Archive for the ‘Colonoware’ 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.

Where We All Belong

December 20, 2015

Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them.  This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.

Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure.  European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since.  Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’  Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations.  It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money… 

From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans. 

These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares.  But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile.  So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times.  They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire.  A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes. 

Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics.  It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.

Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters.  Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.  

And why not?  Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery.  Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.

Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status.  Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name.  But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic.  And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries.  Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.

Readings:

Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

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

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.