Not for Profit Pottery

You know the discussion: art or craft? Pots for the pedestal or pots for the table? Are you more of an artist if you work to support your art or if your art supports you? Ceramic artists and critics have been talking, arguing, and whining about these questions for decades with little or no resolution, except perhaps in their individual working lives. Not that there needs to be a resolution, of course. I am very happy to have a robust Karen Karnes casserole in my kitchen and also happy to see her work in a gallery. If I like the work, whether she made it while being supported by an institution or while running her own studio is of no consequence. I suspect you agree.

Ken Forster, who writes books primarily for collectors interested in the provenance of their collections, sees a key dividing line in the development of American ceramics as that between commercial enterprises such as factories, workshops and studios, and those enterprises that operated with little or no consideration for sales or profitability. In his book, Alternative American Ceramics 1870-1955:The Other American Art Pottery, he focuses on what he defines as pottery that was not made for profit. Yes, yes, we must pause for a moment to chuckle. It’s not like working potters are millionaires for goodness sakes.

Forster looks at “Ceramics as Recreation and Personal Experiment, Ceramics as Therapy, Ceramics as Social Program, Ceramics and Philosophy, Ceramics in Government Programs, Ceramics and the Social Philosophy of the Arts & Crafts Movements, and Ceramics in Education.”

The government? Uncle Sam was a potter? Well, yes, it seems so. “By 1925, the Bureau of Standards and the Bureau of Mines – both, then, within the Federal Department of Commerce – had laboratories and research personnel, including ceramic engineers, geologists, metallurgists, and practical potters, ‘devoted exclusively to ceramics.’”

Wow. During the next decade the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration got involved. Today we bail out banks and oil companies, but during the Great Depression, the government embraced ceramics. What do you do for a living? Oh, I am a “practical potter” for the US government!

Then there were the shameful years when our government interred Japanese Americans. During this time Daniel Rhodes taught at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, one of the internment camps in Wyoming. He and his imprisoned students made all the tableware for the “relocation centers” in the Western US and for the troops stationed there. One of his students was Minnie Ngoro, who went on to Alfred after the war and whose work is in the Smithsonian. For years, she taught near here, at UConn.

Forster spent six years researching this book. He relies largely on primary sources to look at ceramics made in sanatoriums, in settlement houses, recreational societies, idealistic and sometimes utopian communities, and in educational settings. In each of these cases, selling is a secondary consideration and often not a consideration at all. In fact, at Marblehead Potteries (run by Arthur Baggs), which began as a potshop in Dr. Herbert J. Hall’s Marblehead sanatorium to provide “neurasthenics and convalescents with’ occupational therapy,’” it was determined after three years that there was a conflict between the stress-free environment Hall was trying to create for his patients, and the anxieties of working in a commercial pottery. The pottery ceased all therapeutic activities and became a successful, independent commercial enterprise.

Many of the institutions and potters he discusses are those we are already familiar with, or have at least read something about. In nearly all these “alternative” endeavors, participants conducted extensive research and multiple experiments. Without pressure to produce a profit, they were free to explore. Intriguingly, it turns out that many of the iconic pots of the 19th and 20th centuries were products of this nonprofit world. Something to think about.

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