Biographies in American Ceramic Art

It’s the art, we are told, not the artist that matters. We should turn our attention to the genius of Ezra Pound’s poems, not his politics. It is not important that Shoji Hamada made the unsigned bottle with the exquisite green brush stroke that we admire; it is the bottle itself we should be contemplating.

Yes, yes this is all true, but really, aren’t most of us a bit nosey?  We want to know about the artist too.  We care a lot that Hamada made a particular piece and we are fascinated with the details of his life.

Certainly I am nosey. I like the studio visits in Ceramics Monthly. I like to read what potters have to say about their work and about their lives. It fascinates me that through history there have been groups of writers or artists or musicians who interact with and inspire one another, often so entangled that they fall in and out of love, argue, and collaborate. I am thinking of Black Mountain College, Bloomsbury, or Greenwich Village. It is not that the work is inseparable from the lives, but the lives do inform the work.

Still, when I first opened Biographies in American Ceramic Art 1870-1970 by Ken Foster, I was startled to find no images except on the cover. Here, it is the outlines of a life in ceramics that is emphasized, not the work itself.

The book is organized alphabetically, with brief entries that include such details as birth and death, education, prizes and employment. Thus we read that Laura Ann Fry, the “daughter of renowned woodcarver/teacher Henry B. Fry [was] proficient in drawing, design/decoration, modeling, and woodcarving, also a teacher,” followed by a list of places she studied, worked or taught. She was at the Cincinnati School of Design. She was at Rookwood. She invented and patented an atomizer for applying glaze. We can see that she began her studies in art at the age of 16 and died at the age of 86. Foster sums up Fry’s long and very rich life in ceramics with a few sentences.

Of course, many of the artists listed are well known, but there also many that I at least, had never heard of and that makes the book very interesting. I was not familiar with Isaac Scott Hathaway who designed coins in addition to his work in ceramics. He was “recruited (by Booker T. Washington, on recommendation of George Washington Carver) to join the faculty of Tuskegee Institute … and establish a ceramics department.” Now I want to know more about him and see his work.

There are gaps. M.C. Richards is not included. How can that be? The entry for George Ohr is astonishingly brief, and because the entries are listings of events such as expositions, there is no indication of the wild nature of his work or glaze experiments.

Nevertheless, the book is fun to browse. I found myself running to my bookshelves and the Internet to learn more about individuals and, if possible, to see their work. Foster wrote Biographies for collectors, but it is a good resource for potters interested in the past or who want to discover lesser-known predecessors. An illustrated version would have been better, but this is worth a read.

Vases and Winter Flowers

We’ve finally had the January thaw, albeit one month late, with daytime temperatures zooming unexpectedly up to the fifties. Friday night they plunged again to single digits, arriving with wind gusts to seventy miles an hour and multiple bolts of lightning ripping the night sky. A lot of the snow melted during the thaw, but there are still several feet covering the ground. We may have had illusions that spring was here, but today there is no mistaking that we are deep in winter.

My chilled mind dreams of flowers. The only plants blooming in the solarium are the parlor maple (Abutilon), its papery blossoms a cheerful orange/red, and the three crowns of thorns  (Euphorbia milii) that are showing off their tiny pink and pale yellow blooms. I enjoy these flowers but hunger for more, especially with snow expected tonight and tomorrow. So, indulgently, I buy myself a bouquet of white tulips, snitch a vase from the studio (it’s supposed to be for sale), and set the simple arrangement on the kitchen table. Happiness.

Potters have been making vases for thousands of years. From the Latin vas for container or vessel, it is traditionally taller than it is wide, often adhering to the Golden Mean. Filled with flowers, whether casually or carefully arranged, or holding a single stem, vases of flowers enhance dining tables, hotel lobbies, guest rooms, religious ceremonies and celebrations everywhere. Over the years, the form has come to be used solo as a decoration, sometimes status symbol, and often holds pride of place in an interior. As much and perhaps more than the teapot, vase making is a right of passage for potters.

Julia Galloway who juried 500 Vases: Contemporary Explorations of a Timeless Form writes in her introduction, “A vase is typically thought of as an object that enhances something – a tulip or a dinner setting. Yet the best vases transcend service and stand on their own as art. Creating a vase that can speak for itself take hard work and definite vision, and that’s part of what makes the form challenging and exciting.”

Like all the books in Lark’s 500 series, 500 Vases is a pleasure. Galloway has chosen a wide range of interpretations of the form: Christine Schiff’s “Ancient Vessels Grouping,” stamped with feldspar chunks; Hayne Bayless’ extruded flower bricks, perfect for massing single stems of daffodils or tulips; Simon Levin’s anagama fired vessels, generously thrown (I have one of his pitchers, perhaps it’s time to acquire a vase?); and Heidi Fahrenbacher’s humorous Flower Bed. The vases are plain and fancy, carved, stamped, glazed, unglazed, and created using all the methods available to potters.

I do not know if people who are not makers look at volumes like this. I think even if you are not a potter it would be a delightful wish book, a shopper’s delight. But for those of us who do make, it is a stimulating opportunity to see what others are doing, to be inspired, and to contemplate. And though there are not many words, not much to actually read, it is a book to spend considerable time with, studying the images, and returning to it periodically.

Storm Damage

I had never heard of ice dams until this winter when suddenly everyone started talking about them. Sure enough, we have ice dams ourselves, massive ones.

It’s been a tough season, with nearly 80 inches of snow falling in a short period of time. The weight of all this snow thickly blanketing our roofs turns out to be a big problem, leading to many building collapses. Over three hundred farm buildings have been crushed by roof snow here in Connecticut, including greenhouses and barns.  We’ve lost a bakery, factories, and some houses. So far our house, the kiln shed, and other outbuildings have not threatened to come down. Fingers crossed.

The kiln shed, which at first I was very concerned about is probably ok as long as I don’t fire. Right now, it is cold inside the shed and cold outside. I won’t fire until we get the snow off the roof.

The dams are another story. They form when all that roof snow starts to melt from underneath and then refreezes at the edges of the roof, forming what looks like a mound of glass. This damages the roof and water often ends up inside. The dam that formed across the front of the house was worrisome, but the dams across the back, especially on the upper roof, were downright frightening.

We started with a stain over the dining table that spread, amoeba like, across the ceiling. Then another stain. And another, in amazing shades of orange and black.  And then the drips. Water was coming in from the upper roof, through the walls and into the ceiling and then into the rooms.

I grabbed buckets and plastic from the studio. Luckily I have lots of both. My huge concern was (and still is) the books. To say I was freaking out would be an understatement. Much of my ceramic library is irreplaceable.  My horticultural collection was nearer the drips and in more danger. Many of these books are also irreplaceable. The bedroom, which is also lined with bookshelves, started leaking too. We used so much plastic, there was nothing left to wrap a pot in.

We hired a crew of roofers to clear a three foot swath from the dams, which is recommended. They would not touch the ice dams though. No one will. One idea is to put calcium chloride on the on them, but since our lower roof is metal, we cannot do that. Salt eats metal.

The temperatures are rising. The dams are melting a bit. We hold our breaths. What we want is a melt but not a fast melt. What we do NOT want is rain. For now, the leaks have stopped.

Meanwhile, the cats think it is all a frolic. Jake never met a bowl he didn’t want to curl up in. Despite the drips, he hopped into my glaze basin. Misty hovered near by. She doesn’t even like Jake, but she loves water. We’ve spent considerable time shooing them away, as of course it is not good for them.

Old Pots and Favorite Books

I love bringing new books home; the way the crisp untouched pages feel when I first turn them, the smell of the ink, and most of all, the treasures that wait within. But the reason to own books, to keep them with you in your house, is to visit them again, reread them after the ink is no longer fragrant, look up information and, if you are a potter, find inspiration. Having a personal library is a joy and I realize, a privilege.

Recently, I have had occasion to become reacquainted with one of my books, Early New England Potters and Their Wares by Lura Woodside Walkins, first published in 1950 by Harvard University Press and widely considered the best on the topic.  The book has been reissued as a facsimile several times and is available as a Google edition. My copy is a reissue and looks like a bad photocopy, but I do love it.

I was chatting with Guy Wolff (more about that in another posting) and looking at his wonderful pot collection in the loft over his showroom, when he said that he admired the work of the early Hartford potter Seth Goodwin and wished he owned one of his pieces. I remembered seeing a wonderful jug in one of the antique shops in Putnam, Connecticut last spring, and thought the tag said it was by Seth Goodwin.

When I got home from my visit with Guy, I of course, looked Seth Goodwin up in Early New England Potters and Their Wares to remind myself of his details.  According to Watkins, he was the first of the Goodwin potters in Hartford. When he was twenty-three, he set up shop in what later became the Elmwood section of West Hartford and made redware. This was the tail end of the 18th century, 1795. His son Thomas O’Hara Goodwin was also a potter, though he expanded to stoneware. In 1831, Seth’s brother, Horace Goodwin and Mark C. Webster bought a pottery on Front Street in Hartford.

Armed with this information, and sure the jug I’d seen was stoneware not redware, I returned to the antique shop. I needed to see the jug again, though I thought it likely that it was sold, or moved to a new spot in the cavernous shop where I would have difficulty finding it. I was wrong on both counts. It was right where I’d seen it, and as magnificent as I’d remembered.

I read the tag: Ovoid stoneware jug. Probably Goodwin and Webster, Hartford, Connecticut. 1830.

So, the dealer believed Seth’s brother, which makes sense, as it is stoneware, made it. Whichever Goodwin made it (or maybe not a Goodwin at all?); it is a strong pot, wonderfully proportioned from foot to shoulder with a lovely fire mark on the front. I took a few photos and sent them to Guy. From the handle, he believes the jug is earlier than 1830.

Maybe Thomas made it.  It would be nice to know with certainty, but no matter;  I enjoyed rereading Watkins on  early potters in Hartford and of course flipping pages to read about other early potters in New England. And it was fun to go and visit a truly great pot.

My Reading Stack

It’s been many long months since I posted, and in that time I’ve made and fired pots, worked on my books and gardens, played with my granddaughters, and lost my dad. Yet all the while I was reading.  And reading.

I will tell you here about a few of the books but first I want to share one that I have not yet read, A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes edited by Mark Shapiro with a foreward by Garth Clark.  The book is due in September, but I got a peek at a few pages in NYC and I can’t wait to read the whole book.

During the 70s, for many decades actually, Karen Karnes was every functional potter’s idol. She largely does quietly powerful sculptural work now, but no one has ever surpassed her iconic casseroles.  I am glad to have one in my kitchen. She also made dinner sets, pitchers, even a freestanding fireplace. Anyone who has watched her throw is mesmerized.

Her life has intersected, led, and departed from the post World War II ceramic culture in this country. She was at Black Mountain with MC Richards and John Cage and others. She helped build Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point. She developed flameware.  This book promises to look at all facets of her career and life and has lots of illustrations. It accompanies an exhibit that will travel to five museums beginning in Arizona in the fall. I am counting the days until publication.

Speaking of ceramic idols, Bauhaus Women:  Art, Handicraft, Design by Ulrike Müller has a nice chapter on Marguerite Friedlaender Wildenhain who was at the Bauhaus in the early twenties.  The Bauhaus, despite its initial espoused notion of equality was not friendly to women, particularly those interested in anything other than weaving. The book includes a chapter on Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein-Marks who also was at the Bauhaus and went on to have an illustrious career in ceramics but who was never allowed into the ceramic program because of her gender. Later she ran and designed for Haël Workshops for Art Ceramics until being forced out by the Nazis and fleeing to England. Mauguerite Friedlaender Wildenhain, however, was at the Bauhaus at an earlier and better (for women) time. She too, however, had to flee the Nazis and eventually settled at the now famous Pond Farm north of San Francisco. One of my favorite potter’s books of all time is her The Invisible Core: A Potter’s Live and Thoughts.  There’s only a glimpse of her in Bauhaus Women, but it was fun to read and be reminded of her. The rest of the book is about women who worked in other mediums and Bauhaus history.

Surveys or best-of books are always fun. Oh, there’s usually some inclusion that makes one gasp that such a piece could be considered, but agreeing and disagreeing with the curator is part of the pleasure. Masters: Earthenware, Major Works by Leading Artists curated by Matthias Ostermann emphasizes elaborate and brightly colored pieces. There are 38 masters here. They average 8 or 9 pages devoted to their work, with a brief description from Ostermann at the beginning. There is little information on process and certainly no shots of their studios (I love seeing other people’s studios, though photos of them often make me jealous).  There is nothing in the book that made me whine, oh I wish I’d made that, but looking at work so very different from one’s own is stimulating. The book is especially good because there are enough photos of each person’s work to give you a pretty thorough sense of it.  I have read or browsed it several times now.

Ceramics Today  edited by Jeffrey B. Snyder includes 120 “innovative ceramic artists” almost none of whom are those we see repeatedly in the ceramic press. This is refreshing.  They are predominantly from Australia, the US and Canada. The work is both functional and sculptural. Each artist has an Artist’s Statement in which he or she talks about the work and sometimes the process. A few are written in the third person, which makes me crazy but we won’t go into that here. Another oddity of the book is artist’s email addresses are included but not their websites. Maybe everyone has email but not everyone has a website? No matter, this is also a book to look through more than once.

This is not the entire reading stack, but I must do some glazing before my pots become too dry.

Master of Empty Space

Sixty –four year old Japanese potter Taizo Kuroda is widely revered for his extraordinary white porcelain. He studied in Paris with Tatsuzo Shimaoka before moving to Canada where he worked with Gaeten Beaudin. “Gaeten Beaudin was not very rich – so sometimes I had to wash dishes at night in restaurants to make a little money… As I washed dishes for an hour, or two hours, it is as though I went into a trance. I wasn’t making white porcelain at the time, but that is what appeared before my eyes, white porcelain.” After fifteen years in Canada, he returned to Japan and began making many small objects, first in stoneware, and then, wanting  an absence of color, in porcelain.

He writes, “The Japanese people like tableware more than objects. When we eat, we are allowed to hold a bowl, but in Korea or China, that would be considered bad manners. That may be why the Japanese love pottery so much – they see and hold objects.” Kuroda is a maker of pots, but his vessels, which embody the essence of simplicity, are for contemplation rather than the table.

Kuroda dwells in a rarified strata of potters, miles away from those of us who make cups and bowls for use. His prices range from $1500 to $8000 per piece. Yet somehow, his work also exudes a Zen-like simplicity. He told Jodido that he has set himself three conditions in his work: “The wheel, white, and utsuwa.” He explains, “ In Japanese we say utsuwa –this has a very deep meaning. It is what we don’t see and what we see. It is the border between what we can see and what we can’t see…I want to make what we don’t see, and that means I must make what we see. My work is a container for what we don’t see.”

Taizo Kuroda by Philip Jodido is as serene, as pristine, and as meditative as Kuroda’s work. Jodido includes quotations from Merleau- Ponty, James Turrell and many from Kuroda himself, each beautifully surrounded by white space on otherwise empty pages. He has full-page photos of the work, the atelier and close-ups of Kuroda’s hands in clay. Integral to the book are a thoughtful preface by the fashion designer Issey Miyake and introduction by architect Tadao Ando. The volume is a work of art. It is a pleasure to slowly turn the pages, to read, to reread and thereby absorb Kuroda’s philosophy and his art. Though I surround myself with clutter, and am drawn to earthy pottery, I liked reading about Kuroda’s life and particularly liked reading his own explanations of his work.

Gossip: Eric Clapton was an early collector of Kuroda’s work.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A True Champion of Clay Cookery Pots

“Most food,” bestselling cookbook author Paula Wolfert writes in the introduction to her newest book Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking “— and Mediterranean food in particular —tastes better cooked in clay.” Wolfert is fanatical in her devotion to using clay pots for cooking, and has spent years traveling the globe passionately collecting pots and meeting with potters. She uses clay cookware for baking, frying, stewing, roasting, steaming, and boiling.  Indeed she calls herself a “clay pot ‘junkie.’”

Of course, cooks have been using clay pots to prepare meals for thousands of years, and in many areas of the world, they are still the prevalent vessel, particularly earthenware. Wolfert uses traditional earthenware, plus stoneware and flameware in various shapes, “tall pots for cooking beans, soups, and stews; round earthenware vessels for cooking rice and sauces; deep-flaring-terra-cotta and glazed casseroles for dishes such as cassoulets and tians; shallow, round dishes for baking pies and gratins; stovetop skillets made of ceramic for cooking eggs and sautéing vegetables; shallow glazed rounds for oven baking custards and flans; and clay forms for baking bread.” I’d love to get a glimpse of her kitchen and her collection. There are photos of the pots throughout the book, though it is published by Wiley, known for its professional level cookbooks rather than for lavish design, so there aren’t nearly enough of them. You can see more photos on her Facebook page dedicated to cooking in clay pots.

Wolfert gives practical information on caring for clay pots (they are sturdy) and using them, with a good overview at the beginning of the book, followed by specifics with each recipe. Oh yes, the recipes — this is a cookbook after all.  Well, I am a vegetarian and there is a lot of meat in this book, so I gravitated to the section on vegetables and beans. Cassolo of Spinach and Artichokes. Yum.  Green Beans with Tomatoes and Garlic. Yum. And lots of potato recipes. The most interesting is Baby Creamer Potatoes Cooked in the Devil’s Pot or diable, “a potbellied unglazed earthenware pot traditionally used to cook potatoes or chestnuts.” The potatoes are cooked dry with sea salt. You shake the pot periodically but are forbidden to open the lid, or all is lost! I can’t wait to try this.

If you are a functional potter, Paula Wolfert is your best friend and advocate in the culinary arena. If you just like to cook and enjoy handmade pots, Wolfert will introduce you to possibilities beyond (and years older than) the stoneware casserole.

Happy Eating!

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?

Studio Pieter Stockmans

Crisp lines. Frosty blues and whites. Nesting, stacking, and parading multiples. Highly intellectualized design. These are the characteristics of the porcelain tableware that comes out of the Pieter Stockmans Studio in Belgium. Stockmans has been wowing the art and high-end restaurant and design world almost since the day he opened shop.

And though not the sort of ceramics I love most, I did find the book Studio Pieter Stockmans worth adding to my library. Many of the pots are shown with food, such as two square white plates with blue rims, stacked crisscrossed, with a string-tied bundle of chives set diagonally on the top plate, and a close up of his champagne “glasses,” slim, translucent cylinders, blue rimmed, with a stream of champagne flowing into one of the glasses. There are also photos of table settings, indoors and out, and restaurant interiors. I very much liked seeing the pots in use.

Stockmans also does architectural and furniture collaborations. I particularly liked the porcelain “papers” that he has “tacked” to the exterior of the De Rip Town Hall, and stacked on s corner of the roof, referencing the work of the bureaucracy that takes place within. Very humorous.

Light on text, the book contains bilingual essays by his daughter Widukind, who, with her husband, works with Pieter, and Jo Rombouts the Director of Porcelain. They give us the briefest glimpse of what the working processes are like (oh so different from those of us working at our wheels in one-woman studios). He is hands-on, but not in the sense that he makes each and every piece, start to finish all by himself. This is an atelier with a team of workers. He is the designer-artist and the leader.

Note: It became customary to show solitary pots on neutral backgrounds decades ago when jurors began looking at slides for shows. This was also at a time when many ceramicists were downplaying the functional aspects of their pots and trying to focus on the art  (the never ending art versus craft argument). But reading this book, it seems to me that now and then, when photographing work, we need to rethink our old habits and show them in situ and in use.

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,