Krevolin Collection

Disclosure: About six years ago Lewis Krevolin phoned and asked if he could come and talk to me about writing an essay for an exhibit of his collection of pre-contact pottery. Intrigued, I said yes, and he and his wife Jenny drove down to Connecticut from upper New York State and over tea and coffee, we discussed the project. I was immediately fascinated with Krevolin and his collection and of course I agreed to write the piece. After I accepted the assignment, he sent me notes and images of his amazing collection.

Krevolin, not exactly a household name, has had an amazing career in the arts. He attended Alfred University where he studied ceramics, art history and design. He worked as an industrial designer for several illustrious firms, eventually creating his own line of dinnerware. In 1965 he began teaching at Dutchess Community College where he remained a popular member of the art faculty for twenty-five years, teaching ceramics and design. Two years after beginning his teaching career, he published Ceramics, which he wrote with Elizabeth Constantine. In the late eighties, he founded Archatrive to make “Deconstructionist Furniture and Decoration” by repurposing artifacts. Recently, Krevolin exhibited his quilts made of old tobacco cloths at the Montgomery Row gallery in Rhinebeck.

Throughout this illustrious career in the vernacular arts, Krevolin has had a deep interest in pre-contact pottery and amassed an extraordinary collection of these beautiful pots. He is particularly interested in how each pot was made and has spent considerable time coming to understand the forming and firing techniques for each piece in his collection. He worked with National Geographic and later showed his pots at the Museum of the American Indian. By the time he came to see me, he had given his pre-contact pots to the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University.

I wrote my piece, which Krevolin said he liked. Susan Peterson was also to write an essay, but sadly, she passed away. Ezra Shales then wrote a piece and Krevolin of course, wrote much about the pots. I was generously paid but the project seemed to falter. The museum closed to undergo renovations, delayed the exhibit, and seemingly, was not eager to publish the book. I made multiple phone calls to determine the status (books are not just about the money, they are about readers) and then I stopped thinking about it. Too bad for Krevolin, whom I had come to admire, and his collection, which I considered important, and too bad for me, but publishing, especially museum publishing, is a fickle world.

So imagine my astonishment when googling something else entirely, I came upon Out of Clay: The Krevolin Collection of Pre-Contact Pottery: A Study Guide published by the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art Alfred University! I immediately ordered a copy from the Museum and I must say, it is lovely.

The book: There are over 200 photos of the pots (not the entire collection), with descriptions, dates, the name of the culture that produced each piece, the location (provenance), and what Krevolin determined about the manufacturing process (such as oxidizing fire, burnished, coiled, molded, etc.). A vast array of cultures is included: Mississippian, Chavin, Inca, Chancay and more.

The book is divided into two illustrative sections, Form and Function and Surface and Narrative and within those there are subsections such as Spouts and Handle; Bottles; Building Tooling and Stamping; and Painted Decoration. You can spend hours with this book (I did and will again). It is meant to help the viewer, especially a student of ceramics or a visitor to the collection, to fully understand the pots.

Krevolin writes of pre-contact pots made in the Western Hemisphere, “…I argue that calling the craft of low-fired unglazed pottery primitive is a form of western elitism that discounts the completely controlled first step in the evolution of the story of ceramics technology. We do not call Etruscan or Greek pottery primitive…why can’t we compare a Mayan painted clay cylinder with painted Etruscan or Greek wares and recognize that they both were made within the same primary technology?”

Out of Clay is a deep appreciation of pre-contact pots. It is a statement of Krevolin’s strong belief in their high place in the ceramic canon. It is not about history or culture nor is it a theoretical critique. It is a book of intense focus, simply and boldly about the pots; a celebration of their good design and manufacture. Krevolin loves and admires these pots. He wants us to come to the same appreciation. That is his mission. With Out of Clay he has succeeded.

A Handbook of California Design

Jade Snow Wong

The cover of A Handbook of California Design: 1930-1965, Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers is a blinding shade of orange. The fore, head and tail edges of the pages are the same hue, so the book looks like a fluorescent box. Not at all the sort of package a mud girl like me is likely to pick up.

Inside, there are orange words scattered about, much in the way links are scattered on a computer page. Actually they are links of a sort, cross-referencing other entries. Well, I am not only a mud girl, but a New England mud girl. Bright orange is not our sort of thing in these parts except for pumpkins and maple leaves in the autumn. All this day glo scared me.

But I understand California is a bit different. And I enjoy reading about how others live, especially people in the arts, so with the promise of “more than 140” two-page bios of influential designers, I picked the book up. I was glad that I did.

I started by flipping the pages looking for potters. The very first entry is for Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman who made slip cast ceramics and mosaics. They are followed by Laura Anderson, F. Carlton Ball, David Cressey, Robert Deese, Kenji Fujita, Otto Heino, Vivika Heino, Bernard Kester, Albert Henry King, Louisa Etcheverry King, Doyle Lane, James Lovera, Glen Lukens, Willilam Manker, Harrison Mcintosh, Gertrude Natzler, Otto Natzler, Richard B. Patterson, Antonio Prieto, Myrton Purkiss, Peter Voulkos, Marguerite Wildenhain, Barbara Willis, Jade Snow Wong, and Beatrice Wood.  Many are household names in today’s pottery world, but there were quite a few with whom I was unfamiliar. How wonderful to be introduced to them now.

I was particularly interested in Jade Snow Wong (shown above). Asian American and one of nine children born to Chinese parents with very traditional ideas, she “studied economics and sociology at Mills College, discovering pottery only in the last semester in a class taught by F. Carlton Ball.” She became a dedicated potter. Her goal, she wrote, was to make “objects of beauty that could be used in the average home.” Wong also wrote two very well received memoirs, Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950 and still in print) and No Chinese Stranger (1975). I plan to read them both.

In addition to studio potters, there are entries for pottery factories: Architectural Pottery, Brayton Laguna Pottery, Catalina Clay Products Company, Gladding McBean and Company, Heath Ceramics, J.A. Bauer Pottery Company, Pacific Clay Products Company and Vernon Kilns. These firms designed and made brightly colored, often monochromatic, dinnerware and other ceramic pieces, which became popular throughout the country. The happy days before the outsourcing of American tableware!

There’s enough focus on clay work to make the book worthwhile for any potter. But the biographies of movie set designers, architects, furniture makers, weavers, graphic designers, book designers, metal and glass workers, jewelers, product designers are also interesting. What lives these people led! How much they all did.

So put sunglasses on if you must to get past the cover, the interior  of A Handbook of California Design is inspiring to read.

Finding Some Oldies But Goodies

I was prowling around Powell’s with a close knit group of independent booksellers and supposed to be looking at things like signage and displays and floor coverings, when I slipped into the room with the ceramics books and did a bit of private browsing and yes, shopping. After years of obsessive-compulsive ceramic book buying, it was no surprise that many of the tomes on their shelves were back home on my shelves too. I already own most of the books this world famous City of Books offered. But not all.

Years ago I took Dennis Park’s A Potter’s Guide to Raw Glazing and Oil Firing out of the library and read it carefully, but could not afford to buy it at that time. I do own his delightful memoir, Living in the Country Growing Weird: A Deep Rural Adventure. Powell’s copy was in excellent shape, and since I have single-fired all these years, I thought it would be fun and maybe useful to reread.

It was fun to reread. What a different world we lived in then. There’s innocence to the book and a refreshing sense of optimism. To my surprise, I don’t raw glaze at all the way Parks does (or did then). I glaze my pots in the leather hard or green stage by pouring. I always pour the inside first and wait a day or two before glazing the exterior. For my glazes and my clay, this has been problem free. He advocates glazing pots when they are bone dry, which works for him, but is disastrous for me.

I also found a beautiful hardcover 1886 edition of The Art of the Old English Potter by L. M. Solon. It is a wonderful object in and of itself, with a gold stamped cloth cover, sewn binding, and smooth creamy paper. Solon, whom I know nothing about, except what can be gleaned from reading the book, made detailed etchings of the pots he discusses. He was a very close observer.

He loves the old English country pottery, and collects slipware himself. Relishing in the old names for pots, he tells us that a cruske, cruskyn or cruche is a jug; that a gallipot is a small mug; and a costeril is a flask to be slung over the shoulder.

Here is his description of a typical seventeenth century pottery in the Moorlands cribbed, he confesses, from Miss Meteyard’s biography of Wedgwood:

“The oven – only one – was eight feet high and six feet wide. It was surrounded by a wall of broken saggers to keep the heat in, and this wall, later on became the hovel. It stood in a secluded spot, most often at the crossing of two roads, near a little stream of water. Round the oven clustered the open sheds where the different operations necessary to complete each piece were performed, and the family dwelling, a small thatched cottage. The thrower worked in one place; the contrivance he used was of the simplest description, being rather a ‘whirler’ than a potter’s wheel. The potter’s wheel is kept in rotation, while the hand that fashions the clay into shape remains fixed; the whirler differs from the wheel in this respect, that one hand turns it at intervals, bringing successively before the other hand the parts that have to be rounded. Next to the thrower sat the handler, sticking on the handles and spouts; what tools he used were certainly very primitive, being nothing more than a pointed bit of iron and a flattened strop of wood. In another shed were the man who traced upon the best pieces fanciful scrolls and lines of slip, and he who through a course cloth dusted upon them the pulverized galena for glazing. Very often the same man performed all these different tasks. Close by, the diluted clay was evaporated in the sun-pan, until it became thick enough to be conveniently worked, or else the moistened clay was thrown against a dry wall, from which, the water becoming evaporated, the lumps fell upon the ground, ready to be stored in a damp place for further use. Isolated from the rest of the world the potter worked there, attended by his sons and his wife. Sometimes a labourer or two completed the staff, which never seems to have numbered more than eight people. When the stock was ready for sale, the wife took it to the nearest fair, leading, pipe in mouth, the double-panniered asses, and there either sold her goods to the cratemen, or exchanged them at the town shops for such articles as she wanted to take back home.”

Solon gives his history in chronological order, beginning with the Roman occupation and ending with the ornate molded pots made in Industrial age potworks. Though he likes the early pots, he clearly thinks the fancy pots are superior, an opinion with which many of us today, including myself, would vehemently disagree.

Curiously, both Parks and Solon show the heartbreaking sculpture the 17th century potter John Dwight made of Lydia, his baby daughter while grieving her death. Parks has a photo in his book and does not comment except to say in the caption that Dwight was credited with introducing salt glaze to England. Solon made an etching of the piece and tells us that the sorrowing father also made a cast of his baby girl’s hand.

The third book I found was John Spargo’s Early American Pottery and China, published in 1926. Also written for collectors, it is illustrated with nice black and white photos of some truly wonderful pots. Like Solon, Spargo believes that the fancy molded pots of later years were a step forward in the potter’s art, but he spends considerable time on early American redware and stoneware and the potters who made it. He has done extensive work researching potters and offers several charts such as one titled, “A Chronological List of Potters Known or Believed to Have Made Slip-Decorated and Sgraffito Wares” with potters’ names, locations, the dates they worked, and any marks if any.

No one would mistake any of these books as being written today, but I think they were each a good find, and the perfect prelude to reading The Last Sane Man, the biography of Michael Cardew which just landed in American bookstores and of course, my own reading pile.

Soup Tureens and Other Important Matters

On Sunday during the Potters Market at the Coventry Regional Farmers Market, a fellow came into my booth and, upon seeing my soup bowls, told me a story about his cat and the tablecloth that she pulled off his table during a soup party he was hosting. His soup bowls, each with covers, smashed as they landed on the floor, but his tureens (yes, plural) remained intact.

That got me thinking not only about the possibility of hosting a soup party, but also about soup tureens. In Elements of the Table Lynn Rosen tells us,  “The soup tureen holds about three quarts and is one of the largest serving pieces on the table. Its many beautiful shapes and designs are a very dramatic and lovely complement to your table décor.” She speculates that the tureen may have had its origins in the large communal bowls of the Middle Ages. The showy, lidded tureen as we know it today, was perfected by French potters in the seventeenth century.

There are, Rosen assures us, rules for soup tureens. For instance, if when you set the table, you put soup bowls out, then you are to serve the soup at the table from a tureen. You must never bring a pot from the stove and pour soup into the bowls. Horrors. If however, you do not set the table with soup bowls, then you must fill the bowls from the soup pot while standing at the stove, and serve your guests with the filled bowls at the table. In this case, you are not to use a tureen at all.

Not many home cooks bother with soup tureens today (one more dish to wash?), but they are appealing to make. Tureens give us the opportunity to throw larger than we throw other tableware. We can make the domed lids higher than we might for a casserole, and we can have interesting knobs. Most potters, and I count myself in this group; make matching ladles, though in reality, a ceramic ladle is a ridiculous idea. We should I suppose, make two, so that when the first breaks, our customer has another.

Rosen has a lot to day about soup bowls too. There are, she tells us, four kinds: rimmed, coupe, cream, and bouillon. The rimmed, “more accurately called a rim soup plate,” is about 9.5 inches in diameter, and, surprise, has a wide flat rim. If you have only one style soup bowl in your cupboards, she recommends this one. She even gives permission to use it for pasta. The coupe is rimless and used for informal settings. It can double as a cereal bowl. The cream soup bowl has two handles and a saucer but holds less than the other two bowls, because cream soup is “so rich.” Personally, I am more inclined to eat a lot of cream of broccoli soup and less of a clear broth and escarole soup, but no matter. The bouillon is actually a cup with two handles. Diners are encouraged to finish their soup by drinking from the handled bowls, but never from the others.

Rosen, who writes with great authority (no self-doubt here), has much to say about other table items, such as various types of plates. She adores the salad plate (7 ½ to 8 ½ inches) and passes on a recommendation from the French manufacturer Bernardaud that one should have twice as many salad plates as dinner plates.  Now that’s a happy thought for a potter. She also tells us that during the Victorian era, salad plates were sometimes crescent-shaped “to fit neatly with the dinner plate.” Interesting.

Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests has only one chapter on “China” but if you make dinner sets, it is a fascinating read.

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.

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.

The Clark and Del Vecchio Collection

I have never understood calling a book a doorstop. Who would use a book to stop a door? Stack your books on the floor, yes. Let a door bang into a treasured tome? Never. But it is customary to call a big book a doorstop and Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics: The Garth Clark & Mark Del Vecchio Collection is big. In fact, it weighs close to seven – SEVEN – pounds and is four hundred eighty three pages. Before reading it, you must wash your hands, leave your teacup in the kitchen and for goodness sakes, make sure there is no clay on your jeans. Now, sit up straight with the book before you on a sturdy (and clean) table and begin.

Such trouble is worth it. The book opens with a joint essay in which Clark and Del Vecchio explain that a collection is as much about its omissions as its inclusions and then poignantly tell us, “Some years, instead of making acquisitions, we did the reverse, de-accessing personal art to keep afloat the gallery and a multitude of nonprofit activities.

“This is why there is no major George E. Ohr, Lucie Rie, or Hans Coper in the collection…we have owned masterpieces by all of them at times…but when a crisis hit … their works became rent money.”

The essay is followed by Clark’s brief but intensely fascinating memoir. He describes his nascent interest in pottery as a young man in South Africa, his marriage to the potter Lynne Wagner and his initiation into writing ceramic criticism with his first book on Michael Cardew. “Bernard Leach’s name elicited respect, but that of Cardew caused excitement… One got the impression that Leach was the theorist whereas Cardew was the real thing.” He goes on to describe how his aesthetic turned away from functional pottery, the influence the catalog for John Coplan’s Abstract Expressionist Ceramics had on his sense of works made of clay, his partnership with Del Vecchio and their galleries, and finally the collection itself. Clark and Del Vecchio seem to have known everyone, even potters whose work they did not admire.

There are essays from other critics in addition to Clark’s, which gives added perspective. The largest part of the book focuses on what Clark calls “featured” works in the collection (now at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) with full-page photos and page length essays (remember, these pages are oversized). He talks about the potters’ lives (he still calls them potters), often including bits of gossip, and discusses and describes each piece.

Doing something similar for one’s personal use would be a good exercise for anyone with even a modest collection of pots. What do we know of the potter who made the pot on our shelf? What do we see in the pot? Why do we like it? Such an exercise is clarifying, though I suspect Clark knew what he thought of each before writing.

Far more than observers, Clark and Del Vecchio influenced the direction of American Ceramics through their galleries and Clark’s books. Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics will surely further their influence and  become an indispensable reference book for collectors and ceramic historians. The exquisite and expensive production is such that I doubt the book will be reprinted, so if you are inclined to want it on your shelves, you might do well to acquire it now before the complete print run is sold. It will likely be more costly on the secondary market as happens with many art books today.

The Amazing Career of Beatrice Wood

Famously, while in the Netherlands to attend a meeting hosted by Jiddu Krishnamurti, Beatrice Wood stopped in an antique shop and fell in love with some French rococo lusterware plates. Three years later, at the age of forty, she enrolled in a pottery class at Hollywood High School so she could maker herself a teapot and a few cups to match the plates. In this way, she began a remarkable career in ceramics that would last the next six, yes six, decades until her death at the age of 105.

Of course, you don’t just take a class and go home and make a teapot, let alone one with a lustre glaze, but like so many of us in clay, she was hooked. She studied with Glen Lukens and then with Otto and Gertrude Natzler before setting out to make her own pots. In the era when studio pottery was influenced by Chinese and Japanese ceramics, she went her own way, and mastered the challenging and notoriously difficult lustre glazes she originally admired.

Beatrice Wood: Career Woman – Drawings, Paintings, Vessels, and Objects from the Santa Monica Museum of Art brings together three essays on Wood: Beatrice Wood: Ready Made by Jenni Sorkin; Shimmer: Beatrice Wood and Ceramics in Southern California, 1993-1998 by Garth Clark; and Wood In Paradise: Theosophy and Art at Ojai by Katherine Pyne. Small black and white photos from Wood’s life, grace the tops of the pages.

The soul of the book is the section of color images of her shimmering chalices, bottles, bowls, and plates in iridescent golds and silvers and colors that change with the light. There are also photos of the small clay figures she made throughout her clay life, and her paintings. Though the pots of many epochs and cultures are readily identifiable, and many individual potters have their own unique style also easily recognized, few pots are as singularly a potter’s own as Beatrice Wood’s. Leafing through the photographs I was reminded of just how much her own her pieces were.

All this is followed by entries from her diaries, which she annotated herself during the sixties and nineties and which have additionally been carefully annotated by Marie T. Keller and Francis N. Naumann. These are more notations than prose, with tantalizing tidbits and lots of name-dropping: “April 19, 1953: Discouraged. Wonder sometimes if I should give up pottery? July 9, 1953. Find new luster effects from kiln…November 18, 1953: Dr. Moses chooses pottery for Exhibition, over a hundred pieces…” There we have a potter’s life in three short one-sentence entries.

Wood was as much a writer as a potter, penning several highly readable books, most notably her memoir I Shock Myself. The persona she created for herself in her books and in the press (oh so long before the Internet) was as much a work of art as her goblets. Her pottery is not the sort that I look at and say, “Oh how I wish I could do that,” but I sure would like to have spent an evening in her company. Reading about her and her art is as close as one can get to that.

Voulkos Reexamined

When I was in Pennsylvania with Ann Stannard and Maryon Attwood selecting pieces for an MC Richards exhibit, we came upon her small collection of other people’s pots, haphazardly wrapped in paper. She had a Lucie Rie teacup and saucer which I scarcely dared to hold in my hand it was so delicate, so thinly potted, so luminous, white with a metallic band around the rim, a small chip. And she had a very tall, beautifully thrown, covered jar, which was not wrapped in paper it was so big. It just stood out of the way, against the wall. It was by Peter Voulkos. Both were immediately identifiable to me, even though I had never seen more than photos of works by either Rie of Voulkos. Ann confirmed that the pieces were what I thought they were, and of course, with her encouragement, I did touch them.

Later in the year, Yale will publish a book on Rie that I am very much looking forward to. This morning I finished reading a book on Voulkos, Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Pric,e Peter Voulkos 1956-1958, a collection of essays edited by Mary David MacNaughton for The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery of Scripps College.

We all know at least the outlines of Voulkos’ story: his youth in Montana, his extraordinary throwing abilities and the early tall, covered jars that he made and won prizes for; his California years; and his abrupt change from functional, carefully crafted pots to abstract expressionist clay sculpture on a massive scale. The essays are wide ranging and frame the three men in their time period.

Voulkos was invited to Black Mountain College by Karen Karnes and David Weinrib. MC was there then and that’s probably when she got the covered jar. Voulkos was electrified by the Black Mountain College experience, and especially taken with MC, John Cage, David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Esteban Vicente and the new work they were doing. Speaking of Cage, Tudor and Cunningham, Voulkos wrote, “I had never been exposed to that kind of work at all, and it was sort of eerie… Coming from Montana, I’d just never seen any of it, heard any of it…. And it was so beautiful and so new to me that, gee, I just really got turned on.”

Voulkos was also inspired by Picasso and by Shoji Hamada. Indeed some of his work is reminiscent of Picasso’s ceramics. That Hamada inspired him surprised me. When Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi made their famous tour of the US in 1952 and conducted a workshop at the Archie Bray Foundation, Voulkos kicked the wheel for Hamada. “I was right there,” he said “and had my head down with his, and he’d tell me to kick faster or slower, so I was just watching his hands.” Voulkos was impressed with the economy and looseness of Hamada’s throwing and the spiritual connection he had with the clay. Many young American potters of the time, and in years since, have been inspired by Hamada, embracing the concept of Mingei, even traveling to Japan to apprentice. Voulkos took that inspiration to turn away from pots and craft to make gigantic ceramic sculptures.

The book talks about the relationship between Abstract Expressionist painting and Abstract Expressionist ceramics, about the influence of the East on both, apparently acknowledged by those in ceramics but not by the painters, the reception that each of the men’s work received and their influence on and relationship with each other. I found the essay that discusses the men’s appearance or nonappearance in the press particularly telling and had to smile that early stories would be put in such newspaper sections as Hobbies or Interior Decoration. And I very much like the conceit of an essay that looks at the press coverage of an artist over time. I may have to steal the idea.

There are many full-page color plates of the sculptures plus black and white shots of the artists in various places, but what I enjoyed was reading about the social context for the work they were doing. I do have to wonder what Hamada thought of the work that young man who kicked his wheel for him ended up doing and becoming famous for, or if he thought about him afterwards at all.

 

Creativity and Imagination

Alex Beard signing Crocodile Tears.

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

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

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

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

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