Biographies in American Ceramic Art

It’s the art, we are told, not the artist that matters. We should turn our attention to the genius of Ezra Pound’s poems, not his politics. It is not important that Shoji Hamada made the unsigned bottle with the exquisite green brush stroke that we admire; it is the bottle itself we should be contemplating.

Yes, yes this is all true, but really, aren’t most of us a bit nosey?  We want to know about the artist too.  We care a lot that Hamada made a particular piece and we are fascinated with the details of his life.

Certainly I am nosey. I like the studio visits in Ceramics Monthly. I like to read what potters have to say about their work and about their lives. It fascinates me that through history there have been groups of writers or artists or musicians who interact with and inspire one another, often so entangled that they fall in and out of love, argue, and collaborate. I am thinking of Black Mountain College, Bloomsbury, or Greenwich Village. It is not that the work is inseparable from the lives, but the lives do inform the work.

Still, when I first opened Biographies in American Ceramic Art 1870-1970 by Ken Foster, I was startled to find no images except on the cover. Here, it is the outlines of a life in ceramics that is emphasized, not the work itself.

The book is organized alphabetically, with brief entries that include such details as birth and death, education, prizes and employment. Thus we read that Laura Ann Fry, the “daughter of renowned woodcarver/teacher Henry B. Fry [was] proficient in drawing, design/decoration, modeling, and woodcarving, also a teacher,” followed by a list of places she studied, worked or taught. She was at the Cincinnati School of Design. She was at Rookwood. She invented and patented an atomizer for applying glaze. We can see that she began her studies in art at the age of 16 and died at the age of 86. Foster sums up Fry’s long and very rich life in ceramics with a few sentences.

Of course, many of the artists listed are well known, but there also many that I at least, had never heard of and that makes the book very interesting. I was not familiar with Isaac Scott Hathaway who designed coins in addition to his work in ceramics. He was “recruited (by Booker T. Washington, on recommendation of George Washington Carver) to join the faculty of Tuskegee Institute … and establish a ceramics department.” Now I want to know more about him and see his work.

There are gaps. M.C. Richards is not included. How can that be? The entry for George Ohr is astonishingly brief, and because the entries are listings of events such as expositions, there is no indication of the wild nature of his work or glaze experiments.

Nevertheless, the book is fun to browse. I found myself running to my bookshelves and the Internet to learn more about individuals and, if possible, to see their work. Foster wrote Biographies for collectors, but it is a good resource for potters interested in the past or who want to discover lesser-known predecessors. An illustrated version would have been better, but this is worth a read.

Vases and Winter Flowers

We’ve finally had the January thaw, albeit one month late, with daytime temperatures zooming unexpectedly up to the fifties. Friday night they plunged again to single digits, arriving with wind gusts to seventy miles an hour and multiple bolts of lightning ripping the night sky. A lot of the snow melted during the thaw, but there are still several feet covering the ground. We may have had illusions that spring was here, but today there is no mistaking that we are deep in winter.

My chilled mind dreams of flowers. The only plants blooming in the solarium are the parlor maple (Abutilon), its papery blossoms a cheerful orange/red, and the three crowns of thorns  (Euphorbia milii) that are showing off their tiny pink and pale yellow blooms. I enjoy these flowers but hunger for more, especially with snow expected tonight and tomorrow. So, indulgently, I buy myself a bouquet of white tulips, snitch a vase from the studio (it’s supposed to be for sale), and set the simple arrangement on the kitchen table. Happiness.

Potters have been making vases for thousands of years. From the Latin vas for container or vessel, it is traditionally taller than it is wide, often adhering to the Golden Mean. Filled with flowers, whether casually or carefully arranged, or holding a single stem, vases of flowers enhance dining tables, hotel lobbies, guest rooms, religious ceremonies and celebrations everywhere. Over the years, the form has come to be used solo as a decoration, sometimes status symbol, and often holds pride of place in an interior. As much and perhaps more than the teapot, vase making is a right of passage for potters.

Julia Galloway who juried 500 Vases: Contemporary Explorations of a Timeless Form writes in her introduction, “A vase is typically thought of as an object that enhances something – a tulip or a dinner setting. Yet the best vases transcend service and stand on their own as art. Creating a vase that can speak for itself take hard work and definite vision, and that’s part of what makes the form challenging and exciting.”

Like all the books in Lark’s 500 series, 500 Vases is a pleasure. Galloway has chosen a wide range of interpretations of the form: Christine Schiff’s “Ancient Vessels Grouping,” stamped with feldspar chunks; Hayne Bayless’ extruded flower bricks, perfect for massing single stems of daffodils or tulips; Simon Levin’s anagama fired vessels, generously thrown (I have one of his pitchers, perhaps it’s time to acquire a vase?); and Heidi Fahrenbacher’s humorous Flower Bed. The vases are plain and fancy, carved, stamped, glazed, unglazed, and created using all the methods available to potters.

I do not know if people who are not makers look at volumes like this. I think even if you are not a potter it would be a delightful wish book, a shopper’s delight. But for those of us who do make, it is a stimulating opportunity to see what others are doing, to be inspired, and to contemplate. And though there are not many words, not much to actually read, it is a book to spend considerable time with, studying the images, and returning to it periodically.

Storm Damage

I had never heard of ice dams until this winter when suddenly everyone started talking about them. Sure enough, we have ice dams ourselves, massive ones.

It’s been a tough season, with nearly 80 inches of snow falling in a short period of time. The weight of all this snow thickly blanketing our roofs turns out to be a big problem, leading to many building collapses. Over three hundred farm buildings have been crushed by roof snow here in Connecticut, including greenhouses and barns.  We’ve lost a bakery, factories, and some houses. So far our house, the kiln shed, and other outbuildings have not threatened to come down. Fingers crossed.

The kiln shed, which at first I was very concerned about is probably ok as long as I don’t fire. Right now, it is cold inside the shed and cold outside. I won’t fire until we get the snow off the roof.

The dams are another story. They form when all that roof snow starts to melt from underneath and then refreezes at the edges of the roof, forming what looks like a mound of glass. This damages the roof and water often ends up inside. The dam that formed across the front of the house was worrisome, but the dams across the back, especially on the upper roof, were downright frightening.

We started with a stain over the dining table that spread, amoeba like, across the ceiling. Then another stain. And another, in amazing shades of orange and black.  And then the drips. Water was coming in from the upper roof, through the walls and into the ceiling and then into the rooms.

I grabbed buckets and plastic from the studio. Luckily I have lots of both. My huge concern was (and still is) the books. To say I was freaking out would be an understatement. Much of my ceramic library is irreplaceable.  My horticultural collection was nearer the drips and in more danger. Many of these books are also irreplaceable. The bedroom, which is also lined with bookshelves, started leaking too. We used so much plastic, there was nothing left to wrap a pot in.

We hired a crew of roofers to clear a three foot swath from the dams, which is recommended. They would not touch the ice dams though. No one will. One idea is to put calcium chloride on the on them, but since our lower roof is metal, we cannot do that. Salt eats metal.

The temperatures are rising. The dams are melting a bit. We hold our breaths. What we want is a melt but not a fast melt. What we do NOT want is rain. For now, the leaks have stopped.

Meanwhile, the cats think it is all a frolic. Jake never met a bowl he didn’t want to curl up in. Despite the drips, he hopped into my glaze basin. Misty hovered near by. She doesn’t even like Jake, but she loves water. We’ve spent considerable time shooing them away, as of course it is not good for them.