Pots with Recipes

In her book In the Potter’s Kitchen: Handmade Pots for Home-Cooked Recipes, Colorado potter Sumi von Dassow has taken the unusual step of including recipes for the various types of pots she discusses. Along with directions for making a sauerkraut crock, she tells us that three cabbages, shredded and weighted in brine, will fill a ten-inch crock. In the section on ovenware, she offers directions for making covered casseroles and various baking dishes: round, oval and squared, plus recipes for spinach lasagna, onion quiche, and pumpkin pie. Von Dassow seems especially enthusiastic about baked Brie, showing photos of three quite different bakers and giving us four recipes (oh yum! Baked Brie with Caramelized Onions and Herbs!).

Throughout the book, she exhorts potters to do the same: include recipes with the pots you make.  Writing of butter and cheese dishes she suggests, “You might want to include a recipe for herb butter or cheese balls with these items.” Later, discussing olive trays, she says, “if you have a favorite canapé recipe, you could include that as well.”

The book is written for two audiences: potters who make pots, and cooks who purchase and use pots.  Following chapters on the history of cooking and pottery, and extensive advice for non-potters using pottery, the book is organized by use in the kitchen: ovenware, stovetop ware, ware for the microwave, serving dishes and storage jars.  There are sequential how-to photos for specific pieces such as apple bakers, juicers, and tagines and lots of photos of finished pots. Thirty-eight potters, including von Dasso contributed pots and recipes. I was pleased to see my friend Robbie Lobell’s flameware casseroles and a spread showing how she makes her rectangular baking dishes. I have one of her early rectangular flameware pots that I love to use to roast chopped carrots and onions drizzled with olive oil and topped with sprigs of rosemary.

Flameware by Cook on Clay

Von Dassow’s advice for potters is extensive, practical and often opinionated. Of course she is opinionated – she has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about kitchenware. What’s the point of writing a book like this unless you have opinions?  “It’s important,” she writes, “to keep the intended function in mind when making a baking dish…you can make a dish and sell it and leave it up to the customer to figure out what to do with it, but if you know what your dish is for, it will be easier to sell.” She tells us that putting a foot ring on a baking dish is ok, but not really what works best, or what cooks prefer. Oh dear! I put foot rings on my baking dishes and casseroles with the notion that they will be going directly to the table while still hot from the oven and that, when warm, foot rings are kinder to wood tables than flat bottoms.  Perhaps I need to rethink?

And I never thought to include a recipe with each pot, though I have on occasion included one in my newsletter. I make a lot of round, straight-sided baking dishes that can double as serving dishes or bowls. They are perfect, I think, for bread pudding, cheesy potatoes au gratin, or a baked egg dish with broccoli and mozzarella and chunks of rustic bread, a recipe I cribbed years ago from a chef friend. That’s how I imagine my baking dishes being used when they leave my studio, but I have not actually sent them off with recipes attached. Now I  think I will.


Fannie Farmer’s Bread Pudding with Alterations

Butter the baking dish. Fill it with:

2 cups dry breadcrumbs. I like to use at least half rye bread with caraway seeds.

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups hot milk (this makes a firm pudding)

Let cool.

When room temperature stir in:

½ cup sugar

2 eggs beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

½ cup raisins, or more if you like

Place in the middle of the oven and turn on to 325F

Bake for one hour or until firm. Serve slightly warm or chilled.

The Marks of Potters

A few years ago my son Dan asked me why I don’t sign my name on my pots. He worried no one would know or remember that a particular bowl or jar was made by me from the mark I use to sign them.

In my early pottery years, I did sign my name, at first with manganese dioxide. Soon though, I switched to incising my name on the bottoms of pots with a needle tool: sometimes “Suzy,” sometimes “Staubach,” always printed because my handwriting is so horrible. Later, after turning the narrow attached-garage where I lived at the time, into a studio and the separate double garage into a shop, I began to incise “The Stone House Pottery” in an arc parallel to the foot ring.

But like many potters, I fell in love with the notion of a mark. I thought that marks were beautiful themselves and added to the charm of a handmade piece. I began to experiment with designs and made a few stamps but was not happy with any of them. Around the same time, during a visit to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts I noticed a package of old lead type for sale and bought it. After more experimenting, I began to mark my pots with a small round button of clay that I impress with the lead S from the type collection.

Of course Dan is still correct. One does not automatically know who made a pot from a potter’s’ mark.  Happily, James Hazlewood has edited and updated the classic British Studio Potters’ Marks by Eric Yates-Owen and Robert Fournier so for British ceramics, collectors can easily determine who the maker is from the mark. There are books on the marks of American studio potters available, but unfortunately, nothing as comprehensive and up to date as this.

British Studio Potters’ Marks is not a book to leave on the shelf, however, and use only for reference. It is a pleasure to turn the pages and study the various marks. There are plenty of potters who use a signature, though it is surprising how many are impossible to read. The majority, however use marks, many based on their name or initials.

Potters are listed in alphabetical order with images of their marks plus, and this is especially fun to read, dates and names of the potteries where they worked, birth and death dates if known, and a short description of the types of works made. It’s a wonderful way of looking at the history of British studio ceramics.

The index is organized into three sections, Creatures, Monograms, and Signs and many subsections. So, for instance you could turn to the subsection Triangles in the Signs section and see a two-page spread of marks that incorporate a triangle and the potter who used it. Or take a look at the subsection Birds under Animals and realize how popular bird imagery is for potters’ marks

British Studio Potters’ Marks is an excellent resource and for potters, a delightful read. I have spent many pleasant hours leafing through the pages.

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