Archive for the ‘traditional pottery’ Category

The Hit Parade #1: Lard Pot

April 26, 2015

As mentioned, sequence of appearance here doesn’t imply hierarchy.  But number’s 1 and 10 make nice ‘book-ends.’

Brooks Lard Pot.php Put a group of potters in a room and tell them all to make the same form.  Each will be different.  Each potter puts their own personality into it.  We’ve all been taught to “put yourself into it” – even if we aren’t sure how, or can’t do it very well.

What if the potters in that room were encouraged instead to “put some humanity into it?”  Who can say what that means?

It used to mean pots like the one shown here.  The term “Lard Pot” refers to one use out of many over the course of a millennia.  And along with being a distinct shape during that entire time, within this form lay the seeds of almost all others in the Euro-American potting repertoire; adding a handle makes a ewer; a lid makes a cook pot; holes make a strainer; constricting the opening makes a jug…

When a form spawns so many others, but still distinctly manifests itself over centuries by thousands of potters, across a vast geographic expanse, using different clays, different wheel types, different kilns, in different cultures, even for different final uses, we should take note.

The pot shown here was a truly collaborative effort between makers, materials, markets and time.  It taps into something far deeper than individual taste.  Of course, the old potters were probably too busy just trying to survive to see it that way.

The days when these pots dominated the scene ended fairly recently, just a couple hundred years ago or so.  (That’s something to consider when pondering the trajectory of modern pottery making.)  And it’s fair to say that since then we’ve made quite a few interesting pots by ‘putting ourselves into it.’  The world will always be better off whenever people recognize that everyone has a story that deserves to be told.

But it’s reassuring to know, as we flail about trying to distinguish ourselves from the crowd, that the old ‘lard pots’ existed.  They gave a solid foundation to our own explorations in clay.  More importantly, they were integral to the survival and growth of the world that gave us our existence.

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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.

 

What’s Fair And What Isn’t

December 26, 2011

“You’re really into brown, aren’t you?”
– a comment by a neighboring vendor to a redware potter at a modern “contemporary art” craft fair.

We’ll start big and work down.  If all of humanity that ever lived were gathered together, the 21st century contingent would probably be regarded as the strangest bunch.  Within the 21st century, Americans are definitely the most unusual (instantly apparent to anyone spending time outside our borders).  In the US, artists are considered the oddballs.  In the art community, potters are oddballs out in left field.  In the pottery community, redware potters are oddballs in the left field bleachers.  By this measurement, 21st century American redware potters are some of the most bizarre people the planet has ever known.

To complicate matters, the art field places a high value on change.  “What’s new this year?”  Some might think being “new” would be irrelevant to redware.  It’s all “reproduction” right?  Discriminating buyers might value authenticity, but most people look for novelty.

A brief tour of antiques auction web sites is instructive.  Novelty is prized here as much as anywhere.  The most bizarre items with decorative techniques, forms, and/or color palettes that normally shouldn’t be there are there.  The “Keep Me” value assured their survival.

But the overwhelming majority of production during redware’s hay day (c.1730 – 1830) was items like milk pans.  Cheese was the “white meat” of the yeoman diet during most of this time.  Broad, shallow milk pans (aprox. 14″ dia.) allowed for easy skimming of cream for cheese and butter processing.  Being lead glazed hardly mattered.  Lead leaches in contact with acidic materials, but milk is alkaline.  A perfect use for all that dairy in refrigerator-less times.

Goshen, CT potter Hervey Brooks wrote in his ledgers of throwing 14 dozen milk pans in aDodge Kiln Diagram day.  The uniformity achieved by continually cranking out milk pans was  amazing.  Uniformity was necessary for the dense stacking patterns in the old shelf-less kilns.

But today’s dairy industry would laugh at milk pans.  And in the modern house where would they go?  They’re so big.  The milk pan was doomed to extinction.  So for the modern potter in love with early redware, to be “historically authentic” means filling your shop with stuff nobody uses or wants.  Death by the Keep Me value.

The poor milk pan.  It just isn’t fair.

Readings:

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

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

Norwalk Potteries.  Andrew and Kate Winton.  Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH.  1981.

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

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

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware.  Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.

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

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence.  Exhibition Catalogue.  Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA.  1984.

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

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.

Teapot as Teapot

April 10, 2011

Traveling south on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, just past Exit 23 for Whately (near mile marker 32.2), you can see on the right at the end of a frontage road an old farmhouse facing the highway.  Originally, this house faced north, perpendicular to the road.  It was moved sideways to avoid demolition when I 91 was built.  Somebody knew who used to live there and didn’t think the place should be razed, it’s history forgotten.  At the beginning of the 19th century it was the home of Thomas Crafts. Thomas Crafts Portrait

Here in 1806 Thomas Crafts began a lead glazed earthenware  “Tea  Pot Manufactory.”  He, a younger brother and a boy employed to wedge clay threw 2,067 dozen teapots a year for 27 years.  Some sold locally, but most went to New York and Pennsylvania, at $1.00/doz. wholesale.  That a rural potter in the early 1800’s could successfully compete with English “Brown Betty” teapots was remarkable.

Anyone lucky enough to have held a Crafts teapot can understand the feat.  His teapots were impeccable.  Paper thin.  Their super glossy jet black glaze needed two firings, unusual for any redware pottery at the time.  Sanford Perry, another Whately potter, developed the technique in1805, basing it on the “Jackfield” glaze originally from Shropshire, England.

Rumor had it that Crafts stole the Jackfield recipe, then muscled Perry out of town in 1822.  The actual record is more honorable (and amiable).  Perry voluntarily sold the recipe to Crafts (they may have been partners) and moved back to Troy NY, his hometown, to get into the more profitable stoneware business.

The Crafts manufactory marked the transition from rural pottery to factory.  Thomas certainly saw it that way.  He trained several brothers, sons, nephews, and at least one niece in the trade.  He probably also trained Stephen Orcutt, head of the Orcutt potting clan.  Crafts switched to stoneware when river and canal transportation allowed shipping of Amboy, NJ stoneware clay to Whately in 1833.  Soon thereafter he exported his pots and his progeny all over New England.

A curious window into the mentality of the Crafts family during that time can be seen in a bizarre “grotesque” pitcher they made at the beginning of the stoneware business in 1833.  An ugly face was applied to the front and “United We Stand Divided We Fall, 1833” stamped on the back.

But a Crafts teapot is, for me, the quintessential expression of a classic form.  Every element necessary to the pot’s function and precisely proportioned.  Absolutely harmonious.  No superfluous decoration.  No attempt to be anything but a teapot.  Teapot as teapot.  Perfection.

Crafts Teapot

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

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

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware. Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.

The Faces of Romeo

October 25, 2010

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love.”
Mercutio

Face jugs are among the most talked about examples of 19th century American pottery.  There is no lack of debate over when, where, and why these oddities were first made.  Since people began making pots, they have put faces on them.  But American salt fired stoneware faces hold a unique fascination due their particularly rough, “grotesque” appearance.

The standard narrative begins with a late 19th century interview between ceramic historian Edwin Atlee Barber and Thomas Davies of the Edgefield pottery district town of Bath, South Carolina.  According to Mr. Davies, the first face jugs were made by his slave potters around 1862.  Both men attribute the faces to some crude ‘African Art’ impulse.  Almost all ensuing discussion has been just added detail.  Some faces may have been made for slave graveyards.  Other potters, slave and free, Southern and beyond, also made them but the South Carolina contingent insists on genesis.

The 1862 date references the 1858 arrival of 137 people kidnapped from Cameroon, West Africa, smuggled into South Carolina via Georgia, and sold as slaves 4 decades after the US banned such importation.  One of these people, called Romeo, was bought by one of the pottery making plantations near Davies’ place.  Barber’s none too delicate “African Art impulse” comment (see Comments below) has narrowed to Romeo making or inspiring the first faces – no one knows if he actually worked in a pottery.  If Romeo came from Cameroons’s Fang tribe this would neatly tie the graveyard thesis with Fang “byeri,” wooden ossuary figurines made to protect ancestral bones.

But everyone from Barber to Picasso, who was floored by the ‘crude animalism’ of African masks he copied for his Demoiselles D’Avignon, was more influenced by their own education than by what was in front of them (see Comments below).  These were not random childish expressions.  Years of specialized training went into creating sculptures like the byeri.  Access to them was highly restricted.  When seen, they were usually so coated in years of libations they would hardly have been recognizable (museum examples are typically cleaned and polished).

American face jugs display a far more generic style, regardless of when or where they were made.  Maybe they look the way they do because their makers were simply never trained in facial modeling.  And being made by Edgefield slaves doesn’t preclude the possibility that others made them for their own reasons, entirely unconnected to Davies and Romeo.

By all appearances it seems that face jugs were one of the few genuinely bi-racial American folk art expressions.  Louis Brown, a traditional North Carolina potter, put it this way: “I don’t think they really meant anything.  The public takes it as a joke.  I’ve seen people get mad.  One would accuse another that he looks like that.  But I guess that’s what sells them.”

South Carolina Face Jugs, circa 1862

South Carolina Face Jugs, circa 1862

Readings:

Carolina Clay, Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave. Leonard Todd.  WW Norton & Co.  New York.  2008.

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Charles Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill.  1986.

Art and Society in Africa. Robert Brain.  Longman Group Ltd./New York.  1980.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain. Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.