Commeraw’s Stoneware

           If you read one book on ceramics history this year, or even just one book on ceramics, make it A. Brandt Zipp’s densely researched and richly illustrated book about Thomas W. Commeraw, Commeraw’s Stoneware: The Life and Work of the First African-American Pottery Owner. Commeraw’s robust stoneware, his jugs and jars, the sure-handed cobalt decorations, have long been esteemed by collectors and connoisseurs of early American pottery, but little was known about the potter himself. It was assumed that, like his contemporaries working in the late 18th and early 19th century Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was white. The well-known ceramic historian William Ketchum even argued that he was of French extraction, a misconception that grew into myth and stuck for years.

            Zipp, is a founding partner of Crocker Farm, the premier auction house specializing in historic, utilitarian American ceramics. He grew up steeped in knowledge and appreciation of early American pottery. While researching another potter, Henry Remmey, a contemporary and neighbor of Commeraw’s, he saw a B after Commeraw’s name in the 1810 census.  At first perplexed, but looking further in the census records, he discovered that the B was for black.  Commeraw was listed as black in the 1800 census with a household consisting of 6 people of color. Thomas Commeraw, the famous stoneware potter favored by collectors and museums, was not a white man of French heritage, but a free African-American.

            After this startling and important discovery, Zipp spent almost two decades researching Commeraw’s life, sharing what he learned in lectures and essays. I believe there were some university presses who were interested in publishing the results of his work. However, Crocker Farm publishes wonderful catalogs of their auctions and so brought that sensibility to this project. They published the book with an astonishing wealth of illustrations. Turning the pages, looking at pot after pot, you feel an intimacy with the work. With Zipp’s guidance, we see Commeraw’s handles change, his efficiencies evolve. Zipp also shares his research journey, how and where he learned various details and facts. He includes illustrations of the primary sources he relied upon. The book is well documented with notes and, always a criterion for me, a good index

            Even without Zipp’s research, Commeraw was known as an extraordinary and influential potter. He was one of the first, if not the first, to stamp his brand on his pots. He sold his wares well beyond New York. Other potters imitated him. But now we know that as a child he was enslaved by the potter William Crolius and received his freedom upon Crolius’ death. We know about his leadership roles in his community and his church, his abolitionist activism at a time when most blacks in this country were enslaved, his singing, his optimism when he and his family left to found Liberia, only to return to the US disappointed. And now we know that this enterprising potter, long assumed to be a white craftsman, was a free black man who made magnificent pots working for himself.

            Do yourself a favor: Read this book. I will reread it before the year is out.

Commeraw’s Stoneware: The Life and Work of the First African-American Pottey Owner by A. Brandt Zipp (979-8-218-00290-9)

An Unexpected Appreciation of Early American Redware Potters

Redware pots Fisher

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 publisherRedware pots Fisher 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.


Map potteris New York City
Fisher’s map of potteries in 18th century Manhattan.

Crocker Farm, The Forgotten Freeman Potter, and More

Thomas Commeraw Jar

I knew that even if I hadn’t spent eight hundred plus dollars to fix my truck (it failed emissions), I would not be able to afford to participate in the Crocker Farm March auction. Still, I indulged myself and ordered the print edition of the catalog. Oh what a lovely thing it is. There are over five hundred pieces of early American stoneware and redware pots, all beautifully photographed, and described.

Crocker Farm was founded in 1983 by Anthony and Barbara Zipp and now includes their sons Brandt, Luke and Mark. They have made themselves experts on early American ceramics by studying eighteenth and nineteenth century census records, newspapers, city directories, books, local lore and the pots themselves. They deeply research each of the pots they auction and share that information in their online and print catalogs, in videos and lectures.

The pages of the March 2017 catalog are filled with wonderful pieces. There are lead glazed redware dishes and jars, splashed with manganese or copper; salt-glazed stoneware vessels with cobalt decorations – incised, stamped, brushed; Albany slip and alkaline glazed stoneware. Jars. Jugs. Pitchers. Churns. Inkwells. Oyster jars. Plates. Impressive big ware – a ten-gallon pitcher thought to be for a showroom window. Miniatures, perfectly thrown.

I especially loved the signed and dated stoneware jar by Dave, the famous slave potter. It holds about eight gallons, a testament to his legendary skill on the wheel. It is covered in a lovely tan, alkaline glaze. There are pieces from the well-known Crolius family, one a particularly wonderful ovoid jug, the elegant swelling form they perfected, plus pots from the Remmey family of Manhattan.

Thomas Commeraw Ovoid Jug.

Most remarkable and interesting to me are the pots made by Thomas Commeraw, who was a Manhattan contemporary of Crolius and Remmey. The catalog includes several fine examples. There’s an ovoid jug with an especially nice form, swelling gracefully from a narrow base to a curved shoulder. It features a “heavily-tooled spout, decorated with an impressed and cobalt-highlighted drape-and-tassel motif resembling clamshells.” There’s a stoneware jar with an “impressed Federal Drape Design.” This does not have quite the swell that the jug has, but it does call out to a potter’s soul.

Commeraw’s work has been known and recognized for years, but he was incorrectly assumed to be of French descent. Poring over the census records, Brandt Zipp discovered that Commeraw was a free African American potter with a shop in Coerlears Hook on the Lower East Side from around 1796-1819. Commeraw has become a passion for Brandt Zipp. He has devoted himself to extensive research and now, for the past several years he has been writing a biography of him. Hurry, Mr. Zipp! I want to read it! Surely, once published, the book will give Commeraw his rightful place in not only ceramics history, but American history.

Covering Brandt’s research for the New York Times, Eve M. Kahn wrote in Oct. 13, 2011. “Mr. Zipp has uncovered details about Commeraw’s clients, including black church leaders and abolitionists, and tantalizing hints that the ceramist helped soldiers protect New York forts during the War of 1812. Around 1820, the American Colonization Society sent Commeraw to Sierra Leone to govern a new colony of free blacks. He sent back copious letters about conditions there.”

You can view all of the Crocker Farm catalogs online. If you are interested in early American ceramics, it is worth spending the time to view the catalogs and watch the videos. They are a treasure. Of particular interest are the videos in which Brandt Zipp talks about Commeraw. Plus, he has created a website dedicated to Commeraw. Crocker Farm’s next auction is in July, so we can look forward to that catalog (or bidding if one has the funds), while we await the biography of Thomas Commeraw.

A Memoir of Friendship and Craftsmanship

I do not know why it took me so long to pick up Archie’s Way: A Memoir of Friendship and Craftsmanship by Richard Ezra Probert. The book came out in 1998 and I immediately brought it home with the intention of reading it. Alas, I am a greedy reader, always thinking I can read more than there is time for, so stacks of good intentions accumulate around me. Now, eighteen years later, while “organizing” my writing room, I came upon the book and moved it to the top of the teetering pile.

Archie’s Way is the story of a man on the younger side of middle-aged who grew up learning woodworking from his grandfather and music from his father. As an adult, he becomes a musician, and then a professor, but, continuing to like woodworking, he accumulates tools and lovingly restores a turn-of-the century house for his young family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The restoration newly complete, the house is suddenly ruined by the raging floodwaters of the Susquehanna River after Hurricane Agnes strikes. Devastated, Probert, packs up his tools away, and moves his family across the country to the north woods of Wisconsin, where he had accepted a job teaching music..

The memoir is about his reawakening to craft after such devastation, and the curmudgeonly older man, Archie Rausch, who rekindled his craftsman’s soul. Archie, dropped out of school at a young age and through determination, passion, and the ability to learn from others, became a highly skilled metalworker and woodworker. He earned his living as a metal worker, making parts, machines, and tools often of his own design. Customers knew that he could figure out how to make anything from metal. He was a woodworker too. He built the comfortable house he shared with his wife Lillian and all the furniture in it, a cabin in the woods, and various sheds and workshops. He lived what we might today call an integrated life; there were no boundaries separating his work from his passion. It’s how he lived and how he thought about how he lived, that makes the book interesting, even for those of us who work with squishy mud rather than the sharp edges of wood and metal.

As Probert gradually earns Archie’s respect beginning by doing the tasks the older man assigns him, in time doing projects together, Archie’s ways seep into his music making. He writes, “…since getting to know Archie, I treated the score more like Archie treated his drawings, as a guide to an end product that, I was delighted to discover, was in my hands, or ears, as the case may be, to finish. I likened my music making to cabinetmaking and machining, where each of the parts fits perfectly to create a whole, an idea, its own unique architecture. I reconciled myself to the notion that art and craft are too closely allied to draw a line between the two.”

The book is a paean not only to working with one’s hands, but to tools and machines. It is a love story to the workshop, the space one creates in which to work. And though it is written as a man’s book – men working together – male friendship – men and their tools – it really is not a man’s book at all. It is a deep appreciation of a life in craft. “Within a fifty-mile radius of most people, there are craftsmen making the finest furniture, machining intricate pieces from blocks of steel, fashioning boxes, lamps, cabinets, model steam engines, and all sorts of gadgets. These are quiet people who judge quality by the way a thing is put together. They have enormous pride in what they do and how they do it.” Clay, wood, metal, glass, fiber – it’s not the medium that matters, but the attitude.

Happily, this small book, written nearly two decades ago, is still available. It would be perfect for a potters’ reading group. Is there such a thing?

Happy New Year!

Edmund de Waal on Porcelain

Three hundred years ago the Jesuit priest Pére J’Entrecolles wrote letters to his superiors describing in rich detail the manufacture of porcelain. The Catholic priest had been sent to Jingdezhen to proselytize to the local residents of this bustling eighteenth century Chinese city. Many of his potential converts worked with porcelain. His reports described all aspects of porcelain production from digging the special materials to firing. At the time how to make porcelain was a mystery to potters at home. A few years ago, Edmund de Waal, the acclaimed British author and potter, who has had a long obsession with porcelain, “brought” Pére J’Entrecolles along as his initial guide on his pilgrimage to discover the roots of porcelain. He carried and consulted marked up copies of the letters during his trip to Jingdezhen. He tells the story of his search in The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession. “This journey, “ he says, “is a paying of dues to those that have gone before.”

His quest takes him to China, Germany, South Carolina, and through his own England. The book is peopled with fascinating characters. Even if you have read numerous accounts of the alchemist Johann Frederich Böttger and his keeper/overseer Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and how, while desperately trying to make gold, they discovered the secret of porcelain, you will find de Waal’s chapters about them worth reading. In his mind he is there too, with them, trying to understand what they were thinking, feeling what they feel, and he brings the reader along.

I was fascinated with the chapters on William Cookworthy, the Devon pharmacist who also was obsessed with making porcelain, and who succeeded, only to be outwitted by Josiah Wedgewood. And then there is Thomas Griffiths who, after crossing the Atlantic,  travels hundreds of miles into the wilderness of the American south, suffering rain and cold, to obtain “white earth” from the Cherokees and ship it back to England. The Cherokees, it turns out, also valued the clay and preferred he not make holes in it.

De Waal nicely intersperses his personal artistic journey – youthful years making stoneware, his struggles with firing, and thoughts on his studio practice – throughout the narrative. The book is divided into cups so that you feel he is not only making a book but that he is making pots to coincide with each section. The cups symbolize the book. Or perhaps the book follows the cups.

“You drop the lid of the huge lidded jar you have finally made,” he writes, “and it becomes ‘Jar for a Branch’. And you move on.” He shares his philosophies.  “Sets are a way of controlling the world. If you need this mortal world to reflect another kind of order, then things must match.”

I was immersed from the first page of the book. I love history. I am  intrigued by descriptions of how other potters work. He gives us both. The book is episodic, often written in the first person, so you feel immediacy. Towards the end, while he is writing, he is also in the process of moving his studio to a new spacious location. He tells us what he is reading. What he is thinking. How he works. “I sit at my wheel,” he says. “It is low and I am tall. I hunch. There is a ziggurat of balls of porcelain clay to my left, a waiting pile of ware boards to my right, a small bucket of water, a sponge, a knife and a bamboo rib shaped like a hand axe in front of me.” He has a space upstairs where he writes. There are books. Oh dear! Is that jealousy I am feeling?

Two complaints: The book does not have an index. Yes, I am an index junky, but really a book with this much history, so many facts and locations, and such intriguing characters, should have an index. And though de Waal read deeply and did extensive research, the book has neither endnotes nor a bibliography. Instead, the reader is directed to his website, where indeed you can find all that you want to. Still, I found this annoying and hope that other publishers do not go this route in an effort to save money. I suspect these were publisher decisions and not de Waal’s, but who knows.

Wherever you are personally in the pottery world, and whether you admire de Waal’s installations or eschew them, you will want to read The White Road. It is an insightful and deep examination by an artist into his antecedents and the inspiration that sprung from them. The book is rich, multi-layered. Refreshingly, there is no art speak. Instead, it is a personal telling of well-researched history. It is an important book for the field, and the larger world.

Note: Edmund de Waal’s The Pot Book was released in paper late last year. I wrote about that in 2011 (Nov. 6) when it came out in hardcover.

American Studio Ceramics

American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity 1940 to 1979 by independent scholar Martha Drexler Lynn is a carefully researched, monumental book that chronicles and examines a tumultuous and groundbreaking period in American ceramics. By necessity and by choice, Lynn focuses on the segment of potters who were intent on and successful at crossing over into the Fine Arts arena, a movement that was given velocity as returning GI’s took college ceramics classes and then became college teachers themselves.

She was inspired to write the book when she received a “nearly complete run of Craft Horizons magazine from 1941 to the 1980s” as a gift (note to self; it’s ok to save stacks of back editions of ceramics magazines). She relies heavily on Craft Horizons, and Rose Slivka, editor and chief writer for the magazine 1959-1979, for her narrative. She apologizes, “In regard to the thousands of potters who worked during these decades, unless their talent was acknowledged at the time through the written or oral record or is testified to by an accessible body or work, their stories have slipped from the narrative presented here.” She is also influenced by the ceramics historian and critic Garth Clark and credits him for the foundational work he did. This then, is a book largely celebrating what she calls “adventurous” work by Peter Voulkos and those who followed.

The book opens with a discussion of the early mid-twentieth century, largely Bauhaus influenced, and includes such potters as Maija Grotell, Marguerite Wildenhein, Gertrude and Otto Natzler, and Glen Lukens. She discusses Bernard Leach and his influence, and gives great credit to the role his A Potter’s Book played, though she asserts several times that he couldn’t throw very well.

She divides the ensuing movements chronologically as Abstract Expressionism, Funk Ceramics, Fetish Finnish, and Special Objects. With extraordinary detail, Lynn tells us who was doing what kind of work, where they did it, who was teaching where, who were their students, who were their students’ students, who was exhibiting and where, and how the exhibits were received. This is an exhaustive study and I cannot imagine anyone writing about this time period in ceramics without referring to it.

I was especially pleased to see the respect she gives to two books that remain in print all these years and which I agree are and were important. “During the 1960’s,” she writes, “the widely praised Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964) by M.C. Richards provided philosophical heft to the field, much as Leach’s book had done twenty years earlier…A decade later, another influential book in the same vein was Paulus Berensohn’s popular Finding One’s Way With Clay (1972) which encouraged low-tech, pinch-formed vessels.”

As I pointed out, Lynn warns us in the beginning of the book of its constraints, and though she does touch on the concurrent ceramics scene that was flourishing outside the academy, she does not give it in depth coverage. She makes it clear that much of the information is lost or unknowable, and clearly deems it of lesser importance. “Meanwhile, “ she tells us, “those who were less adventurous strove to reinforce their connections to the traditional (vernacular) crafts, now transformed into a back-to-the-land, antiestablishment sensibility that highlighted concerns about technological progress, the machine, and how to value things that had once been ordinary.” She tells us that in 1979 “375,000 Americans were making a living selling crafts on a regular basis.”

I, as you know, have a predilection for functional pots, the story largely left out of this book. And I am not as certain as Lynn is that much of the history is lost. Nevertheless, I found American Studio Ceramics fascinating.

Six Pots or the Meaning of Objects After Death

Stuff. My mother is gone, my father before her, and what we are left with is stuff. Lot’s of stuff. And it all must be dealt with.

Material things, philosophers and religious leaders tell us, are of lesser importance than the immaterial.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” Matthew urged his early Christian followers. “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly,” Thoreau wrote. Who would disagree? Yes, of course, love and happiness and character are what matter. “You can’t take it with you,” is oft repeated in conversation when referring to other people’s acquisitions. And yet, the majority of us leave behind a raft of stuff, most of it quite ordinary.

With my mother gone, what we are left with, my siblings and I, like so many other adult children of deceased parents, are the objects and furnishings that they accumulated and in some cases made, over the years. They are gone, but their objects, the material goods in their lives, remain. I am perplexed, confused, troubled when I am confronted with the realization that the pots and pans and blankets and books and furniture and photos are all still here while our mother, a woman of passion and furies and dreams, is not. I am forcefully reminded that the inanimate outlasts the animate.

It’s hard work to understand what is in the house, to decide what to dispose of, what to keep, and who keeps what. We have made spread sheets. We send emails and texts to one another. We walk from room to room with our notes. It’s a small house, 1300 square feet but the task seems overwhelming.

Of course, what I chose for myself was pottery: four jugs, a jar, and a small tureen, all nineteenth century. Two of the jugs are small, one squat with broad shoulders in excellent condition; the other taller, narrow, swelling ever so slightly, with a look-at-me, hands-on-the-hips jaunty handle. Both are glazed in Albany Slip type glaze, so favored by early American potters. The taller jug is dark and glossy, almost black from a hot spot in the kiln. The squat one is a rich brown. I also brought home two two-gallon jugs, salt-glazed with nice cobalt slip trailed floral designs and a two-gallon salt-glaze jar, also with nice cobalt slip trailed floral design. The three salt-glazed pieces are each glazed with Albany slip type glaze on the interiors. And lastly, a small flow blue sauce tureen with ladle from my mother’s fairly large collection of flow blue china.

The smaller jugs are in my kitchen now, on a shelf, visible from almost everywhere in the room. I placed them so that I can easily pick them up, run my hand over the glazes, feel the curves, understand the potter’s moves. I hold the taller glossy one and remind myself that by the time it came into my mother’s possession, it had already outlasted at least several prior owners. The two salt-glazed jugs now sit prettily in my living room, on the floor in front of bookshelves. I set the salt-glazed jar on top of the kitchen cabinets next to a Bartram pot from Guy Wolff.

In their house, the small brown jugs sat one on each end of the large fireplace mantle. The taller glossy one has a crude handmade wooden stopper that has deteriorated. I do not know if the stopper is original to the jug, or if it was made later as a replacement. A spray of bayberries or bittersweet always graced the shorter jug.

My mother’s dream was to live in an old house in Connecticut. Instead, she remained in the 1957 tract house, originally a 900 square foot ranch, identical to thousands built the same time, until her death a year ago. But in that house, she and my father recreated an old house with hand hewn ceiling beams, a large open fireplace where our Dad cooked in iron pots on holidays, paneling made from wide boards, and cupboard doors made from old barn wood boards. The oldest of five children, I had already moved out when they made this room, but came back with my family for gatherings.

For my parents the antiques were objects of beauty, something to surround themselves with (though they did use their iron cookware). For the various antique dealers they dealt with, the pieces were inventory. But at some point before being offered for sale in the antique shops where my parents liked to browse, the jugs and jar and tureen were in other households, bought perhaps from earlier antique dealers or passed down from older family members. My parents began purchasing antiques for the house in a small way in the sixties and more in the seventies and eighties. The earlier twentieth century owners would have also displayed them as decorations, or perhaps stashed them in an attic or barn as no longer useful.

I like the jugs and jar because they are well thrown, because they are beautiful, because jugs and jars are two of my favorite shapes and because I am a potter steeped in pottery history. I like them because they belonged to my parents. When I see them, I think of the brick room and the enormous fireplace. I think of the family gathered around the table. I think of my mother’s love of houses and early Americana. In some way, these objects that have outlasted my parents, give a lingering suggestion of who they were.

That is what families do. We cherish the things our parents or grandparents leave to us. We attach meaning. Yet, the memories and feelings that prior owners attached to the very same objects have vanished. Nothing remains of the place theses pots held in the previous owners’ psyches.  The pots, inanimate objects, are unchanged throughout the centuries; it is the meanings we humans impose that change.

We know that the earliest owners would have used all of these pieces in the preparation, storage and serving of food. These were utilitarian pots. The jar might have held apple butter, pickles, eggs layered in salt, butter or maybe soft soap. The jugs would have held cider or vinegar, water, perhaps homemade wine. The two-gallon jugs would have been heavy when full, and used for long-term storage. The smaller ones would have been refilled from larger jugs for more immediate use.

Fortunately, the pots do yield information about their manufacture. Except for the flow blue sauce tureen, they are all thrown on a potters wheel, wood-fired and American made. The salt-glazed jar and one of the jugs are stamped with the name Edmands & Co. so we know it was made in the shop of Barnabas Edmands. Edmands opened his business in 1812 in the old pottery town of Charleston, Massachusetts (now the part of Boston where the Bunker Hill Monument stands). Here he introduced stoneware, made from clay he had shipped from New Jersey.  He promoted it as being safer than the lead-glazed redware previously made by the numerous potters in this area.

Edmands came from the brass trade and was not a trained potter himself. He relied on Frederick Carpenter, a highly skilled potter from Lebanon, Connecticut who served as the master potter from the shop’s opening days until his death in 1827 at the age of 56. With the loss of Carpenter, Charles Collier, a potter and inventor became the master potter. Though a small operation, with at most five men working in the pottery, Edmands & Company entered “a very large stone jug at the second annual fair of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association” in 1839 and won awards. When Edmands retired at the age of 72 in 1850, he sold the pottery to his sons who ran it in partnership with Charles Collier. At this time they also purchased jugs “by the dozen” from the Norwich, Connecticut potter Sidney Risely. In 1868 the name changed to Powers & Edmands and later it changed to Edmands & Hooper. So, from the stamped name across the fronts of two of my mother’s pots, we know that they were made sometime between 1812 and 1868 but most likely around 1860.

The two smaller Albany slip type jugs are not stamped or signed and there is no decoration so it is difficult to know where they were created. True Albany Slip made from glacial clay dug near Albany, New York was widely used in New York and Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, the slip clay was mined and shipped to potters all over the United States. At the same time, potters dug and used similar local clays as slip glazes. I have no way of knowing whether it was true Albany or a similar locally dug clay.

You can see the marks of the potters’ hands. When the potter attached the handle on the taller glossy jug, he pressed the clay with his thumbs, harder with his right than his left, making the tail of the handle slightly longer on the left side. I often do this too! I smile to myself at the similarity. The potter who made the shorter jug was more fastidious about his handle, and smoothed it evenly as he attached it. Still, I like the lilt of the first handle best.

My mother loved flow blue china and over the years she added many pieces to her collection: plates of various sizes, a platter, cups, and eggcups. She kept the collection in a particularly beautiful antique oak china cupboard with two small-paned glass doors above three drawers and cabinet. I brought the sauce tureen home and set it next to the Royal Albert bone china teacup with hand painted daffodils from my grandmother’s teacup collection. I like having a single piece from each of their collections next to each other.

The tureen is decorated in the Manilla pattern, with willows and palm trees and a sailing ship in a very dark cobalt blue with heavy bleeding. It was made in the bustling potting town of Staffordshire, England, by Podemore  & Walker sometime between 1845, when the Manilla pattern was first introduced and 1860 when the firm became Wedgewood and Company.

Created by accident when attempting to copy Chinese hand painted blue and white porcelain, the bleeding edges of the cobalt transfer images, a flaw, appealed to the public. It was far less expensive than Chinese porcelain. British factory potteries produced quantities of flow blue for the American market. Though it was called porcelain, it was earthenware. Podemore & Walker formulated a clay body that could be fired to a higher than usual earthenware temperature, making it more durable than other earthenware. Dealers today refer to Podemore & Walker flow blue as ironstone.

Flow blue china, factory-made and imported from England, was more highly valued by homemakers of mid-nineteenth century America than hand thrown, locally made stoneware. Many households could not afford this fancy tableware. Those that could displayed it prominently and used it for special occasions. Very popular, it was produced and exported in large quantities, and in time became more affordable. By the mid-twentieth century, it had become collectable.

I am more drawn to the “folk pottery,” the thrown jugs and jar but I enjoy the fact that together, the jugs and the tureen give a snapshot of a time period in ceramic history and in material culture, the Industrial Revolution, which was changing how people lived and how they perceived the things of everyday life. The tureen, made in a factory where there was a separation of tasks, where whole families were employed for long hours, where smoke polluted the skies for miles around, where there was extraordinary technical innovation and scientific research taking place, was influenced by wares coming from China that British potters had not yet discovered how to replicate. It was transported thousands of miles across the Atlantic in a sailing ship before ending up in someone’s parlor.

The other pieces, masterfully made, using traditional methods represent the end of an era in ceramics history. With the advent of railroads and refrigeration, and the rise of cities and factories, there was no longer a need for the crocks and jars and jugs that potteries like Edmands produced. To survive, they turned to drainage pipes and used jiggers and jollies. The old skills were lost. Kilns fell into disrepair and ruin. Small potteries closed.

There is a seventh pot, a blue colander that my mother made, that I brought home. It is somewhat painful to look at, but it was her favorite amongst her own pots and she kept it by her sink. We took our first pottery lessons together from a woman who taught at her home studio, and then attended Wesleyan Potters together for a while. I was completely smitten. I thought she was too. She bought a Shimpo wheel and set it up in the basement. She fired a few things, including the colander, in the hardbrick kiln I built. But then, inexplicably she stopped. She hated the cellar. She had bursitis. She had too much to do. She wanted the backyard shed for her studio. The reasons were numerous. I worried, I still worry, that somehow my own obsession led her to let go of it. I felt guilty but could not understand why.

Looking at her things now, I realize how many crafts she took an interest in and began – rug braiding, needlepoint, cross stitch, candle making, doll making, stenciling – a compendium of early American activities. And she could draw. But mysteriously, she did not follow any of these pursuits for long, though she appeared ever ready to resume with supplies and books about them at hand. She kept the few pots that she made on display in the living room and kitchen the rest of her life.

My mother lived for 88 years and then she was gone. The six pieces of pottery have already been around twice as long. They will last for many more years, perhaps thousands. I think a lot about ceramics, objects, material culture but I still do not understand what it means that our possessions outlast us. I only know that they do. Perhaps that is why we are so outraged when ISIS destroys ancient temples and artifacts. With this destruction, we lose our connection to people who have gone before us. The only way we can know of them, is through what they left behind. Ceramics, notable for longevity, have always been crucial to understanding history and how people before us lived.

Over the years, the jugs and jar and tureen that I have inherited meant different things to their various owners. They provided an income to those potters who made them and to the antique dealers who sold them. They were important household items for the first families that used them. For my parents and probably the owners immediately preceding them, they were antiques to be enjoyed as decoration. For me, they are objects of beauty and study and a trigger for memories.

Needless to say, there are far more things than the pots that I claimed, for my siblings and me to deal with. We had made progress; searched the house together drawer by drawer for the letter we thought she had written us detailing what to do with her things but could not find, made a spread sheet of the contents of the house, decided who would take what, when one of us, the younger sister nearest to me in age, grew ill unexpectedly and died, leaving her own possessions behind. Now what?

She had a collection of seashells, hundreds, perhaps more, that she gathered herself from the beaches that she loved to roam. Spiraled shells. Scalloped shells. Shells like unicorn horns. Smooth pearly blue shells.  Her daughter, my niece, has shared these shells with all who loved her, letting us each take one at the memorial service, later giving us glass jars filled with assortments of shells.

I think then, what to do myself about what I leave behind. First, I must make a list of everything and what it is so that anyone who must deal with it will know what is here and how it came to be here. I will write down why the flow blue sauce tureen next to the daffodil cup, both so unlike any other ceramics in the house, was important to me. I will try to make suggestions for dispersal, though you can never really know what others want and what would be a burden. And, inspired by my sister’s shells, I wish to leave gifts. Should I throw a quantity of tea bowls that I pack away for that, hopefully, very far off day? Make little clay books wrapped in tissue paper?

Note: I have left bookselling to write and make pots fulltime. I will continue to focus this blog on books about ceramics and hope that publishers will keep me informed of their new titles. However, from time to time, my posts may depart from strictly reviewing books. I also hope to redesign and move my web page and with it this blog, though I approach this task with trepidation. At a later date, I will ask Joe to take pot portraits of my mother’s six pots as only he can do. For now though, these photos will have to serve.

Two books that I have referred to often throughout my potting life that were helpful in researching my mother’s pots for this blog are American Stonewares: The Art and Craft of Utilitarian Potters by Georgeanna H. Greer and Early New England Potters and Their Wares by Lura Woodside Watkins.

The Legendary Vivika and Otto Heino

The mid-twentieth century was a heady time for studio potters, a time of discovery and invention and great pot making. Vivika and Otto Heino, a husband and wife team, were amongst those working during that exciting era. They both threw pots and glazed, but Vivika was the glaze chemist and Otto threw the large vases, bottles and bowls that they were known for.

Last year, I happily acquired a copy of the catalog that Alfred produced for the 1995 exhibit What you give away you keep forever: The Vivika and Otto Heino Retrospective. It is signed by Otto, (Vivika, 85, died that year).

There are essays by Margret Carney, who was the Director and Chief Curator of the museum and Val Cushing and Gerry Williams.  Cushing, a freshman at Alfred in 1948, met the Heinos in 1952 and the three remained friends throughout their lives.  He writes, “Vivika and Otto Heino are among those very few special ceramic artists whose work, teaching and lifetime commitment to studio pottery gives them an honored and secure place in the history of American ceramics since the 1940’s. This time period is important because it was during the 1940’s and 50’s when American ceramics found its real identity and uniqueness.”

Williams, who had visited the Heinos to write a piece for Studio Potter, remembers taking a class from Vivika when she was teaching for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. He calls her a “force of nature” and “a demanding teacher,” remembering those early days with fondness. He tells us, “It was the custom at the end of each session to clean away the spilled lead, copper, barium and selenium from the glaze mixing table and place on it instead a sumptuous feast of homemade cakes, pies, breads, cookies and sandwiches.” Imagine! He assures us though, that no one died from ingesting traces of these chemicals, at least not to his knowledge.

Both Williams and Cushing write of the house and gardens where the Heinos lived and worked in Ojai, California. Cushing writes, “The house and studio were filled with pottery, sculpture and art objects of all kinds – theirs and others…The gardens are extensive and inspiring as was the food and wine!”

Similarly, Williams writes, “We sat on their patio in the simmering heat, cooling off with drinks and eating vichyssoise and peach cobbler. There was evidence of lives rich in pottery everywhere I looked: pots on the table, pots standing by doorways, pot on shelves in showrooms.”

On Early American Pottery

Thomas Chandler Jar

I love the Ceramics in America series. Ostensibly a journal, published annually by the Chipstone Foundation, each volume is, in fact, a lavishly illustrated book. The 2013 edition, which came out late this winter, covers topics such as African-American face vessels, medieval English money boxes, and 19th century stoneware in South Carolina and Virginia. There is a lot of archaeology here, as well as historical research.

Robert Hunter, the editor for 2013 writes, “What is astonishing…is the magnitude of the new discoveries and reinterpretations of even well-known ceramic traditions. Most American ceramics research and collecting is regional if not local. Collectors hoard information as well as pots, and the competition for either can be ferocious. Clay-based feuds among collectors frequently result in resistance to publishing new research, in an arguably counterproductive belief it will protect one’s interests. With the advent of the internet, it is auction houses that disseminate regional information, some of which is decades out of date.”

Ceramics in America sets out to rectify this situation.

In one chapter Philip Wingard investigates the life of the great stoneware potter, Thomas Chandler, Jr. and discovers that he likely trained in Baltimore, then a pottery hub, as a teenager. His father kept a chair shop in close proximity to four stoneware and two earthenware potteries where the young Chandler would have been able to learn the craft. Wingard belives that later, while AWOL from the army in Georgia, Chandler worked with the potter Cyrus Cogburn and was exposed to southern traditions. Sometime in the mid-1830’s Chandler made his first appearance in Edgefield, South Carolina working at various shops. Here he married a potter’s daughter. Chandler’s pots are beautifully thrown and skillfully decorated. Wingard gives us a good look at his life, his  influences, the impact he had on other potters and the methods he employed.

Later in the book, Jacqui Pearce contemplates 15th and 16th century English money boxes. Though the journal focuses on American ceramic history, contributing scholars are free to study antecedents. “When Noël Hume first emailed me about pinholes in money boxes from London,” he writes, “I had to confess I had never noticed any, but the next day I went to see what I could find in the Museum of London’s Ceramic and Glass Collection. A quick examination brought to light six money boxes in Surrey-Hampshire Border Ware with the tiny telltale hole, still perfectly visible, just as Noël had said.” Pearce is immediately intrigued and goes on to explore the reason for these pinholes and the purpose of the boxes themselves.

The new edition Ceramics in America is stellar. The research is strong, the writing is clear, and the photos are, for a potter, inspirational and for a collector, lust inducing.

Note: Photo above is of a 10-gallon storage jug attributed to Thomas Chandler. Alkaline-glazed stoneware. 1841-1845.

A Passion for Wood Fire

The potters that Amedeo Salamoni features in his new book Wood-Fired Ceramics: 100 Contemporary Artists work in a variety of ways but all share a deep commitment to firing with wood. They are passionate about both the process and the results. Except for two, they all work at high temperatures, many to Cone 13 or 14.

The two notable lower temperature exceptions are Doug Fitch, the Devon slipware potter known for his medieval inspired jugs and jars, and Joy Brown who makes large, pillowy sculptures of people that she fires in her thirty-foot long anagama in the Litchfield hills of Connecticut. Fitch’s pots, made from clay he digs himself, are sprigged and glazed and reflect the warmth of the flames. Brown’s sculptures are made of Georgia clay and are unglazed. You can see the kiss of the fire on the surface.

Salalmoni includes more functional potters than sculptors though many work in both realms. Each artist is given two pages, occasionally more, for an artist’s statement, photographs of individual works, and at least one kiln shot. This is a great way to get an overview of the field. The photographs are very good. Because each artist has written his or her own statement, most are in the first person but a few are in the third, and one, startlingly switches between persons. Oh unpredictable artists!

Reading through the book, we visit Simon Leven who in addition to making his own sturdy pots for the kitchen and table, has taken on the responsibility of creating a map of wood kilns throughout the world. You can see it at We also encounter legendary wood-fire potters Jack Troy, John Leach and Fred Olsen. We meet Linda Christianson, Randy Johnston, Eva Kwong, Ginny Marsh, Alex Matisse, Jeff Shapiro and Joy Tanner. There are highly refined works, lightly salted or glazed. There are pots that are heavily encrusted with ash and the marks of shells. Many have a love affair with heavy reduction.

I smiled reading that ten years ago Ron Meyers built his first wood kiln at the age of seventy. His fires last sixty hours “with a reduction cooling segment that adds another six or seven hours.”

With room for only 100 artists, one immediately notices who is absent – all those represented by Goldmark for instance, such as Phil Rogers and Ken Matsuzaki and Nic Collins  – but that is the nature of a book like this. Karen Karnes is absent. Todd Piker is missing. Perhaps a second volume will be in the offing.

Though not at all an instructional book, there is an appendix with illustrations of 14 kilns, and another with firing logs. There is also a good short bibliography and some clay, glaze and slip recipes.

This is the kind of book that even though reading it will take you out of the studio for a day, and even if you never plan to fire with wood, you will come away inspired. I know I did.