Biographies in American Ceramic Art

It’s the art, we are told, not the artist that matters. We should turn our attention to the genius of Ezra Pound’s poems, not his politics. It is not important that Shoji Hamada made the unsigned bottle with the exquisite green brush stroke that we admire; it is the bottle itself we should be contemplating.

Yes, yes this is all true, but really, aren’t most of us a bit nosey?  We want to know about the artist too.  We care a lot that Hamada made a particular piece and we are fascinated with the details of his life.

Certainly I am nosey. I like the studio visits in Ceramics Monthly. I like to read what potters have to say about their work and about their lives. It fascinates me that through history there have been groups of writers or artists or musicians who interact with and inspire one another, often so entangled that they fall in and out of love, argue, and collaborate. I am thinking of Black Mountain College, Bloomsbury, or Greenwich Village. It is not that the work is inseparable from the lives, but the lives do inform the work.

Still, when I first opened Biographies in American Ceramic Art 1870-1970 by Ken Foster, I was startled to find no images except on the cover. Here, it is the outlines of a life in ceramics that is emphasized, not the work itself.

The book is organized alphabetically, with brief entries that include such details as birth and death, education, prizes and employment. Thus we read that Laura Ann Fry, the “daughter of renowned woodcarver/teacher Henry B. Fry [was] proficient in drawing, design/decoration, modeling, and woodcarving, also a teacher,” followed by a list of places she studied, worked or taught. She was at the Cincinnati School of Design. She was at Rookwood. She invented and patented an atomizer for applying glaze. We can see that she began her studies in art at the age of 16 and died at the age of 86. Foster sums up Fry’s long and very rich life in ceramics with a few sentences.

Of course, many of the artists listed are well known, but there also many that I at least, had never heard of and that makes the book very interesting. I was not familiar with Isaac Scott Hathaway who designed coins in addition to his work in ceramics. He was “recruited (by Booker T. Washington, on recommendation of George Washington Carver) to join the faculty of Tuskegee Institute … and establish a ceramics department.” Now I want to know more about him and see his work.

There are gaps. M.C. Richards is not included. How can that be? The entry for George Ohr is astonishingly brief, and because the entries are listings of events such as expositions, there is no indication of the wild nature of his work or glaze experiments.

Nevertheless, the book is fun to browse. I found myself running to my bookshelves and the Internet to learn more about individuals and, if possible, to see their work. Foster wrote Biographies for collectors, but it is a good resource for potters interested in the past or who want to discover lesser-known predecessors. An illustrated version would have been better, but this is worth a read.

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