become affectionately known.  Yes, Tulip Ware is flowery, ornate, and pretty.  It also denotes pride and determination in the face of discrimination and disrespect.  There was no need for individual leaders in that effort, either.

2 dove heart

Reading:

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

The Hit Parade #4: Ceramic Insulator for Low Tension Power Lines

April 5, 2015

Insulator Are David and Goliath stories true?  Can a humble insulator be considered among the ceramic greats?  To answer, consider who made this specific insulator, when, and why. 

During the 1980’s in Sandinista-led Nicaragua, the “Organizacion Revolucionario de Descapacitados,” or “Revolutionary Organization of Handicapped Veterans,” (ORD), ran a stoneware pottery shop as part of their rehabilitation training program.

Their clay came from a deposit near the village of El Sauce (“El Sow-se”) that displayed, along the length of a long gully, the entire erosion process from feldspathic rock, to white primary clay, to secondary ball clay, then to earthenware.  Their glaze consisted primarily of dust from Momotombo, Nicaragua’s largest volcano. 

Potters for Peace helped the ORD develop a project to produce ceramic insulators for a fraction of the price of existing insulators bought from Brazil.  (I built a kiln with the ORD for this project). 

A US-created coalition of political parties (an open reality in Nicaragua that included some bizarre bedfellows) electorally ousted the Sandinistas in 1990.  An application for US Agency for International Development (AID) funds was quickly granted.  The AID package included funds to purchase (only) US made insulators at four times the ORD’s price.  With a stroke of a pen, the ORD contract was broken.  Their pottery shop faced closure.

Potters for Peace mounted an awareness/fund-raising campaign featuring various elementary schools in the US asking the AID to amend their package to include ORD insulators.  The kids raffled insulators and wrote letters to their representatives and to the AID.  The campaign worked!  The contract was (partially) renewed.

So once upon a time, a humble little clay object found itself smack in the middle of the Cold War.  A small, impoverished country’s war wounded unwittingly found their gesture of self-determination pitted against an antagonistic super power’s economic might.  With this ceramic insulator as their icon, the underdog won. 

The moral of the story:  Truly progressive, “politically inspired” ceramics efforts encompass projects well beyond the flash and glitz of protest, criticism, and confrontation.  These powerful efforts can be found in the most unlikely of places. 

This beautiful little ceramic insulator, my friends, is the real deal.

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.

Lunar Man

June 1, 2014

All the Lunar Men were crazy.  They even called themselves “Lunartiks.”  How else to explain some of their activities?

  • Item: intentionally self-inflicted suffocation (while developing a vacuum sealing apparatus).
  • Item: static electricity parties (while studying effects of electricity).
  • Item: condensed urine injections (while exploring the uses of microscopes in medicine).

Some might counter the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England was simply one of many 18th century philosophical clubs dedicated to expanding the general knowledge base.  The Lunar Society convened between 1765 and 1813.  Their roster included some of the era’s most brilliant movers and shakers including Matthew Bolton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.  The Lunar Society typified the animating spirit of the Industrial Revolution, a.k.a. the “Age of Reason.” 

They met on the Sunday before each month’s full moon so there would be light to travel home by.  Lunar meetings featured forays into the world of the possible.  Experimentation was the game of the day.  The world was their oyster to study, test, exploit, devour and profit from.

But the urine thing?

Well, maybe they all didn’t do that.  Still, to be a Lunar Man (yes, they were all men) meant being into that sort of thing.  Each Lunar Man brought his own interests and perspectives on scientific topics of the day.  Everyone was equally excited about the others’ revelations.  So if they didn’t all inject condensed urine, they heartily embraced its premise of scientific exploration. 

One thing they didn’t agree on was politics.  The polemics of the French Revolution ultimately broke them apart.

Lunar Men’s inventions included some of the most critical innovations of the time: steam engines, standardized coin minting, geologic, chemical and biological discoveries, improvements in transportation, advances in educational methodology, etc.  And of course Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood’s thermocouple revolutionized precision firing in the pottery industry.

Potters remember Wedgwood for his thermocouple, his organizing genius and his long list of pottery achievements.  But we should also remember his penchant for experimenting solely for experimentation’s sake.  In other words, for howling at the moon.

Readings:

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.  Jenny Uglow.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/New York.  2003.

Ingenious Pursuits, Building the Scientific Revolution.  Lisa Jardine.  Doubleday/New York.  1999.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

 

Arson, Politics, and Pottery for the Masses

May 18, 2014

Talk long enough to most potters today and the topic of pyromania will eventually arise.  But talk is cheap.  18th and 19th century redware potters were among the best at torching their shops.  Urban potters could take down large neighborhood swathes as well.  Especially in ports and towns along major waterways.

Of course all that damage was unintentional.  Every spark from barely controllable bottle kilns was a disaster waiting to happen – not to mention the health hazards of lead glazed fumes spewing across densely populated areas.  And the waterfront was prime real estate for potters.  Water was the cheapest way to transport heavy raw materials and bulky, fragile wares.

Town fathers tolerated this situation because many potters did a fair bit of trade.  And many potters were town fathers.

But there were limits.  Pottery was eventually zoned away from the docks and toward less populated areas.  An 1838 provision in the Laws and Ordinances of the Common Council of Albany, NY, an important Hudson River transport hub, stipulated that potteries “upon any lane or street which might be deemed noxious or unwholesome shall be removed upon notice given by the Police Justice or any Alderman.”  Offending potters were also fined $25.

Interestingly, the last major pottery related conflagration in Charleston, MA wasn’t due to pottery making at all.  Not directly, anyway.  Bombardment from British warships in 1775 drove the inhabitants, particularly the dock-side potters, away.  Nobody was around to put out the fires.  Charleston burned to the ground.

Pottery had been a major occupation in Charleston.  But the potters didn’t return.  The British action scattered redware production across New England.  The Redcoats effectively brought pottery to the masses.

The Royal Navy wasn’t aiming at potters per se.  Their operation was against the Sons of Liberty.  The fiery appeal of that raucous, self-ordained band of revolutionary self-determination zealots drew in many Bay area artisans, including Charleston’s potters.

Much later, a similar group with similar motives burst on the scene.  This new group named themselves after the Sons’ signature act on Boston’s Long Wharf during the night of December 16th, 1773.

Both groups became famous for their passionate stand against entrenched oligarchs.  But while one group (obliquely) disseminated pottery and democracy, the other was (quickly and quite concretely) co-opted by the highest bidder.

Readings:
Bunker Hill, A City, A Siege, A Revolution.  Nathaniel Philbrick.  Viking Press/New York.  2013.

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

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 University Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

Callot

April 20, 2014

First, a little history.  In 1625 Spanish mercenaries captured the Dutch protestant stronghold of Breda after a long siege during Holland’s war of independence from Spain.  The Spaniards proceeded to lay the already emaciated town to utter waste.  The savage butchery that ensued scarred victims and victors alike.

The engraver Jacques Callot (1592/3 – 1635) memorialized these events in his “Siege of Breda.”  Callot was known for his depictions of festivals, swagger and pageantry, and for his roaming life style.  He was born in the Alsatian town of Nancy but ran away to Rome at age 12 to study art.  He joined a band of gypsies, and later an aristocrat’s coterie.  After getting busted and sent home he apprenticed to a goldsmith.  Callot worked for the Queen of Spain, Ferdinand I of Tuscany and Cosimo II de Medici in Florence.  He did a stint in the Low Countries to gather materials for his “Breda” etchings, then off to Paris and King Louis XIII.  In 1631 Callot returned to Nancy.

Soon thereafter French forces duplicated the Breda carnage by capturing Callot’s home town.  King Louis requested that Callot engrave this “victory.”  Instead Callot created his masterwork series of 18 prints called “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War.”

The “Miseries” chronicled the arc of a typical soldier’s life.  First, an exciting enrollment into the army.  Then troops randomly slash and pillage their way across the countryside.  Enraged peasants eventually fight back.  Military leaders severely punish the more outrageous brigands.  The soldiers began as noble adventurers but surviving veterans end up as crippled beggars in the street.  In the final scene the King doles out rewards to commanders in preparation for the next war.  There is no redemption here.

The Miseries were almost photographic presentations of events forever etched onto Callot’s psyche.  His depictions of war’s brutality remained unequaled until Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” addressed similar depravities by Napoleonic troops in Goya’s beloved Spain 180 years later.

A remarkable thing about Callot’s Miseries is their size.  The extreme inhumanity people were (are) capable of was displayed for all to see on a minuscule scale.  The largest are about 3 x 6 inches.  Callot seemed intent on throwing war’s bloated, oversized significance back into it’s face…

Meanwhile in the European porcelain and faience world, decorators for the next hundred years were inspired by Callot’s pretty etchings of foppish gallants.

Columbine and Pantaloon  Meissen 1741

Reading:
The Indignant Eye, The Artist as Social Critic in Prints and Drawings from the 15th Century to Picasso.  Ralph Shikes.  Beacon Press/Boston.  1969.

 

The Day the World Shrank

April 6, 2014

Before the internet, before the global village, before most people even thought of the planet as a whole, there was Mexican majolica.  The Talavera workshops of Puebla, Mexico produced tin glazed pottery which included the world’s first global imagery.

Potters from Seville, Spain began wheel thrown, glazed pottery in Puebla around 1520.  Everything needed for tin glazing could be found nearby.  This new pottery activity was a ‘men only’ club unlike ‘campesino’ pottery made primarily by women.  Local assistants were trained from scratch.  Most of the extremely talented native potters had been killed (as part of the Aztec literati, they were doomed to extinction).

Mexico was a transit hub for colonial riches flowing from the Pacific to metropolitan Spain.  As such, large shipments of Chinese export porcelain passed through Mexico.  Mexicans were crazy for blue and white.  Talavera’s “refined” ware intentionally imitated the Chinese.

The influence of three continents and four cultures could be seen on Puebla majolica.  Islamic aesthetics encouraged filling the whole space with designs.  European “Istorio” designs focused on narrative stories.  Decorative frills defined the Chinese influence.  And local flora and fauna, such as cacti and jaguars, provided ready inspiration to Mexican potters.  All this on one blue and white surface.  And all this a hundred years before Chinese potteries began slavishly reproducing European designs, or European potteries began slavishly copying Chinese designs.

Things progressed so well that Puebla’s potters formed a guild in 1653.  The Potters Guild regulated production, quality control, sales and (curiously) penalties for counterfeiting.  The Guild folded 100 years later but it’s rules influenced production up to the early 19th century.

Mexicans loved their blue and white majolica.  They especially loved drinking chocolate from majolica mugs.  Well-to-do 18th century Mexican women obsessively drank chocolate from these colorful mugs everywhere and at all times.  But there were limits.  A decree had to be passed banning chocolate drinks in church during masses.

Those ladies’ world must have shrunk a little on that sad day.

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th CenturyChocolatero, Puebla, early 18th century.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

The Emily Johnston De Forest Collection of Mexican Maiolica.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Hispanic Society of America/New York.  1911.