Frances Palmer’s work has been featured in numerous design publications such as T, The New York Times style magazine, Elle Decor, Martha Stewart Living, and others. Bergdorf Goodman, Barney’s of New York and other high end have carried her pieces. This month, Artisan published her lavishly illustrated memoir, Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons in Creativity.
I love to read memoirs, especially memoirs of potters and gardeners. This is both. Palmer, who lives in a rural town in what we in Connecticut call the Gold Coast, home to many affluent residents with jobsin New York City, has a beautiful purpose-built barn for a studio. Actually, she and her husband did not initially build it with the intention that she take over the whole thing, but you know how potters are. She makes her pots, mostly vases, on the first floor. She uses the second floor to pack and ship them and more importantly photograph them. She stores her dahlia tubers in the cool basement.
Outside the studio, on an old fenced-in tennis court, she grows masses of flowers in raised beds. She cuts and gathers the flowers and uses them to create extravagant arrangements in her vases. She photographs these tableaus in the natural light of an east window of the barn in the morning and a west window in the afternoon.
Palmer thinks of herself as primarily a potter, and it is pots that she sells. However, it’s her dramatic photos that have brought her 72,100 followers on Instagram. She also has a horticultural reputation and teaches a class on growing dahlias at the New York Botanical Garden.
In addition to vases, Palmer makes cake stands, fruit bowls with pedestals, pitchers, and planters embellished with fluting, sprigs, and beading. She works on the wheel, hand builds and uses her own drape molds. She works primarily with porcelain but also uses a red earthenware clay which she glazes only on the inside. Recently she added a wood burning kiln to her studio.
In Life in the Studio, Palmer shares her methods of making, tips on growing flowers, and a few favorite recipes. She tells us how she and her work have grown and evolved through the years, how she came to photography, and what her hopes are for the future. If that isn’t enough, the book is nicely laid out and seductively pretty.
I think I have more books by Emmanuel Cooper in my ceramic book collection than by any other writer on pottery. I have read and re-read the various editions of his book on ceramic history, culminating with the magnificently illustrated tour de force, 10,000 Years of Pottery. I pored over his books on glaze making. I have his very early Handbook on Pottery Making and of course his biography on Bernard Leach. And then, his last book, his opus, the thoughtful biography, Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter.
In Making Emmanuel Cooper: Life and Work from his Memoirs, Letters, Diaries and Interviews, edited by his longtime partner David Horbury, we learn that in his last days – he died in 2012 of prostate cancer at the age of 74 – Cooper was thinking of such projects as a biography of Hans Coper, this memoir, and was “fired” about writing a book on Josiah Wedgewood “from a maker’s perspective.” Oh, how I would love to read the Wedgewood book. The Coper too. What we do have, thanks to Horbury, is this fascinating memoir.
Cooper was first a potter. There were challenges. Gwyn Hanssen gave him an early position in her studio, then “let him go.” When he applied to become a member of the Craftsmen Potters Association (CPA), he was rejected because his work did not form a “coherent group” Fortunately, six months later he reapplied and was accepted. His studios were always in urban spaces, necessitating electric kilns which he decided to embrace. He became a skilled production potter, making tableware for London restaurants, including relish dishes for the Hard Rock Café. The trays were eight and a half inches across with a rim to keep the five individual relish pots from slipping and a central thrown handle for carrying. “The staff – or the customers – broke them all the time so they regularly reordered and it was a very good earner,” he tells us. In his later years, after the recession when the restaurant business dried up, he reinvented his work and focused on one of a kind bowls and mugs in series of nine at most. Towards the end of his life, he made coiled goblets.
In 1969, Cooper proposed that the CPA publish a magazine on ceramics. He tells us, “it seemed to me that the craft pottery world was expanding and changing at an extraordinary rate…and nothing was being written down or recorded.” Despite the CPA’s skepticism, Cooper founded Ceramic Review with fellow member Eileen Lowenstein, publishing the first edition in 1970. He served as editor until 2010. He writes, ” …we nurtured relatively new writers such as makers Claudia Clare and Emma Clegg and managed to persuade more established voices such as Edmund de Waal, Alison Britton, Martina Margetts and Tanya Harrod.” From the beginning, Cooper and Lowenstein were committed to including “strong practical content” and “developed the idea of using a sequence of photographs to demonstrate a particular process or technique,” a feature which continues to this day.
The book chronicles Cooper’s life as a gay man. Though at first closeted (homosexuality was illegal), he came to be a leading voice for Gay Liberation, and with a group of friends launched the journal Gay Left. He wrote The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West and Male Bodies: A Photographic History of the Nude, both groundbreaking at the time, and highly acclaimed.
Cooper was a potter, a writer, an editor, and an activist. He taught throughout his life, and served as visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art. He championed and curated exhibits such as People’s Art: Working Class from 1750 to the Present Day. A scholar, thinker and maker, his contributions to ceramics were enormous and long lasting.
Making Emmanuel Cooper is intensely personal, describing Cooper’s mining family roots, the butcher shop his parents ran, and his years in the RAF and in theater. It is also a social and cultural history. Cooper deserves a biography such as the one he wrote of Rie or Tonya Harrod’s biography of Michael Cardew. Meanwhile, read this book. It is a treasure.
On Color by David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing is a discursive look at color through the lens of art, literature and material culture. It began as a series of discussions between Kastan, a professor of English at Yale and Farthing, an artist and Emeritus Fellow at St. Edmund Hall, the University of Oxford. Happily, they decided to share their thoughts and turned their private chats into a book of provocative essays.
Through chapters with such headings as “Orange is the New Brown,” “White Lies,” “Basic Black” and “At the Violet Hour,” the discussion ranges from Audrey Hepburn’s dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Monet’s waterlily paintings to Moby Dick. They touch on the science – physics – of color, and what it means to see a color – when you see red is it the same red I see? -but their emphasis is on the many, sometimes conflicting, connotations we give to colors.
When they write of art, they mean paintings and actual paint. There are no ceramics in this book except as included in a painting by Luis Egidio Meléndez. Still, I found their ideas useful and thought provoking. In “Moody Blues” they contemplate “something blue” and “true blue” as well as the blues and what a blue note is. “In Dy(e)ing for Indigo” (they treat indigo and blue separately) they examine the difficult and stinking labor involved in producing the dye and the dependence of dye production on slavery.
I found my mind wandering to the long history of cobalt blue in ceramics in China, Persia, and the Netherlands. I thought of the blue brush work on salt glazed jugs that early American potters favored. The palette I use in my work is earth toned and subdued but lately, I have been putting bands of cobalt on my rolled-rim bowls. These were inspired by my grandmother’s large mixing bowl. Hers was factory made, probably in the thirties. Each time I put a blue stripe on one of my bowls, I think of her, her kitchen, and the cabinet my grandfather made where she kept the bowl. These blue stripes often inspire memories in others. They will tell me about their grandmother or say that their mother had a bowl with brown stripes. So, I add these personal meanings to the meanings that Kastan and Farthing give.
I like the breadth of On Color. It added to my understanding of color and stimulated me to think about color in new ways. It is a rich and useful read.
How could a potter with such a perfect name as Don Potter have left my consciousness? I know I had read briefly about Don Potter in Phil Rogers’ book Ash Glazes because I have two well-read editions the book on my shelves. Yet but despite his perfect name, he slipped my mind completely, until I read about him in Mike Dodd’s autobiography. Dodd not only praised Potter profusely, but recommended Vivienne Light’s book about him, Don Potter: an inspiring centurypublished by Canterton Books in 2002. Only a thousand copies were printed, but I was able to get a nice clean copy.
The man was a genius. He was a master of many crafts: metalwork, woodcarving, stone carving, lettering, and pottery. In addition, he was a talented cellist and expert lassoist. And an inspiring teacher.
He had studied direct carving with the great sculptor Eric Gill but knew nothing of pottery when he accepted a teaching position at Bryanston School where he would be teaching ceramics as well metal and wood. He turned first to Amy Krauss for instruction, so that he could stay ahead of the pottery students. Once the first year was over, he sought out Michael Cardew and Ray Finch quickly becoming highly skilled and a master of form. He dug clay and mixed glazes for himself and the students and became a fierce advocate of using local materials. The only thing he purchased was sand!
The pottery workshop at Bryanston was in the dark and dusty basement. Potter tore down the old coal fired earthenware kiln, and built a wood-fired stoneware kiln. Students recalled that he “lugged a great oxygen cylinder from the metalwork department” (which he also taught) and the “temperature soared.” Indeed, more than once the walls of the stairwell glowed when the he was firing the kiln!
Potter would take small groups of students to visit Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie where they could watch her work and look at her collection of pots. He invited Ladi Kwali to come to the school and demonstrate. He encouraged his students to look at pots wherever they went. In each of the disciplines he taught, there were students who went on to make it their life’s work and who achieved greatness. In pottery, in addition to Mike Dodd, Richard Batterham credits him as the inspiration for his career in clay. Other of his pottery students who went on to great success include Rodney Lawrence, Kit Opie, Michael Gill, and Terrance Conran who made a career in design and as a tastemaker.
Of course, I wished there were more pages devoted to Potter’s pottery – and more photos – but the chapters on metal, wood, stone and lettering are interesting also, if not quite as engrossing to me personally as the clay chapter. By the end of the book though, I was glad to have met this man, if only on the printed page: a man who could do almost anything with his hands. He was a maker and an artist, yet, as Light makes clear, he also thought deeply about the work he was doing.
I love the books and videos the Goldmark Gallery creates for their pottery exhibits. I very much love Mike Dodd by David Whiting which they published to coincide with last fall’s exhibit.
The book, like all Goldmark’s books, has elegant French flaps and is printed on satiny paper. It is an object of beauty, a pleasure to hold in your hands.
The cover, a photo of Dodd in his workshop, viewed through an open door is enticing. We see a tall vase on an old woodstove, a workbench, clay spattered chairs and a row of ladles (for glazing?) hung across the top of a window. Dodd is holding a vase. Immediately, you want to visit. Does every potter who shows at Goldmark live surrounded by pastural countryside and work in an enchanting, rustic shop? Feeling a tinge of envy…
Whiting’s essay, an appreciation, touches on Dodd’s life, his thoughts on potting, and, of course, his pots. Like all of Goldmark’s’ books, many of which Whiting has written, it is refreshingly jargon free. Jay Goldmark’s luscious photos show Dodd’s work in situ – in the garden, surrounded by grasses and ivy, on old wooden boards, by a pond. The photos and essay bring us into momentarily inside Dodd’s world.
Dodd, a potter’s potter, is known for his deep understanding of local materials. He makes glazes of ash and granite and iron that he gathers and processes. His pots are robust, known for the strength of their forms.
I read Mike Doddwith Dodd’s own book, An Autobiography of Sorts, also available from Goldmark though not published by them. This is a longer, more
in depth look at Dodd’s potting life. It includes articles that he has written and published over the years, essays and interviews that others have written, in addition to some material that he wrote specifically for this volume. He describes the various workshops and studios that he has inhabited, the kilns he has built, and his thoughts about pot-making. There are many pages of formal photos of his work, allowing us to study them closely.
An Autobiography of Sortsis not as beautifully designed as Mike Dodd, but the two books taken together give us a nice look at Dodd and his work. They are the next best thing to owning one of his pots.
“First experiments involved rolling mothballs down a slide into the saggar, and also inserting oily rags at the ends of sticks, but neither were successful, with Caiger-Smith nearly losing his eyebrows in the process. Then he had a brainwave and inserted pieces of fudge on a long metal rod, these melted as soon as they started to burn, enabling more fudge to be immediately inserted, so keeping up the reduction without the risk of being gassed. At last there was success,” Jane White writes in her brilliant new book, Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potter
Caiger-Smith spent years perfecting his highly prized lustreware inspired by the luminous pots made in 800 CE in what is now Iraq and later in Spain and
Italy during the Middle Ages. By the twentieth century though fine examples of lustreware could be seen in museums and mosques, knowledge of how to achieve this effect were forgotten.
From his earliest potting years, Caiger-Smith was intrigued with the beauty of
lustre, preferring it to the Chinese and Japanese inspired pots of Leach and his followers. Through trial and error, (at times disastrous), extensive research, and by translating Ciprian Piccolpasso’sThe Three Books of the Potter’s Art,published in 1557, he at last mastered lustre and gained a wide audience for his work.
Caiger-Smith also specialized in tin-glazed maiolica and is known for his brushwork. He wrote two definitive books, Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World: The Tradition of 1000 Years in Maiolica, Faience and DelftwareandLustre Pottery: Technique, Tradition and Innovation in Islam and the Western Worldas well as numerous essays and articles.
White’s approach is particularly interesting and lively. Rather than write a conventional biography of Caiger-Smith, or a typical monograph with appreciative essays by various authors, she focusses on his workshop, Aldermaston Pottery, and the potters who worked there. At Aldermaston, individual potters saw their pots from start to finish; throwing, glazing, decorating and firing, to the shop’s standard designs. Other workshops operating at the time separated tasks with different people working as throwers, glazers, decorators or kiln men and women. Caiger-Smith also believed that it was crucial to bring in people who fit well with one another and after that, everything would follow. Sometimes he took on potters with no skills whatsoever because he liked them and then taught them all they needed to know to take a pot from start to finish.
White tracked down numerous potters who worked at Aldermaston Pottery and sprinkles quotes and old photos from them throughout the book, giving us vivid descriptions of life in the workshop. Caiger-Smith not only trained and paid his potters but provided them with housing in the village. They had parties, worked together, took on difficult challenges such as making very large exhibition pots, and became friends. Many went on to open their own potteries after they left.
The book concludes with a warm postscript from Alan Caiger-Smith, now almost 90, in which he shares a few memories and gives generous thanks to the many involved in the book and in his life and work. Those who read this blog, know I have a fondness for biographies and profiles of potters (and wrote a couple myself including Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden). Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potteryranks amongst the best.
Before the holidays, my good friend NIkki Mutch gave me a copy of Leonard Everett Fisher’s The Pottersthat she rediscovered amidst the many children’s books in her collection. Lucky for me, she thought it belonged in my book collection. And belong it does. What a little treasure!
During the sixties and seventies Fisher wrote and illustrated a series of books on colonial American crafts for Franklin Watts. The Pottersis part of that series. It is illustrated with detailed, powerful scratchboard illustrations, a technique for which he became famous. We see a potter digging clay, wedging, throwing at the wheel. Best of all, there are images of pots–a beautiful slip trailed plate, jugs and crocks.
This is a children’s book meant for the middle grades. Nevertheless, it is clear Fisher did considerable research. He includes a map of New York showing the location of the (now revered) Remney-Crolius Pottery as well as Pott Baker’s Hill and the Corselius Pottery. He discusses Andrew Duché, the Savannah potter who learned from the Cherokees of a pure white clay which he (correctly) thought could be used for porcelain. Unfortunately, this enterprise failed due to a lack of funding. Most of all, Fisher celebrates the many redware potters making sturdy domestic pots before the Revolutionary War. To me, reading it as an adult, I see the book as an appreciation.
Fisher, born in 1924, has illustrated over 250 children’s books, 88 of which he wrote. He studied with such luminaries as Reginald Marsh and Serge Chermayeff, and has won numerous awards. After the series on American crafts workers, he illustrated most of his books with vibrant paintings yet his scratch board illustrations, even in this age of color, still speak to us.
During my bookselling and Connecticut Children’s Book Fair years, I had the honor of meeting and hosting Fisher, and even tried to convince his publisher to make a Cyclops costume based on his book of that name. Nevertheless, somehow, I knew nothing of this delightful early book, The Potters. How wonderful to have it in my hands now.
Reissued a few times by various publishers, The Pottersis now out of print. If you are seeking a copy, look for the original Franklin Watts edition from 1969.
I have been working on a book for Timber Press called Anatomy of a Garden. How I came to be writing such a book is a story for another day, but it’s a fun project. The histories of ceramics and horticulture have been linked for millennium and, like many potters, I am deeply interested in gardening.
One topic about which I knew little, however, was the grotto. A grotto is a watery garden feature, a retreat, often subterranean, inspired by the ancient Greek grottoes made in seaside caves. They are decorated, we might say encrusted, with shells and sparkling minerals and offer a cooling environment. Beginning in the fifteenth century, Italian nobles and kings became interested in having grottoes constructed for their own gardens. Status symbols during the Renaissance, and laden with meanings, they were a celebration of art and nature. And it turns out, two potters are part of the story.
The sixteenth century French potter Bernard Palissy, known for his magnificently glazed earthenware decorated with fantastical but realistic flora and fauna – snakes, frogs, crustaceans, lizards, crows, ferns, moss – was also a maker of grottoes. Palissy had spent fifteen years developing his bright, translucent glazes, sometimes, by his own account, at great cost. During one firing, filled with glaze tests, he ran out of wood before reaching temperature. In desperation, or perhaps I should say, with determination, he yanked the trellises from his garden, tore up the floor boards in his house, even chopped up his table for the necessary wood. Many of his molds were life casts which he would assemble to create a larger mold for his basins and platters.
Anne de Montmorency who was an influential and wealthy member of the French aristocracy, a statesman, soldier, and diplomat, admired Palissy’s pottery covered with leaves and reptiles and most famously, snakes, and commissioned him to create a two-story grotto. It was a perfect project for Palissy’s rich imagination. He would festoon the grotto with swags of ceramic fruit. There would be a fountain with ceramic shells, frogs, lizards and fish. The second story of the grotto would have “terms,” life size statues that mysteriously appeared to evolve from their pedestals. Palissy worked for nearly a decade on the grotto, making wondrous ceramic objects to completely cover the interior.
But he was also an activist Protestant in Catholic France. The Catholic authorities raided his atelier and destroyed his fired and unfired pieces along with many of his molds and tools. They sent him to prison to await execution for heresy. It is unclear if the grotto was installed but most historians believe that it was not. How annoying to make all those intricate and carefully glazed pieces only to be hauled off to jail!
Released with the help of friends in high places, he next worked on a grotto for
the garden of Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother, perhaps using some of the surviving molds. Archaeologists believe the walls were covered with glazed bricks covered with ceramic shells and moss, as some have been found. Interestingly, the grotto was not made in place, but at his workshop and transported. However, he later planned a grotto that was completely glazed inside and fired in place. The thought of that is almost enough to make me want to try!
Palissy was a writer as well as a potter. One of his last published works contained an essay which included detailed written plans for his ideal garden. As it turns out, this is the only full description we have of a French Renaissance garden. In it, his ceramic grottoes are a key feature.
Two centuries later, a successful terra cotta manufacturer, James Pullman (the second in a line of four James Pullmans), invented an artificial stone, which he called Pulhamite, for the construction of grottoes. With artificial stone, one could make a grotto anywhere. You didn’t need a natural cave or boulders. In his pottery, Pulham made terra cotta birth baths, flower pots, and other garden ornaments and also did stone work. With his invention of artificial stone, he and his descendants became the leading creators of grottoes and landscapes. They could provide everything but the plants.
To read about Palissy and his ceramics, with details about his ceramic grottoes, turn to Barnard Palissy by Leonard N. Amico. This is a carefully researched biography of the great potter and of course, includes a wealth of information about his rustic pottery which is what most of us think of when he we hear his name. For the Pulhams, turn to Rock Landscapes:The Pulham Legacy. Sadly, it does not have much information about the Pulham family’s work in clay, as its focus is on Pulhamite. Still, it is interesting, especially if you happen to be interested in grottoes.
Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery is both an exhibit and a book that if you are in any way involved with clay, you must not miss. The exhibit is currently at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT where it remains through December 3. It moves to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK where it can be seen March 20 through June 18, 2018. Really, you must go see this.
The book, a hefty tome, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding contains thoughtful and provocative essays, splendid photos of the works on exhibit, a timeline, and, of particular delight, photos of potters by Ben Boswell. No, you cannot curl up with Things of Beauty Growing. It is too heavy and too large. Find yourself a comfortable chair where you can open it across both your thighs, or read it at a table. And you probably shouldn’t eat or drink while you are reading because if you spill on one of the pages, you will cry.
Glenn Adamson tells us that the title Things of Beauty Growing is taken from a Michael Cardew quote: “If you are lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it.” He explains that the curators wanted to show “the sense that pottery has a life of its own.” He goes on to say that the “exhibition takes typologies of the vessel as its organizing structure. It shows that archetypal ceramic forms mark out their own internal chronology, as well as stages in trajectory thinking.” The focus is on the twentieth-century.
The first half of the book includes essays on such topics as exhibits, the factory, pottery in popular culture (love the record album covers!), origins, and what Edward S Cooke, Jr. calls “The Ideology of the Wheel.” This is followed by the catalog itself which is divided into thematic sections: Moon Jar, Vase, Bowl, Charger, Set, Vessel, Pot, and Monument. This is also how the exhibit itself is arranged.
Neither the exhibit nor the book is a survey of British studio ceramics or a history, or even a “best of.” Potters you love and admire, potters I love and admire, are missing. Nevertheless, collectors and potters will recognize all the names, and will be familiar with most if not all of the works, if only from years of looking at photos in books and magazines. I was glad that I had read the book before attending the exhibit. Still, I was not prepared to see “in person” pots I had seen as images all my potting life. Even after looking at them portrayed in highly professional photographs in the book, I was stunned.
We begin with the story of the 18th century Korean moon jar that Bernard Leach shipped home to England in 1935 and which eventually became Lucie’ Rie’s and now resides in the British Museum in London. There are two photos of this legendary jar in the book: the jar itself, and a photograph of Lucie Rie seated next to it in her London studio. The exhibit opens with Adam Buick’s interpretation of the moon jar followed by the moon jars of Akiko Hirai and Gareth Mason. From the moon jars we move onto Vase. We see not only Bernard Leach’s interpretations, but also a few of the Song Dynasty vases that inspired him.
These were under glass, but the two-handled jar made by Edwin Beer Fishley in Devon about 1900 was out in the open on a pedestal. I had all I could do to keep from running my hands up the walls to feel Fishley’s throwing. Of course, I knew better, and the guard, probably reading my body language as I peered inside the pot, kept her eyes on me. This pot is beautifully photographed in the book but no photograph can completely convey the power of the volume of this pot, the strength and rigor of the throwing lines, and the incredible dark green glaze breaking to deep purple.
I will not list all the names – Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Alison Britton, William Staite Murray, Hans Coper, Lady Kwali, Magdalene Odundo – and on and on, that you encounter walking through the exhibit or turning the pages of the book, as that is not the point, though it was dazzling to see their works all together. No the point is to see the sets made by Lucie Rie and Ruth Duckworth and the chargers made by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew and Ralph Toft and the bowls, and vessels and pots. Topology!
My bias is towards traditional, functional wares but that is not the bias of the book or the exhibit. We see Julian Stair’s monumental jars that can hold a person’s body, and Grayson Perry’s decaled and gilded urns. We see Edmund de Waal’s a place made fast (dare I say it? – I love his books but was disappointed in his installation but glad to see it for myself after seeing photos of it). The exhibit and book close with Halima Cassell’s installation of vessels made from clay she has collected from around the world.
And then there is Clare Twomey’s Made in China installation, which includes 80 vases, 79 made in Jingdezhen, China and one in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. The 79 are decorated with decals and identical. The one from England is hand-decorated with eighteen-karat-gold. Of course, you must find the one, not an easy task when they are all the same size and shape and red and gold. Happily, I did find it, and immediately realized that one of the amusements for the guards is watching people search for the 80th jar. The guard knew as soon as I had found it, and came over and chatted, a light-hearted way to end a museum tour, though I realize Twomey’s installation is political and not light-hearted.
Exhibits are ephemeral but books last. With Things of Beauty Growing, the book/catalog brings depth, discussion, and insight. The essayists do not all share a point of view; they have different opinions and outlooks, which is enriching. This is a book you might talk back to. Even if you can’t get to the exhibit, though I strongly urge you to see it if at all possible, the book is an excellent addition to a potter’s library and education, a book to return to again and again.
“The main restrictions that I have at the moment are a small studio and how I transport my work, unfired, in a trailer that I tow with my bicycle to the kiln service,” Canadian potter Dawn Vachon tells Australian author Amber Creswell Bell in her new book, Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artisans. Bell profiles fifty-three potters, mainly from Australia, probing how they became involved with clay, why they make what they make, and how they think about it.
The only potter I was familiar with (which doesn’t mean you wouldn’t know who the rest are) is media savvy Frances Palmer of Connecticut whose work was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest. Palmer has been making pots for more than three decades, primarily porcelain but also white and red terra cottas. And avid gardener, she photographs many of her pieces with flowers and posts daily on Instagram. Despite her success, she tells Bell, “You have to be prepared for failure and yet still enjoy the process. There are many aspects to making pots that are out of one’s control and I find it all a metaphor for many things in life.”
Indeed, dealing with failure is a common thread throughout. Holly Macdonald of Australia talks about the importance of not becoming too attached to one’s work while making it lest it not survive drying and firing. “There are certainly a lot of opportunities to practice non-attachment in working with clay. Non-attachment in relation to the physical things you are creating and the expectations you have of them. I think it’s a good thing, and is a positive influence on the other areas of my life.”
Several of the potters touch on their ever-present sense of the long and ancient history of ceramics. Florian Gadsby, a young London based potter who apprenticed with Lisa Hammond writes, “The methods have barely changed in thousands of years. Losing such an important craft as we enter a digital age would be devastating, as it represents centuries of historical advancement, culture and beauty.” Australian potter Tania Rollond adds, “For almost as long as we humans have walked the earth we have scratched or printed our individual marks and traces into the malleable, receptive surface of clay, and we have formed it into objects that play intimate roles in daily life.”
Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artisans is a handsomely produced book. There are 231 illustrations. Many of the pots are dramatically photographed holding flowers. There are also photographs of the potters at work, or of their studios, as well as many photos of individual pots or groups of pots all printed on thick, creamy paper.
The work itself ranges from vases and tableware made by throwing, pinching, handbuilding and slipcasting to intricate sculptural work reflecting a variety of points of view and processes. Bell does a good job of presenting the thoughts and philosophies that the potters have about their work without making the essays sound like formal artists’ statements and without using the jargon so often employed by critics. She and her subjects exclaim at the “buoyancy” of the market for handmade ceramics today and share optimism for the future.