featuring Peter Roe, The Shipibo, Pottery History, and The Here and Now.
Peter Roe originally thought he’d be a potter. He ended up an Anthropologist. His research focused on the Shipibo Indians of the Upper Amazonian Ucayaki River. Painted designs permeated Shipibo lives. They were masters of geometric symmetry. They could take any surface and, starting at one end, work across with a perfectly symmetrical design freehand with no pre-planning.
Hotel Tariri, in the Shipibo village where Peter worked, was attempting to cash in on the area’s nascent tourist trade. The hotel was painted in Shipibo-inspired designs to attract guests.
Now we must delve into Shipibo cosmology (much abridged for everybody’s sake). Life is a battle between chaos and order. ‘Good vs. evil,’ if you wish. There will always be both. It’s up to us to keep chaos in check as best we can. The vivid Shipibo geometric patterns expressed this struggle. Bold, erratic, asymmetrical lines bounced all over the place. Neat and tidy symmetrical lines surrounded and corralled the chaos. A sort of design therapy.
The German guy who owned Hotel Tariri had no idea what Shipibo patterns meant. He just laid on a bunch of wild lines. Chaos incarnate. The Shipibo felt his paint job caused needless psychic damage to the universe.
Early 19th century Moravian pottery from Salem and Bethabara in North Carolina featured an amazing visual vocabulary. Moravian slipware decoration included some of the most compelling floral compositions made in North America at the time. These floral designs illustrated Moravian religious views. Certain flowers represented specific saints, religious tenets, etc.
The Here and Now:
Modern redware potters adore the Moravian visual vocabulary. We draw heavily from it in our work. It’s a fair bet to assume we rarely, if ever, take into consideration specific saints’ days when frantically decorating before deadlines.
To be fair, the Moravians’ neighbors bought oodles of their pottery precisely because of the colorful designs – not the Moravian religious system. So modern redware potters probably aren’t major players in today’s psychic damage arena.
But how deep does “inspiration” go – for redware potters or for anyone inspired by imagery beyond their own life experience? Reflecting on the importance of understanding ones sources is always a healthy exercise.
A shot across the bow, in any case.
Symmetry Comes of Age, The Role of Pattern in Society. Dorothy Washburn and Donald Crowe, eds. University of Washington press/Singapore. 2004.
Ceramics in America. Robert Hunter, ed. University of New Hampshire Press/Hanover New Hampshire. 2009.