Archive for the ‘Pottery Types’ Category

The Pottery War

July 25, 2021

When Japanese Shogun Hideyoshi invaded southern Korea as part of an unrealized invasion of China, his forces raided villages for potters with knowledge of advanced Chinese ceramic technology. This action greatly bolstered the Muromachi era of blossoming Japanese ceramic art. Hideyoshi’s invasion is sometimes called the Pottery War.

But of course anytime we use the word “war” we should understand the true nature of that word. In this instance, it meant villages razed, families murdered, people ripped from their ancestral homes and forever enslaved on foreign shores.

A closer look reveals Hideyoshi’s maneuvers as part of a much broader war, including the Portuguese swath of destruction across the Indian Ocean that initiated Europe’s China Trade era along with ensuing Dutch and English piracy on the open seas against Portuguese porcelain traders. Or the ascendency of Delft during a time of civil war in China that closed European access to export porcelain.

But also consider the implosion of the Egyptian Fatamid Caliphate which ejected tin-glazed pottery (and potters) into the Mediterranean world. Or the Christian conquest of Spain which brought that same maiolica to Italy. Or maiolica’s spread through central and eastern Europe by anabaptist Habens fleeing religious persecution. Or Counter-Reformation ravages that led fleeing stoneware potters to Germany’s relatively quite Westerwald district. Or the seditious act of making redware during the lead-up to the American War of Independence. Or virtually everything to do with Mexican maiolica. Etc. etc. etc… If one includes the machinations of today’s mining industry in its quest for cobalt, copper, and other minerals useful to potters, this war can be understood as never ending.

None of this offers a terribly flattering perspective when considering the works of today’s many talented ceramic artists. But there it is – another of those rare moments when pottery history echoes the words of The Jefferson Airplane’s vocalist Grace Slick way back in 1969: “Everything we do either makes noise or stinks.”

These words are not intended as a diatribe against making pottery. Far from it. Rather, we potters should know the full measure of our chosen field. Doing so provides us an intimate appreciation of the immense gift and privilege inherent in the words “standing on the shoulders of giants,” ie; the sacrifice of so many who gave so much so we can do all the things we do.

Don’t shy away from this collective past. Learn from it. Build from it.

Just One Year

June 27, 2021

cleaning one’s office space during a pandemic may uncover old relics that now look entirely different than when first acquired.

Many years ago a list of questions circulated at an NCECA conference, aimed (primarily, I believe) at ceramic art student attendees. The intention was to encourage critical evaluation of one’s work. One of the questions on this list, however, exemplifies a sort of ‘art school trope’ that too often continues unexamined into a professional potter’s career.

To wit: “If you had one year left to live, how would this affect the pots you make?”

Obviously, the point is to examine why what you make is so important to you. But, considering it’s full implications, this question is largely premised on privilege and shallowness.

What you might make knowing the end is neigh could well be something without value of any kind beyond what you feel while making it. As such – the privilege part – the question implies that earthly things like paying bills, supporting families, and interests of people who buy from you are, at best, secondary.

Equally, the question ignores potential consequences – the shallowness part – of not thinking in the long term, or about anyone but yourself. Honing skills takes time. Operating entirely ‘in the moment’ suggests a near total lack of concern for the finished product or, again, needs of others.

Customers, clientele, audience, community, followers, or whatever you call those who buy your work, are necessary and co-equal partners in your or any professional artist’s enterprise. Their participation provides not only the capital needed to stay afloat, but valuable insight into how effectively you express your thoughts and skills. Without their input, you simply cannot work at this level (unless you or your spouse are independently wealthy, see the privilege part).

Tropes reinforce biases more often that they define reality; “those who can’t do it, teach it,” (said mostly by students); “if you make things to sell you’re simply a ‘commercial artist’ whereas the true ‘fine artist’ makes things for themselves,” (the literal definition of a ‘hobbyist’); “if it’s made well, you’ll find a buyer” (just about any craft fair proves there is no accounting for taste). Of course, for better or worse some tropes do hold up: “a blue glaze will probably sell well.”

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.

Let It Be

September 8, 2019

“European ceramics were forever indebted to superior Chinese efforts, once exposed to those wonders.”

This nugget of received wisdom, initiated by a continent-wide, 200 year long porcelain recipe hunt, permeates the study of European ceramics from roughly the 16th century onward. That perspective even percolated down to the Fine Arts studio ceramics narrative after Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) put celadon, tenmuku, and other Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) stonewares on unimpeachable pedestals; many of these glaze types remain to this day (in name at least) routine options in European and American studios.

But what drove the West’s China obsession during the centuries preceding Leach’s book were not Imperial Sung jewels, but hybridized, prosaic Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) export porcelains. Few westerners even knew of those exquisite Imperial examples before the Middle Kingdom’s late 19th century implosion, just decades before Leach began his pottery career.

More to the point, export production was almost from the start led by aesthetic and functional dictates of the “devils of the western ocean.” These dictates stemmed from a highly refined Iberian, Mediterranean, and ultimately Islamic enameled earthenware tradition – which, incidently, also heavily influenced initial Chinese blue and white development. This earthenware tradition, plus a mature northern European understanding of high temperature materials and kilns, had already established ceramics as fine art worthy of Europe’s idle rich. China’s inspiration could not have been absorbed and acted upon without these pre-existing conditions.

Now consider post-China trade Europe, ie; the Industrial Revolution. Porcelain was by then widely produced throughout the continent. But the masters of the Industrial Revolution instead ran with earthenware clay and glaze materials combined with scientific analysis, increased machine power, and efficient transport of bulky supplies and fragile finished products (and a heavy dose of child labor, but that’s another story). Chinoiserie was certainly a popular decorative option, but one of many. The Industrial Revolution transformed earthenware into fine art and fine dining utensils available to nearly every level of society – a truly revolutionary development.

Interaction with China over the centuries has left an enormous and indelible mark on European and American ceramics. But leaving it at that is almost like writing a 300 page book on the history of Rock and Roll, 250 pages of which are about the Beatles. Yes, of course the Fab Four were musical geniuses who cast a long shadow.

But 250 pages? Really?

Readings:

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach. Transatlantic Arts/New York. 1940.
The White Road. Edmund DeWaal. Chatto and Windus/London. 2015.

The World Turned Upside Down

June 9, 2019

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” makes sense only when one looks backward. It’s cold comfort to anyone facing an uncertain future. Still, some things actually do happen for a reason.

In the early 18th century, for example, French king Louis XIV found himself once again out of money. His costly wars against the English and Dutch (i.e.; the War of Devolution, the Dutch War, the War of the Spanish Succession, etc.) led him to enact various Sumptuary Laws restricting the amount of silver, gold, and other metals that the flock of aesthete nobility around him could flaunt. The Sun King needed precious metals to fill his coffers and base metals to make his cannons.

This situation turned out to be very good for the potters of France, and it’s a fair bet they knew this. After all, their wares could not be melted down into ingots or shot. French potters, inspired and instructed by Italian tin glaze potters, had mastered the “grand feu” maiolica process in the mid 16th century. By Louis XIV’s reign, they greatly expanded their color pallette with the “petit fuefaience enameling process. A host of new, flamboyant styles burst on the scene.

The Rayonant style, inspired by Japanese Imari porcelain (then all the rage) defined French Rococo faience. Armorial plates were a big part of this new French work. Faience parlant (speaking faience), with imagery featuring cartoons and text, was equally popular.

Another unusual style was called Singerie. It featured monkey imagery – “singe” means “monkey” in French. Prancing, mischievous monkeys hopped across a wide variety of wares. They were so mischievous they hopped across national boundaries to create a continent-wide fashion. Monkeys were seen on English tankards, chopping down trees full of eligible bachelors to the delight of on-looking maidens. In sprawling Portuguese tiled murals, they were livery attendants to sumptuous weddings of hens

An entire genre of prancing, mischievous monkey pottery came into being because of the proclivities of a powerful man with no sense of fiscal responsibility.

Of course this result only makes sense if looked at, mischievously, backwards. If one looks the other way, and tries to discern possible future outcomes of a man who is today in a position of power and who has absolutely no sense of responsibility – fiscal or otherwise – one can only imagine what mischievous results we might end up with…

Marraige of the Hen

Readings:

Tin-Glazed Earthenware In North America. Amanda Lange. Historic Deerfield/Deerfield, MA. 2001.

Gifts for Good Children; The History of Children’s China, 1790 – 1890. Noel Riley. Richard Dennis Publishing/Somerset, England. 1991.

Azulejos; Masterpieces of the National Tile Museum of Lisbon. Editions Chandeigne/Paris. 2016.

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.

Tamales

August 5, 2018

The Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is arranged on three floors. The top floor displays contemporary work. The middle floor features artists from the past 200+ years of what is now the US. And the first floor contains Pre-Columbian and Native American art. Questions could be raised about this benignly implied chronological layout, as many of the Native American works were made well after much of the art on the floors above it.

…But the topic here is tamales. So never mind…

The first things you see upon entering the Wing’s first floor are three large Pre-Columbian ceramic jars. These imposing, highly ornate, earthenware containers are described as ossuaries or funeral urns. The honorary storage of human remains occurs throughout the history of ceramic usage and continues today in the form of urns for people’s ashes. I cannot doubt the curators’ classification of these objects.

However, several years ago I attended a talk by foodways historian Dr. Frederick Opie titled “Earthenware: A History of Table Traditions and Related Recipes.” During the presentation, Dr. Opie mentioned a feast somewhere in Pre-Columbian Central America at which the regal host gifted a very large quantity of tamales to a visiting dignitary.

The tamales had to be put in something, and ceramics were the go to containers of the day. My conception of those MFA funerary jars shifted radically when I imagined them being stuffed full not of human bones but of tasty tamales and presented, quite probably along with the chef who made the tamales and the potter who made the jars, to a visiting noble. This image catapulted the MFA jars beyond the austere, quasi-religious domain of funeral art and into the raucous realities of traditional competitive feasts.

A disclaimer here: Although I had eaten tamales before, I fell in love with them many years ago during a sojourn in Nicaragua. A bicyclist traversed the neighborhood every day hawking tamales from a basket on his handlebars. They were still hot, fresh from his mom’s kitchen just around the corner. To die for.

I am impressed by the iconic formality of the MFA containers. But we needn’t always consider ornate Pre-Columbian ceramics to be intended strictly for religious ceremonies. When I think of jars like these being crammed full of tamales and presented as gifts of high honor, I can only smile.

Readings:

Earthenware: A History of Table Traditions and Related Recipes. Dr. Frederick Douglas Opie. 2015 NCECA Conference Keynote Presentation. Providence, RI. March 25, 2015.

The History of Art, Second Edition. H.W. Janson. Prentis Hall/New York. 1977.

MFA Jars

The Illustrious Client

June 10, 2018

Meditations on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Sherlock Holmes spars with a nasty cad who is trying to cajole a lovely young heiress into marriage in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” One of the plot vehicles in this case is the fact that Baron Adelbert Gruner, the nasty cad, is also a famous collector of antique Chinese porcelain. He had even published an influential monograph on the topic.

To successfully execute the case, Dr. Watson has to overnight assume the role of a porcelain connoisseur in order to, well, you’ll have to read the story. Suffice it to say that the hapless Watson is found out in short order. Hi-jinx ensue.

Of course, such a fate would befall anyone given the task of becoming a porcelain “expert” in one night – even with the help of Wikipedia and Siri. The rarified environment of the high end antiques market is replete with extremely knowledgeable people for whom not just the history, but the provenance, market value, and current availability of highly desirable objects is of utmost concern. Without these collectors’ efforts there would be precious few museum collections for today’s poor struggling potters to visit in their own endless search for inspiration and edification.

But let’s return to Baron Gruner. “A complex mind, all great criminals have that. Cool as ice, silky voiced, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him – a real aristocrat of crime, with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it.” The wise old adage that ‘one should always except the present company’ is as relevant here as it is anywhere. And checks and balances have evolved over the years to keep transactions as clean as possible. Yet this spectacularly evocative description confronts us with a glimpse into a compromised and complicated issue.

Regardless of today’s honest brokers and good intentions, the trade in expensive and rare antiques from exotic places ever evokes an ignoble, shadowy tinge of past grave digging, historical site despoiling, smuggling, and outright pillaging. But don’t take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s word for this. Just ask any of your archeology friends.

Readings:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Garden City Books/New York. 1930.

The Plundered Past. Karl Ernest Meyer. MacMillan Publishing Company/New York. 1977.

All The Best Rubbish. Ivor Noel Hume. Harper/New York. 1974.

The Name of the Game

August 20, 2017

Suppose your pottery shop has a pretty good reputation. Suppose your neighborhood is full of pretty good pottery shops, maybe 30 or so. Suppose you all make pretty much the same stuff. And suppose you all even formed a collective of sorts to help everyone manage business. Now suppose that “neighborhood” covers only 2 or 3 city blocks. And suppose that “reputation” means an entire continent eagerly standing in line to buy your neighborhood’s handiwork.

About 340 years ago those “neighborhood potteries” were in the town of Delft. That “collective” was the Guild of St. Luke. And that “reputation” ruled Europe for almost a hundred years.

A question arises. Why didn’t those Dutch potteries sign their work? With such high demand, and in such tight quarters – 2 or 3 city blocks! – why did they opt for anonymous group identity over individual recognition? Today we immediately imagine signing our work as basic marketing. Branding. A signature on a pot seems the most obvious way of saying: “Hey! I’m over here!” But that’s just our perspective.

Delft potteries did ultimately sign their work. Their dominance in Europe, begun during a vacuum left by a prolonged civil war in China with its curtailing of export porcelain production, was being challenged. The war had ended, and Chinese porcelain was back. Also, other European potteries were getting serious about their own faience, porcelain, and creamware. This competition threatened delftware’s very existence. It was sink or swim, so they signed – and most ultimately sank.

But another reason why they began signing pots tells us perhaps as much about ourselves as about them. A faint but fundamental shift had happened. The delftware craze required a consistent commercial ceramic materials supply network. Nobody could do that much production while digging their own clay. Standardized materials ultimately meant easy replication of anything, anywhere, anytime. “Style” as a defining aspect of “tradition” in pottery would no longer be understood as a local distinction, tied to a specific geographic (and geologic) place with unique, communally shared values. Style would now become a showcase for individual expression based, essentially, on looks.

What does all this mean? Maybe not much. These events weren’t the beginning of that change in perception, nor its end. Still, the beginnings of the factory system in ceramics was a “writing on the wall” moment that, ironically, propelled individual fame over collective expression.

Reading:
Delffse Porceleyne, Dutch delftware 1620 – 1850. Jan Daniel van Dam. Wanderers Publishers/Amsterdam, NL. 2004.

Letter to the Editor

July 23, 2017

an example of how the mind rambles during long drives home from shows…

Pushing the Envelope. The Cutting Edge. That’s the ultimate goal. Quite a bit of energy is consumed in that quest. In being out there. But a simple math question offers fodder for further examination: if everyone is out on the cutting edge, is it really the edge?

I can’t recall a time when someone who’s into “pushing the envelope” actually defined what the “envelope” is. What does it encompass? How did the boundaries get set? When? What’s the purpose of boundaries? Before venturing to the rim of what people expect, or understand (Or like? Or need? Or want?), maybe it would be good to pause for a moment and ask “Why?”

A lot of assumptions go into the desire to challenge the envelope. It’s equated with boredom – been there, done that. Perhaps. But if you aspire to earn your living making art, you should ponder these assumptions carefully. On a very basic level, art is communication. Communication implies reaching out to others. It requires at least a modicum of common ground. Is common ground “the envelope?”

This is a good question for makers of traditional crafts, although it might not seem so at first. After all, the canon has been established long ago. The style is set. The forms are defined. But just under that stern, utilitarian surface lies a deep vein of quirky, flamboyant, ironic, piercing playfulness. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It’s a trail that’s hard to resist, and it quickly leads to a boundary; When is it no longer “traditional?”

It’s nearly impossible to be a “traditional” purist today. Or at least to expect to make a living as a purist. We have to push it. Market forces, in part, dictate the boundaries of our envelope. But pushing the envelope is just one part of the job description for making pottery (and most especially – showing my bias here – for “traditional” pottery). There’s also consistency, empathy, and skill. What’s the ultimate point; making something different that looks kinda neat, or making something that’s the best you can make?

In the end, I can only say that it really isn’t that hard to push the envelope. The envelope is a pretty fragile thing.