Archive for the ‘traditional ceramics’ Category

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.

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Cowboys and Indians

September 8, 2013

First time visitors to the US often travel with (somewhat) irrational fears.  Will gangsters shoot it out while de-boarding the plane?  Our global cultural projection of carnage, sex and twisted history runs deep.  In 1991 a group of Nicaraguan women working in the Matagalpa black pottery tradition traveled with some of this baggage to visit Tewa black pottery descendants of Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso, NM. 

The Potters for Peace facilitated trip was predicated on a question: What would happen if women from very different rural backgrounds who work in a similar style were left alone together for a week?  PFP’s Ron Rivera served as translator and guide. 

Hand-built “black pottery” is burnished to a high gloss, pit fired, and smoked until jet black.  Women throughout the Americas and parts of Africa have made black pottery for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Modern North American black pottery tends to be much more polished and lower fired (thus blacker) than originally.  It’s now considered primarily a decorative art.  

Black potters are intensely proud of their work.  Maria Martinez is perhaps the most famous North American practitioner.  Mexicans might counter that Doña Rosa Real who revived the Oaxaca black pottery tradition in the 1950’s  holds the ‘most famous’ title.  Maria Martinez resuscitated the almost forgotten Pueblo style while working with archeologist Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett at the Frijoles Canyon excavation in 1908.  Maria’s pottery even made Bernard Leach eat crow “…it belonged to America.  North America – it was arresting.”  (An irrelevant point, but I couldn’t resist.)

But women of the northern mountainous coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua say their black pottery making reaches back, unbroken from mother to daughter for over a millennium.  Their work occupies a highly regarded position in the Nicaraguan ceramic world.  Like other black potters  they tend to stick together.  And like other rural Nicaraguan’s they rarely travel far from home.

The New Mexico trip was an eye opener for everyone involved.  The Tewa’s were blown away at the delicacy of form and the superior mirror black polish of the Matagalpan pottery.  The Nica’s were astonished at the Tewas’ playful variations of form and gloss, and at their astronomical prices. 

But another thing perplexed the Nica’s.  One of them took Ron aside.  If these women they had come to visit were real “American Indians,” where were the feathers and tomahawks?

Readings
The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez.  Susan Peterson.  Kodansha International/New York.  1977.

 

Cylinders

December 11, 2011

Everybody likes to look at pictures.  Especially when the topic is pottery.  So when writing about pottery, a sure way to bore readers is to omit pictures of pots.  Perhaps it’s just difficult for some potters to know what’s going on in the story without a picture every now and then to help them out…

Pictures of broken shards probably don’t count.  Even though quite often more of the ‘big picture’ can be learned about a type, technique or trajectory of development than by looking at just the whole thing.

So what about plain unglazed cylinders?  No bottoms, no tops, just plain, straight sided cylinders.  Pretty boring stuff.  But taking a step back to look at the bigger picture can be instructive.  And hopefully, not always boring.

Some Redware potters, like Hervey Brooks of Goshen CT, kept various sized cylinders about the shop.  On hearing of these, my fist thought was trimming chucks.  But Hervey didn’t trim his pots.

One day it hit me – put a cylinder on a table, fill with a material and scoot into a bucket or quern (grinding stone basin). Seven times for lead, once for “loam,” (clay).  Maybe add a little copper or manganese for extra color (or maybe pigs blood, but that’s another story).  An ingenious way to measure out glaze materials.

Works every time.  Hmm.

Ps.  For those who need pictures, here’s a couple cylinders I keep around my shop.  But these actually are trimming chucks.

Chucks

Readings:

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860.  Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta/New York.  1969.

Lead Glazed Pottery.  Edward Atlee Barber.  Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia.  1907.

 

Lard Pot

May 1, 2011

The lard pot.  In relation to today’s efforts to explore clay’s vast plastic  potential, a momentary glance at this form says it all.  A somewhat curvy cylinder.  Big deal.  But nothing is a big deal if you only take a moment to consider it.

First, some history.  The “pot” in question is differentiated from it’s primordial sibling the “pan” by being taller than it is wide.  “Lard pot” is simply a reference to a specific function; storing festering, fly-covered animal fat for use in baking and cooking.  The form served a wide variety of uses both in the U.S. and its original home in Europe and the British Isles.  Several branches of the ceramic family trace their lineage to this original shape; handles led to pitchers; constricted rims became jugs; lids led to bean pots and ultimately casseroles…  But the ‘lard pot’ as a distinct form continued throughout.

Actually this is one of the oldest items in the Anglo-American potting tradition.   It was among the first forms to be made in England’s North American Colonies.  It’s production lasted two millennia until it’s extinction a mere hundred years or so ago.  So ubiquitous was this form that it’s difficult, by sight alone, to ascribe surviving examples to a particular period, place or maker.

The staying power of such a shape – passing through so many generations of hands, so many clays, so many wheels, so many kilns, so many decorative fads, across so many war-torn country sides, buffeted by so many economic and technological storms – is something remarkable.

The lard pot could be placed in a pantheon of archetypal pottery forms, along with other ‘long-distance runners’ like the Spanish/Muslim ánfora, the African beer pot, the Central American comal, and the Asian rice bowl.

Unfortunately, the lard pot epitomizes the clumsy, pedestrian nature of popular contemporary conceptions of early Redware.  But when executed in the hands of a master, it was a study in control.  With no handles, spouts, lids – or even glaze – to hide behind, proportions were critical.  The relation between base, belly and rim had to swell out enough for storage and ease of content removal, without being squat or dumpy.

To make a “lard pot” today is to converse with all those potters who laid out the path before us.  Feeling the old potters presence is a rare thing.  But when it happens, you’re in good company.

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

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

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

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

A Descriptive Dictionary for 500 Years of Spanish-Tradition Ceramics [13th through 18th Centuries].  Florence and Robert Lister.  Special Publication Series, Number 1/The Society for Historical Archeology.  1980.

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

The Sweep Of History

March 27, 2011

George Brooks was one of the signers of a 1783 petition to John Hancock seeking to establish a settlement at Orrington, ME (then still part of Massachusetts).  He set up a pottery shop there and built the town’s first wind-powered gristmill before 1800.  One of his sons, John Brooks, moved to Cincinnati Ohio shortly thereafter and claimed to have built the first steam powered boat on the Ohio River.

Harrison Nash Brooks began working in great grandpa George’s pottery when he was 7.  He would guide the horse that powered the clay sweep, grinding a batch of clay in about an hour.  He was paid a penny for each batch.  Harrison eventually took over the shop.  By 1873 the shop employed 5 men.  They dug their clay from a nearby riverbank. The shop operated about 10 months out of the year, and annually turned out about $3,500 worth of ware, a small to middling enterprise.

Harrison was never himself a professional potter, but he did like puttering about in the shop.  Some time around the turn of the century he retired and moved to Brewer, ME.  There he set up a little pottery in his garage, where he made a few things and sort of offered pottery classes to friends.

Harrison wasn’t very good with glazes and the several kilns he built over the years never worked very well.  His last project was a huge, newfangled “electric kiln,” costing him over $3,000.  His wife and friends implored him to dismantle the beast before he electrocuted himself.  He finally did without ever having used it.

The pottery he personally made tended to be rather heavy.  His glazes were equally thick and problematic.  His one success was his “Laminated Glaze,” a sort of tiger-striped glaze he made up from scratch.

It seems the only thing that really mattered to Harrison Nash Brooks was just being able to play with clay.  Well, that’s good enough for me.

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