Back to Basics

I spent three days wandering the Javits Center in New York this past week, taking in all the new books for fall; fiction, crafts, cooking, gardening, lots of history and politics, and children’s books for all ages.  I was, of course, particularly looking for books on ceramics but found only two:  The Ceramics Bible by Louisa Taylor, coming from Chronicle Books and the fourth edition of Fred Olsen’s classic, The Kiln Book from the University of Pennsylvania Press. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other books in our field coming out, just that the publishers (such as University of North Carolina) were not exhibiting at Book Expo America.

I still have my first edition of The Kiln Book published in 1973 by Keramos Books. It was $8.95 in paper (the new edition is $45.00) and printed in a landscape format with a thick brown cover. How I pored over the black and white drawings, the diagrams, the charts, and the not-so-crisp black and white photos. My first serious kiln was built from Daniel Rhodes’ plans for a catenary arch, using salvaged hard firebricks and homemade pipe burners, but when it wouldn’t reach temperature, I read and reread Olsen. It seemed he knew everything.

Olsen dropped out of the University of Southern California (where he was working on his MFA under the tutelage of F. Carlton Ball and Susan Peterson) to go to Japan to study. He has built kilns of many types all over the world and sells kits for his gas fired updraft kiln.

I like looking at and reading about kilns so I look forward to this new edition. Lately, even though I am a flame girl (pyromaniac some would say), I have been wondering if an electric kiln with electricity produced by solar, wind or hydro- power would be more environmentally responsible than gas, oil or wood. There are potters using methane, but is anyone producing enough electricity to fire a kiln? I am imagining a studio with banks of photovoltaic panels on the kiln shed, or perhaps a dam and waterfall close by. Maybe Olsen will have something to say about this.

The Ceramics Bible, written by British potter Louisa Taylor, best known for her stacking porcelain tableware, was being extolled as the “new definitive guide for serious ceramics practitioners.” The copies I saw in the Chronicle booth at the show were dummies (mock ups) with blank pages. However, if heft is an indication, this book promises a lot of information. It will have 700 color photos and illustrations, “examples of contemporary work,” and “artist profiles.” I am not sure we need another a to z ceramics book, but then again, can there ever be too many books on our topic? I think not.

Forthcoming Books

I am headed to NYC to BEA, the book industry’s annual gathering. Books directly or indirectly related to ceramics are not the focus of the event, but there are always a few pottery books, often at the university presses, sometimes at the art presses. I am eager to find them. Most of the books being promoted will be published in the autumn. I am hoping for some good finds.

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.

Kids and Pots at Mystic Aquarium

I went to the Mystic Aquarium with my granddaughter’s first grade class. Grandmothers get to be chaperones these days, which is nice. It’s a kid friendly place, with stingrays, jellyfish, sharks, eels, beluga whales, penguins, seals and sea lions. There’s even an aviary where the birds come and sit on your shoulder! It’s not a children’s museum, but the exhibits are very kid friendly and many offer the opportunity to touch. My charges loved petting the stingrays.

I, however, was most enchanted with the large room devoted to shipwrecks on the ocean floor because this was essentially a pottery display.  For centuries large pots were used as cargo containers. Indeed it was large jars that enabled merchants to develop a bustling trade in olive oil, wine, and other goods throughout the ancient Mediterranean Sea. And it is these shipping containers that have lasted, often perfectly intact, long after the timbers of the ship hulls have rotted away. They give archaeologists a wealth of information about the ancient world.

I had to smile when Arielle explained to her friend Stephanie — with great authority — how to use a potter’s wheel. The kick wheel in the exhibit is not quite the same as Roman or Egyptian potters would have had in their workshops but it gets the point across.

Hmmm. So what about some good books on pottery for first graders? This year, Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill with illustrations by Bryan Collier was a Caldecott Honor book. It is a paean to the wonder of throwing. In one spread, three pages open out with four consecutive paintings in which you see Dave’s hands. You are looking down with him, down into the clay. Written on the last painting are the words, “Dave’s hands, buried in the mounded mud, pulled out the shape of a jar.” At the end of the story, Hill and Collier give us notes, a life of Dave, the poems he inscribed on his jars, and a photo of a few of his pots, so an adult can go into more depth than the story itself offers, or a good reader can learn more on her own. Dave the Potter brings you as close to the magic of watching someone throw as a book can.

A Cup for Everyone by Yusuke Yonezu is about design and creativity. The characters are penguins. The penguin dad is a potter who makes cups from special clay. His cups are very beautiful but he must travel father and farther from home to sell them. Pucca, the penguin son, begins to fool around with the clay himself. He rather model figures than make cups but this turns out to be a good thing. He makes a parrot shaped cup for Mrs. Parrot who is thrilled. Then everyone wants a special cup and Pucca and his dad have lots of orders for personalized cups. This would be a good little story to read to an art class as the students make things from clay themselves.

I was pleased to see the exhibit of pottery at the Mystic Aquarium. I have only one suggestion. Put some clay out for the kids to touch, and they will think it is as much fun as petting the stingrays.

Auricula Theaters


The other day I was on bookstore business in West Hartford, so, being just a few miles down the road, I slipped over to Farmington for an hour to hear Steve Silk talk about the Sunken Garden at Hill-Stead. It was the first of Hill-Stead’s three-day May Market, so white tents filled with horticultural goods surrounded the beautiful farmhouse mansion designed my Theodate Pope Riddle for her parents.  There were perennials and shrubs, look-at-me straw garden hats that could only be worn to a party but that were attracting a lot of attention, antiques, paintings, whimsical cement statues, bulbs (I bought three Mondriaan Oriental lilies), jewelry, and amazing scanner photography by Ellen Hoverkamp.

But I was not there to shop. I am of course including the Beatrice Farrand garden at Hill-Stead in my book on sunken gardens and was interested to hear what Silk, a garden designer and writer and world traveller, had to say about it. He made it clear that he was not going to talk about the plants or even much about the history of this notable garden but “share his impressions.” We (the audience) sat in the shade of the summerhouse in the center of the garden. The talk was worth listening to, and I took a few notes. After a walk around the garden, I headed to the edge of the lawn on my way to the field where my truck was parked.

That’s when I noticed the lovely, rustic Auricula Theater with pots by Guy Wolff. Wolff is the subject of my other writing project. I could not believe my luck. I realize it’s a bit self-serving to be writing about books I am working on instead of reading, but really this was quite a day.

Auricula Theaters are tiered displays of primroses in pots. They probably originated in 17th century France or Belgium and spread to the rest of Europe, particularly 19th century England. They were designed as a way to show off one’s collection of these colorful mountain gems and give them some protection from harsh wind, rain and sun. They could be simple affairs, with open boxes such as the Hill-Stead display, but wealthy estate owners often created elaborate Auricula Theaters with fancy woodwork, gold leaf, even curtains and painted backdrops. They have lately regained popularity. In fact, the April issue of Gardens Illustrated features one.

However plain or fancy the theater, it’s the pots with the primroses that are the show. Wolff, surely the most important horticultural potter working today, has interpreted the Auricula Pot for the Hill-Stead.  His pots, perfectly sized for the bold yet diminutive flowers, are subtly flared with thickened rims. They are show showstoppers. The volunteers told me they were selling very well.

Visions of Auricula Theaters appearing in gardens all over New England popped into my head as I pulled my truck onto the highway. I suppose though, many people will keep just one or three Auricula Pots rather than a theater full, or even plant something other than a primrose.

No matter.

What I really like about the Auricula Pot, and Wolff’s in particular, is the idea of the humble flowerpot as drama. Not the prop; half the show. Yes.

Garden Bells

The other day my granddaughters and I were going through boxes of somewhat tattered children’s books (books their dad and aunt and uncle had read as kids), when I unexpectedly came upon Potter’s Wheel Projects, a staple bound Ceramics Monthly Handbook compiled by the magazine’s editors and Ceramics by Elizabeth Constantine and Lewis Krevolin. I immediately set the treasured Dr. Doolittle down on the floor and opened the Potter’s Wheel Projects. I remembered the books of course, but thought I’d lost them long ago during a move.

I flipped the pages of Potter’s Wheel Projects and smiled at the penguins and owls and cats made of thrown parts, which I’d never had the urge to make. However, there were plenty of projects I had made, carefully following the directions. Now I think the Yunnan cooker might be worth revisiting, as it is a steamer that sits in a saucepan. But it’s the wind bells in the piece by Frank A. Colson that got my attention as I sat on the floor surrounded by piles of juveniles.

My first garden bells were inspired by these wind bells (I still have two of them). They have copper wind catcher tails (there are directions for bathing the copper in chemicals and treating it with heat) attached to the clappers with a size 10 snap swivel which means no matter which way the wind blows, it is caught and the bell rings. Clever.

Ceramics, the other stray book in the box, had bells also. Pictured near the front were three pinch pot bells hung on a suspended tree branch. There was a lot of ceramic bell making during that long ago macramé era of pottery. Bells lined up vertically on strings. Bells as screens. Bells as ornament. Bells as, well, bells.

Thinking about these bells reminded me of the bells May Davis describes in her autobiography, May. I rushed downstairs to my bookshelves to find my copy. Ahh, there it was, a small book with a bright blue cover graced with Bernard Leach’s sketch of May Davis when she was in her twenties.

May and her husband Harry Davis met while working at the Leach Pottery in 1936. Harry was already a highly accomplished thrower (he wrote The Self-Sufficient Potter later in life) and had had experience at a number of potteries prior to joining Bernard and his son David as a thrower. May had run a small pottery from a shed in her parents’ garden. They wed in 1938 and together they built remarkable careers as potters working in England, West Africa, New Zealand, Patagonia, Paraguay and Peru. It was Harry Davis who suggested Michael Cardew as his successor in West Africa.

May and Harry believed pottery should be functional, sturdy, and affordable. Theirs was all that plus exquisitely beautiful. They made dinner sets, cups and saucers, jugs, tea and coffee sets, jars, lidded dishes, serving dishes, bowls, bottles and more all glazed with glazes that Harry developed with materials he mined and processed himself.

May made the bells while they were in Izcchaca high in the Peruvian Andes. Instead of a hole and washer at the top of the bell, as directed by Colson, May’s bells had a little cross piece of clay inside from which to attach the wire for the clapper and a loop for hanging on top. There’s nothing revolutionary about her method but it is much better than the hole and washer assembly. I adopted it when I first read her book years ago.

I had forgotten that May also designed bells with a side loop so a string or chain could be attached and pulled for ringing. I have been thinking about making bells that could hang from a frame made of either copper tubing curved into an arch or large beams from the sawmill, two uprights and one crosspiece. A side loop would be perfect.

May Davis hung one of her bells outside their gate. “I was even able to hang up a row,” she wrote, “and get them to ring in thirds, quite an orchestra.” She was a talented violinist and had almost made music her life before choosing pottery, reasoning a potter could make music at night but a musician could not make pots at night.

I like bells in the garden because sound is an important element in the landscape: the sounds of birds and wind and water that nature bestows and the sounds of chimes and bells that we add. So I make bells for my own gardens and I make bells to sell to others for their gardens. I have one delightful customer who buys herself one or two new bells each year. One day I will go see them.

It’s interesting how things happen, the connections, and the paths that lead us to new places. We take ideas from here and there and make them our own. One book sends us to another. Your thoughts create new and different thoughts in me. My thoughts create thoughts in you.

Eventually, I did get back to the box of kids books with my granddaughters and we found some old favorites of their dad’s and surprised him with them. And I decided to reread May in its entirety, not just the very brief section on bells. She and Harry were amazing people who made wonderful pots. And I am having fun reacquainting myself with them through her book.