An Unusual Potter

Toward the end of her years, the reclusive artist Mary Nohl was plagued with vandals, intruders, children who thought she was a witch and other indignities. Strangers came by boat, by car and on foot to her lakefront home outside Milwaukee, hoping to catch a glimpse of the large cement sculptures that she placed around her house. Those who made it onto her property often damaged her works or took away pieces.

But Nohl also had many her admirers who appreciated her great talent. Today her work is on display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.  In Mary Nohl: Inside Outside, Barbara Manger and Janine Smith give us a rich portrait of this unusual woman.

Nohl was born to wealthy but frugal parents in 1914.  Though they were stingy with the food they put on the table, the Nohl’s spent money on travel and encouraged their daughter’s artistic bent. In college, she drew and painted and discovered ceramics. After deciding that she disliked teaching, Nohl persuaded her father to help her finance a pottery studio. He purchased a building, kiln, and all the necessary supplies and equipment that Nohl would need and she happily set about designing bowls, lamps, tiles, figurines and vases.  She made molds for her work and began production. The work is interesting, often graced with almost primitive suggestions of humans. But Nohl was neither a businesswoman nor a marketer, and the pottery was not a financial success. She eventually closed it.

Once her parents died, she became sole owner of the Lake Michigan cottage that was her family’s second home, and, no longer needing to be concerned about an income, she gradually made the little estate into her work of art. She filled and surrounded the house with her sculptures, mobiles, ceramics, paintings, painted fabrics, jewelry and other creations. She worked on her art everyday, driven by a strong creative force deep within. Nohl occasionally exhibited her work, and she had a circle of friends who saw her for the artist she was, but she made art primarily for herself.

This is not a typical pottery book, but if you are a bit of an artistic voyeur like me, and like a peek into the working lives of other artists, you will probably enjoy this book as much as I did. The “package” as they say, is beautiful, with heavy stock and French flaps, and lots of photos, a package I suspect Mary Nohl herself would love. But it also a book to think about: why is it that late in the 20th century, an older woman who was different could still be taunted by her neighbors and called a witch by the children? And what is it that makes some artists turn their entire surroundings into their art while most focus on individual works?

Manifesto for Hand Made Garden Pots

“In the matter of the pots themselves, we are very particular. They must be of clay, as was most anciently the case, and good clay if we can afford it,” Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd write in “Our Life in Gardens.” Yes, it a gardening book, not a book about ceramics, but the chapter titled simply “Pots” is so adamantly in favor of real flowerpots made of clay that this potter’s heart thumped while reading it. These guys love clay pots, collect them insatiably, plant them up and place them in their Vermont garden, and lug some of the heavy ones inside for the winter and back out for the summer. For years, they were content with plain, well, garden-variety terra cotta flowerpots from the hardware store, and an occasional splurge on an antique, but then they met potter Guy Wolff and their “whole pot habit altered.” Now they eagerly await Wolff’s firings and say that they will never “have enough” of his pots.

The rest of the book is fun too. It’s their garden’s biography and a bit of their autobiographies with lots of opinions and humor. But the best chapter of all is the chapter on pots. Really, it is a manifesto for the work of potters. Between reading this, and the weather warming, I’m thinking of unearthing those old bags of black clay in my studio, and throwing some new flowerpots myself for spring,

Slave Pots and Japanese Pots

At last, an in depth study of Dave, the legendary and mysterious slave potter whose robustly thrown pots can stir even the most modernist soul. In addition to his large, heart stopping crocks and jugs and jars, what sets him apart from other slave potters is that he, remarkably, sometimes inscribed his pots with poems and sayings and, unheard of for a slave, signed them. Leonard Todd, not a potter himself, or even a historian, discovered that he was descended from Dave’s master and, intrigued, headed down to South Carolina to learn all he could. He has meticulously pieced together Dave’s life, located his known pots, and gathered together his inscriptions. His book, Carolina Clay: the Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave is the nice result of this labor. Isn’t it time again for a touring exhibition of Dave’s pots?

I am a bit of a voyeur and love looking at other potter’s kilns and studios almost as much as looking at their pots. In Ken Matsuzaki: Burning Tradition from the Pucker Gallery in Boston, we get both pleasures. There are black and white photos of Matsuzaki at his wheel, in his studio, and firing his kiln, plus shots of the open air kiln shed, the grounds, and pots freshly unloaded. These are followed by pages of full color photos of the wood fired pots themselves: shino bottles that you want to pick up, natural ash glazed-jars, and slab built vases that inspire contemplation. The biographical essay by Andrew Maske describes Matsuzaki’s artistic journey. Reading it, I imagined myself walking around Matsuzaki’s compound, watching him work: things not likely to happen outside the armchair and the pages of Burning Tradition.