Archive for the ‘Latin America’ Category

The World Wide Web

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: The Beat Goes On

May 10, 2015

Central Mosque Djenne 1984 Once again, a big thanks to Rob Hunter and his inspired Ceramics in America 2014 ‘top ten’ issue. 

If my "Hit Parade" were to be about looks alone, I might have included the creative slip applications of English Mocha ware, or the bizarre, twisted explorations of George Orr, or the brilliant cobalt blues of German Westerwald salt-fired stoneware, or the wood-fired stoneware of Richard Bresnahan with whom I did my apprenticeship, etc, etc. etc.

But the genius of this exercise is to explore pottery’s intimate walk with humanity through the ages.  And it invites musing on one’s own relation to this incredible field as well.  Narrowing that down to ten entries is challenge enough!

For example, I could have easily included the Absalom Steadman stoneware jug c. 1823 which received the highest price paid at auction for early American pottery, thus illuminating the status of historic pottery in today’s art economy.  The 1840 William Henry Harrison transfer print pitcher by David Henderson speaks volumes about the part ceramics played in the development of our national politics.  The 11th century Central Mosque in D’jenne, Mali is the world’s largest adobe clay structure.  (But what’s that silly tourist doing there?)  Potters for Peace’s Filtron water purifier project highlights the enormous contributions of pottery to rural community development efforts.  The black pottery of Maria Martinez offers a classic example of pottery and cultural revitalization.  And the curious parallels between Richard Bresnahan’s unique wood firing process and astro-physics is fodder for an entire book in itself.

Every picture tells a story.  So does every pot.  The thing is, when it comes to pottery history’s ‘top 10,’ the story itself is quite often where it’s at.

And the beat goes on

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.

On The Road Again

October 28, 2012

potter

You arrive after a nine hour drive.  Your spot is half taken over by another vendor, unwittingly moved there by promoters with too much going on to know better.  Your new spot puts you right where the wind hits hardest and the sun blasts down on you all day.  The promoters schedule all sorts of musicians, games and other “family friendly” activities to make the show “more attractive.”  This strategy works: parents flock to the show looking only to cheaply entertain their kids.  The few actual buyers are equally distracted by all the fun…

Anyone who scratches out a living selling pots at craft fairs can tell this story.  Booth fees, hotel expenses, gas, food, several days away from the shop.  And for what?

Selling pots was a different game in the early 18th century.  Peddlers strapped wooden boxes full of pots on their backs and walked from town to town until everything was sold.  Rain or shine.  In England, both makers and buyers had a name for these particular peddlers.  “Potters” of course.  It was an excruciatingly limited career.  English “potters” disappeared with the rise of toll roads, canals and trains.

But those days aren’t really past.  Women potters in rural Central America still do this.  They balance pots atop their heads and set out on foot to the nearest market town, often several hours away.  Once there they walk the streets hoping to sell.  They can’t be out too late or the walk home will be in the dark.  Very dangerous.  They’re exhausted, with many pots often unsold.  Just then “middle men” in trucks appear out of nowhere.  They offer pennies for the unsold pots.  Everybody knows these guys will drive to much better market areas and make far greater profits.  But what choice is there?

The daughters of these potters see how hard the work is.  How dirty it is.  How little pay there is.  Various “free trade” agreements flood market towns (their life blood) with cheap plastic stuff from China.  It’s no surprise that pottery, once a defining aspect of the local culture, is rapidly fading.  The loss is staggering.

…Back at that silly “family friendly” show, one ponders the arc of progress over the course of years and miles.

Reading:
The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.  John Thomas. Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques.   Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

The Ghost of Arturo Machado

July 3, 2011

(a brief autobiographical detour)

I worked with Potters for Peace in Nicaragua, Central America, in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.  One of my assignments was in Somoto near the Honduran border, with the Taller de Ceramica Porcelanizada Arturo Machado (The Arturo Machado Porcelaneous Ceramic Studio).  Somoto was for a time hotly contested during the Contra War.  The pottery was a municipal training project for evacuees brought into town to create “free fire zones” in the surrounding countryside.

The Somoto shop made stoneware, utilizing abundant local raw materials particularly suited to high fired work.  The shop was run by Lucilla Figueroa.  Lucilla was the first (and only?) female stoneware potter in the region.  She grew up in nearby Mozonte where she was the only girl accepted into a pottery training project run by a man named Arturo Machado.  Arturo had died prior to my arrival.  Lucilla named the shop in his honor.

Whenever I was in town, I stayed in an apartment attached to the shop.  One night during a firing, Lucilla began talking about Arturo.  She said his ghost often came around at night during firings.  Once he scattered the kindling used to preheat the kiln.  Another night he gave Lucilla electric shocks every time she opened doors.  “So what about him?”  I asked.  “He’s here.  I just heard him,” she said.  Where?  In your room.  Bumping around.

It was about midnight.  I always kept my room locked.  “Yeah, right.”  I went to my door, outwardly disbelieving, but inwardly…

I survived the night (and the year that followed).  Arturo is still probably out there, checking out firings.  Lucilla had a rougher time, but she’ll be the one to tell that story.

The only reason for relating this tale, is as an example of just how deep these people’s roots went into their soil.  They seemed to spring up from the clay they used.  In comparison, I knew practically nothing about the culture that brought me into the world.  I don’t mean it’s history – presidents, wars, TV shows, etc. – I mean the point of it all.  What about my roots?

From time to time we should all ask ourselves that question.

Denver

June 27, 2009

In the summer of 2001, I was in Denver, Colorado for a board meeting of Potters for Peace.  During this time a group of us visited the Denver Art Museum’s permanent exhibition of Pre Columbian Ceramics.  It is a truly awe inspiring collection, perhaps the best in the country.

Quite a few pieces there were decorated with a thick, pasty, orange colored engobe known in the Central American Nahuatl language as “Tague” (prononced “taug-weh”).  But on others, the tague seemed thin, almost like a stain.  As I was contemplating these pieces, a thought struck me. I had to go back and check the labels.  Sure enough, all of the pieces with the thin tague were tomb relics (as was almost everything else in the exhibit, admittedly).

Reflecting on the Meso American cultures that produced these works, one trait seemed to stand out: their particularly violent relationship to things religious.  I have never seen any mention of the possibility, but of one thing I was sure:  That wasn’t tague I was looking at.  It was blood.

The First Pot Made in America

May 27, 2009

A story circulates about how pottery began: “Once upon a time a caveman coated reed baskets with clay.  When the baskets no longer served he threw them away.  Some baskets landed in the fire.  When the reeds burned off the fired clay remained.  Seeing the hardness of the fired clay, the caveman got an idea…”

An entertaining image.  But pottery’s historical beginnings are far more complex, and more fascinating.  Pottery “began” in different places at different times for a different reason in each locale.  In the America’s, evidence points to a surprising birth (or at least ‘first’) place: the Brazilian Rain Forest.  Over 7,500 years ago, people of the Mina culture were making small bowl shapes resembling the later “tecomate” or cooking dish.  Some of these first pots are plain, others are elaborately incised.  Even at this early date the Mina people knew to temper their clay with sand or ground shells to improve thermal shock.  In fact none of the excavations done so far have dug down to the earliest inhabited layers.

Who were these people and what were they doing?  Nobody can say.  Later inhabitants of the area seemed to use similar bowls to create intoxicating brews for ceremonial and trade reasons. 

Recognizing these people’s accomplishments might not assist in marketing wares today (unless you’re into intoxicating brews).  But I believe that any attempt to understand the family tree to which we as potters and as humans belong leads to an intrinsic benefit: Respect for our craft and our family.

Readings:

The Emergence of Pottery.  Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies. Barnett and Hoopes, ed.s.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 1995.

1491.  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Charles C. Mann.  Knopf/New York.  2005.