The Plates and Forks of Alexander Calder

If you are a functional potter, you have pots in your kitchen. You probably collect the works of potters you admire, but you also likely have made things for yourself or tested works in your own home. Or perhaps you keep the slightly imperfect mugs and jars that emerge from your kiln and sell the rest. Don’t we all serve our cats their dinners on seconds? And some of us are tempted to make a few architectural things, a table or countertop, a bathroom sink, even a fireplace.

I suspect the same is true for craftspeople working in other mediums. The woodworker builds her own cabinets or doors, the weaver makes his own bed coverings, the blacksmith makes a garden gate. But meeting a fine artist, especially a sculptor or painter doing the same is unexpected.

So I was surprised to discover (while reading Calder at Home: The Joyous Environment of Alexander Calder by Pedro E. Guerrero) that the inventor of the mobile made many utensils for his own kitchen which his wife Louisa, who did the cooking, used. He also made candle sconces from corrugated sheet metal and the bottoms of beer cans, lamps from gelatin molds, and various other household items. If he saw a need, he snipped and bent and fabricated whatever metal he had at hand to create the solution. He was also fond of making toys from empty coffee cans, cigar boxes and wire for the young people in his life.

The Calders had an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut, which they painted black, and an old stone and brick house in France, followed by a house built to their specifications in France. In each home, Calder’s mobiles hung from the ceilings, sometimes crashing into each other, and his paintings hung on the walls. Louisa hooked numerous brightly colored rugs using her husband’s designs, which he enlarged and transferred to the rug backings for her. She spread her rugs out on their floors, close together, and gave what they couldn’t use away to friends and family.

From 1969 to 1972, Calder designed porcelain plates for Sévres, “using the same technique as his gouaches.” However, Guerrero tells us that there is no evidence that the Calders used these factory made wares on their own table.

What’s interesting about Calder at Home is it gives us a glimpse into an integrated life. Calder’s art filled his homes and the outbuildings and land that surrounded them. But as focussed as he was on creating his soaring stabiles and mobiles and gouaches, he also devoted himself to making things for the family’s domestic life. I might not want to eat from his Sévres plates either, but who wouldn’t want to try one of his forks? They invite picking up and holding in your hand. They are the antithesis of precious, thus also inviting use. In his home life, it seems, the great artist was also an excellent designer.

The Plates and Forks of Alexander Calder

If you are a functional potter, you have pots in your kitchen. You probably collect the works of potters you admire, but you also likely have made things for yourself or tested works in your own home. Or perhaps you keep the slightly imperfect mugs and jars that emerge from your kiln and sell the rest. Don’t we all serve our cats their dinners on seconds? And some of us are tempted to make a few architectural things, a table or countertop, a bathroom sink, even a fireplace.

I suspect the same is true for craftspeople working in other mediums. The woodworker builds her own cabinets or doors, the weaver makes his own bed coverings, the blacksmith makes a garden gate. But meeting a fine artist, especially a sculptor or painter doing the same is unexpected.

So I was surprised to discover (while reading Calder at Home: The Joyous Environment of Alexander Calder by Pedro E. Guerrero) that the inventor of the mobile made many utensils for his own kitchen which his wife Louisa, who did the cooking, used. He also made candle sconces from corrugated sheet metal and the bottoms of beer cans, lamps from gelatin molds, and various other household items. If he saw a need, he snipped and bent and fabricated whatever metal he had at hand to create the solution. He was also fond of making toys from empty coffee cans, cigar boxes and wire for the young people in his life.

The Calders had an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut, which they painted black, and an old stone and brick house in France, followed by a house built to their specifications in France. In each home, Calder’s mobiles hung from the ceilings, sometimes crashing into each other, and his paintings hung on the walls. Louisa hooked numerous brightly colored rugs using her husband’s designs, which he enlarged and transferred to the rug backings for her. She spread her rugs out on their floors, close together, and gave what they couldn’t use away to friends and family.

From 1969 to 1972, Calder designed porcelain plates for Sévres, “using the same technique as his gouaches.” However, Guerrero tells us that there is no evidence that the Calders used these factory made wares on their own table.

What’s interesting about Calder at Home is it gives us a glimpse into an integrated life. Calder’s art filled his homes and the outbuildings and land that surrounded them. But as focussed as he was on creating his soaring stabiles and mobiles and gouaches, he also devoted himself to making things for the family’s domestic life. I might not want to eat from his Sévres plates either, but who wouldn’t want to try one of his forks? They invite picking up and holding in your hand. They are the antithesis of precious, thus also inviting use. In his home life, it seems, the great artist was also an excellent designer.

Tiny Homes

Both my grandfathers were carpenters and my father, an engineer, was a talented cabinetmaker. I inherited none of their skills or talent, though I do love the smell of sawdust, and on occasion, pick up a handsaw and try to cut a board, usually with disastrous results. Still, I am fascinated with houses, especially vernacular architecture and even more especially, homes made of mud.

Lloyd Kahn was the shelter editor for the Whole Earth Catalog and wrote the Domebooks One and Two in the seventies. He has been making houses and following vernacular architecture for many years. I love his books.

His new one, Tiny Homes Simple Shelter is crammed with photos, many submitted by the builders. They are all very small. Honestly, I do not think I could actually live in a traveler’s wagon – where would I put my books? my wheel? – but it is enchanting to dream of such a vagabond life, or better yet, conjure a wagon in the field behind the house.

I love all the houses Kahn showcases, but most of all the cob houses. Cob, made of clay balls with a bit of temper, is an ancient and widespread building material. It offers amazing freedom when it comes to design. Domes, curves, sculpted shelves – whatever you imagine. Cob holds the heat in winter and is cool is summer. And quiet. Perfect, I think, for a studio, a giant pot of a studio.

Rereading Nancy Sweezy

This week I am again pulling old books off my shelves to reread, not because there isn’t anything new here (I am midway through a fascinating book on what neuroscientists have learned about creativity), but because I am researching and writing a bit about the connection between High Mowing School in New Hampshire and Jugtown in North Carolina for my book on Guy Wolff.

Two years ago, after a long career as a potter and author and as an advocate for folk arts and music, Nancy Sweezy died at the age of 88. Douglas Martin, writing in The New York Times called her the “Savior of Jugtown Pottery,” and began his obituary of her, “In the rolling Piedmont hills of North Carolina, potters were turning out fine work before the American Revolution. But by the 20th century, the tradition had faltered. Two passionate women, a half-century apart, saved it.

“Nancy Sweezy…was the second.”

During Sweezy’s tenure as director of Jugtown, she developed lead free and high fire glazes and set up an apprenticeship program. From 1969 to 1980 about 30 apprentices and students participated. Sweezy had learned her craft from the reclusive and legendary Isobel Karl (Mrs. Karl) in New Hampshire. Mrs. Karl, who graduated from Alfred in 1945, has run the ceramics studio at High Mowing School, in Wilton, New Hampshire for decades. A number of High Mowing students ended up in Jugtown for various periods of time, including Pam Owens, who with her husband Vernon Owens now runs Jugtown Pottery, David Stuemplfe, who makes pottery in Seagrove, and Guy Wolff.

Sweezy was a scholar of southern pottery. She sought out and interviewed many old time potters, and conducted extensive historical research. The fruit of that work is what brought me to my bookshelves and two of my favorite books: Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition by Sweezy, published by the Smithsonian in 1984 and The Potter’s Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery, published for the North Carolina Museum of Art by the University of North Carolina Press in 2005, which Sweezy wrote with Mark Hewitt.

Raised in Clay, illustrated primarily with black and white photos, some quite old, plus wonderfully detailed line drawings of workshops, kilns, and pugmills, looks at traditional potteries, tracing many of them back generations, and their wares and working methods. The Potter’s Eye is lavishly illustrated with color photos, including dazzling close-ups of lips, handles, and glazes. Here, Sweezy and Hewitt discuss the lineage of the pots, various influences on the makers, and what gives the work its deep, universal appeal.

Of course, there was no reason for me to sit down and go through both books front to back. I had more than enough information to get on with my writing. But the books are seductive, a pleasure, and so, throughout the day, I  abandoned my computer and my desk to slip back downstairs to read just a few more pages and look at a few more pictures, until I came to the end. It was nice to revisit these treasured volumes. And now I am eyeing the other books on my shelves on traditional southern pottery, but I will make myself wait for another day. But if you haven’t looked at Sweezy’s books for awhile, or if you have never looked at them, and you have an interest in sturdy, honest pots, treat yourself.

My Friend Annie Bearing a Gift from Sweden

Yesterday, New Year’s Eve Day, Annie Charters called and wondered if she might stop by. She said she “had something,” for me and also wanted to share her stories of attending a few of the Nobel festivities for Tomas Tranströmer, who, with his wife Monica, is a long time friend of hers and Sam’s. “Yes, of course, come anytime!” I told her and an hour later she was at my front door.

She brought a few photos of herself in a simple black dress with Tomas (who is wheelchair bound after suffering a stroke) at a celebratory luncheon. In 1975 Oyez, a small Berkeley press, published Sam’s translation of Baltics. Almost a year before the Prize was announced Cavern Press of Salt Lake City asked Sam if they could reissue the book. Now the world is clamoring for it. It will contain Sam’s translation and the original Swedish.

Annie had very good news: the book will also contain her black and white photos of the Tranströmers taken that same year, the essay she wrote in 1975 that was never published, and a new essay.  Though best known as the authority on the Beats and Kerouac, Annie’s black and white photos are as widely acclaimed. Her photos of the Beats and of many blues musicians have been exhibited, and were collected in two beautiful books: Beats and Company and Blues Faces: A Portrait of the Blues, (published by one of our favorite still independent publishers David Godine) which she did with Sam. So this new book promises to be very exciting.

“Yes, yes,” you say, “but what did she bring you?”

Lovely beads made by Swedish potter Gertrude Bäge.  Plus three postcards with photos of her pots. The beads are simple tubes with a softly glossy glaze, and causal markings in a goldish brown. Bäge has purposely made no attempt to create identical beads or to carry out any sort of symmetrical arrangement. The necklace is unselfconsciously evocative of the distant past. Taking them in my hands I think of polished bits of bones or shells, a prehistoric gift perhaps, or maybe a string of talismen. Yet, they also seem modern. It takes a sure hand to pull a necklace like this off without making it appear trite.  And the beads are very pleasant to touch. I can see it will be difficult not to fiddle with them when I wear them.

Annie told me that Gertrude keeps a shop that she and Sam love to visit in the old section of Stockholm. “You must come. We will introduce you.”

One day… I promise myself…

Of course Bäge must have a website, I thought as I typed her name into Google after Annie left, but no, it appears that she does not. So, I did what I always do, I perused my bookshelves, and there she is in Raku: A Review of Contemporary Work by Tim Andrews. “Gertrude Bäge fires her raku work at the workshop of Lena Anderson {note: this was in the mid-nineties}. Several times a year, loaded with boxes of bisque-fired plates, she boards a train to the countryside. There the two potters have built an oil-drum gas-fired raku kiln, and the next four days are intensively spent firing a considerable volume of work.”

Andrews also notes that though raku was gaining widespread popularity amongst Swedish potters, many continued to make “traditional Swedish ware of pale colours and perfect finish.” By the looks of her postcards, Bäge produces both.

Happy New Year!

Addendum: I am a list maker and most list makers also make resolutions. I am no exception. My main resolution this year is to complete my book on Guy Wolff for University Press of New England before the September deadline. I will keep you posted on my progress.