Archive for the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Category

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February 26, 2017

“Don’t it always go to show…”

While reading Alan Caiger-Smith’s book about luster pottery a little while ago, I came across a comment he made concerning the occasional odd pairing of “cryptic sayings” with seemingly unrelated floral imagery on 13th century luster ware from Kashand, Persia (that’s me on a Friday night – a real party animal!).  I was reminded of the unusual sayings scrawled around the rims of many Pennsylvania tulip ware pie plates.  Is this just a funny little bit of irony, or is there more to the story?

It shouldn’t be surprising that these two unique pottery types, separated by a continent, an ocean, six centuries, and distinct decorative characteristics, share a bit of irony.  They both stem from same root.  So much stems from this root.

What began as a 9th century interaction of painted decoration on white glazed pottery between T’ang China and Abbasid Iraq bounced back and forth between potters on every continent – except Antarctica – who both drew inspiration from, and offered inspiration to others.  This train of thought spanned the globe – sometimes as porcelain, sometimes as tin-glazed earthenware, sometimes as lusterware, sometimes as sgraffito decorated redware.  It defined entire cultures – sometimes in the guise of luxury goods, and sometimes as “folk” pottery.  It built and destroyed fortunes.  It prompted industrialization.  It supplied the needs of those on the fringes of empires.

Anything that pervasive for that long must have had a ‘thumb on the pulse’ of essential human creativity and expression.

The standard narrative says the idea collapsed around the end of the 19th century.  Modernism swept all before it.  In reality, this family of floral decorated pottery adapted and evolved in isolated pockets of production.  Soon enough, people began showing an interest in what happened before.  A revival began to brew, stimulated by appreciation of the stories places can tell via an explosion of tourism in the early 20th century.  An Arts and Crafts Era atmosphere of interest in the hand-made equally spiced things up enough for later generations to catch on (at least in parts of Europe and America).

Today, a small band of intrepid souls delves back into this venerable train of thought by making work in these earlier styles.  Sometimes they start from scratch, sometimes they pick up where others left off.  Will they be little seedlings that keep the genus alive and moving forward?

“…You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” 

Readings:

Luster Pottery.  Alan Caiger-Smith.  New Amsterdam Books/New York.  1985.

Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

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.”

Jugtown, USA

October 14, 2012

“Get big or get out.”
Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, Nixon Administration.

They say potters make good cooks.  Some do.  More to the point, for ages having things to put things in was crucial to subsistence survival.  (Not that anything’s changed, we just don’t think about it as such).  Obviously diet dictates the containers we need for processing, storing and eating food.  Just as obviously potters across the globe have made these containers for centuries – thus the cooking assumption.

Potters used to congregate where clay deposits and transportation routes coincided to best accomplish their work.  Early on in the US such communities were called “jugtowns.”  Imagine a US map with a shot gun blast through it.  That would be a jugtown map.  They were scattered everywhere.  Some big, many small.  They began in places like Yorktown VA to Charleston MA and beyond.

Some jugtowns got bigger and more organized as time went by and pottery technology evolved.  Particularly in pottery neighborhoods of Bennington VT, Utica and Albany, NY, Portland, ME, Trenton, NJ, and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.

But all that was prologue.  The big break out followed the westward migration across Indian lands.  Gigantic jugtowns – factory towns really – sprouted up, pushed west by the railroads.  East Liverpool, OH, Monmouth, IL, Redwing, MN.  After Redwing, new jugtowns were unnecessary.  By then railroads could deliver crockery just about anywhere.

But something else was at play.  Advances in glass, canning and refrigeration radically changed food preparation, storage and even menus.  The need for things to put things in was forever altered.  Big proved fatal.  Pottery faded to irrelevance.

The food industry certainly made pottery important.  But food almost killed pottery as well.  Interest in hand made pottery was just barely kept alive through China painting, the Arts and Crafts movement, and (later) even the GI Bill.  But then Ray Kroc and his ilk whacked us with “fast food.”  There’s little need for a plate or even a paper bag when eating a sandwich, burger or wrap.

About all that’s left for potters today is the ‘moral high ground’ of aesthetics.  This was evident even in the founding of “Jugtown” NC back in 1922.  Nice, but not critical to most household budgets.

Of course many modern potters can eloquently defend their existence.  Still, without a clear idea of where we’re coming from how do we know where we’re going to?

Readings:
American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

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

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.

Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition.  Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

Clay in the Hands of the Potter.  Rochester Museum and Science Center.  An exhibition of pottery manufacture in the Rochester and Genesee Valley Region c. 1793-1900.  1974.

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

The Pottery of Whately, Massachusetts.  Leslie Keno.  Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program/Deerfield, MA.  1978.

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

Turners and Burners.  Terry Zug.  University of North Carolina Prerss/Chapel Hill, NC.  1986.