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.


Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay

You are not supposed to review books months before they are published, but with Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival by Christopher Benfey I cannot resist. I read an arc (advanced reading copy) in a couple of greedy gulps and enjoyed every minute. It was not written as a book for potters, but I cannot imagine who would like it more.

Benfey, who is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and an Emily Dickinson scholar, takes a look at his family roots on both his mother and father’s sides, going back generations. At the heart of each family story, each turn of events, he comes upon clay. Perhaps, we would all find mud workers in our family trees if we looked deep enough, but in Benfey’s case, he does not have to look far. “The narrative, “ he writes, “has more to do with geology than genealogy.”

Benfey spent his childhood in the Quaker section of a decaying river town in Indiana but his family did not come from the Midwest. His maternal grandfather and great grandfather were brick makers and bricklayers in the clay rich Piedmont area of rural North Carolina. Here, there were thick seams of plastic clay, generations of folk potters, tobacco farms, and just a half hour away, the experiment that became Jugtown. His mother grew up in the brick house her father had made. Jugtown pots filled his parents home in Indiana and his grandparents home in North Carolina.

When he was in his teens, his parents decided to spend a year in Japan, his mother, for her paintings, his father, a professor, because his interests were moving from chemistry to alchemy. In Japan, Benfey lived with a family of potters in the Tamba region. The father and son spent their days on the wheel, while the mother and daughter sat on the floor and made lids for the thrown jars. He was taught to make lids.

Later, working on this book and visiting his parents in North Carolina, he went to see Mark Hewitt, whom he wrote in the New York Review of Books, makes “big ass pots.” Throughout this first part of the book, Benfey expounds and explores, giving us lots of history.

He then turns to his father’s family, and here we are surprised to find, not Quakers, but a prominent assimilated Jewish family in Germany who lost everything under the Nazis and had to flee. His father’s father, Eduard Benfey, was a supreme justice. His paternal grandmother Lotte was a member of the great publishing family the Ullsteins. The Bauhaus artist Anni Albers was Lotte’s sister. This brings Benfey to look at Josef and Anni Albers, the Bauhaus, and of course Black Mountain College, which Josef Albers directed in its early years.

Wanting to know more about Black Mountain College, Benfey enlists his friend and potter Mark Shapiro and drives north along the Connecticut River to visit Karen Karnes. I interviewed Karen Karnes, MC Richards and Ann Stannard some years ago, during the last year of Richards’ life. But I am always ready to read about Black Mountain, even stories that I have heard. Benfey does not disappoint.

The last portion of the book is devoted to white or Cherokee clay.  This gets complicated. The white (kaolin) clay beds in North Carolina were known by the Indians and by the wildlife (who licked it to soothe their stomachs), long before the arrival of the Europeans. In the mid eighteenth century, the Georgia-based potter Andrew Duché realized that this white clay could be used to throw porcelain pots. His father, Anthony had been one of the first American potters to make stoneware on the continent. He wanted to be the first westerner to make porcelain. The journey to the Cherokee clay pits was treacherous and filled with danger and mishap but he managed to bring back a ton of clay. He never really succeeded in producing porcelain on a commercial scale, however, and, hoping to work with English manufacturers, sailed to England where he told of his find. The great Josiah Wedgewood was intrigued, but sent his own agent, Thomas Griffiths to obtain exclusive rights to the white clay. The first runs of Wedgewood blue Jasperware were made from the clay dug in the Cherokee pits and shipped across the Atlantic. Kaolin was soon found England itself, so it was no longer necessary to import it from the Piedmont.

Next, the botanist, explorer, writer, and artist, William Bartram rediscovered the white clay. Benfey’s mother is a direct descendent of Margery Mendenhall, William Bartram’s aunt. That, says Benfey, makes William Bartram his distant cousin. Whew!

Lots of connections and tangles, all, in the end, leading to our favorite material:  clay.  In the telling, Benfey looks at process, art, exile, and the threads that tie our lives together. I can only give the barest outline here. Put it on your reading list. It pubs on March 19, so you will have to preorder at your local independent or get your librarian to order it for you.

Pots on My Bookshelves

As soon as the repairs from the winter storm damage were completed a few weeks ago, Joe spent hours painting the new walls. I, however, took off for New York for work, and then after returning and seeing it all done except for cleaning the dust and debris off the shelves and putting the books back, procrastinated. Why clean when you can play with mud in the studio?

Finally, I got to it (company was coming – pressure!). As I worked, I was surprised at how much pottery I keep on the bookshelves, especially the gardening section. I think of the shelves as crammed with books, but as I put the pieces back in their places, it was clear, that there are a lot of them. Of course I dawdled with each piece, touching it, thinking about it. There is a small brown horse made by Louise King given to me by bookseller Fran Keilty after I signed copies of Clay at Hickory Stick; a small Bizen ware bottle that Ann Charters brought back from Japan; a very small bottle, heavily iron spotted from my old hard brick catenary at The Stone House; two earthy pieces from Ecuador, Inca replicas; a small gray jug my son Dan made as a child thirty years ago at The Stone House; an old man with a beard, fired black, made by the Falashas in Ethiopia; two small  three legged cooking pots, burnished and fired black, also from Ethiopia; and a pinch pot made by M.C. Richards.

The pinch pot sits on the top of the shelves, near the ceiling, between the two cooking pots. You need to cup it in two hands to hold it, and hold it you must. It is glazed a glossy milky white, with streaks of light and dark blue, and blushes of yellow. The clay is a deep tannish brown. The pot is signed and dated 1987. It is similar to the pot on the 1989 cover of her now classic book, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. Centering, first published in 1964 has never gone out of print. The book has touched and influenced generations. It is a book to reread and ponder and discuss every few years.

“All the arts we practice are apprenticeship,” she wrote. “The big art is our life. We must, as artists, perform the acts of life in alert relation to the materials present at any given instant. This is not a simple requirement. For each instant, as it ticks off, ticks off into the past; but the past is present in the forms we have taken. We stand between past and future, between the forces that have shaped us and those yet to lend their transforming power to our growth…”

I had the honor of working with MC during the last year of her life. We were preparing for a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Worcester Craft Center, then under the direction of Maryon Attwood. Karen Karnes and Ann Stannard guided the project. My task was to write the catalog, which became Imagine Inventing Yellow: The Life and Works of M.C. Richards, 1916-1999.

That last summer, she frequently called me up, and in her husky voice made suggestions.  Or, more truthfully, she gave directions. She sent faxes of handwritten pages. She would tell me a fascinating story and then, when I wrote it, tell me to take it out because it was too personal. She wanted her interest in agriculture emphasized, something the others involved in the project thought not the best idea. She wanted the word numinous. After much discussion, I said ok, we will use the word numinous.

I came to believe that she was more meticulous with the written word than with pot making. Today, when I hold her pinch pot in my hands, I can feel where her fingers touched the clay, sense the spontaneity and speed with which worked. The pot is light-hearted and free. But working with her on the catalog, and reading her books, it became clear that each sentence was carefully wrought to convey her thoughts and ideas. Each sentence was polished to perfection. MC was a philosopher potter and a poet. I am lucky to have her books and one of her pots on my shelves.