Pottery in Provence

A few years ago I saw some wonderful French earthenware jars for sale in a New Orleans shop and fell in love with them. Foolishly, I didn’t purchase any. So expensive! How would I carry them on the plane? Typical flawed thinking. Perhaps, a return trip is in order? But that would make for a really expensive pot wouldn’t it?

Happily, Noëlle Duck and Christian Sarramon, the author and photographer of A Home in Provence: Interiors, Gardens, Inspiration have also fallen in love with rustic French pottery. Although their book is for interior decorators who dream of furnishing rooms in a sun washed manse, nearly every photo features pottery.

We see large antique terra cotta jars and flowerpots set out on a gravel terrace. Urns planted with box or standing century at a windowsill. There are “Classic pots in natural clay from the Raval Pottery in Aubagne and enameled jars from the Poterie du Soleil at Biot …[and] vases flanked with medallions, including one in the shape of a child’s head from Anduze.” And oil jars, water jugs, bowls, tians, splashed with green or yellow glazes. And then there are roof tiles and floor tiles and tiles for the wall. Enough to make one’s heart race.

In the chapter called Ceramics and Glassware, Duck and Sarramon celebrate highly decorated faience as well as the simpler pottery that I love so much and even offer a few photos of pots in process. Not a book for potters exactly, but if you like old earthenware jars with swelling shoulders made from the pink clay of Provence, you will want to take a look.

The Porcelain Thief

In 1938, when the Japanese invaded China and drew close to Huan Hsu’s great-great- grandfather Liu’s estate, Liu dug a deep pit a short distance from his house, lined it with bamboo shelves, and buried his treasured collection of imperial porcelain. The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China is Huan Hsu’s account of his incredible search for those lost pots.

Hsu was born in the US. Growing up, he did everything a boy could to distance himself from his heritage, wanting to be American.  Then, as a young man, in order to look for the porcelain, he moves to China to work for his uncle, learns Chinese, and reunites with relatives he barely knows. His descriptions of modern day China are fascinating. If you do not live in China, you might experience a bit of culture shock just reading them. When Hsu commissions a suit, it is badly made and doesn’t fit. When he asks to have the suit he brought with him copied, the copy is perfect. He is astonished to see people wearing their pajamas in public. There are seemingly no rules, except to stay out of politics. Hsu’s observations are at times funny and always interesting.

But of course, it is the quest for the porcelain that intrigues us, and in this Hsu does not disappoint. Over time, he learns about the history of porcelain and the role it has played in China. He comes to understand that men of means, such as his great-great-grandfather took enormous pride in their collections. And he discovers that for the imperial court, porcelain and status were one. “In dynastic China,” he writes, “ownership of the imperial porcelain collection had conferred the right to rule, and so long as it remained in Taipei, Chiang’s government could claim that it, not Beijing, was China’s capital.”

During Hsu’s search for his great-great-grandfather’s collection, he sees that in the regions where pottery was made, there are crumbling and overgrown remains of numerous ancient kilns and thousands, millions of shards. The kilns, he laments, China’s heritage, are being destroyed, lost forever, as the country modernizes.

He becomes a shard hunter. “Opposite the mud hut were undulating mounds of shards so large that it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the scale,” he tells us, “The piles closest to the house had crevasses deep enough that people disappeared when they descended into them. Elsewhere swaths of vines, sesame blossoms, wildflower and small trees had taken root.”

Toward the end of his journey, he visits an elderly man whose ancestors travelled in the same social circle as his great-great-grandfather. The man lives in “a gloomy Communist era apartment.” Two boxes of ceramics are carefully carried out to the kitchen table for Hsu to see. Everyone is nervous, as if the pots might be dropped, or stolen. “I turned the vases over to see that both bore the mark of Guangzu, the second-to-last emperor of the Qing dynasty, though the blue one’s was pierced through and the red one’s was rubbed away; effacing the seal was a common practice when the emperor gave imperial wares as gifts. These were real imperial porcelains, not in a museum, an auction house, or wealthy collector’s home. They had remained in China for their entire existence, no more than a hundred miles form their birthplace, and had somehow managed to survive a century in which everyone, Chines or otherwise, seemed intent on removing them or destroying them.”

I will not tell you what happens when Hsu finally comes to dig where his great-great-grandfather lived. You must read the story for yourself. The Porcelain Thief is part memoir, part history, and part travelogue, all of it riveting. It will be published in March. Watch for it. Better yet, ask you local independent bookseller or librarian to hold a copy for you.

The Beauty of Craft

Richard Batterham Jar

The Beauty of Craft: A Resurgence Anthology, a collection of essays edited by Sandy Brown and Maya Kumar Mitchell, examines the place of craft in today’s world from many perspectives. “Some time in the middle of the fifteenth century, painters, sculptors and architects, among them Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Masaccio, began to question their status and demand equality with the poets. They began to disassociate themselves from the workers of the manual crafts,” John Lane writes in the opening section. “…In due course they were to be accepted as full members of Humanist society, and in the process to establish a hitherto inconceivable concept and realm: the idea of Art as a self-validating, self-referential domain…In consequence, this was the turning point that marked the end of the anonymous craft traditions and the beginning of the Artist as hero, the Artist with his or her unique vision, the Artist as genius – the Artist with clean hands.”  Alas, and some of us would say unfortunately, Artists were now seen as superior to (mere) makers.

Prior to this separation of craft and art, people had been making things of beauty for millennia. Potters, weavers, house builders, carpet makers made objects that were an integral part of daily life, that functioned well yet were also a pleasure to behold. The incised lines on a bowl, the carved beads on a wooden door, the vibrant colors of a blanket were not necessary for functionality but gave both the users and the makers aesthetic pleasure.

Today, the need for handmade objects for daily living is deeply diminished from da Vinci’s era. “Practically every artifact a person uses today, can easily be made from oil-derived plastic, in a large factory, by machine-minders whose chief quality is their ability to survive lives of intense boredom,” John Seymour writes in his essay. In her thoughtful entry Contemporary Concerns: What is the place of craft in a full world? Tanya Harrod writes, “Today more of us are consumers than producers,”

The book is divided into six major sections: World of Craft, Ways of Living, Culture of Community, Caring for Nature, Enduring Skills, and Seekers of Meaning.  Within each of the sections are essays by various authors. Happily, seven of the essays in the book are specifically about pottery, plus two more look at cob (doesn’t everyone working with clay dream of building with cob one day?), and potters slip into a several other chapters. Edmund de Waal discusses the benefits of an urban studio. Geraldine Norman enthuses about the earthenware that Clive Bowen makes in his rural North Devon shop. David Whiting brings us Richard Batterham, whom he calls “both the most faithful and least imitative of the Leachean potters.”

The Beauty of Craft is a project of Resurgence, a magazine The Guardian calls “The spiritual and artistic flagship of the green movement.” The book is not easy to summarize. It contains differing viewpoints. I found it soothing and celebratory.

John Britt on Glazes

You might be tempted to read through the glaze recipes in John Britt’s new book, The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes: Glazing & Firing at Cones 4 – 7, and skip the text. Don’t do it. You might think that because you fire at higher or lower temperatures, the book would be of no use to you. Big mistake. The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes is packed with information and belongs on every potter’s bookshelf.

“Iron oxide, “ Britt tells us, “makes up about 7 percent of the top layer of the earth’s crust, and it’s the most common coloring oxide in ceramics. In fact, iron is everywhere on our planet. Technically speaking, all glazes contain some iron.”  Elsewhere in the text he points out, “There are four major forms of iron oxide. These are red iron oxide, magnetic iron, black iron oxide, and yellow iron oxide.” He then goes on to explain the differences between them and how they react in the fire.

Writing of feldspar he tells us that “most feldspars melt at cone 9, the lowest melting feldspar is nepheline syenite, which melts at cone 6.” Each paragrapah is packed with nuggets like these.

Britt also gives an overview of each type of glaze along with its history. In the section on Temmoku he tells us, “During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Japanese visited a monastery in a Chinese mountain called Tianmu Shan (Mount Eye of Heaven), where they collected some Jai (oil spot temmoku) tea bowls. The Japanese were inspired to imitate their look. They referred to their highly prized bowls as Tianmu or Temmoku (sometimes spelled Tenmoku.” Later he tells us “Tea dust is a low alumina temmoku glaze that contains magnesium oxide, which is responsible for the yellow-green pyroxene crystals that are of typical of this type.”

Added to this wealth of glaze and materials information, are charts, photos, advice on mixing and applying, and the recipes themselves. Stunning.

Britt devotes an entire chapter to making his argument for firing at cone 6, citing savings in time and money and the reduction of one’s carbon footprint. “For functional ware,” he writes, “cone 6 stoneware is an excellent choice because it’s very durable and vitrified…so it can withstand repeated trips into the dishwasher and microwave. Also, glazes can be made that are stable and don’t leach harmful chemicals.” He goes on to share his ideas on how best to move from cone 10 down to cone 6.

The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes is a must for every potter’s reference library. Thank you John Britt for your extensive research and in depth understanding and your ability to explain what you have learned so clearly.

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.”

Now Brought To You By Studio Potter

Potters like to write about their work. Nonpotters like to write about potters’ work too. And if they are not writing, they are portraying: today in photographs, yesterday in illustration. We see potters depicted firing their kilns on Greek vases and throwing jars on their wheels in ancient Egyptian tomb art. We see bustling workshops in Chinese paintings. Abu’l Qasim of Kashan, an early 14th century Persian explained various aspects of tile and vessel making in his famous Treatise. The great Italian Cipriano Piccolpasso gave us his remarkable Three Books of the Potter’s Art in the mid-sixteenth century, a wonderful book with still relevant drawings and instructions.

Today, there are so many ceramics books published that, unless she does nothing else morning to night, one person cannot read them all. There are memoirs, biographies, instruction books, monographs, histories, exhibition catalogs, stories for children, meditations, and guides for collectors. In addition, we potters have many periodicals to read and write for: Ceramics Monthly, Ceramics Art and Perception, Ceramics Technical, Ceramic Review, Ceramic Making Illustrated, to name a few. One of my favorites has been Studio Potter.

The first issue of Studio Potter came out in the fall of 1972, the project of a group of serious potters who wanted to share information in an ad-free format. I loved those early issues – stapled, without a spine, but beautiful to behold, printed mostly on thick, uncoated paper. There were plans for kilns, photos of potters at work, diagrams of burners, discussions of glazes and tools. The Summer 1973 edition devoted 12 pages to the Brookfield Kiln. Though I built two other very different kilns between then and now, my current kiln is a modified, somewhat enlarged Brookfield based on that early issue, and performs very well. The following summer there were pieces about the potential for solar and methane fired kilns! There was a lot of exploration and experimentation going on.

There were “visits” to potters in various states – Oregon, Texas, Maine, Colorado, California – with black and white photos, usually of the potters in their studios. Over the years, sadly, tributes and obituaries appeared as potters passed. And for awhile the Notebooks section, sometimes impossible to read because the handwriting was so difficult, gave a glimpse into the, well, notebooks of working potters.

During the ensuing four plus decades, Studio Potter added a spine and lots of color, and changed its emphasis from those early years of roll-up-your-sleeves optimism when American potters were trying to figure out how to make a life in clay, to an emphasis on “aesthetic philosophy.” Not all the work shown is functional. Many of the potters are in the academy. The pages are coated and glossy. Issues built around themes. The shape of the magazine is now square rather than rectangular. And, at the back, there are advertisements! Straddling two centuries, Studio Potter has changed and evolved with the times.

This is all a rather long way of pointing out to you that I have a piece in the current issue. It’s called It’s All in Your Head and I have to say, it does feel nice to have an essay in a journal that has felt all these years like a friend. To be honest, I do have two tiny complaints. Somehow two captions got reversed in the design process. However, if you read the piece, it will be immediately apparent that the captions are misplaced. And Joseph Szalay, who took the photographs, is unhappy with the color reproduction. He is a perfectionist and has a very critical eye for color. You would want him to take a photo of your work. Still, it’s nice to be in Studio Potter and I hope that there are potters to write for the venerable journal and potters to read what they write for another forty plus years.

The Art of German Stoneware

When I was a kid, German beer steins were popular with my New Jersey relatives. Even my Irish/English grandparents had a decorative stein on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room. When he was old enough to indulge, my cousin John actually drank from a stein for a period and was, as I recall, quite pleased with himself though other family members thought he looked a bit silly. All my relatives at the time lived in northern New Jersey where many residents were German (including half my family) so that might account for the fad. The beer steins in question were brightly colored in red, cream, tan and blue glazes with faux relief decoration.

Reading Jack Hinton’s The Art of German Stoneware, 1300 – 1900 from the Charles W. Nichols Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was reminded that authentic German drinking vessels and bottles were far more interesting than the gaudy steins that so intrigued my Jersey relatives.

Hinton opens, “Robust but refined, durable yet delicate, German stonewares are practical ceramics that frequently surpass their utilitarian character through their fine construction, sparkling colors and finishes, and excellence and variety of forms and ornament. From the late sixteenth through the seventeenth century these wares were among the most common decorated ceramics found in Europe and the colonial world, and made their way into households across a broad spectrum of society.”

Germany was blessed with abundant deposits of stoneware clay. Fired to high temperatures, stoneware is durable and impervious to stains and thus very useful.

Early in the sixteenth century, potters working along the Rhine began to employ sprigs, molded decorations that they applied to the exterior surfaces of their pots. They also employed salt glaze and cobalt, lending their work a distinctive appearance.

Through all the centuries of stoneware production, vessels for drinking and decanting remained important, but stoneware was also used for storage jars and bottles, preserving foodstuffs, and, eventually for sanitary ware.

Hinton takes us on a quick run through history, focusing, of course, on the pieces in the collection. There are two very appealing unglazed jugs from the early fourteenth century, nicely thrown, one with a particularly elegant transition from the curve of the belly in and up through the neck and lip. There are bottles, pitchers and jugs with the famous “bearded man” (Bartmann) face applied to the neck. The faces were made in molds and attached to thrown vessels. They were largely made by potters in Cologne and Frechen but widely traded. One from the mid-sixteenth century, brown, salt-glazed, stands just six inches tall. Here the face and beard reach three quarters of the way down to where the belly transitions in towards the foot. And there are many examples of white/gray, and blue and white salt-glazed pieces, heavily decorated with applied seals, rondels, medallions, swags, animals, crests, and faces.

“Social developments, such as improvements in living conditions and emulation by middle classes of the customs of the elite, were an important stimulus for diversification of the forms created,” Hinton writes. “The elaborate ornamentation of stonewares also helped to shift the impression of these utilitarian wares to that of luxury ceramics worthy of display. Potters benefited from a focus on making more refined wares as a means to increase their profits.”

The photography in The Art of German Stoneware is good. I especially liked the inclusion of contemporaneous paintings, many of them Dutch, showing the stoneware in use. Reading this, I did  not long to make similar pots myself, as sometimes happen to me when I am in the midst of a book, but perhaps you will.

Risk and Discovery

Widely exhibited and collected, Hideaki Miyamura is known for his classical forms and astonishing glazes. He writes, “My work began as a quest for iridescence.” In that quest, he has undertaken many thousands of glaze experiments to create his signature shimmering hues. The Pucker Gallery in Boston, which represents Miyamura, has produced a monograph showcasing his work, Risk & Discovery: The Ceramic Art of Hideaki Miyamura.

Miyamura was born and grew up in Japan. After spending time with a traditional Japanese potter, he went to the US to study at Western Michigan University and then returned to Japan. Here, he apprenticed with Shurei Miura for six years, throwing thousands of saki cups followed by thousands of tea bowls before being allowed to move on to other forms. By the end of this rigorous training, he had become a master of the wheel.

Captivated by a Chinese tea bowl that reminded him of a “clear night’s endless sky,” he began trying to reproduce the glaze himself. This led to his life of experimentation.

In 1989, he left Japan and moved to the United States to pursue his art in his own way. He works in a well-lit 1200 square foot studio at his secluded home in Kensington, New Hampshire and fires in a large front-loading electric kiln housed in an out building. He writes, “I knew that my forms and glazes needed to enhance each other. What is now most important to me is clarity and simplicity of line. Each form occupies space and illuminates space… My quest has been not for the perfect form or perfect glaze, but for the mysterious effect that first drew me to this work: the contemplative tranquility evoked through line and light.”

Risk & Discovery: The Ceramic Art of Hideaki Miyamura

Published by Pucker Art Publications, Distributed by Syracuse University Presses

The Story of Chigusa

I was very intrigued when I first learned of the book Chigusa and the Art of Tea edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky as I am myself, off and on, working on a biography of a pot. It turns out this book is quite different from my project (whew!), but it is indeed the biography of a pot. I found it fascinating.

The pot, a stoneware storage jar with four lugs placed just below the neck, has a name: Chigusa. Made by potters in southern China during the Sung or Yuan Dynasties (mid 13th – mid 14th centuries), it measures 41.6 centimeters (16.37 inches) high and holds 25 liters (6.6 gallons). The lower portion was made by coiling and throwing. The upper portion was paddled. A lovely brown glaze of wood ash and iron-bearing clay covers 80 percent of the exterior. It was standard workshop fare.

“The process that produced the jar,” Court writes, “resulted from well-honed efforts to make a usable product quickly and efficiently. In local markets the chief concerns were intact condition and price. By chance, however, the jar that became Chigusa was selected to be shipped to Japan.”

In Japan, the jar became a revered and highly collectible object for the tea ceremony and was used to hold tea leaves.  It had a succession of owners each of whom honored the pot with accessories including a silk mouth cover, three boxes, one inside the other, to hold it, cords and documents.

During the sixteenth century, tea men, often rich merchants, kept “tea diaries” and Chigusa is mentioned or described in a number of these. In one such account, written in 1587, Kamiya Sötan writes, after describing may other objects and implements used in the ceremony he attended that day, “The tsubo Chigusa: the clay is coarse and red, the lower part swells, on the bottom are blisters…The glaze is thick, and there are many downward flows. Below that, the glaze appears to divide.”

The custom of naming revered objects was common in Japan from ancient times but in the 16th century, when Chigusa became known as Chigusa it was rare to name a tea object. Watsky speculates that the name was inspired by poetry, as “chigusa appears as a nature image in five poems.” There were, we are told, 21 other jars with names.

Chigusa stayed within a few families– the Hisada, Omotensnke, and Fujita, for generations. The book traces the jar’s whereabouts and values. In 1929 the Fujitas sold it at auction for what would have been $1000.00, a surprisingly low price. There followed a series of owners including, in the eighties, the owner of an IT company who paid the equivalent of $1.5 million dollars. “Then, on the morning of September 17, 2009, the Freer Gallery of Art placed the winning bid of $662,500 for the jar at Christie’s New York sale of Japanese and Korean Art. That would be the last stop on the jar’s long journey from southern China.”

I am giving only the briefest outline here. There is much about the tea ceremony itself, and, through the jar, the history of tea in Japan. But most of all, Chigusa is a delightful biography of a seven hundred year old stoneware storage jar.

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.