A Few of My Pots
My pots are made of stoneware and high fired. Photos by Joseph Szalay.
Early American pottery, old time English and French country wares, and the great pots of ancient Korea and China inspire my work. I love simplicity of form, the unexpected kiss marks of the flames in the kiln, and the notion of functionality.
You can use my pottery for everyday meals or special gatherings. I like to think my work goes well on New England farm tables and in sleek, high-tech kitchens.
Much of my adult life was spent working as a bookseller, managing the trade books at the UConn Co-op, organizing readings and the myriad things a bookseller does. All the while though, and even before I sold books, I made pots. My first pottery was The Stone House Pottery located on an old blueberry farm in Bolton, Connecticut during the seventies and into the eighties. Here, I built a catenary arch kiln from salvaged hard bricks and fired with homemade pipe burners. There were many challenges – the kiln took three days to fire – but this was also a time when there were numerous local craft fairs. All things hand made, especially pottery, were popular. It was during this time that I began to single fire my pots to save on fuel, a practice I continue to this day.
It was also during these years that I began to write about ceramics, including a booklet for Garden Way, a piece on tile-making for Mother Earth News, a piece on early Connecticut pottery for Ceramics Monthly, another for CM on flower pots, with a few short stories and essays on other topics thrown in.
In the mid-eighties, we – my three children (now grown with homes of their own) and the photographer Joseph Szalay – moved to Ashford. Here, I established Willow Tree Pottery, named for the weeping willow tree we planted in the old hay field in front of the house. I built a crossdraft kiln, followed by the downdraft kiln I fire today. My studio, with whitewashed walls, is in our walkout basement and looks out onto the gardens. The kiln shed is just a few steps from the studio door. I have thrown on the same kickwheel, a Lockerbie, all these years.
After writing the book, Connecticut: Driving Through History, published by Covered Bridge Press, I became involved in putting together the catalog for what was to be MC Richard’s retrospective exhibit at the Worcester Center for Crafts but became her memorial exhibit. I wrote the biographical essay and edited the catalog, Imagine Inventing Yellow: the Life and Work of MC Richards. This was followed by a catalog for the Mikhail Zakin exhibit that I edited.
Berkley, Penguin USA published my book Clay The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element. Books have been part of my life as long as I can remember. Clay came into my life when I was a young woman. I took classes first with Lois Eldridge in her Glastonbury studio, and then with Betsy Tanzer at Wesleyan Potters, but am largely self-taught. Most of my days involve clay or books or both. In addition there are the gardens, family and friends, things to do with my granddaughters, and alas, politics.
My hope is that the pleasure I feel when sitting at the wheel, the wet clay spinning in my hands, the excitement of firing, comes to you through my pots.
My Life in Clay with Books
Books have been an integral part of my work in clay. Ceramics history and material culture particularly interest me. Often, I write about the books I am reading and post about them in my BiblioPotter blog, which you can find on this site.
As much as I like reading, I like doing research, interviewing and writing. Over the years I have had to opportunity to publish pieces in Ceramics Monthly, Studio Potter, the old Goodfellow Review, Mother Earth News and elsewhere, even writing a little booklet for Garden Way. Ceramics has not been my only topic; I wrote a column on bookselling for College Store for 24 years, and have published pieces on gardening, nature, and in my youth, a few short stories.
In my earliest years, I wrote under my first and middle name, rather than use my last name. Most of that work has vanished except the few copies and tear sheets yellowing in my closet.
The University of New England Press (UPNE) published Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden and reissued Clay:The History and Evolution of Humankind's Relationship with Earth's Most Primal Element.
You can order from an independent bookshop here.
If you read one book on ceramics history this year, or even just one book on ceramics, make it A. Brandt Zipp’s densely researched and richly illustrated book about Thomas W. Commeraw, Commeraw’s Stoneware: The Life and Work of the First African-American Pottery Owner. Commeraw’s robust stoneware, his jugs and jars, the sure-handed cobalt decorations, have long been esteemed by collectors and connoisseurs of early American pottery, but little was known about the potter himself. It was assumed that, like his contemporaries working in the late 18th and early 19th century Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was white. The well-known ceramic historian William Ketchum even argued that he was of French extraction, a misconception that grew into myth and stuck for years.
Zipp, is a founding partner of Crocker Farm, the premier auction house specializing in historic, utilitarian American ceramics. He grew up steeped in knowledge and appreciation of early American pottery. While researching another potter, Henry Remmey, a contemporary and neighbor of Commeraw’s, he saw a B after Commeraw’s name in the 1810 census. At first perplexed, but looking further in the census records, he discovered that the B was for black. Commeraw was listed as black in the 1800 census with a household consisting of 6 people of color. Thomas Commeraw, the famous stoneware potter favored by collectors and museums, was not a white man of French heritage, but a free African-American.
After this startling and important discovery, Zipp spent almost two decades researching Commeraw’s life, sharing what he learned in lectures and essays. I believe there were some university presses who were interested in publishing the results of his work. However, Crocker Farm publishes wonderful catalogs of their auctions and so brought that sensibility to this project. They published the book with an astonishing wealth of illustrations. Turning the pages, looking at pot after pot, you feel an intimacy with the work. With Zipp’s guidance, we see Commeraw’s handles change, his efficiencies evolve. Zipp also shares his research journey, how and where he learned various details and facts. He includes illustrations of the primary sources he relied upon. The book is well documented with notes and, always a criterion for me, a good index
Even without Zipp’s research, Commeraw was known as an extraordinary and influential potter. He was one of the first, if not the first, to stamp his brand on his pots. He sold his wares well beyond New York. Other potters imitated him. But now we know that as a child he was enslaved by the potter William Crolius and received his freedom upon Crolius’ death. We know about his leadership roles in his community and his church, his abolitionist activism at a time when most blacks in this country were enslaved, his singing, his optimism when he and his family left to found Liberia, only to return to the US disappointed. And now we know that this enterprising potter, long assumed to be a white craftsman, was a free black man who made magnificent pots while working for himself.
Do yourself a favor: Read this book. I will reread it before the year is out.
In the mid-nineties, Sue Pryke, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, designed the bestselling Ikea 365+ range of dinnerware. Sleek and simple, with square plates and rounded corners Ikea 365+ is still in production today and is considered the “largest selling tableware range in the world.” Linda Bloomfield is known for her …
If you read one book on ceramics history this year, or even just one book on ceramics, make it A. Brandt Zipp’s densely researched and richly illustrated book about Thomas W. Commeraw, Commeraw’s Stoneware: The Life and Work of the First African-American Pottery Owner. Commeraw’s robust stoneware, his jugs and jars, the sure-handed cobalt …
Wow! A book person obsessed with functional studio pottery! We are talking about W.A. Ismay (1910-2001) the noted Yorkshire collector of post-war British studio pottery. Eccentric perhaps. Deeply knowledgeable. Passionate, passionate, passionate about pots. Helen Walsh brings Ismay to life in her vivid biography, The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony: W.A. Ismay and his Collection of British …