Crocker Farm, The Forgotten Freeman Potter, and More

Thomas Commeraw Jar

I knew that even if I hadn’t spent eight hundred plus dollars to fix my truck (it failed emissions), I would not be able to afford to participate in the Crocker Farm March auction. Still, I indulged myself and ordered the print edition of the catalog. Oh what a lovely thing it is. There are over five hundred pieces of early American stoneware and redware pots, all beautifully photographed, and described.

Crocker Farm was founded in 1983 by Anthony and Barbara Zipp and now includes their sons Brandt, Luke and Mark. They have made themselves experts on early American ceramics by studying eighteenth and nineteenth century census records, newspapers, city directories, books, local lore and the pots themselves. They deeply research each of the pots they auction and share that information in their online and print catalogs, in videos and lectures.

The pages of the March 2017 catalog are filled with wonderful pieces. There are lead glazed redware dishes and jars, splashed with manganese or copper; salt-glazed stoneware vessels with cobalt decorations – incised, stamped, brushed; Albany slip and alkaline glazed stoneware. Jars. Jugs. Pitchers. Churns. Inkwells. Oyster jars. Plates. Impressive big ware – a ten-gallon pitcher thought to be for a showroom window. Miniatures, perfectly thrown.

I especially loved the signed and dated stoneware jar by Dave, the famous slave potter. It holds about eight gallons, a testament to his legendary skill on the wheel. It is covered in a lovely tan, alkaline glaze. There are pieces from the well-known Crolius family, one a particularly wonderful ovoid jug, the elegant swelling form they perfected, plus pots from the Remmey family of Manhattan.

Thomas Commeraw Ovoid Jug.

Most remarkable and interesting to me are the pots made by Thomas Commeraw, who was a Manhattan contemporary of Crolius and Remmey. The catalog includes several fine examples. There’s an ovoid jug with an especially nice form, swelling gracefully from a narrow base to a curved shoulder. It features a “heavily-tooled spout, decorated with an impressed and cobalt-highlighted drape-and-tassel motif resembling clamshells.” There’s a stoneware jar with an “impressed Federal Drape Design.” This does not have quite the swell that the jug has, but it does call out to a potter’s soul.

Commeraw’s work has been known and recognized for years, but he was incorrectly assumed to be of French descent. Poring over the census records, Brandt Zipp discovered that Commeraw was a free African American potter with a shop in Coerlears Hook on the Lower East Side from around 1796-1819. Commeraw has become a passion for Brandt Zipp. He has devoted himself to extensive research and now, for the past several years he has been writing a biography of him. Hurry, Mr. Zipp! I want to read it! Surely, once published, the book will give Commeraw his rightful place in not only ceramics history, but American history.

Covering Brandt’s research for the New York Times, Eve M. Kahn wrote in Oct. 13, 2011. “Mr. Zipp has uncovered details about Commeraw’s clients, including black church leaders and abolitionists, and tantalizing hints that the ceramist helped soldiers protect New York forts during the War of 1812. Around 1820, the American Colonization Society sent Commeraw to Sierra Leone to govern a new colony of free blacks. He sent back copious letters about conditions there.”

You can view all of the Crocker Farm catalogs online. If you are interested in early American ceramics, it is worth spending the time to view the catalogs and watch the videos. They are a treasure. Of particular interest are the videos in which Brandt Zipp talks about Commeraw. Plus, he has created a website dedicated to Commeraw. Crocker Farm’s next auction is in July, so we can look forward to that catalog (or bidding if one has the funds), while we await the biography of Thomas Commeraw.

Michael Casson

“Function is the prime motivator for me as a vessel maker,” Michael Casson, known to everyone as Mick, explains in Michael Casson with essays by Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding. He was the quintessential functional potter, spending all his adult years making his own work, teaching, and leading the burgeoning community of potters in the UK. Born in 1925, he was initially attracted to pottery when he saw pots decorated by Picasso. With his brother, he took over a hardware store that his uncle had lost interest in running. His brother operated the hardware business while he ran the Marchmont Street Pottery. “ I couldn’t throw, couldn’t form a glaze and did not understand materials,” he told Cooper of the difficulties he faced.

In time, he and fellow potter and wife, Sheila Wilmott bought an old grocery store where they set up Prestwood Pottery. Here, they had the space they needed to do their work and raise a family. Their electric kiln was housed in a shed in the back yard. One night the shed caught fire and burned, not from the kiln, but from a box of ashes a “well meaning” friend had left for glazes. They built a new shed of bricks and continued to work.

Wanting the freedom to fire with fuel, without alarming their neighbors, in the seventies Mick and Sheila moved to rural Wobage Farm, where Sheila remains today. Here they could expand, fire with wood, and use salt. Sheila focused on the domestic ware, while Mick made larger, one off pieces. His favorite form was the jug. “There are robust jugs, refined jugs, humorous jugs and monumental jugs…” he explained. “A jug is essentially a Western vessel.  It’s about holding liquid, pouring liquid. It’s about picking it up and a jug’s got quite a few human attributes. You can talk about the belly of the pot, the shoulder, the foot, the lip. So the jug embodies all these human characteristics. I think it’s one of the most, for me, one of the most endearing forms that a potter has to make.”

Michael Casson is one of the larger, more ambitious books from the Ruthin Craft Center, generously illustrated with photos, many full page,  of Michael Casson’s pots, wonderful black and whites photos taken through the years, and in-depth text. I would love to have one of Casson’s jugs in my collection, but this book is the next best thing.

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.”

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!

Romantic Countryside

Sometimes you need a daydreaming kind of book, something escapist to take you to a romanticized place where the garden never looks weedy and there’s always fresh baked bread on the table. Jasper Conran’s Country is just such a book. Every page has at least one of Andrew Montgomery’s wistful photos of rural England. Just flipping through and looking at these photos is enough to transport you. The text feels like an extra bonus.

There are hollyhocks by cottage doors, cows in the meadows, rushing streams, fishermen’s ancient shacks, glorious roses, shabby chic interiors and a baby lamb in a kitchen. This is not a book about ceramics but you can’t have a book about the English countryside without pottery.

We see a two page spread of an auricula theatre with three dozen lovely English flower pots each planted with a single auricula. Conran writes, “I was intrigued by an auricula threatre. Auriculas were the height of fashion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when they first began to arrive in Britain from Continental Europe and enthusiasts, often in stately homes, used these tiered ‘theatres’ to display their prized plants to their friends.”

There are flowerpots in the gardens. There are rustic tile floors. I especially liked the large cream and brown slip-trailed oval dish set off by itself on a dark wooden table but wondered at the painting of two shoes on a pillow that hung on the wall behind it. Fine export porcelain from China, blue and white and polychrome, graces the grander rooms.

Four pages are devoted to Tim Hurn the Dorset potter who works in a pretty brick dairy shed that he converted to a studio. Hurn must like the photo in the book of him stacking his anagama because he has it on his homepage. I like it too, and the photo of his unfired bowls and jugs ready for the flame. And I wish my workshop were as pretty as his, with a vegetable patch in front, and fields and hills all around. That is exactly the reason to peruse a book like this, to fantasize and imagine.

Nic Collins by Doug Fitch

You know how impressed I am with the work that Goldmark is doing with Modern Pots – an exhibition web presence unparalleled by any gallery either side of the Atlantic, excellent choice of potters, beautifully produced monographs in print and online, and well-produced biographical DVD’s. You also know, I am trying to finish up my own book and should not stray one moment from the task at hand. But the mail carrier left a note in the mailbox for me, telling me to come down and pick up a parcel and curious, I hopped in the truck and discovered that a wonderful package of books and dvd’s awaited me from Mike Goldmark.

Of course, disciplined person that I am, I put them away until my manuscript is turned in, or at least the Roman numeral problem is fixed.

Don’t be ridiculous! Of course, I greedily pulled out one monograph after another, popped a DVD into my computer, tried to take it all in at once. First observation: I hope UPNE does as good a production job on the Guy Wolff book as Goldmark does on their books. Observation number two: I hope we are doing as good a job. Joe is without a doubt. His photos are great. And our book is far more text. I hope as good.

So, though I stayed up wait too late, poring through everything, I am going to, not all in sequence, but now and then so I can go back to them, take the collection one book at a time. We will start with the Nic Collins catalog, with an essay by slipware potter Doug Fitch. Matching them is itself a bit of brilliance, because Nic is a serious, high-fire, take- huge-risks wood-fire stoneware man. Doug, who both wood fires and electric fires, works in the slipware tradition at far lower temperatures. Except that they are both good throwers, and can throw pretty big, and they are each a master of the jug form, there is no similarity in their work.

Nic Collins makes jugs, vases, bottles, bowls, platters, and covered and uncovered jars. Subjected to long periods of intense heat, ash and flames, they emerge requiring hours of contemplation to see all the colors, all the effects of the fire. They bear the scars of the seashells he uses to keep them from sticking. They are crusty. They are luminous both. You need to get to know these pots. The more you look, the more you see. You want to touch, to hold, to gaze.

Appropriately, Fitch tells us that Collis and his partner Sabine have built a cob workshop for themselves. Is that not perfect?

The photographs include images of Nic Collins, the enormous kiln he has made, and the pots, both in formal, gallery style shots and in situ in the rural landscape surrounding the studio. In the accompanying DVD, Collins talks about his work and his evolution as a potter. We see him at the wheel and firing his kiln. This is truly—I hesitate to use such a word – a splendid package.

The Workshop Guide to Ceramics

The Workshop Guide to Ceramics by Duncan Hoosan and Anthony Quinn is clearly meant for the textbook market. I can foresee it adopted in colleges and high schools throughout the country, with assignments handed out chapter by chapter. It’s thoughtfully organized with lots of information. The how-to photos are clear and explicit.  It’s full of useful information that every potter needs, much of it up to date and modern.

You can learn numerous methods of printing on clay. There’s a fun sidebar called “Firings as Theater” (hush my pyromaniac heart). And for those interested, there’s a section on “computer-aided design, modeling and manufacturing” and yes, “Rhino, explained as a widely used NURBS” which is also explained – “non-uniform rational B-spline modeling program.” Whew!

The authors are highly qualified. Hooson “is a practicing ceramicist and a teacher of ceramic art in schools, hospitals, and on community projects throughout London.” Quinn “operates a successful London design consultancy with a varied client base that includes Wedgewood, Leeds Pottery, and British Airways.” Hmm, British Airways. He also teaches ceramic design on the college level and has written prior books.

In the end, though, the The Workshop Guide to Ceramics left me feeling a bit empty, hungry even, because there is almost no mention of ceramic history, and the pieces shown, are, for the most part not very potterly. This of course, says more about me than the book – I am an admitted history nut — so I don’t feel quite right criticizing. Instead, I will suggest to anyone using this book, especially as a text, that it be supplemented with other books and articles or kept on the shelf as one of several reference books. It’s good but can’t stand alone.

The Craft and Art of Clay

In 2009, when the legendary ceramic artist, educator, champion of the pottery of Native American potters, and writer Susan Peterson died, she and her daughter Jan Peterson were revising and updating her classic text The Craft and Art of Clay. After her death, Jan Peterson continued on alone, and now we have the results, the almost encyclopedic fifth edition. As with previous editions, this one will surely be widely adopted as a textbook in ceramic programs throughout the country.

Susan loved the technology of ceramics; all the possibilities; all the things to know; all the things to try, and, as in the previous editions, it shows in the choice of works illustrated. There is a nice history timeline, but if you are looking for lots of images of domestic ware, this is not the book for you. The images here are largely of sculptural work, or non-functional vessels. She is fascinated with innovation though in other books, she describes deep tradition as in her books on Maria Martinez and Shoji Hamada.

What she, and now her daughter, write about, is how to mix glaze tests, throw a bowl, build a wall of clay, create a giant sculpture, use decals, make flameware, construct a mold, stack a kiln, decorate with texture and more. There are few glaze recipes but a new section on shino glazes is included, plus data about glaze materials, including photos. Her extensive charts and compendiums are worth the price of the book.

In the preface, Jan Peterson writes about her mom but –personal lament — not enough.  Reading the book, I wanted more evidence of her mother. In the earlier editions, the senior Peterson perhaps thought it untoward to include much about herself, but here her daughter and descendant potter had the opportunity to add a bit more ceramic biography of her famous mom had she chosen. Give me some story. Show me her pots.

In sections like Susan’s short essay on Toshiko Tokaezu, which is very beautiful, it would have been nice to make it clear that at the time of writing, both artists were in their late years. Poignantly she tells us that Tokaezu was, “Still working and exhibiting in her eighties.”

This is a reference book first and foremost. You can take it off your shelf and look things up. There is a wonderfully extensive bibliography and a separate poster of 50/50 blends of glaze materials at cone 10 reduction and cone 5 oxidation that you can hang on your studio wall. My complaints are small, and honestly, irrelevant if what you want is a good reference book. This is it. It belongs in the library of anyone serious about working with clay.

The Slipware Potters of the Fishley Family

Bernard Leach called Edwin Beer Fishley (1832-1912) “the last peasant potter.” It’s true that old time country potters who dug their own clay and threw it by the ton in rural workshops were dwindling in number but Edwin Beer Fishley was not the only one left. Indeed, Edwin Beer passed on the tradition to his grandson, William Fishley Holland (1863-1944) whose son, George Tonkin Holland (1950-1959) also became a potter. Still, one can see what Leach meant. Edwin Beer was a talented thrower and decorator descended from the fabled family of slipware potters, the Fishley brothers, fathers, sons, and occasional daughter. He produced big-bellied harvest jugs inscribed with poems and images; baking dishes that he made oval by cutting out a leaf shaped hole in the base and squeezing the hole closed; and an astonishing variety of pots to suit the changing tastes. Leach was impressed with his work and later, Michael Cardew learned from his grandson William Fishley Holland.

The collector John Edgeler tells the stories of the many generations of Fishley potters in The Fishleys of Fremington: A Devon Slipware Tradition. Retired from a career in finance and a collector since his early teens, Edgeler has devoted himself to the pots of Michael Cardew, Ray Finch, and the work of the early slipware potters who preceded them. He founded a small press, Cotswolds Living, in honor of his bookseller dad, Bill Edgeler and has published a carefully researched and interesting list on English slipware. I will look at a few more of his books in upcoming weeks.

Before writing of the Fishley potters, Edgeler describes the countryside and the glacially deposited beds of red and white clays that enriched the area and enabled a thriving pottery industry. He gives an overview of North Devon slipware, the manner of making, and the typical shapes and methods of decorating thus placing the Fishleys in the context of their time and surroundings.

Edwin Beer Fishley

There are maps, old drawings of the pot shop and kilns, and lots of color photos of the lively old pots. I love the black and white photos of the potters dressed in tweed jackets or vests, caps on their heads, their torsos wrapped in generous aprons that almost reached the floor. How could they work in such attire? But work they did. Harry Juniper, the traditional slipware potter whom Edgeler interviewed in the summer of 2007 when he was in his sixtieth year of potting said, “I knew Fishley Holland very well. I rather liked him, a cocky little bugger…he was great, he turned up at Yelland and started criticizing Michael [Leach] as being too slow and laid back. The Fishleys worked – they bragged of a thousand plant pots a day. This was what they were like, they boasted about the work, they loved it, it was damned hard work.”

Well yes, “damned hard work.” And we might add they made, “damned nice pots.”