Amanda Fielding on Gillian Lowndes

Gillian Lowndes by Amanda Fielding marks the ends of the lives of both women. Lowndes, the radical ceramic artist died from cancer at the age of 74 in 2010. Fielding, known for her work as a writer and critic, died, also from cancer, in 2012 after completing this, her last book at the age of 55. This illustrated volume from the Ruthin Craft Center is a fitting tribute to both women.

Lowndes, who trained as a potter, began her career making coiled pots and wall pieces. She was never interested in domestic ware however, and after an extended stay in Nigeria with her partner Ian Auld, she turned to bricolage. She gathered discarded materials: old bricks, nails, fiberglass tissue, and wire together with luffa, sometimes called the sponge gourd. These finds she subjected to the intense heat of her electric kiln (one wonders how the kiln elements withstood such rigors). The fiberglass tissue and luffa she coated with slip before firing. The other finds she fired on their own before adding to her ceramics. She was one of the first artists working in clay who glued parts together post-firing, rather than having her work emerge whole from the kiln.

Auld, her partner, amassed a large collection of primarily African objects. These pieces, woodcarvings, pottery jars, textiles, jewelry, filled their home and influenced the spirit of Lowndes’ work. She made a series of ‘hooks,” long pieces of slip-coated luffa, fired and wired together, and brick bags, with actual old-bricks fired into distortion. Throughout her career, she taught and exhibited, though critics were not always receptive to her innovations.

Except that her work centered on clay and her kiln, she had little in common with other ceramists. Still, she saw herself and her work, as being part of the ceramic milieu. “I’ve always been involved in the craft world rather than the art world because I work in ceramic,” she told Fielding. “because I put things in the kiln. I always felt I was in a strange area, not one or the other. I was always quite interested in making things in different materials, but because I was so involved with ceramics naturally my understanding of ceramic materials and what would fire in a kiln was something which drove my art more than anything else. And it happened that I cold get exhibited in craft galleries. I’ve never been a great self-promoter, so I didn’t go out and search for fine art galleries. I waited for things to come to me and just made the work.”

I would have liked more photos of Auld’s collection of pots, textiles and carvings because I love these objects, but of course that’s not what the book is about except as inspiration for Lowndes.  As readers know, I am a lover primarily of functional pots and not particularly drawn to Lowndes’ sort of work. But she led an interesting life, took risks in her art, was wiling to explore and experiment. She makes a good subject to read about, regardless of your ceramic bent. And there is something primal about her hooks that resonate, even with a stubborn vessel woman like me.

Books and Pots and Emmanuel Cooper

Amongst makers, potters, it seems to me, are the wordiest, giving us stacks of books. One of the most prolific and influential was Emmanuel Cooper, the late British potter and author. I have multiple well-read editions of his World History of Pottery, that in later editions became the more lavish 10,000 Years of Pottery. And what potter does not have a copy of one of his glaze books on their reference shelves? He also wrote two of the most important biographies of potters, Bernard Leach: Life and Work, and Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter as well as a number of shorter biographies. In 1970, he founded Ceramic Review, which he edited. Philip Hughes writes, “Ceramic Review was pivotal in Emmanuel’s life and in the evolution of British ceramics.” If he never touched clay himself, he would be lauded as a major influence on 20th &  21st century ceramics.

But he did touch clay. Throughout his life, he was a maker and it is his making that informed his writing. Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938 – 2012, published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre to coincide with a touring exhibition of Cooper’s work, celebrates Cooper the potter with essays by Chris White, Sebastian Blackie, Jeremy James, Josie Walter, Alison Oddey, a forward by Julia Pitts and Philip Hughes, Colophon by Philip Hughes and an introduction by his longtime partner, David Horbury.

We learn that, unlike so many other potters in the UK, he was not intent on a rural life, and worked instead in an urban basement studio. Sebastian Blackie writes, “An interesting aspect of Cooper’s making environment that is not evidenced in the work is the relative chaos of his studio. Cooper’s writing required a very ordered mind so it is surprising to discover this side of his character…a cramped basement littered with precarious stacks of half finished pots and other ceramic detritus.”  His partner David Horbury in describing the three basement rooms where Cooper worked says, “All around on makeshift shelves were hundreds of glaze tests, their colour and textures obscured by dust and debris, and in every space there were pots – fired and un-fired – huge thrown porcelain bowls, jug forms of all sizes and variations, large platters and hand-built work and, in the darker furthest corners, the remains of his production ware – a relish tray, a bread crock, a stack of saucers.” The keeper of a “chaotic” studio myself, in the basement no less, though a walk out basement, I find Cooper’s messiness reassuring.

Potting in an urban studio, he did not have the old barns and sheds that his rural colleagues possessed, and with no place to house large wood burning kilns and stacks of wood, he embraced the electric kiln. His glazes are proof that good glazes can indeed come from an electric kiln.

Cooper was a production potter for his first twenty years, producing tableware and dishes, selling largely to restaurants.  This work informed his later individual pieces. Blackie writes, “Cooper’s individual pots, made in small batches, have an authority and clarity that is the product of years of repetition throwing. It is an apprenticeship few of today’s makers have benefited from. His work always remained domestic in scale and it is interesting that he continued to weigh his clay for all his pieces…”

Throughout his life, he made pots while he wrote and taught and conducted his thousands of glaze tests. The book is illustrated with black and white biographical photos, two-page close-up spreads of glazes, and color photos of the jugs and bowls that were the shapes that defined him.

Long an admirer of Cooper’s research and his books, I was grateful to discover some of the man and his pots here on the page. He deserves as fulsome a biography as he wrote of Lucie Rie, but for now, Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938-2012 is a most welcome addition to ceramic literature.

David Frith and Margaret Frith Potters

It doesn’t get more pottery-romantic than David Frith, Margaret Frith: 50 Years of Brookhouse Pottery by Jane Wilkinson. Published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre in the UK but new to me, the book is a delight. I spent an hour happily turning the pages and poring over the photos, fantasizing, before actually reading a word.

The pots are luscious: David’s stoneware, Margaret’s porcelain, meticulously thrown and glazed, pick-me-up tactile, all evoking pot envy, or at least covetousness. David’s platters are large enough to hang on an exterior wall. Margaret’s teapot invites a brew of Earl Grey. We see jugs, bottles, large jars and a wonderful array of tea bowls expertly made and photographed.

And then there is the pottery itself. Who has not dreamed of restoring a quaint old stone mill by a riverside and making it one’s workplace? Brookhouse is what you imagine when you think of a country pottery. Margaret has planted abundant gardens. There are spacious outbuildings on both sides of the river, and an airy kiln shed that is beautiful. Paths. Bridges. Potted plants. Flowerbeds. Decks. Large windows. Did I say the kiln shed is beautiful?

But a place such as Brookhouse, and such great pots, do not just happen. They take imagination and years of hard work and dedication. David and Margaret Frith began working together more than fifty years ago, starting with a line of slipware. In 1975 they bought a semi-derelict 18th century woolen mill turned brewery called the Malt House and began arduous renovations, converting the property into a home and workshop. They renamed their picturesque North Wales haven Brookhouse Pottery. Here they have raised a family, made pots, entertained guests such as David Leach, Michael Cardew, and Mick Casson, hosted exhibitions and taught workshops. Their work continues today. The book is a nice look at the Friths lives and work together.

The Porcelain Thief

In 1938, when the Japanese invaded China and drew close to Huan Hsu’s great-great- grandfather Liu’s estate, Liu dug a deep pit a short distance from his house, lined it with bamboo shelves, and buried his treasured collection of imperial porcelain. The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China is Huan Hsu’s account of his incredible search for those lost pots.

Hsu was born in the US. Growing up, he did everything a boy could to distance himself from his heritage, wanting to be American.  Then, as a young man, in order to look for the porcelain, he moves to China to work for his uncle, learns Chinese, and reunites with relatives he barely knows. His descriptions of modern day China are fascinating. If you do not live in China, you might experience a bit of culture shock just reading them. When Hsu commissions a suit, it is badly made and doesn’t fit. When he asks to have the suit he brought with him copied, the copy is perfect. He is astonished to see people wearing their pajamas in public. There are seemingly no rules, except to stay out of politics. Hsu’s observations are at times funny and always interesting.

But of course, it is the quest for the porcelain that intrigues us, and in this Hsu does not disappoint. Over time, he learns about the history of porcelain and the role it has played in China. He comes to understand that men of means, such as his great-great-grandfather took enormous pride in their collections. And he discovers that for the imperial court, porcelain and status were one. “In dynastic China,” he writes, “ownership of the imperial porcelain collection had conferred the right to rule, and so long as it remained in Taipei, Chiang’s government could claim that it, not Beijing, was China’s capital.”

During Hsu’s search for his great-great-grandfather’s collection, he sees that in the regions where pottery was made, there are crumbling and overgrown remains of numerous ancient kilns and thousands, millions of shards. The kilns, he laments, China’s heritage, are being destroyed, lost forever, as the country modernizes.

He becomes a shard hunter. “Opposite the mud hut were undulating mounds of shards so large that it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the scale,” he tells us, “The piles closest to the house had crevasses deep enough that people disappeared when they descended into them. Elsewhere swaths of vines, sesame blossoms, wildflower and small trees had taken root.”

Toward the end of his journey, he visits an elderly man whose ancestors travelled in the same social circle as his great-great-grandfather. The man lives in “a gloomy Communist era apartment.” Two boxes of ceramics are carefully carried out to the kitchen table for Hsu to see. Everyone is nervous, as if the pots might be dropped, or stolen. “I turned the vases over to see that both bore the mark of Guangzu, the second-to-last emperor of the Qing dynasty, though the blue one’s was pierced through and the red one’s was rubbed away; effacing the seal was a common practice when the emperor gave imperial wares as gifts. These were real imperial porcelains, not in a museum, an auction house, or wealthy collector’s home. They had remained in China for their entire existence, no more than a hundred miles form their birthplace, and had somehow managed to survive a century in which everyone, Chines or otherwise, seemed intent on removing them or destroying them.”

I will not tell you what happens when Hsu finally comes to dig where his great-great-grandfather lived. You must read the story for yourself. The Porcelain Thief is part memoir, part history, and part travelogue, all of it riveting. It will be published in March. Watch for it. Better yet, ask you local independent bookseller or librarian to hold a copy for you.

The Legendary Vivika and Otto Heino

The mid-twentieth century was a heady time for studio potters, a time of discovery and invention and great pot making. Vivika and Otto Heino, a husband and wife team, were amongst those working during that exciting era. They both threw pots and glazed, but Vivika was the glaze chemist and Otto threw the large vases, bottles and bowls that they were known for.

Last year, I happily acquired a copy of the catalog that Alfred produced for the 1995 exhibit What you give away you keep forever: The Vivika and Otto Heino Retrospective. It is signed by Otto, (Vivika, 85, died that year).

There are essays by Margret Carney, who was the Director and Chief Curator of the museum and Val Cushing and Gerry Williams.  Cushing, a freshman at Alfred in 1948, met the Heinos in 1952 and the three remained friends throughout their lives.  He writes, “Vivika and Otto Heino are among those very few special ceramic artists whose work, teaching and lifetime commitment to studio pottery gives them an honored and secure place in the history of American ceramics since the 1940’s. This time period is important because it was during the 1940’s and 50’s when American ceramics found its real identity and uniqueness.”

Williams, who had visited the Heinos to write a piece for Studio Potter, remembers taking a class from Vivika when she was teaching for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. He calls her a “force of nature” and “a demanding teacher,” remembering those early days with fondness. He tells us, “It was the custom at the end of each session to clean away the spilled lead, copper, barium and selenium from the glaze mixing table and place on it instead a sumptuous feast of homemade cakes, pies, breads, cookies and sandwiches.” Imagine! He assures us though, that no one died from ingesting traces of these chemicals, at least not to his knowledge.

Both Williams and Cushing write of the house and gardens where the Heinos lived and worked in Ojai, California. Cushing writes, “The house and studio were filled with pottery, sculpture and art objects of all kinds – theirs and others…The gardens are extensive and inspiring as was the food and wine!”

Similarly, Williams writes, “We sat on their patio in the simmering heat, cooling off with drinks and eating vichyssoise and peach cobbler. There was evidence of lives rich in pottery everywhere I looked: pots on the table, pots standing by doorways, pot on shelves in showrooms.”

Risk and Discovery

Widely exhibited and collected, Hideaki Miyamura is known for his classical forms and astonishing glazes. He writes, “My work began as a quest for iridescence.” In that quest, he has undertaken many thousands of glaze experiments to create his signature shimmering hues. The Pucker Gallery in Boston, which represents Miyamura, has produced a monograph showcasing his work, Risk & Discovery: The Ceramic Art of Hideaki Miyamura.

Miyamura was born and grew up in Japan. After spending time with a traditional Japanese potter, he went to the US to study at Western Michigan University and then returned to Japan. Here, he apprenticed with Shurei Miura for six years, throwing thousands of saki cups followed by thousands of tea bowls before being allowed to move on to other forms. By the end of this rigorous training, he had become a master of the wheel.

Captivated by a Chinese tea bowl that reminded him of a “clear night’s endless sky,” he began trying to reproduce the glaze himself. This led to his life of experimentation.

In 1989, he left Japan and moved to the United States to pursue his art in his own way. He works in a well-lit 1200 square foot studio at his secluded home in Kensington, New Hampshire and fires in a large front-loading electric kiln housed in an out building. He writes, “I knew that my forms and glazes needed to enhance each other. What is now most important to me is clarity and simplicity of line. Each form occupies space and illuminates space… My quest has been not for the perfect form or perfect glaze, but for the mysterious effect that first drew me to this work: the contemplative tranquility evoked through line and light.”

Risk & Discovery: The Ceramic Art of Hideaki Miyamura

Published by Pucker Art Publications, Distributed by Syracuse University Presses

A Look At Pit Firing

Michael Wein

“Contemporary methods employed for pit firing can fall into two categories:” Dawn Whitehand writes in her book, Pit Firing: Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions, “those used by the traditional potters of India, Pakistan, South America and North America, who continue to use this technique to fire their unglazed functional wares, and those used by ceramicists, who use the technique for the artistic outcomes they are able to achieve on their artworks.”

She opens with a look at historic practices, offering excellent diagrams of various types of early pit firings as well as her understanding of them. Her focus, however, as her title makes clear, is on studio potters working today and the very diverse work they produce.

We see the Canadian potter Maeva Collins’ brick-lined cement block pit that she uses to fire her highly burnished covered jars and bottles. Her fuel consists of wood shavings, sawdust, and kindling wood (Collins also works in high temperatures with a wood-fired kiln).  For special effects, she tosses dog biscuits, pine needles, whatever comes to hand, into the pit with her wares.

US potter Hilary Chan makes rock forms that fit in your hand, each with a “unique serial number,” and fires in a small open pit. She asks, “If the colorful fuming patterns on the surfaces of the rocks are to a very large extent the accidental/incidental contribution of the fire, can I still claim ‘intellectual property’ rights to these resulting imageries? Indeed, how much of them is the result of my work, and how much is that of the natural forces that I have collaborated with?”

Nearly all the artists showcased in Pit Firing Ceramics burnish their work and bisque in an electric kiln. Many favor a post-firing treatment with paste wax. None of their pieces are functional, though many are functional in form. Jars, bottles and vases predominate. There are also sculptural pieces, pillows, figures and constructions. Whitehand herself is a sculptor.

The book is informative and fun and introduced me to the work of potters with whom I was not familiar. If I were to make a complaint, it would be that some of the profiles are written in the third person and some in the first. But then I see the same “crime” on websites and even in our own Artists Open Studios brochure here in northeastern Connecticut, so perhaps this offence won’t bother anyone else.

Note: Pot illustrated is by Australian potter Michael Wein.

A Passion for Wood Fire

The potters that Amedeo Salamoni features in his new book Wood-Fired Ceramics: 100 Contemporary Artists work in a variety of ways but all share a deep commitment to firing with wood. They are passionate about both the process and the results. Except for two, they all work at high temperatures, many to Cone 13 or 14.

The two notable lower temperature exceptions are Doug Fitch, the Devon slipware potter known for his medieval inspired jugs and jars, and Joy Brown who makes large, pillowy sculptures of people that she fires in her thirty-foot long anagama in the Litchfield hills of Connecticut. Fitch’s pots, made from clay he digs himself, are sprigged and glazed and reflect the warmth of the flames. Brown’s sculptures are made of Georgia clay and are unglazed. You can see the kiss of the fire on the surface.

Salalmoni includes more functional potters than sculptors though many work in both realms. Each artist is given two pages, occasionally more, for an artist’s statement, photographs of individual works, and at least one kiln shot. This is a great way to get an overview of the field. The photographs are very good. Because each artist has written his or her own statement, most are in the first person but a few are in the third, and one, startlingly switches between persons. Oh unpredictable artists!

Reading through the book, we visit Simon Leven who in addition to making his own sturdy pots for the kitchen and table, has taken on the responsibility of creating a map of wood kilns throughout the world. You can see it at www.simonlevin.com/worldmap. We also encounter legendary wood-fire potters Jack Troy, John Leach and Fred Olsen. We meet Linda Christianson, Randy Johnston, Eva Kwong, Ginny Marsh, Alex Matisse, Jeff Shapiro and Joy Tanner. There are highly refined works, lightly salted or glazed. There are pots that are heavily encrusted with ash and the marks of shells. Many have a love affair with heavy reduction.

I smiled reading that ten years ago Ron Meyers built his first wood kiln at the age of seventy. His fires last sixty hours “with a reduction cooling segment that adds another six or seven hours.”

With room for only 100 artists, one immediately notices who is absent – all those represented by Goldmark for instance, such as Phil Rogers and Ken Matsuzaki and Nic Collins  – but that is the nature of a book like this. Karen Karnes is absent. Todd Piker is missing. Perhaps a second volume will be in the offing.

Though not at all an instructional book, there is an appendix with illustrations of 14 kilns, and another with firing logs. There is also a good short bibliography and some clay, glaze and slip recipes.

This is the kind of book that even though reading it will take you out of the studio for a day, and even if you never plan to fire with wood, you will come away inspired. I know I did.

My Guy Wolff Book At Last

There are a half dozen books on my reading pile that I want to tell you about, but, exciting news, at least for me, my new book, Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden is shipping to bookstores now and should start arriving next week. It is, at last, an object that you can touch, pick up and turn the pages and yes, read. And it is beautiful! Between Guy’s wonderful pots and Joe Szalay’s stunning photography, and the excellent design work at UPNE, it is something to behold.

A book lives in one’s head for a very long time, and then there are editors and designers and indexers and sales people, and it is no longer your own, but still, it is not real and for the most part, it remains in your head, and on your computer screen and the screens of your publishers. Until, one day it is printed and bound and becomes real. For Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden, that day has come.

Guy is very well known in horticultural circles where his pots are highly prized. He’s a fast thrower, moving, literally, tons of clay a year. His pots are visually strong, robustly thrown, and connect with people on subconscious and emotional levels. In this biography, I have tried to capture him on the page, using his own words as much as possible. I was fortunate in being able to interview a number of people who shared their Guy Wolff stories – Hannah McAndrew, Todd Piker, Gordon Titcomb, Peter Wakefield Jackson and others, (and thank them immensely). The book is a look at Guy’s life in clay, how he came to be the potter he is, his ideas on the making of a good pot, and the pots and potters, especially the old time potters, that influenced him.

Joe photographed many of Guy’s pots and some of the early pots that he has collected and reveres (they reside in the loft over his workshop). He also brings us into Guy’s shop where we see the pots on his shelves, the tools on his walls, watch him throw, and glimpse his wife Erica’s gardens which feature some of Guy’s very large pots.

I think if you are a potter (and who but potters reads this blog), you will find Guy’s story interesting. If you are a gardener and own or covet his pots, you will enjoy knowing more about the man who made them. There is considerable flowerpot history in the book too, as Guy is an expert on early English and American pottery. I am hoping that even beyond our world of mud and plants, people will find his life by the hand, with its ups and downs, his work for Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Joe Eck and others, intriguing.

Joe and I will be visiting a number of bookstores to autograph copies. Guy will be at a few special events. A list is on the Event page of my website.

Meanwhile, I have a making list that is long, so I will be in the studio, and the gardens need attention, but I will get to that stack of books that I want to share. My next book project, also with Joe, is on Sunken Gardens, and after that, a biography of a specific pot and the very different ways it has been perceived by various cultures through the years.

Simon Leach on Making Pots

No matter how long you have been potting, you can always learn something new. That’s the nature of a craft that is so ancient. For this reason, I always look at how-to books, even very basic ones. And being an admirer of his work, I have especially been looking forward to Simon Leach’s book, written with Bruce Dehnert, Simon Leach’s Pottery Handbook.

Leach is the grandson of Bernard Leach and the son of David Leach. He fooled around in his dad’s pottery as a kid, but left to become an engineering apprentice at a helicopter factory. He loved making balsawood model planes and thought aircraft was the thing for him. To his dismay, it was painfully boring, and when the opportunity arose, he left to travel. Out of money, he went to work for his father for “six months” and discovered that indeed, pottery was for him. Six months stretched into years. When his father asked him if he would like to run the pottery, he decided to go out on his own. He has subsequently had potteries in England, Spain and now the US.

Leach has produced more than 800 YouTube videos on making pots and has an extensive following. The book comes with two DVD’s and has pages and pages of thorough illustrations. This is primarily a handbook of throwing. He does talk about glazes and firing but not about handbuilding. The premise is, that with the book and the DVD’s you can learn to throw on your own. I think you could.

What I personally learned from the book is an interesting way to use wood ashes. Yes, ashes again. He burns them in a metal lid, sifts them and mixes them with water to make a thin liquid, which he runs through an 80-mesh sieve. Then, depending upon the temperature he is firing to, he adds Gerstley Borate or Feldspar. He sprays the mixture onto the exterior of a bisque pot with an atomizer. There is a delightful photo of Leach blowing through the mouthpiece of his atomizer. The results are very beautiful.

I sometimes sprinkle ashes onto my damp pots (I single fire). Or I give a bone-dry pot a light wash of Gerstley Borate and Yellow Ochre and then sift ashes onto the surface. But I like the look Leach is achieving with his method: it is more organic and speaks of wood and flames.

The book has a spiral binding, which is not my favorite type of binding because the pages can rip out. But if you are using to book to learn to throw, with the spiral binding, you can open the book and lay it flat so that you can easily see two pages at once.  You could open it to the chapter you are working on, and glance at it as you work.

The DVD’s contain short videos to accompany the chapters. Leach explains what his hands are doing. You know he is having fun, because now and then he starts to hum or whistle! His motto, on the videos and throughout the book, is “Keep On Practicing.” A good motto for all of us!