Archive for the ‘Women potters’ Category

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

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The Hit Parade #2: The Scarab Vase

April 19, 2015

ScarabVase The Scarab Vase is why we have terms like “tour de force.”  It is Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s undisputed American Arts and Crafts era masterpiece.

Every inch of this 17" tall porcelain vase’s surface is covered with intensely detailed carvings.  It’s proportions are pure perfection.  Legend has it that the vase developed a huge crack after months of carving the scarab beetle-inspired patterns.  Many a potter would have been crushed.  Adelaide didn’t give up.  She repaired the vase and successfully re-fired it.  Thus it entered the halls of history…

They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  As such, a list of items that are ‘beautiful to look at’ (ie: famous for being famous) would be never ending, and ever disputed.  A truer (or at least fuller) appreciation of an item’s impact considers it’s context.  This is where the Scarab Vase stands head and shoulders above the crowd. 

The 19th century American Industrial Revolution destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of small-time individual potters.  Hand made pottery was  moribund.  Late-century China Painting barely kept alive the notion of individualized pottery.

But something was missing.  It’s interesting to witness how people throughout history react when they sense a fundamental loss due to mechanization.  Like the Luddites, or the ‘back-to-the-lander’s.’  Looking back years from now, will some definitive, paradigm-shifting work stand out as a reaction to today’s wireless world?  What would that look like?

At the dawn of the 20th century, the reaction against industrialization looked like “The Arts and Crafts movement.”  This movement, defined by works like the Scarab Vase, reignited interest in hand made pottery in this country.  Today’s potters ply their trade because tenacious people like Adelaide Alsop Robineau prepared the way for us.

The Scarab Vase is one of my all time favorite works of ceramic art.  But when I look at this vase, the word that most often comes to mind is “thanks.”

The Day the World Shrank

April 6, 2014

Before the internet, before the global village, before most people even thought of the planet as a whole, there was Mexican majolica.  The Talavera workshops of Puebla, Mexico produced tin glazed pottery which included the world’s first global imagery.

Potters from Seville, Spain began wheel thrown, glazed pottery in Puebla around 1520.  Everything needed for tin glazing could be found nearby.  This new pottery activity was a ‘men only’ club unlike ‘campesino’ pottery made primarily by women.  Local assistants were trained from scratch.  Most of the extremely talented native potters had been killed (as part of the Aztec literati, they were doomed to extinction).

Mexico was a transit hub for colonial riches flowing from the Pacific to metropolitan Spain.  As such, large shipments of Chinese export porcelain passed through Mexico.  Mexicans were crazy for blue and white.  Talavera’s “refined” ware intentionally imitated the Chinese.

The influence of three continents and four cultures could be seen on Puebla majolica.  Islamic aesthetics encouraged filling the whole space with designs.  European “Istorio” designs focused on narrative stories.  Decorative frills defined the Chinese influence.  And local flora and fauna, such as cacti and jaguars, provided ready inspiration to Mexican potters.  All this on one blue and white surface.  And all this a hundred years before Chinese potteries began slavishly reproducing European designs, or European potteries began slavishly copying Chinese designs.

Things progressed so well that Puebla’s potters formed a guild in 1653.  The Potters Guild regulated production, quality control, sales and (curiously) penalties for counterfeiting.  The Guild folded 100 years later but it’s rules influenced production up to the early 19th century.

Mexicans loved their blue and white majolica.  They especially loved drinking chocolate from majolica mugs.  Well-to-do 18th century Mexican women obsessively drank chocolate from these colorful mugs everywhere and at all times.  But there were limits.  A decree had to be passed banning chocolate drinks in church during masses.

Those ladies’ world must have shrunk a little on that sad day.

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th CenturyChocolatero, Puebla, early 18th century.

Readings:

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

The Emily Johnston De Forest Collection of Mexican Maiolica.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Hispanic Society of America/New York.  1911.

 

Adam Smith Wasn’t Always Right

February 23, 2014

In economics, success and growth walk hand in hand.  Except when they don’t.  George Henderson’s Dorchester Pottery Works in Dorchester, MA started as a large industrial stoneware factory but ended up flourishing as a small family run pottery.

George started the business in 1885.  His factory employed 28 workers who turned out “industrial” salt fired stoneware crocks, acid jars, etc.  George built a gigantic newfangled gas fired downdraft kiln in 1914.  It cost a whopping $250,000 and was one of only two of it’s kind in the nation at the time.

This situation presented George with a choice: continue with salt firing (and what salt would do to his phenomenally expensive kiln) or switch to glazed work.  Glazing meant either an Albany slip or a feldspathic Bristol glaze.  George opted for the Bristol glaze.

The British invented the Bristol glaze as an alternative to both lead and salt.  The off-white Bristol glaze used zinc oxide, calcium, feldspar, and china clay to create the world’s first eutectic “trick.”  That is, by mixing zinc and calcium (both requiring very high temperatures to melt), their combined melting point becomes dramatically lower.  Thus, Bristol glazes matured at low temperatures, speeding up firing time and lowering fuel usage.

America imported Bristol glazes since their creation in the early 19th century.  But potters at the New Orleans Exposition of 1884 were especially impressed.  Before 1920 Bristol was generally used in combination with the black Albany slip glaze.  After 1920, it was pretty much Bristol all the way.

When George Henderson died in 1928, his son Charles struggled with the albatross his dad left him. Demand for industrial wares plummeted during the Great Depression.  In 1940, Charles’ wife Ethel took charge.  Ethel scaled everything way back and switched to just tableware.  In the process, Dorchester became the first American pottery to fully develop the Bristol glaze’s potential for precise detail and extreme control of painted decoration.

For the next 40 years Dorchester turned out decorative tableware.  Many of their most popular designs came from customer suggestions.  Ethel and George were even able to retain a few of the Italian potters George’s dad had imported to work in the factory, including their principle thrower Nando Ricci.

Fire destroyed the building and the business in 1979.  But the Dorchester Pottery Works left behind a reassuring legacy; It’s ok to be small.

Readings:

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition.  Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

 

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.

 

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.

France

July 8, 2012

English pottery history is fascinating.  Diverse regional styles.  Colorful personalities.  International influence.  Few European pottery centers can compare.  Perhaps Delft, Rhenish stoneware, Italian Maiolica and Hispano-Moresque…

This leaves a pretty big hole right in the middle of Europe.  France.  If you’re really up on your history, you’d know that much of English slip decoration – marbling, feathering, sgraffito – originated in the wine regions of 13th – 14th century Plantagenet controlled Aquitaine and Normandy.  Most authors stick to just mentioning Sévres porcelain and Bernard Palissy.

French peasant pottery, like French wine, was ubiquitous.  This ‘redware’ rarely gets a nod.  Troyes pottery maybe.  Or the venerable pottery villages, chiefly La Bourne, of Poitiers.

Faience permeated France by the early 14th century.  It was made everywhere, from obscure places like Sadriac and Amboise to major centers like Havre and Rouen.  It’s expansion wasn’t always peaceful.  18th century Lille faience potters almost waged open warfare against Dunkirk upstarts cutting in on Lille’s turf.  Even minor faience villages like Roanne would erupt against treaties with England (and devastating imports).

The international porcelain market was cut throat at best.  Sévres originated with runaway workmen, its technical know-how stolen via alcoholic subterfuges.  But during the Napoleonic Wars enough porcelain from large (Limoges, Sceaux, etc.) and small (Strasbourg, Marseilles, etc.) centers was smuggled into England to seriously disrupt the market.

Women played a noticeable role as well.  Hélène de Hangest established an early, and long lived, faience pottery on her estate in Oiron.  Hélène’s ardent patronage was key to faience’s spread across France.  When Lille potter Jaques Febvrier died in 1729 his widow Marie Barbe Vandepopelière expanded the shop, marketing heavily to Holland.  Equally, the unnamed widow of Francois Dorez in Valenciennes continued the trade.  When a Lyons faience pottery faltered in 1733 it’s (male) owners ran.  Françoise Blateran kept it going until 1758.  Did Mme Blateran appear out of thin air?  Were “widows” not potters before their husbands’ death?

Anyway, these and many more French potters rarely get the mention they deserve.  In English, at least.  Much of this abbreviated ‘tour de France’ comes from Albert Jacquemart’s “History of the Ceramic Art” (translated into English, 1873).  Then again, Jacquemart’s 613 page “Descriptive and Philosophical Study of the Pottery of All Ages and All Nations” allows 160 pages for French contributions and exactly 5 pages to the whole of English efforts…

Readings:
History of the Ceramic Art.  Albert Jacquemart.  Sampson, Low, Martson and Searle/London (English translation).  1873.

Flow Blue: A Closer Look.  Jeffrey Snyder.  Shiffer Books/New York.  2000.

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

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

 

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.

The Delft Widow

May 15, 2011

Once upon a time, a royal heiress named Jacqueline threw some small jugs she made out the window of a tower she was trapped in.  Thus began pottery making in Holland…

The story loses something in translation.  Actually, it’s just a story.  Holland’s rise to pottery fame (it began over a millennia before) was through the absence of beer.  The Dutch town of Delft’s brewing industry faded in the 1600’s.  Potters claimed the empty buildings.  They gave their new factories colorful names and made tin-glazed ware synonymous with their town’s name.

In 1658 Wouter van Eenhoom began a pottery in an old brewery, dubbing it “The Greek A.”  The factory went to his son in 1674.  The son’s widow took it over nine years later.  “The Metal Pot,” which until 1638 was the “De Ham” brewery, was also periodically owned by widows.  Egbert Huygeusz Sas started “The Golden Boat” in 1613.  His widow ultimately inherited it.

Many “widows” owned Delft pottery factories at one time or other: The Fortune, The Hart, The Young Moor’s Head, The Old Moor’s Head, The Ewer, The Porcelain Bottle…

These widows weren’t mere accidental owners.  Pottery ownership required membership in the Guild of St. Luke.  The Guild kept strict control over the quantity and quality of potteries within it’s domain.  Applicants had to prove their pottery making abilities.

Cornelius van der Hoeve began The Porcelain Claw in 1662.  His foreman, and later partner, was a woman named Oette van Schaen.  In 1668 van der Hoeve was succeeded by Cornelia van Schoonhove.  Just before her death, Cornelia ceded the pottery to her sister, Marie van Schoonhove.  Marie was succeeded by Bettje van Schoonhove.

The Two Poinards was begun and owned for 35 years by Barbara Rottewel.  Her husband, Simon Mes, was not a potter at all but a notary.  Her son succeeded her, then his widow.  Between 1771 – 1790 four Delemer sisters, previously faience dealers, renamed it The Three Bells and ran it as a soft paste porcelain factory.

It isn’t necessary to rely on tales of damsels in distress to recognize the role women played in Delft’s ceramic history.  Nor is it necessary to kill off your husband.  Just a pleasant afternoon of reading is all you need.

Readings:
Delftware, Dutch And English. N. Hudson Moore.  Frederick A. Strokes Company/New York. 1908.

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

…100 Years from Now

October 10, 2010

Eras usually end because nobody cares.  The latest “thing” gets all the attention.  For example, when American hand-made utilitarian pottery died out in the mid 19th century, nobody ran into the street gnashing teeth and pulling hair.

Only with the passage of time can we really understand what happened, our self-absorbed modern penchant for naming current “eras” notwithstanding (ie; The Information Age, The Digital Age, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, etc. etc. etc.). Who really understands what is happening today?  What will they say of us 100 years from now? Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6

But in 1876 something amazing happened.  We looked back.  We  realized the value of something we once had.  And we acted on that realization.

The catalyst was the first World’s Fair to be held in the US, the “International Exposition of 1876” commonly known as the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  The Civil War was over.  People wanted to move on, to show the world our best.  And we invited the world to stand beside us, show us their best.  The result?  America flopped.

We had lost sight of our heritage.  Our past.  Gone were the uniquely American cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Gone were the playful sgraffito worksRedware was a memory.  The daring porcelains, rockinghams, agates, and parians of our pioneering pottery firms had morphed into a soul-less, mass-produced product.

American artisans flocking to the Exhibition saw in the international exhibits a world that knew where it was coming from and where it wanted to go.  Our exhibits confronted our artisans with questions.  “What had we become?”  “What could we become?”  They came away changed.

This was no bunch of hippie luddites.  They were men and women inspired to preserve the past but also to advance American ceramics.  American women were especially motivated by this watershed event.  For many it began with china painting, the first true ‘ceramic-art’ movement in the US.  Two presidential wives and many future leaders in the movement began as china painters.  But any list of Art Pottery leaders must begin with Mary Louise McLaughlin and Maria Longworth Nichols.

Mary Louise McLaughlin’s Centennial experience motivated her to spearhead in 1879 the Queen City OH Pottery Club, America’s first all-women’s pottery organization.  Her efforts set the stage for Rookwood and the blossoming of Art Pottery in Cincinnati.  Rookwood Pottery was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, another Centennial convert.  No other pottery matched Rookwood’s uniquely American style.

But there were many others; Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans founded specifically to instruct young women; Mary Chase Stratton’s Pewabic Pottery in Detroit; Linna Irelan’s Art Pottery in San Francisco, CA, which exclusively used native Californian clays.  These and many more set the stage for Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s porcelain work beginning in 1904 and culminating in her magisterial Scarab Vase.  The stage was set for America’s Arts and Crafts revolution.

As Edwin Atlee Barber said: “The existence of a true ceramic art in this country may be said to have commenced with the Fair of 1876.”  Sometimes its nice to recognize on whose shoulders we stand.

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

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

The Index of American Design. Erwin O. Christensen.  The Macmillan Company/New York.  1950.