A Tiny Book of Ceramic Sculptures

It’s almost impossible for me to see a small book and not pick it up. So pick up Ceramic Sculptures. I did. It’s one of those Lark Studio books that are such a pleasure to behold. Nice production. Just a bit larger than one’s hand. A little pocket art gallery.

The truth is, I would rather look at pots or books about pots or photos of kilns and workshops than photos of sculptures. I like sculpture but it seems a bit like poetry to me; good (or what I react to as good) is very moving, but to me, it feels like there is an abundance of mediocre or bad work around. My response to sculpture (and for that matter poetry) is completely personal and irrational, making me a terribly unreliable critic or judge.

Ceramic Sculptures is a good overview of ceramic sculpture today, with many of the big names represented. It was fun to sip a cup of Earl Grey and go through the book page by page. There are some huge omissions. For instance, there is nothing by Joy Brown. How can that be? Perhaps, like many Lark books, this was one where artists had to submit and she didn’t.

Each piece has two facing pages. A color photo of the work is on the right hand page. On the left is the name of the piece, the artist’s name, the size, materials, cone, and processes used. In the back is a listing of the artists with the town and country where they reside, but no website or email. Also, none of the pieces is dated.

One of the nicest features of the book though, is that you can literally flip through it. Because there are photos on all the right hand pages, you can flip the pages from back to front, and have a nice “slide show.” Very cool.

World Enough and Time

Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.

                                                         Theodore Roethke

A few days ago I heard Christian McEwen speak about her new book, World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. She is the sort of woman who exudes serenity. On in years, she has close cropped, thick gray hair yet a face without wrinkles.  She read us an early passage in the book, describing a childhood in which she and her rambunctious siblings made up games to play together in their large old house. I am susceptible to accounts of growing up in rural Scotland, Ireland, and England, so I was immediately taken in. But I have to-do lists that never end, and have never, ever in my life been caught up, so her notion of slowing down both intrigued and horrified me.

After all, cramming as much as possible into each day ensures a full life, doesn’t it? Not according to McEwen: “The human mind is fed and nourished by every sight and smell and sound that we encounter, from the movement of the clouds to the shrill of the birds outside our morning window.” She wants us to slow down enough to notice.

She writes of “hurry sickness” telling us that it “speeds up our hearts and breathing rates.” Instead, she wants us to go for early morning walks like the poet Mary Oliver, to schedule our children less and encourage them to play outdoors, to look at the little things, and savor. McEwen is a poet and a teacher. She began this book as a message to her writing students who she found wanted to do everything as fast as possible. She believes that all creativity is enhanced and nurtured when we slow down, if only a little, and wanted to impart that wisdom to her hurried students.

We all know she is right. She points out that we complain about how busy we are, but perversely take pride in our overwork and busyness. We look askance as people who are not over scheduled.

After I have been at my wheel for ten or fifteen minutes, I begin to feel calm, to focus. I cherish the mornings my granddaughters and I stop whatever we are doing, and together watch the eastern sky over the pastures turn pink as the sun rises. McEwen suggests these moments foster our creativity, and that more such moments in our daily lives would enable us to be more creative. Yes, time spent on nonproductive activities is actually productive.

The book is full of stories and anecdotes as well as McEwen’s deep thinking on the matter of time. She draws on the insights of writers, artists, dancers, philosophers and spiritual leaders. World Enough and Time can be read straight through, or picked up and read a chapter here, a chapter there. I like that. And, collector of quotes myself, I love all the quotations she has gathered and shared.

Here from Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching

We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.

McEwen wrote World Enough & Time for poets but it speaks to potters too.

Domestic Pottery of the Middle Ages

Fifty years ago the British archaeologist Dudley Waterman painstakingly drew each of the pots that the Yorkshire Museum had at that time acquired. The pots were made over the course of 400 years, from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Waterman’s line drawings are primarily side views cut in half, with the right side showing the exterior of the pot, and the left showing the pot as if it had been sliced open.  In addition, there are a few drawings of details. If you are looking for inspiration or information, these drawings are a modern potter’s dream.

Forty years later, with the collection of pots enlarged, the Museum produced Medieval Pottery in the Yorkshire Museum. It’s a wonderful volume. The book includes photos, Waterman’s drawings, new drawings in the same style by Trevor Pearson and others, and informative text by Sarah Jennings. There are also maps and charts and enchanting drawings of workshops, a kiln and the pots in use after depictions in contemporaneous manuscripts.

Jennings divides the wares into two sorts: “kitchen or coarse” wares and “table or fine” wares. These are all practical pots, with strong shapes, and rich fire wrought colors. There are jugs, cisterns, cooking pots, drip pans, jars, sprinklers, condiment dishes and more. Many items, such as the jug, were made in a variety of shapes. Like much of our pottery today, a single pot, or shape could have multiple uses.

Note: I had to smile to myself a couple of weeks ago while selling at the Coventry Farmer’s Market. I had three or four of my spoon jars on display with a little stand up sign that said, “Keep your cooking utensils handy. Put a bouquet of spoons in a jar.” A woman picked one up and asked, “Can I put flowers in it?”  Yes, of course. Using it for utensils was just a suggestion. So too with the English Medieval wares. A jug might be used for drinking, for storage, for carrying or even for heating: whatever the household needed it for.

The earliest kitchen or coarse wares were left unglazed. Early fine ware was “splash” glazed (dusted with glaze in dry, powdered form), usually only on the top exterior of a pot as decoration. Later, suspension glazes were used and copper was added for color. All of the ware was single-fired.

“Every town and most villages would have had at least one or more potters working in the vicinity,” Jennings writes. “Each ‘pottery’ would comprise a workshop with a wheel or turntable for making the pots on, somewhere to store the finished pots while they dried out, an area to store the raw clay, a store for fuel, a source of water and some type of kiln to fire the finished and dried pots.”

She goes on to say, “Making pottery was frequently a part time and seasonal occupation, often undertaken in conjunction with small scale farming.” We know this has been the norm for potters in various cultures, throughout history. It might only be in 20 and 21st century America that there is a stigma to potters who are not “full time.”

Full time or not, Medieval Pottery will enliven every functional potter’s bookshelf.

Beautiful Ceramics of the Marajoara Culture

The mound-building peoples of the Marajoara culture on Marajó Island made some of the most beautiful pre-Columbian pottery known. The island, at the mouth of the Amazon River in what is now Brazil, was heavily populated until the century before the first Europeans arrived. From about 400 CE the island inhabitants “built mounds, raised fields, fish ponds, raised causeways and bridges over flooded land. They were also skilled craftsmen who produced a vast array of goods for local consumption and for trade.”

In Marajó: Ancient Ceramics from the Mouth of the Amazon, Margaret Young-Sanchez and Denise P. Schaan bring us the collection of the Denver Art Museum, supplemented with pots from the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museu Barbier-Mueller d’Art Precolombí in Barcelona, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, and private collectors.

The pots astonish me.

There are jars, bowls, plates, tanga (delicate pubic covers!), stools and most magnificently, funerary urns and vessels. The peoples of Marajó practiced both primary and secondary internment, ultimately keeping the bones of their dead in large urns.

What makes the pots magical is the richly carved, and sometimes modeled all-over decoration. “The carved designs are dense and intricate, with scrolls and steps filling every centimeter of space. Among them are recognizable anatomical elements, like spiral tails, limbs terminating in hands or feet, lens-shaped bodies, disembodied eyes, and rectangular or triangular heads with curled whiskers or toothy mouths…[they] have a mesmerizing quality – the eye follows the meandering, spiraling, interlocking lines, searching for paths and struggling to recognize complete figures among the decorative space fillers.”  These are pots made by highly skilled and caring makers; potters who took considerable time to finish each piece. In addition to carving and modeling, they also painted designs with contrasting colored slips.

The pots are expertly fired. They are a deep, rich red. Some have fire clouds, which may or may not have been intentional, but they add to the beauty.

I would love to see the pots in person. Touch them. Feel the carvings. But even if one could travel to each of the museums that hold these pots, it would not be possible to see those held in private collections. The Denver Art Museum has given us a wonderful gift by gathering so much together in this slim, extensively illustrated and well-researched volume. I know I will read it again.

Note: Due to the heavy winds of Irene and many downed trees and wires, we were without electricity or landlines for much of last week. Also, Internet and cell phone service were sporadic. Hence, no posting. Thankfully, things are almost back to normal here now. I can read, and make pots, and write again. We will not talk about how the gardens look after the storm.