A Pottery Town in Afghanistan

In the storytelling of Malik Hamid as recounted in Bazaar Politics: Power & Pottery in an Afghan Market Town by Noah Coburn, a potter from Bukhara founded the market town of Istalif three hundred years ago. Unhappy with the conditions in Bukhara, he led his family and a few followers south until they came to this beautiful spot with its fine, abundant clay. Coburn points out in his notes that there are references to Istalif dating back five hundred years, but perhaps as far as Malik or his fellow potters are concerned, the town began when pottery making commenced here.

Istalif, north of Kabul and not too distant from Bargram, suffered enormously under the Taliban. The Taliban destroyed all the kilns, forcing many of the potters and their families to flee and abandon their homes and workshops. Somehow, in all the news accounts of the Taliban, this particular horror was either not mentioned or given little ink. When the Taliban fell, the potters were able to return and rebuild most, though not yet all, of their kilns. If you are in the weavers’ quam, your family weaves. If you are in the potters’ quam, your family pots.

Coburn an anthropologist, spent nearly two years in Istalif. His purpose in writing this ethnography was to look at how a town in such an unstable country, suffering from multiple wars, could function with relative stability. In studying this, he focused on the potters’ quam, which was predominant in Istalif. A quam is a patrilocal network or community made up of families engaged in the same craft or industry whose leader is as answerable and beholden to the group as the group is to him. Members of a quam may or may not be related, but if your family is a member of the quam, you are also, and your children and grandchildren.

Within the quam, individual households function independently, though on occasion, they might ask one another for help if they run out of fuel in the midst of a firing, or a glaze component while glazing. The father and then the eldest son, throw the pots on a kick wheel. The younger son or sons run the store in the bazaar and handle all the marketing and selling. No one learns to be a potter, according to Coburn. You become one as you grow up. The potters of Istalif jealously guard their glazes and processes. There are no apprentices or student potters. Women neither throw nor glaze, the explanation being that they might marry outside the quam and give the secrets away.

I wished for more photos as I was reading, and of course more details of the potters’ work itself, but nevertheless, I was fascinated with the descriptions of their customs. For instance, the price of a pot is different for different purchasers. Pots for wholesale are understandably, the least expensive, leaving a margin for the reseller. Sometimes a reseller will purchase a whole kilnful of pots (a typical kiln, fired with wood, holds 900 pots) before it is fired. Pots for Istalif residents, Kabulis, or other Afghans are higher. Pots for NGO’s and internationals are marked up exponentially.

Bazaar Politics offers a fresh understanding of Afghanistan and an inside look at a functioning potters’ quam. The notion of living where all your neighbors also have kilns and wheels and piles of clay is very appealing (except that women are kept from the wheel and kiln). It would be wonderful if Coburn would write a piece for Ceramics Monthly or Studio Potter and show us typical pieces made in Istalif.

Domestic Pottery of the Middle Ages

Fifty years ago the British archaeologist Dudley Waterman painstakingly drew each of the pots that the Yorkshire Museum had at that time acquired. The pots were made over the course of 400 years, from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Waterman’s line drawings are primarily side views cut in half, with the right side showing the exterior of the pot, and the left showing the pot as if it had been sliced open.  In addition, there are a few drawings of details. If you are looking for inspiration or information, these drawings are a modern potter’s dream.

Forty years later, with the collection of pots enlarged, the Museum produced Medieval Pottery in the Yorkshire Museum. It’s a wonderful volume. The book includes photos, Waterman’s drawings, new drawings in the same style by Trevor Pearson and others, and informative text by Sarah Jennings. There are also maps and charts and enchanting drawings of workshops, a kiln and the pots in use after depictions in contemporaneous manuscripts.

Jennings divides the wares into two sorts: “kitchen or coarse” wares and “table or fine” wares. These are all practical pots, with strong shapes, and rich fire wrought colors. There are jugs, cisterns, cooking pots, drip pans, jars, sprinklers, condiment dishes and more. Many items, such as the jug, were made in a variety of shapes. Like much of our pottery today, a single pot, or shape could have multiple uses.

Note: I had to smile to myself a couple of weeks ago while selling at the Coventry Farmer’s Market. I had three or four of my spoon jars on display with a little stand up sign that said, “Keep your cooking utensils handy. Put a bouquet of spoons in a jar.” A woman picked one up and asked, “Can I put flowers in it?”  Yes, of course. Using it for utensils was just a suggestion. So too with the English Medieval wares. A jug might be used for drinking, for storage, for carrying or even for heating: whatever the household needed it for.

The earliest kitchen or coarse wares were left unglazed. Early fine ware was “splash” glazed (dusted with glaze in dry, powdered form), usually only on the top exterior of a pot as decoration. Later, suspension glazes were used and copper was added for color. All of the ware was single-fired.

“Every town and most villages would have had at least one or more potters working in the vicinity,” Jennings writes. “Each ‘pottery’ would comprise a workshop with a wheel or turntable for making the pots on, somewhere to store the finished pots while they dried out, an area to store the raw clay, a store for fuel, a source of water and some type of kiln to fire the finished and dried pots.”

She goes on to say, “Making pottery was frequently a part time and seasonal occupation, often undertaken in conjunction with small scale farming.” We know this has been the norm for potters in various cultures, throughout history. It might only be in 20 and 21st century America that there is a stigma to potters who are not “full time.”

Full time or not, Medieval Pottery will enliven every functional potter’s bookshelf.

Advanced Pottery

You might think that after all these years, I would have stopped bringing how-to pottery books home, but actually I love to look at them. It’s interesting to see how other people do things. With YouTube, every potter and her sister have published a video demonstrating throwing or decorating or assembling. I like those too. You can see so much more in a video than pages of stills. But there’s something about a book, the quietness I think, that makes for savoring.

In Advanced Pottery, Linda Bloomfield visits what she calls “leading” studio potters at work. She describes, in text and photo, their processes as they each make a signature piece. We see Ruthanne Tudball create a teapot, affixing spout and handles while the soft pot is still on the wheel. We watch Sun Kim make his porcelain, lidded jars, cutting darts in the sides to make the bottom square. And then there’s Claudia Clare, who stands on a chair and beats the top of a coiled pot with a wine bottle. The pot is taller than she is. The wine bottle is empty. Hmmm.

Bloomfield gives the most pages to Doug Fitch who makes robust lead glazed slipware.  We see him attaching and stamping sprigs, pouring white slip over leaves he has gathered and stuck onto the walls of a pot, and combing and drawing through wet slip on one of his very large earthenware jugs.

Trained as a materials scientist, Bloomfield holds a BSc in Engineering Science and a PhD in Materials Science. She worked as a researcher before setting up her own studio in California and later in London. She makes wheel thrown porcelain tableware which she sells online and in shops.

Guy Wolff and Isaac Button on Throwing

Some place in this house is a copy of Making Pottery by John Anderson. It should be on the shelves with all the other books on ceramics that crowd my living room, but if it is, my eyes are passing it by. I hope I am not becoming like my now deceased friend Francelia who in her later years, had to keep buying copies of the same books because she was never able to find her copy when she needed it. Sigh.

I am looking for it because, as I recall, it had a bit on Isaac Button. Button, sometimes called the “last true country potter” in England, operated Soil Hill, near Halifax England. He could and did throw a half ton of clay a day, swiftly making hundreds of repeat shapes – jugs, flowerpots, crocks, cider jars and so on. His ability to throw fast and large is astonishing to us today, but was typical of the way old time country potters worked. Fortunately for us, a few years before he died, John Anderson and Robert Fournier filmed him.

I drove out to Guy Wolff’s pottery on Friday to interview him some more for the book project. Wolff is also a repeat thrower and throws fast and large. Toward the end of the interview, he mentioned how much he liked the Button video. So, before beginning work on the chapter I am writing, I watched the video again myself (thanks YouTube) and then searched futilely for the book.

The film is over 40 minutes in its entirety, but here is an extract of Button throwing.

And here’s Guy Wolff.

Playing with Fire

Raku potters play with fire in ways that the rest of us do not. The notion of opening a hot, burning kiln and reaching inside with long tongs to pluck out a pot, glaze still molten, and then dashing with that glowing pot to a bin of combustibles is very appealing. But I am a woman who makes sturdy, functional pots for the most part, so, though pyromaniac that I am, I do not do anything as dramatic as pull my pots glowing from the flames. Raku, often breathtakingly beautiful, is not meant for everyday use. Raku is meant to behold.

Once, in my younger, less careful days, the bricked up front of my catenary arch kiln blew out on the way to Cone 9 (I think it was around Cone 4 at the time), nearly causing dreadful havoc, such as my fiery death, an event that would indeed be dramatic – potter immolates self and surrounding countryside –but not welcome. No, I fire long and slow, though I do like it when the flames curl out of the spy holes. And every now and then, I do a pit firing.

But like most potters, I like seeing what others are doing and how they are doing it, even if, or perhaps especially if, it is very different from what I do. Looking through 500 Raku: Bold Explorations of a Dynamic Ceramics Technique juried by Jim Romberg (who studied with Paul Soldner) it is apparent that the process has expanded considerably in the hundred years since Bernard Leach famously attended a garden party in Japan and discovered raku for the west. The Japanese first made raku in the sixteenth century. Tea bowls fired this way, though not as sturdy as stoneware, were porous and cooled the tea quickly. Fragile, often asymmetrical, magically blessed by the fire, raku tea bowls became a celebrated element of the tea ceremony.

There are only four tea bowls shown in 500 Raku, two by the highly accomplished Steven Branfman (see pot above). Birds, fish, jars, bottles, bowls, horses, and women predominate. Colors range from smoked white crackle to iridescent purples, golds and blues. Pieces have been masked with tape, sprayed with oxides, fumed, covered in slip that cracks off to reveal a design, glazed, smoked in newspapers and sawdust, and plunged into cold water and painted with acrylics. The sculptures are humorous, political, and personal.

The variety is stunning. I couldn’t help but think that these ceramicists not only play with fire, they play with clay. And playing with clay is always a good thing. Even though I do not do raku myself, I found the book stimulating.


Back to Basics

I spent three days wandering the Javits Center in New York this past week, taking in all the new books for fall; fiction, crafts, cooking, gardening, lots of history and politics, and children’s books for all ages.  I was, of course, particularly looking for books on ceramics but found only two:  The Ceramics Bible by Louisa Taylor, coming from Chronicle Books and the fourth edition of Fred Olsen’s classic, The Kiln Book from the University of Pennsylvania Press. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other books in our field coming out, just that the publishers (such as University of North Carolina) were not exhibiting at Book Expo America.

I still have my first edition of The Kiln Book published in 1973 by Keramos Books. It was $8.95 in paper (the new edition is $45.00) and printed in a landscape format with a thick brown cover. How I pored over the black and white drawings, the diagrams, the charts, and the not-so-crisp black and white photos. My first serious kiln was built from Daniel Rhodes’ plans for a catenary arch, using salvaged hard firebricks and homemade pipe burners, but when it wouldn’t reach temperature, I read and reread Olsen. It seemed he knew everything.

Olsen dropped out of the University of Southern California (where he was working on his MFA under the tutelage of F. Carlton Ball and Susan Peterson) to go to Japan to study. He has built kilns of many types all over the world and sells kits for his gas fired updraft kiln.

I like looking at and reading about kilns so I look forward to this new edition. Lately, even though I am a flame girl (pyromaniac some would say), I have been wondering if an electric kiln with electricity produced by solar, wind or hydro- power would be more environmentally responsible than gas, oil or wood. There are potters using methane, but is anyone producing enough electricity to fire a kiln? I am imagining a studio with banks of photovoltaic panels on the kiln shed, or perhaps a dam and waterfall close by. Maybe Olsen will have something to say about this.

The Ceramics Bible, written by British potter Louisa Taylor, best known for her stacking porcelain tableware, was being extolled as the “new definitive guide for serious ceramics practitioners.” The copies I saw in the Chronicle booth at the show were dummies (mock ups) with blank pages. However, if heft is an indication, this book promises a lot of information. It will have 700 color photos and illustrations, “examples of contemporary work,” and “artist profiles.” I am not sure we need another a to z ceramics book, but then again, can there ever be too many books on our topic? I think not.

Romance and Reality

I know that pollution from the coal fires of the Potteries in the Six Towns of nineteenth and early twentieth century England sickened workers and residents, blackened the sky, and left an ugly residue on windowsills. I understand that children – 4,500 under the age of 13 in 1861 – worked long hours exposed to clay dust and lead. I realize that this bustling hive of Industrial Revolution factories replaced rural country potters and their wares.

Yet I can’t help but get dreamy when I see images of the Potteries in their heyday. Oh, the teams of women in their long dresses pouring slip into molds for teapots and plates, the children putting handles on cups, the men stoking the coal fires and throwing at belt-driven wheels. The cobble streets and brick warehouses and deep marl holes! The energy and enterprise! I especially love photos of the “forests” of bottle kilns towering over the potbanks and residences. Yes, I like the “ovens” best.

David Sekers gives us a good overview in The Potteries. He includes numerous old photos and etchings of the work processes, interiors and exteriors of the buildings, and of the wares themselves plus maps and diagrams. He clearly loves the bottle kilns too, but does not romanticize. “A partly seasonal, rural craft based skill such as pottery making became a notoriously unhealthy occupation only as industrialization progressed.” Tasks were now divided and mechanized. Productivity was measured. Fortunes were made and lost by the factory owners.

I don’t particularly like the work that was produced. To me it seems cold and overly decorated. I like the strongly thrown country pottery it replaced. But it intrigues me that so many people dedicated their lives to pot making at Spode, Wedgewood, Staffordshire and all the other factories of the Potteries. The innovations that were developed in them are an important piece of ceramic history some of which are still used today. It is also interesting that so many women (and children) did this work, as women had not been potting in Europe for centuries.

So, thank you David Sekers for transporting me back in time for a little while to the Potteries of the Six Towns. And  a special thanks for all the pictures of bottle kilns.