The Workshop Guide to Ceramics

The Workshop Guide to Ceramics by Duncan Hoosan and Anthony Quinn is clearly meant for the textbook market. I can foresee it adopted in colleges and high schools throughout the country, with assignments handed out chapter by chapter. It’s thoughtfully organized with lots of information. The how-to photos are clear and explicit.  It’s full of useful information that every potter needs, much of it up to date and modern.

You can learn numerous methods of printing on clay. There’s a fun sidebar called “Firings as Theater” (hush my pyromaniac heart). And for those interested, there’s a section on “computer-aided design, modeling and manufacturing” and yes, “Rhino, explained as a widely used NURBS” which is also explained – “non-uniform rational B-spline modeling program.” Whew!

The authors are highly qualified. Hooson “is a practicing ceramicist and a teacher of ceramic art in schools, hospitals, and on community projects throughout London.” Quinn “operates a successful London design consultancy with a varied client base that includes Wedgewood, Leeds Pottery, and British Airways.” Hmm, British Airways. He also teaches ceramic design on the college level and has written prior books.

In the end, though, the The Workshop Guide to Ceramics left me feeling a bit empty, hungry even, because there is almost no mention of ceramic history, and the pieces shown, are, for the most part not very potterly. This of course, says more about me than the book – I am an admitted history nut — so I don’t feel quite right criticizing. Instead, I will suggest to anyone using this book, especially as a text, that it be supplemented with other books and articles or kept on the shelf as one of several reference books. It’s good but can’t stand alone.

Taking A Break with the Bells and Baecher

All day, every day now, for the entire week, I have worked on the Guy Wolff book and pretty much nothing else. There are only six weeks until the deadline, and though it is mostly written, this is the stage with a lot of little details and last minute interviews, and OMG, I have to move that whole section to elsewhere in the book, and what was I thinking, and how do you spell Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata? Actually, that is the correct spelling for the very rare and much prized plant that Joe Eck grows at North Hill in an enormous Wolff pot. Oh, and yesterday I converted the footnotes to endnotes, which is what UPNE my publisher wants and for some reason, all the numbers were turned into Roman numerals! Double OMG.

So to keep myself in the right frame of mind, the book I have been rereading now and then for a short break and inspiration is American Redware by William C. Ketchum, Jr., published in 1991. I’ve had it since it first came out, and though it is aimed at collectors, I have gone through it many times. Those old redware potters sure made nice pots.

Some of Guy’s early American potting heroes are in the book: Anthony Baecher and Samuel and Solomon Bell and others. And yes, there are a few photos of early flowerpots.

Baecher worked in the mid and late nineteenth century in Thurmont, Maryland and later in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He made basic items for everyday use such as cream pots, crocks, preserve jars, and also fancy, heavily decorated pots like sugar bowls festooned with flowers. Plus, he sculpted goats and other animals as well. Today his pieces, especially his little sculptures, are auctioned off for an absolute fortune. Needless to say, and what interests me most with the project at hand, he made flowerpots and vases.

Samuel and Solomon Bell, part of a large potting family that worked in Pennsylvania and Virginia were competitors of Baecher. They were in Strasberg, Virginia a bit earlier and around the same time as he was, and like him, they made little clay dogs and other sculptures. They also made flowerpots, some of which they decorated with manganese or copper on the outside, as well as an array of domestic pots.

I do like the shapes of the old earthen milk pans and jugs, and hump-molded platters. Today, the pots with splashes of copper or manganese dioxide command the highest prices from collectors but I do not like them as well as the kitchen pots that were glazed only on the interior. The simple, everyday pots saw heavy wear and many were lost in use. The fancy pots were more likely to be treated carefully and passed down in a family.

But, enough fooling around looking at photos of antique redware and reading about the potters of the past! Time to get back to work on the book about a very much alive redware potter. And hopefully, I can even figure out what to do about all those Roman numerals.

The Innovations of Mike Goldmark

Phil Rogers Bottle

Mike Goldmark says he has been a “shopkeeper” for thirty years, showing pottery for the last five of them, in Uppingham in England, but he is no ordinary shopkeeper. In his gallery Modern Pots he focuses on showing British and Japanese ceramics primarily the work of Svend Bayer, Clive Bowen, Nic Collins, Mike Dodd, Lisa Hammond, Jim Malone, Ken Matsuzaki & Phil Rogers. Such a lineup would make his gallery stand out from others, but it’s how he shows the work that is so noteworthy.

His spacious physical gallery includes a printing operation run by Ian and Jan Wilkinson, bright exhibit space, and occasional poetry readings and musical performances. If you stop by at lunchtime you are welcome to join the table and conversation.

What sets Modern Pots apart though, is what Goldmark does online and how he combines his virtual presentations with his real presentations. For each of his potters, in addition to showing new works in the gallery space, including special exhibitions, he publishes a beautifully illustrated monograph. These can be read online in eBook form or purchased as a book you can hold in your hand. The eBooks are not downloadable but remain on the Modern Pots site and are produced using the powerful Issuu or something similar so that you have various viewing options. The monographs, with thoughtful essays and both informal in situ photographs and formal photographs, bring us into each artist’s life. We see their workshops and learn about their ideas on making. Even though the eBooks are a pleasure to behold, I find myself wanting to order the entire set of physical books. Oh for a fatter checkbook!

In addition, Goldmark has produced documentary films for each of his potters. Viewing them is like having a personal visit to the artist’s studio. The films average around twenty minutes and can be viewed online or ordered as a DVD. In addition, for Phil Rogers and Ken Matsuzaki, he has also made longer documentaries with trailers on the site. If you order a physical book, you get a DVD along with it.

This past Saturday, June 16, 2012, Modern Pots hosted an opening for Phil Rogers with an exhibition, a booksigning of the new monograph not yet shown online, a throwing demonstration in the gallery and an amazing online exhibit of one hundred new Rogers’ pots plus his etchings. For each pot, Goldmark made a short film of Rogers talking about making the work. In these clips, Rogers holds the pot in his hands in the way that only potters do, running his palms down the sides, touching the rim with his fingers, caressing the piece, and tells us something about the decoration, the fire, or how he made the shape. A short film for each pot – what an effective innovation. Why has no one thought of it before? It’s what potters do in their fair booths, their open studios, and in galleries – talk to people about the pots. Now we have it online. Perfect.

In addition to all this, Goldmark sends out a traditional e-newsletter. Modern Pots chooses some of the best potters working today and shows them in a most inviting way. Goldmark understands how best to use the Internet and how best to use bricks and mortar to work together to bring pots out into the world. I applaud him. I have not yet traveled the thousands of miles to Uppingham but one of these days I will. Meanwhile, I am thankful to be able to have such a rich experience on his website. We can all learn from him.

Lucie Rie Modernist Potter

Most of us are familiar with Lucie Rie’s work: stunning, thinly potted vases, bowls, and bottles with flaring rims, glazed in astonishing colors. We know too, the outlines of her life. But reading Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter by master potter Emmanuel Cooper, is a magical experience. It’s almost as if we get to meet her in person.

Rie enjoyed success and acclaim as a young potter in her native Austria for a dozen years, but, forced to flee to England as the Nazi threat pressed down on her family, she was confronted with being unknown and less than appreciated in her adopted land and had to start anew. Bernard Leach, with whom she became friends and who, Cooper tells us, spent many a night at her flat and studio in Albion Mews (though he draws no conclusions about what exactly they were doing together during those long dark nights of terrible air raids), thought her a mere charming amateur and advised her to make her pots thicker. He disdained her use of an electric kiln and told her to get a real fuel-burning kiln.

She did make thicker, more English pots as he suggested, and then during the war years, began making buttons to pay her bills, essentially turning her studio into a button factory. There were an assortment of assistants and employees coming through, including a young Ruth Duckworth. Famously, Hans Coper also came to work in her button factory during the time in his life when he was trying to find his own way as an artist. He made buttons too, but was fascinated watching her on the wheel and asked her to teach him.

It was Coper who suggested to her that her Viennese pots were more truthful to herself than her attempts at making Leach inspired English pots. After that, she began to make the pots for which she is most known and which came to be widely appreciated by critics and connoisseurs around the world. She and Coper, who was much younger than she, developed a symbiotic relationship and often showed their work together. They designed a big top loading electric kiln (Lucie had no interest in wood or oil or propane despite Leach’s entreaties) that would reach higher temperatures than the small kiln she had brought to England from Austria. She developed new, high fire glazes, and continued to do reduction fires in her electric kiln, though Cooper tells us, there are no records of exactly how she accomplished this. He speculates that she dropped slivers of wood into the kiln.

Rie’s work bore no similarities to the stoneware others were creating at the time. She was primarily interested in form and her only decoration was the the glazes she has painstakingly developed and an occasional line. She was an independent woman, though Cooper tells us she could feign otherwise around certain men. She knew and loved and entertained many other interesting people, such as the Freuds, yet she was a good businesswoman.

Cooper does an excellent job of placing her in the context of the time in which she lived. He brings Rie, complex, fascinating, sometimes mysterious, to life on the page.


She liked to bake poppy seed cake for her guests.

She threw with little water and without clay splatter.

She favored the Marcel Breuer chair in her living room.

If you read one book on ceramics this summer, I highly recommend Lucie Rie; Modernist Potter. Even if you are not a potter, you will find her story engaging.

Emmanuel Cooper the British studio potter and prolific author of books on Bernard Leach, ceramic history, and glazes, and founder and longtime editor of Ceramic Review, died in January of this year immediately after completing Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter for Yale University Press. How sad it is that we lost him at only 73 and that he did not live to see publication of this important book,  but how lucky for us that he completed it. A masterpiece.

Clay Conduits and the Handmade Internet

When the technician who had come out to restore Internet access to Wired Magazine writer Andrew Blum’s house announced that the problem was caused by a squirrel chewing a wire, it suddenly struck Blum that despite all the talk of Cloud Computing and Virtual Reality, the Internet is, of course, in fact a physical entity. He decided to find that physical entity and set out on an odyssey that led him around the world. The result is his fascinating book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.

In New York, he discovers that the Internet is carried in old clay conduits once used for telegraph wires beneath Church Street. Now there is a major Internet hub using these conduits at 60 Hudson Street, with over four hundred networks, a half dozen connected directly to transatlantic undersea cables. I was so excited to learn this that I marked the page so I could go back to it. It’s fun to think about. Perhaps, as you read this blog on your computer or phone, it is coming to you via those clay pipes. This is not far fetched, for the New York hub is one of the busiest in the world. Data travels great distances before actually reaching us and not necessarily on the most direct path.

Blum seeks out the other major hubs and discovers that, ironically, they are located near seaports, important in another era and now important in ours. He learns that the Internet is, in his words, “handmade” as he watches engineers in mysterious, usually nondescript buildings, the hubs, climb ladders, reach across ceilings, descend into basements to connect yet one more wire amongst a vast snarl of wires. He talks his way into seeing where the Internet comes up out of the ocean via transatlantic cables to enter a building on Land’s End in the far west of England. He attends an odd convention of key Internet people. He learns that a surprisingly very small number of key people are in charge.

Tubes is fun and, with so much of our lives online, important. Blum is an excellent guide as he brings us along on his journey. He is entertaining and informative.