Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artists

Contemporary Ceramic
Clay by Amber Creswell Bell

“The main restrictions that I have at the moment are a small studio and how I transport my work, unfired, in a trailer that I tow with my bicycle to the kiln service,” Canadian potter Dawn Vachon tells Australian author Amber Creswell Bell in her new book, Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artisans. Bell profiles fifty-three potters, mainly from Australia, probing how they became involved with clay, why they make what they make, and how they think about it.

The only potter I was familiar with (which doesn’t mean you wouldn’t know who the rest are) is media savvy Frances Palmer of Connecticut whose work was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest. Palmer has been making pots for more than three decades, primarily porcelain but also white and red terra cottas. And avid gardener, she photographs many of her pieces with flowers and posts daily on Instagram. Despite her success, she tells Bell, “You have to be prepared for failure and yet still enjoy the process. There are many aspects to making pots that are out of one’s control and I find it all a metaphor for many things in life.”

Indeed, dealing with failure is a common thread throughout. Holly Macdonald of Australia talks about the importance of not becoming too attached to one’s work while making it lest it not survive drying and firing. “There are certainly a lot of opportunities to practice non-attachment in working with clay. Non-attachment in relation to the physical things you are creating and the expectations you have of them. I think it’s a good thing, and is a positive influence on the other areas of my life.”

Several of the potters touch on their ever-present sense of the long and ancient history of ceramics. Florian Gadsby, a young London based potter who apprenticed with Lisa Hammond writes, “The methods have barely changed in thousands of years. Losing such an important craft as we enter a digital age would be devastating, as it represents centuries of historical advancement, culture and beauty.” Australian potter Tania Rollond adds, “For almost as long as we humans have walked the earth we have scratched or printed our individual marks and traces into the malleable, receptive surface of clay, and we have formed it into objects that play intimate roles in daily life.”

 Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artisans is a handsomely produced book. There are 231 illustrations. Many of the pots are dramatically photographed holding flowers. There are also photographs of the potters at work, or of their studios, as well as many photos of individual pots or groups of pots all printed on thick, creamy paper.

Vase
Vase by Keiko Matsui

The work itself ranges from vases and tableware made by throwing, pinching, handbuilding and slipcasting to intricate sculptural work reflecting a variety of points of view and processes. Bell does a good job of presenting the thoughts and philosophies that the potters have about their work without making the essays sound like formal artists’ statements and without using the jargon so often employed by critics. She and her subjects exclaim at the “buoyancy” of the market for handmade ceramics today and share optimism for the future.

 

 

Details: Published by Thames and Hudson

 

Lovely New Editions of Two Leach Books

Unicorn Press has reissued the classic A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach and his lesser-known travelogue, A Potter in Japan. Both have been newly typeset, printed on heavy, coated paper and bound in linen and paper over board, with satin ribbon bookmarks and gold stamping. Even if you already own copies, and think you have read each enough times, these editions are objects of beauty in their own right. They are worth having for the visual and tactile pleasures they offer, much like a good pot. They have a heft to them yet are a nice size for holding.

All the original drawings have been kept in A Potter’s Book. The publisher has found many color versions of the photos from the first edition. Where this was not possible, color photos of Leach’s pots have been used. In addition, other pertinent photos have been added “for clarity.” But don’t think this is a glossy coffee table version. This is a serious republication, done with respect.

A Potter in Japan has not been given color photos, but it is still a handsome book. Written during Leach’s sojourn in Japan 1953 -1954, it is a travel memoir filled with descriptions and impressions and most of all, opinions. During his stay, he makes many pots and pictures, holds exhibitions, gives talks, and, in addition to writing this book, works on another, all of which he discusses. The book has a feel of immediacy. Describing Hamada’s workshop after earthquake jolts and rain, he writes, “Yesterday about 1,000 pots were carried in and out, three times for sun and shower. Today the pots stayed out until 4 p.m., then the whole lot, 2,000, were carried on boards down the muddy slippery path to the smaller kiln beyond the lower house, 250 yards away, and massed around the long shed on the ground. After tea, the biscuit-firing kiln-packing was started and was nearly complete by supper time. Finished afterwards by candlelight and the fire started, I have never seen anything like it. Everybody, except Richard and I, knew their jobs and had a deft control of their bodies.”

I congratulate Unicorn Press. I wonder if they might consider giving Michael Cardew’s books the same lavish treatment?

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.

Walter Keeler

Walter Keeler set up his first pottery in 1965 and moved to his present workshop in 1976. Though he is adamant in calling himself a functional potter, influenced by historical European pottery, his teapots and jugs are unlike those of any other artist.  In Walter Keeler Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding look at Keeler’s life in clay, his ideas and growth, and, the pots themselves.

“All my pots are functional,” he explained to David Biers in a Ceramic Review interview quoted by Fielding. “”It is a fundamental justification and a challenging starting point. If the pots could not be used, I would rather not make them.”

Fielding notes that his Ideas on functionality are of interest. “The function of a pot, in a practical sense, is a very deep thing…because function goes beyond whether you can pick an object up by the handle or raise it to your mouth, it has other implications too,” Keeling explains. “In certain company you would not drink out of a mug, you’d drink out of something more refined…The fact that you can play with that, if you have a mind to – you encourage people to stick their little finger out – seems too rich and important…I think that if you work in the crafts, then somehow that’s where your heart should be.”

And, most tellingly, he explains, “If you make a very ordinary teapot, people will say, oh that’s just a teapot, and walk away, but if you make a teapot that poses questions – I’m a teapot, but what sort of teapot am I? Would you use me, how would you use me? – then people have to engage with that.”

Fielding describes his work as “mischievous, slightly subversive.” Cooper tells us that the shards he found as a boy first drew Keeling, like seemingly many UK potters, to pottery. He keeps his shard collection to this day. Inspired by metal cans and containers, Whieldon ware, Staffordshire creamware, and German salt-glazed pottery, Keeling works in both earthenware and stoneware. His pieces begin with thrown forms, which he reassembles, with carpenterly skill, adding extruded handles, generous pouring lips, and his signature sprig of concentric circles.

This is a thoughtful look at one of the more celebrated potters of our era and his personal philosophy of pot making. It is published by the Ruthin Craft Center. Sadly, we have lost both authors, thoughtful and important contributors to the ceramics literature. Happily. Keeling is still very much with us, and potting.

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.

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.

American Studio Ceramics

American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity 1940 to 1979 by independent scholar Martha Drexler Lynn is a carefully researched, monumental book that chronicles and examines a tumultuous and groundbreaking period in American ceramics. By necessity and by choice, Lynn focuses on the segment of potters who were intent on and successful at crossing over into the Fine Arts arena, a movement that was given velocity as returning GI’s took college ceramics classes and then became college teachers themselves.

She was inspired to write the book when she received a “nearly complete run of Craft Horizons magazine from 1941 to the 1980s” as a gift (note to self; it’s ok to save stacks of back editions of ceramics magazines). She relies heavily on Craft Horizons, and Rose Slivka, editor and chief writer for the magazine 1959-1979, for her narrative. She apologizes, “In regard to the thousands of potters who worked during these decades, unless their talent was acknowledged at the time through the written or oral record or is testified to by an accessible body or work, their stories have slipped from the narrative presented here.” She is also influenced by the ceramics historian and critic Garth Clark and credits him for the foundational work he did. This then, is a book largely celebrating what she calls “adventurous” work by Peter Voulkos and those who followed.

The book opens with a discussion of the early mid-twentieth century, largely Bauhaus influenced, and includes such potters as Maija Grotell, Marguerite Wildenhein, Gertrude and Otto Natzler, and Glen Lukens. She discusses Bernard Leach and his influence, and gives great credit to the role his A Potter’s Book played, though she asserts several times that he couldn’t throw very well.

She divides the ensuing movements chronologically as Abstract Expressionism, Funk Ceramics, Fetish Finnish, and Special Objects. With extraordinary detail, Lynn tells us who was doing what kind of work, where they did it, who was teaching where, who were their students, who were their students’ students, who was exhibiting and where, and how the exhibits were received. This is an exhaustive study and I cannot imagine anyone writing about this time period in ceramics without referring to it.

I was especially pleased to see the respect she gives to two books that remain in print all these years and which I agree are and were important. “During the 1960’s,” she writes, “the widely praised Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964) by M.C. Richards provided philosophical heft to the field, much as Leach’s book had done twenty years earlier…A decade later, another influential book in the same vein was Paulus Berensohn’s popular Finding One’s Way With Clay (1972) which encouraged low-tech, pinch-formed vessels.”

As I pointed out, Lynn warns us in the beginning of the book of its constraints, and though she does touch on the concurrent ceramics scene that was flourishing outside the academy, she does not give it in depth coverage. She makes it clear that much of the information is lost or unknowable, and clearly deems it of lesser importance. “Meanwhile, “ she tells us, “those who were less adventurous strove to reinforce their connections to the traditional (vernacular) crafts, now transformed into a back-to-the-land, antiestablishment sensibility that highlighted concerns about technological progress, the machine, and how to value things that had once been ordinary.” She tells us that in 1979 “375,000 Americans were making a living selling crafts on a regular basis.”

I, as you know, have a predilection for functional pots, the story largely left out of this book. And I am not as certain as Lynn is that much of the history is lost. Nevertheless, I found American Studio Ceramics fascinating.

Pots with Recipes

In her book In the Potter’s Kitchen: Handmade Pots for Home-Cooked Recipes, Colorado potter Sumi von Dassow has taken the unusual step of including recipes for the various types of pots she discusses. Along with directions for making a sauerkraut crock, she tells us that three cabbages, shredded and weighted in brine, will fill a ten-inch crock. In the section on ovenware, she offers directions for making covered casseroles and various baking dishes: round, oval and squared, plus recipes for spinach lasagna, onion quiche, and pumpkin pie. Von Dassow seems especially enthusiastic about baked Brie, showing photos of three quite different bakers and giving us four recipes (oh yum! Baked Brie with Caramelized Onions and Herbs!).

Throughout the book, she exhorts potters to do the same: include recipes with the pots you make.  Writing of butter and cheese dishes she suggests, “You might want to include a recipe for herb butter or cheese balls with these items.” Later, discussing olive trays, she says, “if you have a favorite canapé recipe, you could include that as well.”

The book is written for two audiences: potters who make pots, and cooks who purchase and use pots.  Following chapters on the history of cooking and pottery, and extensive advice for non-potters using pottery, the book is organized by use in the kitchen: ovenware, stovetop ware, ware for the microwave, serving dishes and storage jars.  There are sequential how-to photos for specific pieces such as apple bakers, juicers, and tagines and lots of photos of finished pots. Thirty-eight potters, including von Dasso contributed pots and recipes. I was pleased to see my friend Robbie Lobell’s flameware casseroles and a spread showing how she makes her rectangular baking dishes. I have one of her early rectangular flameware pots that I love to use to roast chopped carrots and onions drizzled with olive oil and topped with sprigs of rosemary.

Flameware by Cook on Clay

Von Dassow’s advice for potters is extensive, practical and often opinionated. Of course she is opinionated – she has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about kitchenware. What’s the point of writing a book like this unless you have opinions?  “It’s important,” she writes, “to keep the intended function in mind when making a baking dish…you can make a dish and sell it and leave it up to the customer to figure out what to do with it, but if you know what your dish is for, it will be easier to sell.” She tells us that putting a foot ring on a baking dish is ok, but not really what works best, or what cooks prefer. Oh dear! I put foot rings on my baking dishes and casseroles with the notion that they will be going directly to the table while still hot from the oven and that, when warm, foot rings are kinder to wood tables than flat bottoms.  Perhaps I need to rethink?

And I never thought to include a recipe with each pot, though I have on occasion included one in my newsletter. I make a lot of round, straight-sided baking dishes that can double as serving dishes or bowls. They are perfect, I think, for bread pudding, cheesy potatoes au gratin, or a baked egg dish with broccoli and mozzarella and chunks of rustic bread, a recipe I cribbed years ago from a chef friend. That’s how I imagine my baking dishes being used when they leave my studio, but I have not actually sent them off with recipes attached. Now I  think I will.

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Fannie Farmer’s Bread Pudding with Alterations

Butter the baking dish. Fill it with:

2 cups dry breadcrumbs. I like to use at least half rye bread with caraway seeds.

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups hot milk (this makes a firm pudding)

Let cool.

When room temperature stir in:

½ cup sugar

2 eggs beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

½ cup raisins, or more if you like

Place in the middle of the oven and turn on to 325F

Bake for one hour or until firm. Serve slightly warm or chilled.

The Marks of Potters

A few years ago my son Dan asked me why I don’t sign my name on my pots. He worried no one would know or remember that a particular bowl or jar was made by me from the mark I use to sign them.

In my early pottery years, I did sign my name, at first with manganese dioxide. Soon though, I switched to incising my name on the bottoms of pots with a needle tool: sometimes “Suzy,” sometimes “Staubach,” always printed because my handwriting is so horrible. Later, after turning the narrow attached-garage where I lived at the time, into a studio and the separate double garage into a shop, I began to incise “The Stone House Pottery” in an arc parallel to the foot ring.

But like many potters, I fell in love with the notion of a mark. I thought that marks were beautiful themselves and added to the charm of a handmade piece. I began to experiment with designs and made a few stamps but was not happy with any of them. Around the same time, during a visit to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts I noticed a package of old lead type for sale and bought it. After more experimenting, I began to mark my pots with a small round button of clay that I impress with the lead S from the type collection.

Of course Dan is still correct. One does not automatically know who made a pot from a potter’s’ mark.  Happily, James Hazlewood has edited and updated the classic British Studio Potters’ Marks by Eric Yates-Owen and Robert Fournier so for British ceramics, collectors can easily determine who the maker is from the mark. There are books on the marks of American studio potters available, but unfortunately, nothing as comprehensive and up to date as this.

British Studio Potters’ Marks is not a book to leave on the shelf, however, and use only for reference. It is a pleasure to turn the pages and study the various marks. There are plenty of potters who use a signature, though it is surprising how many are impossible to read. The majority, however use marks, many based on their name or initials.

Potters are listed in alphabetical order with images of their marks plus, and this is especially fun to read, dates and names of the potteries where they worked, birth and death dates if known, and a short description of the types of works made. It’s a wonderful way of looking at the history of British studio ceramics.

The index is organized into three sections, Creatures, Monograms, and Signs and many subsections. So, for instance you could turn to the subsection Triangles in the Signs section and see a two-page spread of marks that incorporate a triangle and the potter who used it. Or take a look at the subsection Birds under Animals and realize how popular bird imagery is for potters’ marks

British Studio Potters’ Marks is an excellent resource and for potters, a delightful read. I have spent many pleasant hours leafing through the pages.