Creativity and Imagination

Alex Beard signing Crocodile Tears.

When I was in New Orleans recently, I was reminded of how many creative people inhabit the city. Music famously fills the air as you stroll down the touristy streets of the French Quarter. One evening I saw jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton) perform in a small, crowded theater. The next night walking to dinner with friends, we saw street bands literally in the middle of the street, a solo violinist, a man playing wine glasses, and a one man band with a drum strapped to his back, while high-volume blues and rock wafted out across the sidewalks from inside the bars.

The visual arts too are in abundance. I attended a lovely Abrams reception at Alex Beard’s upscale gallery, lined up for an autographed copy of his children’s book, Crocodile Tears, sipped champagne and admired his oversized, bodacious art. His was just one gallery amongst many (though the only one I actually was invited to). There were artists everywhere with their works spread out before them on blankets or hung in galleries.

Creativity sparks creativity. John Lehrer, in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, tells us that the power of cities, of groups of diverse people interacting is extraordinary when it comes to igniting new ideas. Understanding this, Steve Jobs made sure that everyone at Pixar, no matter how different their roles, had to come in contact with each other in the restrooms and when they ate. Conversely, Lehrer points out that brainstorming, the darling of too many managers, has been proven counterproductive.

He looks at many creative people such as Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Shakespeare and an autistic surfer. He interviews neuroscientists Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins University and Aaron Berkowitz of Harvard who have, “investigated the mental process underlying improvisation” and discovered not only the “cortical machinations” going on in the brain, but the benefits of “letting go.”  He describes the changes in our frontal lobes as we pass from childhood to adulthood and how they inhibit us. There are reasons, he tells us, why we get some of our best ideas while taking a nice hot shower.

I loved this book and recommend it to anyone who works in a creative field such as pottery, to those who want to understand how ideas arise, or those interested in encouraging a more creative culture. Imagine is a wonderful account of the latest scientific research on “how creativity works” thoughtfully explained for the layperson. Do take time out from your busy studio schedule and read it.

Santa Barbara Pottery

In 1973 a young California man, Ray Markow, a recent graduate in ceramics from the University of California, Santa Barbara began selling his hand thrown pots, stoneware planters in macramé hangers, mugs and and such. He established the first incarnation of Santa Barbara Ceramic Design with a lot of enthusiasm and ambition.

There are two ways to make pottery: you can work in solitude and do everything yourself, or you can work in a workshop, with a group of potters each doing separate tasks. For thousands of years, farmers raised crops in the summer and to supplement their incomes, threw pots in the winter. They worked alone. Neolithic women made bowls and cooking pots while they watched their children, perhaps firing with the other women in their village. Similarly, today most studio potters work alone, making their pots, glazing, firing, and selling them. However, the more productive workshop situation has been the norm in many eras and locales, such as Ancient Greece and Rome, and in the industrial potteries of Stoke-on-Trent and art potteries of nineteenth and early twentieth century America. In this model, throwers throw while glazers glaze, and the firemen tend the kilns.

As Markow’s sales increased, he brought in others to work with him, changing from a solitary studio potter to the head of a workshop. He hired throwers to produce his vases and plates and candlesticks and, more importantly for him, talented decorators to cover the pots with delicate flowers, occasional tigers, and a host of other flora and fauna designs. In Santa Barbara Ceramic Design: Art Pottery from America’s Riviera Terry Gerratana, a collector chronicles the 14 years that Markow operated a ceramics workshop.

The book focuses more on what Gerratana calls the artists than the throwers, but I especially liked reading about the young men who spent their days making the pots. They were, it seems, pretty amazing throwers, pulling up tall thin walls from surprisingly small lumps of clay, fourteen inches from a few pounds, one after another, all day long, week after week. One, Bob Osif, the others nicknamed the “monster thrower,” and demon pot thrower,” because of his skills at the wheel.

The early years were freewheeling with both the potters and the artists creating their own designs. Markow sold the pots at the more prestigious craft fairs, participating in Guilford, Morristown, Rhinebeck and the ACC shows. With success SBCD moved towards standardization and relied more on the wholesale market than retail.

Later, under financial pressure to cut expenses and in a drive to become more efficient, SBCD turned to slip molding and brought in a ram press. Markow no longer relied on potters to throw the ceramics on the wheel. A staff of artists continued to cover the vases with meticulously painted flowers but by 1987, even the glaze and designs were no longer hand done and Markow abandoned clay. Today his business is called Santa Barbara Design Studio and he makes and sells giftware wholesale.

It’s an interesting piece of history. And Gerratana does a good job of telling it.

The Fascinating Lives of the Pillins

Until reading Pillin Pottery by Jerry Kline and Mike Nickel, I was unaware of the fascinating lives and remarkable ceramics of Polia and William Pillin. I wondered for a moment if my wandering mind had just forgotten something I had once known as it does now and then, so I went to my shelves and pored through my books. There is no mention of the Pillins by Garth Clark in his notable tome American Ceramics: 1876 to the Present, and not a word of them in Elaine Levin’s The History of American Ceramics. They do appear in the ceramics section of Antiques Roadshow Collectibles by Carol Prisant, which notes “little has been written about their work.”

In Pillin Pottery, Jerry Kline and Mike Nickel give us the outlines of their personal histories and more than 700 color photos of their pottery. Reading it, I now feel introduced. However, their journey seems the stuff of fiction or at least merits a full biography. Actually, their story would make a great movie.

Polia Sukonic Pillin was born in Poland in 1909 to a talented family of weavers, potters and coppersmiths. She was just fifteen when her family sent her to Chicago where she toiled in the garment industry during the day and took classes in painting and sculpture at the Jewish People’s Institute at night. A cousin introduced her to William Pillin whose family had fled the pogroms in the Ukraine and settled in Chicago. They fell in love and two years later they married. Young, ambitious, and creative, they dreamed together that one day, he would be a poet and she an artist. After some detours and obstacles, their dreams came true.

Following the Depression, they settled on a sixteen-acre farm New Mexico. It was a hard life, as farm life often is. They cut and chopped wood for heat and cooking, lugged heavy water buckets several miles to the house, and read by kerosene lanterns. They also began weaving, their first venture into supporting themselves through art.

When their son Boris was born, they decided that such a rustic life was impracticable with a baby, and they returned to Chicago. William worked as a bookseller and Polia soon had a one-person show of her paintings at the Chicago Art Institute. It was at the CSI that she saw and was enchanted with clay. In 1946 she took a six-week course in ceramics at Hull House, her only formal training in pottery.

Eventually, Polia set up a studio in their kitchen including a wheel and a homemade electric kiln. She perfected a technique she called “painting on clay.” She added oxides to slip in various intensities and combinations, developing a palette of extraordinary range. With these slips, she painted her ethereal images of women, cats, horses, and birds on greenware pots. Chagall-like in color, her women dance, play instruments, ponder, gather together, ride horses, sit with their cats. There are no children, houses, meals or other symbols or ordinary domesticity. Polia fired her decorated pots to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, covered them in a transparent glaze, and then fired to 1900 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the studio-in-the-kitchen years, Polia taught William how to make pots. He began to throw vessels for her, took care of the firing, and sometimes helped with glazing. Polia never stopped throwing pots herself and always did the painting. At some point in the sixties, they made some pieces from molds in order to keep up with demand, but even then, they both threw pots.

Kline and Nickel quote her writing in a magazine article, “There is a school of craftsmen who contend that pottery is entirely a matter of form and glaze; that an artist is trespassing his legitimate domain in applying his concepts to a vase or a plate. Though I also admire the work of craftsmen who operate entirely in form and glaze, I feel that an artist can bring unique qualities to the ancient craft. Under the transparent glaze his textures and colors shimmer with jewel-like brilliance. Since this effect is possible only in clay and glaze, the artist need make no apologies for working in the ceramic medium; glaze is just as legitimate a surface treatment as varnish, lacquer, or linseed oil.” She seems to me to be justifying her methods to potters who might look askance at her painterliness and to painters who might look down on her for working on vases and bowls.

In 1948, the Pillins moved to Los Angeles where they remained for the rest of their lives. Here, they set up their studio in the garage. It must have been a relief to get the wheel out of the kitchen. By this time, they were able to support themselves with their ceramics.

William’s poetry career also flourished. His poems, deeply emotional, rich with references to American literature, European art, mixed with the pain of his family’s past, appeared in the most prestigious publications and by the time of his death he had published nine well received collections.

Today, Pillin pottery is highly collectible with prices starting in the high hundreds and many in the thousands.  It is sought after on the antiques and American art pottery circuits (a world that is foreign to me). Yet they remain outside the canon of American ceramics. I think their story and pots are worth a further look. And I would love to know if Polia kept a notebook of her engobe recipes and experiments. That would be fun to read.