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.

A Look At Pit Firing

Michael Wein

“Contemporary methods employed for pit firing can fall into two categories:” Dawn Whitehand writes in her book, Pit Firing: Modern Methods, Ancient Traditions, “those used by the traditional potters of India, Pakistan, South America and North America, who continue to use this technique to fire their unglazed functional wares, and those used by ceramicists, who use the technique for the artistic outcomes they are able to achieve on their artworks.”

She opens with a look at historic practices, offering excellent diagrams of various types of early pit firings as well as her understanding of them. Her focus, however, as her title makes clear, is on studio potters working today and the very diverse work they produce.

We see the Canadian potter Maeva Collins’ brick-lined cement block pit that she uses to fire her highly burnished covered jars and bottles. Her fuel consists of wood shavings, sawdust, and kindling wood (Collins also works in high temperatures with a wood-fired kiln).  For special effects, she tosses dog biscuits, pine needles, whatever comes to hand, into the pit with her wares.

US potter Hilary Chan makes rock forms that fit in your hand, each with a “unique serial number,” and fires in a small open pit. She asks, “If the colorful fuming patterns on the surfaces of the rocks are to a very large extent the accidental/incidental contribution of the fire, can I still claim ‘intellectual property’ rights to these resulting imageries? Indeed, how much of them is the result of my work, and how much is that of the natural forces that I have collaborated with?”

Nearly all the artists showcased in Pit Firing Ceramics burnish their work and bisque in an electric kiln. Many favor a post-firing treatment with paste wax. None of their pieces are functional, though many are functional in form. Jars, bottles and vases predominate. There are also sculptural pieces, pillows, figures and constructions. Whitehand herself is a sculptor.

The book is informative and fun and introduced me to the work of potters with whom I was not familiar. If I were to make a complaint, it would be that some of the profiles are written in the third person and some in the first. But then I see the same “crime” on websites and even in our own Artists Open Studios brochure here in northeastern Connecticut, so perhaps this offence won’t bother anyone else.

Note: Pot illustrated is by Australian potter Michael Wein.

Say Potter and You Are Okay

In an interview for the book Adam Silverman Ceramics from Rizzoli about whether he sees his clay work as art or craft, Adam Silverman answered, “You just say ‘potter’ and then you’re okay.” I think that’s the perfect answer to a tiresome question.

Silverman, who began potting at the age of 15 studied architecture at RISD, worked as an architect in the late eighties and early nineties, and then designed fashion before turning to clay full time in 2002.  Today he runs Atwater Pottery in Los Angeles in association with the historic Heath Ceramics. He has been the studio director for Heath since 2008.

The book opens with dramatic photos of Silverman’s pots by Stefano Massei. There are many close ups of his cratered and fissured glazes and full page portraits of his vessels. Next, is a section of duotone photos by Katrina Dickson of Silverman at work, his studio, and his installations. These are nicely arranged in a collage-like manner. Dickson’s photos are my favorite part of the book. She conveys a sense of how Silverman works and where he works, giving us a glimpse into his creative life. Six brief essays follow. The paper in the essay section and with Dickson’s photos tears easily, which is not a good thing for a visual book whose readers will presumably want to turn the pages multiple times.

Silverman is known for the volcanic quality of his glazes in pinks and whites and browns and blacks. The glazes are three dimensional, rough, and rock like. A branch of cherry blossoms or a spray of foxglove would look nice in one of his pieces but otherwise they are best left to stand on their own.

A Passion for Wood Fire

The potters that Amedeo Salamoni features in his new book Wood-Fired Ceramics: 100 Contemporary Artists work in a variety of ways but all share a deep commitment to firing with wood. They are passionate about both the process and the results. Except for two, they all work at high temperatures, many to Cone 13 or 14.

The two notable lower temperature exceptions are Doug Fitch, the Devon slipware potter known for his medieval inspired jugs and jars, and Joy Brown who makes large, pillowy sculptures of people that she fires in her thirty-foot long anagama in the Litchfield hills of Connecticut. Fitch’s pots, made from clay he digs himself, are sprigged and glazed and reflect the warmth of the flames. Brown’s sculptures are made of Georgia clay and are unglazed. You can see the kiss of the fire on the surface.

Salalmoni includes more functional potters than sculptors though many work in both realms. Each artist is given two pages, occasionally more, for an artist’s statement, photographs of individual works, and at least one kiln shot. This is a great way to get an overview of the field. The photographs are very good. Because each artist has written his or her own statement, most are in the first person but a few are in the third, and one, startlingly switches between persons. Oh unpredictable artists!

Reading through the book, we visit Simon Leven who in addition to making his own sturdy pots for the kitchen and table, has taken on the responsibility of creating a map of wood kilns throughout the world. You can see it at www.simonlevin.com/worldmap. We also encounter legendary wood-fire potters Jack Troy, John Leach and Fred Olsen. We meet Linda Christianson, Randy Johnston, Eva Kwong, Ginny Marsh, Alex Matisse, Jeff Shapiro and Joy Tanner. There are highly refined works, lightly salted or glazed. There are pots that are heavily encrusted with ash and the marks of shells. Many have a love affair with heavy reduction.

I smiled reading that ten years ago Ron Meyers built his first wood kiln at the age of seventy. His fires last sixty hours “with a reduction cooling segment that adds another six or seven hours.”

With room for only 100 artists, one immediately notices who is absent – all those represented by Goldmark for instance, such as Phil Rogers and Ken Matsuzaki and Nic Collins  – but that is the nature of a book like this. Karen Karnes is absent. Todd Piker is missing. Perhaps a second volume will be in the offing.

Though not at all an instructional book, there is an appendix with illustrations of 14 kilns, and another with firing logs. There is also a good short bibliography and some clay, glaze and slip recipes.

This is the kind of book that even though reading it will take you out of the studio for a day, and even if you never plan to fire with wood, you will come away inspired. I know I did.

Golden Age of Karatsu Stoneware

François Villemin became fascinated with Karatsu stoneware while living and working in Japan for twenty years. He began eagerly collecting the boldly potted sake bottles, bowls, cups and plates that were made during the last quarter of the sixteenth century into the seventeenth century on the southern island of Kyūshū. As he collected, he did extensive research, visiting the old kiln sites, examining shards, reading, and talking with archaeologists. The result is this lovely book from Schiffer, The Golden Age of Karatsu Stoneware.

“Beautiful things are often shrouded in mystery and the ceramics of Karatsu follows this rule,” he writes. He goes on to say that there is uncertainty about when the first kilns were made in the area and who made the earliest Karatsu wares. The long held theory is that Korean potters were forcefully abducted and brought to Japan. “…it is generally accepted that the Japanese expeditionary force dragged out and marched off peasants with the intention to put them to work in the Kyūshū rice fields…The Japanese also took with them traditional…craftsmen such as printers, metal founders and potters.” Vellemin speculates that the Koreans could have come of their own will, afraid to stay behind lest they be accused of collaborating.

Whatever happened, we know that the Koreans brought with them a strong ceramics tradition, the skill to build huge kilns capable of high temperatures, and spare but evocative brushwork.

Villemin looks at the earth-toned Karatsu glazes, made from rice straw ash, wood ash, feldspar and iron; the various decorating techniques; and of course the kilns and firing methods. The first kilns were the anagama, followed by the oogama and then the multi-chamber, climbing waratake kilns which could hold thousands of pots. Though overgrown with trees, the crowns fallen in, the sites of many of these kilns are known and treasured today. Villemin lists and maps the old kilns, visited many sites, and tells us whether they were used to produce “high-status dishes” or “common dishes.” This would be very useful if one were planning a trip to Japan.

The book includes diagrams, lots of photos of both intact pots and shards, and, if one reads Japanese which alas I don’t, an appealing bibliography.

Printing On Clay

Potters have been printing on clay in one fashion or another for millennia. Six thousand years ago the Sumerians made stamps and cylinders to impress their soft clay. Minoan and Mycenaean potters used sponges dipped in colored slips to make splatter prints on their wares (a process revisited and made popular by nineteenth century Scottish potters as an inexpensive way to decorate pottery for people of modest means). The great nineteenth century factory potteries of England perfected the art of transfer ware, creating richly detailed images on their plates and platters. Modern potters use silkscreen, photographic techniques, monotype and monoprint techniques, block prints, decals, photocopies and computers to print on their works. This year, we have three new books on the vast and ever changing topic of printing on clay.

Paul Andrew Wandless, writing for Lark Crafts, gives us two looks at printing on pottery. He is the juror for 500 Prints on Clay and the author of Image Transfer on Clay: Screen, Relief, Decal & Monoprint Techniques. 500 Prints covers a wide range of work, with luscious images of each piece. Personally, I do not think polymer clay belongs in a book like this, though I have no objections to the medium itself: it is not clay but a petroleum product. And I wonder about repurposed “post consumer” crockery.  But that’s me. As with all the 500 series, it is a pleasure to spend an hour or two going through all the photos. It is stimulating to see what others are doing, especially when it is very different from your own work. The pieces include many riffs on books, birds and oddly, guns. I like the books and birds.

In Image Transfer on Clay, Wandless gives detailed instructions for various methods of putting pictures on clay, including how to make your own silkscreens, decals, and stencils and how to cast a slab. This is a heavily illustrated, step-by-step book.

Considerably different in scope, Paul Scott’s Ceramics and Print was recently updated with a third edition. Scott was an early innovator in using print on studio ceramics and has done extensive research and experimentation. His book focuses on history and process. He tells us right from the outset, that it is not a how to book. Yet, he does share tips. In describing spongeware, he tells us that potters wishing to make sponge stamps today will find it helpful to soak and freeze the sponge in advance so that it is easy to carve.

Scott discusses everything from lithophanes to 3D printing. As you know, I have a bias towards books with ceramics history, so it will not surprise you that I liked Ceramics and Print best and recommend it even if you have no plans whatsoever to start printing on clay.

While reading these three books, I remembered a video of Kristina Bogdanov’s surprisingly simple method for photo lithography on clay using a Xerox machine that Ceramics Arts Daily posted. If you want to get started printing on clay, this video is worth a look.

My Guy Wolff Book At Last

There are a half dozen books on my reading pile that I want to tell you about, but, exciting news, at least for me, my new book, Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden is shipping to bookstores now and should start arriving next week. It is, at last, an object that you can touch, pick up and turn the pages and yes, read. And it is beautiful! Between Guy’s wonderful pots and Joe Szalay’s stunning photography, and the excellent design work at UPNE, it is something to behold.

A book lives in one’s head for a very long time, and then there are editors and designers and indexers and sales people, and it is no longer your own, but still, it is not real and for the most part, it remains in your head, and on your computer screen and the screens of your publishers. Until, one day it is printed and bound and becomes real. For Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden, that day has come.

Guy is very well known in horticultural circles where his pots are highly prized. He’s a fast thrower, moving, literally, tons of clay a year. His pots are visually strong, robustly thrown, and connect with people on subconscious and emotional levels. In this biography, I have tried to capture him on the page, using his own words as much as possible. I was fortunate in being able to interview a number of people who shared their Guy Wolff stories – Hannah McAndrew, Todd Piker, Gordon Titcomb, Peter Wakefield Jackson and others, (and thank them immensely). The book is a look at Guy’s life in clay, how he came to be the potter he is, his ideas on the making of a good pot, and the pots and potters, especially the old time potters, that influenced him.

Joe photographed many of Guy’s pots and some of the early pots that he has collected and reveres (they reside in the loft over his workshop). He also brings us into Guy’s shop where we see the pots on his shelves, the tools on his walls, watch him throw, and glimpse his wife Erica’s gardens which feature some of Guy’s very large pots.

I think if you are a potter (and who but potters reads this blog), you will find Guy’s story interesting. If you are a gardener and own or covet his pots, you will enjoy knowing more about the man who made them. There is considerable flowerpot history in the book too, as Guy is an expert on early English and American pottery. I am hoping that even beyond our world of mud and plants, people will find his life by the hand, with its ups and downs, his work for Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Joe Eck and others, intriguing.

Joe and I will be visiting a number of bookstores to autograph copies. Guy will be at a few special events. A list is on the Event page of my website.

Meanwhile, I have a making list that is long, so I will be in the studio, and the gardens need attention, but I will get to that stack of books that I want to share. My next book project, also with Joe, is on Sunken Gardens, and after that, a biography of a specific pot and the very different ways it has been perceived by various cultures through the years.

Simon Leach on Making Pots

No matter how long you have been potting, you can always learn something new. That’s the nature of a craft that is so ancient. For this reason, I always look at how-to books, even very basic ones. And being an admirer of his work, I have especially been looking forward to Simon Leach’s book, written with Bruce Dehnert, Simon Leach’s Pottery Handbook.

Leach is the grandson of Bernard Leach and the son of David Leach. He fooled around in his dad’s pottery as a kid, but left to become an engineering apprentice at a helicopter factory. He loved making balsawood model planes and thought aircraft was the thing for him. To his dismay, it was painfully boring, and when the opportunity arose, he left to travel. Out of money, he went to work for his father for “six months” and discovered that indeed, pottery was for him. Six months stretched into years. When his father asked him if he would like to run the pottery, he decided to go out on his own. He has subsequently had potteries in England, Spain and now the US.

Leach has produced more than 800 YouTube videos on making pots and has an extensive following. The book comes with two DVD’s and has pages and pages of thorough illustrations. This is primarily a handbook of throwing. He does talk about glazes and firing but not about handbuilding. The premise is, that with the book and the DVD’s you can learn to throw on your own. I think you could.

What I personally learned from the book is an interesting way to use wood ashes. Yes, ashes again. He burns them in a metal lid, sifts them and mixes them with water to make a thin liquid, which he runs through an 80-mesh sieve. Then, depending upon the temperature he is firing to, he adds Gerstley Borate or Feldspar. He sprays the mixture onto the exterior of a bisque pot with an atomizer. There is a delightful photo of Leach blowing through the mouthpiece of his atomizer. The results are very beautiful.

I sometimes sprinkle ashes onto my damp pots (I single fire). Or I give a bone-dry pot a light wash of Gerstley Borate and Yellow Ochre and then sift ashes onto the surface. But I like the look Leach is achieving with his method: it is more organic and speaks of wood and flames.

The book has a spiral binding, which is not my favorite type of binding because the pages can rip out. But if you are using to book to learn to throw, with the spiral binding, you can open the book and lay it flat so that you can easily see two pages at once.  You could open it to the chapter you are working on, and glance at it as you work.

The DVD’s contain short videos to accompany the chapters. Leach explains what his hands are doing. You know he is having fun, because now and then he starts to hum or whistle! His motto, on the videos and throughout the book, is “Keep On Practicing.” A good motto for all of us!

Krevolin Collection

Disclosure: About six years ago Lewis Krevolin phoned and asked if he could come and talk to me about writing an essay for an exhibit of his collection of pre-contact pottery. Intrigued, I said yes, and he and his wife Jenny drove down to Connecticut from upper New York State and over tea and coffee, we discussed the project. I was immediately fascinated with Krevolin and his collection and of course I agreed to write the piece. After I accepted the assignment, he sent me notes and images of his amazing collection.

Krevolin, not exactly a household name, has had an amazing career in the arts. He attended Alfred University where he studied ceramics, art history and design. He worked as an industrial designer for several illustrious firms, eventually creating his own line of dinnerware. In 1965 he began teaching at Dutchess Community College where he remained a popular member of the art faculty for twenty-five years, teaching ceramics and design. Two years after beginning his teaching career, he published Ceramics, which he wrote with Elizabeth Constantine. In the late eighties, he founded Archatrive to make “Deconstructionist Furniture and Decoration” by repurposing artifacts. Recently, Krevolin exhibited his quilts made of old tobacco cloths at the Montgomery Row gallery in Rhinebeck.

Throughout this illustrious career in the vernacular arts, Krevolin has had a deep interest in pre-contact pottery and amassed an extraordinary collection of these beautiful pots. He is particularly interested in how each pot was made and has spent considerable time coming to understand the forming and firing techniques for each piece in his collection. He worked with National Geographic and later showed his pots at the Museum of the American Indian. By the time he came to see me, he had given his pre-contact pots to the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University.

I wrote my piece, which Krevolin said he liked. Susan Peterson was also to write an essay, but sadly, she passed away. Ezra Shales then wrote a piece and Krevolin of course, wrote much about the pots. I was generously paid but the project seemed to falter. The museum closed to undergo renovations, delayed the exhibit, and seemingly, was not eager to publish the book. I made multiple phone calls to determine the status (books are not just about the money, they are about readers) and then I stopped thinking about it. Too bad for Krevolin, whom I had come to admire, and his collection, which I considered important, and too bad for me, but publishing, especially museum publishing, is a fickle world.

So imagine my astonishment when googling something else entirely, I came upon Out of Clay: The Krevolin Collection of Pre-Contact Pottery: A Study Guide published by the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art Alfred University! I immediately ordered a copy from the Museum and I must say, it is lovely.

The book: There are over 200 photos of the pots (not the entire collection), with descriptions, dates, the name of the culture that produced each piece, the location (provenance), and what Krevolin determined about the manufacturing process (such as oxidizing fire, burnished, coiled, molded, etc.). A vast array of cultures is included: Mississippian, Chavin, Inca, Chancay and more.

The book is divided into two illustrative sections, Form and Function and Surface and Narrative and within those there are subsections such as Spouts and Handle; Bottles; Building Tooling and Stamping; and Painted Decoration. You can spend hours with this book (I did and will again). It is meant to help the viewer, especially a student of ceramics or a visitor to the collection, to fully understand the pots.

Krevolin writes of pre-contact pots made in the Western Hemisphere, “…I argue that calling the craft of low-fired unglazed pottery primitive is a form of western elitism that discounts the completely controlled first step in the evolution of the story of ceramics technology. We do not call Etruscan or Greek pottery primitive…why can’t we compare a Mayan painted clay cylinder with painted Etruscan or Greek wares and recognize that they both were made within the same primary technology?”

Out of Clay is a deep appreciation of pre-contact pots. It is a statement of Krevolin’s strong belief in their high place in the ceramic canon. It is not about history or culture nor is it a theoretical critique. It is a book of intense focus, simply and boldly about the pots; a celebration of their good design and manufacture. Krevolin loves and admires these pots. He wants us to come to the same appreciation. That is his mission. With Out of Clay he has succeeded.