Advice for Potters

You might think that after all these years, I would not be much interested in new how-to-make-pots sorts of books, but I do like to look at them. First, I turn every page and look at the ceramics that have been included. Then I go to the chapter on how to set up your studio. I usually read that chapter first, or if there are profiles of successful potters, I read those first, and then how to set up your studio. I love these chapters.

So, that is exactly how I began with The Potter’s Complete Studio Handbook: The Essential, Start-to-Finish Guide for Ceramics Artists by Kristin Mülller and Jeff Zamek. Looking at the pieces, I was delighted to see Louise King’s enchanting Mud Ponies!  A Mud Pony appears on the back cover, and in two interior photos. There are some nice jugs and a pretty casserole, but the photographs and line drawings are primarily about process and not the finished results. This is not a book you would look to for a sense of history.

The how-to-set-up-your-studio chapter comes at the beginning of the book, which is unusual, as most how-to books place this chapter towards the end. It is a delight for the voyeuristic potter. Maybe I suffer from a bit of masochism as well as voyeurism, as I especially like to look at floor plans of studios. The one Müller and Zamek present is 14 feet by 24 feet, some might call it modestly sized, with loads of shelving, a separate kiln room, 4 work tables plus a wedging table, glaze material storage, two sinks, one wheel and a sculpture stand.  There aren’t any display fixtures and the studio is not equipped with a slab roller or pug mill, but it is a very nice workspace and so orderly. There is a photo of what they call a home studio that appears to be in a basement. The floor is so clean you could spread a linen tablecloth out and have a picnic on it. Even the wheel is gleaming.

Well, who doesn’t want a larger, better-organized studio? I am happy with my whitewashed walls, display space, and pretty glass doors to the metal kiln shed in the garden, but you would never consider a picnic in my workspace. I half heartedly battle the webs that invading spiders make here when the weather turns cold, and yes, there is dust, and always a bit of chaos going on, to say nothing of the overflowing buckets of clay scraps to be recycled.

Interestingly, Müller and Zamek focus on electric kilns. I say interestingly because Müller fires in a 35 foot long anagama/noborigama hybrid wood burning kiln and Zamek, who has written 3 earlier books, has a ceramics consulting business, and helps potters with their gas-fired kilns. Perhaps they plan a future book on fuel-fired kilns.

A Love of Bricks

Driving to Providence, Rhode Island the other day, I was shocked to see that the old woolen mill in Dayville is collapsing in on itself.  This area of Connecticut once hummed with huge brick or stone mills powered by the abundant fast moving rivers that rush between our hills towards Long Island Sound. Today, these old mills stand idle or have been creatively re-purposed. The looms are silent. The trains no longer stop.

They are massive structures, often added to over the years, covering acres of land. I cannot guess how many bricks, brick makers or bricklayers it took to build them.

It is tempting to romanticize these pretty old mills, but those who toiled at the machinery inside them worked long, hard hours. Many of the mills, including the mill that was collapsing in Dayville (known first as the Sayles and later the Prym Mill) contaminated the soil and water. Toxins continue to poison decades after the mills closed.

Apparently the roof failed in the spring of 2010. Now the brick walls are disintegrating from the top down, leaving a heap of bricks along the foundation. Bricks even fill a landing on an old fire escape. I love bricks and could not help but wonder what will become of them. It’s a good thing the place is surrounded with barriers and barbed wire, or I might have scooped up a few bricks and put them into the back of my truck. The building may go, but the bricks will be around for a very long time, hopefully not as landfill.

Early American brick making began with the colonists who found an abundance of clay. At first, a homebuilder would dig and mold the clay and fire the bricks close to his home building site but soon brick making centers developed with a brickyard or two on the outskirts of most cities and large towns.  In the early twentieth century, brickmaking was mechanized and then concentrated in the Midwest. Today, most of the bricks used in the US are made in Mexico.

People have been building with bricks since at least 5,000 BCE. For an in depth and exciting look at this extraordinary building unit made of our favorite material, read Brick: A World History by James W.P. Campbell. He takes us on a tour of ancient Babylon –  “It has been estimated that the ziggurat at Babylon contained some 36 million bricks.” – shows us the engineering feats of Rome’s bricklayers – the Romans standardized their brick sizes — and marvels at the magnificent stupas of the East – “Few sights in the world are more breathtaking than the sun rising over the ancient city of Pagan…The houses of the city that once covered the fertile plain were made of timber and have long since disappeared, but the temples, which were made of baked brick, remain…Today some 2,000 remain, together forming one of the largest collections of ancient brick monuments of the world.”

The book is beautifully illustrated with photos by Will Pryce, photos that will make you want to leave the studio at once and go see all the wonderful brick buildings  for yourself. Brick came out in November of 2003 but, thankfully, remains in print and is readily available.

For a shorter treatment of bricks, there’s Bricks and Brickmaking by Martin Hammond, focusing on British brickmaking history. Hammond collected old bricks, made wood fired bricks and tiles himself – this is what happens to you if you are truly smitten — and belonged to British Brick Society. I wish I could have met him.

A Pottery Town in Afghanistan

In the storytelling of Malik Hamid as recounted in Bazaar Politics: Power & Pottery in an Afghan Market Town by Noah Coburn, a potter from Bukhara founded the market town of Istalif three hundred years ago. Unhappy with the conditions in Bukhara, he led his family and a few followers south until they came to this beautiful spot with its fine, abundant clay. Coburn points out in his notes that there are references to Istalif dating back five hundred years, but perhaps as far as Malik or his fellow potters are concerned, the town began when pottery making commenced here.

Istalif, north of Kabul and not too distant from Bargram, suffered enormously under the Taliban. The Taliban destroyed all the kilns, forcing many of the potters and their families to flee and abandon their homes and workshops. Somehow, in all the news accounts of the Taliban, this particular horror was either not mentioned or given little ink. When the Taliban fell, the potters were able to return and rebuild most, though not yet all, of their kilns. If you are in the weavers’ quam, your family weaves. If you are in the potters’ quam, your family pots.

Coburn an anthropologist, spent nearly two years in Istalif. His purpose in writing this ethnography was to look at how a town in such an unstable country, suffering from multiple wars, could function with relative stability. In studying this, he focused on the potters’ quam, which was predominant in Istalif. A quam is a patrilocal network or community made up of families engaged in the same craft or industry whose leader is as answerable and beholden to the group as the group is to him. Members of a quam may or may not be related, but if your family is a member of the quam, you are also, and your children and grandchildren.

Within the quam, individual households function independently, though on occasion, they might ask one another for help if they run out of fuel in the midst of a firing, or a glaze component while glazing. The father and then the eldest son, throw the pots on a kick wheel. The younger son or sons run the store in the bazaar and handle all the marketing and selling. No one learns to be a potter, according to Coburn. You become one as you grow up. The potters of Istalif jealously guard their glazes and processes. There are no apprentices or student potters. Women neither throw nor glaze, the explanation being that they might marry outside the quam and give the secrets away.

I wished for more photos as I was reading, and of course more details of the potters’ work itself, but nevertheless, I was fascinated with the descriptions of their customs. For instance, the price of a pot is different for different purchasers. Pots for wholesale are understandably, the least expensive, leaving a margin for the reseller. Sometimes a reseller will purchase a whole kilnful of pots (a typical kiln, fired with wood, holds 900 pots) before it is fired. Pots for Istalif residents, Kabulis, or other Afghans are higher. Pots for NGO’s and internationals are marked up exponentially.

Bazaar Politics offers a fresh understanding of Afghanistan and an inside look at a functioning potters’ quam. The notion of living where all your neighbors also have kilns and wheels and piles of clay is very appealing (except that women are kept from the wheel and kiln). It would be wonderful if Coburn would write a piece for Ceramics Monthly or Studio Potter and show us typical pieces made in Istalif.

Dish Obsession

Like many women of her generation, my mom (she’s 85) has a small collection of plates displayed on a rail that my dad made for her many years ago. The plates are mostly souvenir plates, one with the capitol of Connecticut, another with a black and white drawing of an old church in town, one with a lattice rim and fruit in the center that she bought just because she thought it was pretty. She also has a set of “good” dishes, special brown Thanksgiving plates with a rural scene that we used only for Thanksgiving and Christmas when holidays were still at her house. These dishes were never, ever used any other day of the year. More seriously, she has a collection of flow blue in a glass front oak cupboard, but I do not recall any flow blue plates.

She was never a genuine collector. She did not have “malaldie de porcelain, or ‘porcelain sickness,’ an overweening desire to acquire more and more pieces…” the disease of moral turpitude that Shax Riegler writes about in his new book, Dishes: 813 Colorful, Wonderful Dinner Plates.

Riegler began collecting fifteen years ago, beginning with a near complete service for twelve, called Babina. Working on a PhD in Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, he is the features editor at House Beautiful. I would think the book itself would earn him his PhD. It is a sweeping meditation on plates with a timeline beginning with the 1454 entry for Isacco del Dondi of Pauda who ordered “a service of tin-glazed earthenware, including forty-eight plates, decorated with his family’s coat of arms,” and ending with the commemorative plates made in honor of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. Most of the plates are factory made, but he does include forty-one plates from contemporary potters. I l am drawn to Kristen Wicklund’s stoneware hummus plates with high sides and earthy tones.

I never particularly liked my mom’s fancy plates, and as an uppity teenager, developed a bit of snobbery against the gilt edges of a few of her pieces. Yet her small collection did make me think about how a plate should look. And the notion of special dishes for special occasions still makes an impression on me, though except for family nostalgia, I would not set a table with the Thanksgiving plates.

Plates can be made primarily to show off the food served on them, or they can be decorative and look best on a nicely set table before the food is brought out. Many plates, though functional, are never meant to be used but rather, like my mom’s, are kept on plate rails or hung with special hangers much like paintings. The challenge for a working potter is to make a plate that both looks good with food on it and looks good on its own. We each have our own ideas about this.

Perusing the book, I look at the chintz—patterned plates made by Royal Winton and, though they might look nice on an outdoor table with a white tablecloth, I cannot think of a single food that would look good on them. But there are plenty of plates that would enhance a meal, including a deep red from Red Wing Pottery and a green and brown from McCoy’s. Two plates that are particularly intriguing are about the pottery process itself and are meant for display. One is, surprisingly, a Fiesta plate from the 1939 World’s Fair depicting a potter throwing a large jar. The other, far more valuable, is from 1520 and shows a maiolica painter at work.

What’s so useful and interesting about Dish is the opportunity to look at so many plates one after another and think about them. Robert Bean’s photos are excellent.