In a previous blog, regarding the emotion of sentimentality in relationship to pottery and the creative process, I offered George Ohr as a model of a male who displayed a variety of emotional elements in his personality and pottery. He was a true eccentric, bawdy and lustful in his ceramic brothel tokens and other aesthetic and personal vulgarities. Now, I would like to counter some of the stereotypes just discussed about women by offering you one of the great American woman potters, every bit as eccentric and notorious in her way as George Ohr. Of course I am talking about Beatrice Woods. I have been to her former home in Ojai, California, several times, now a museum and workshop for visiting potters. It is situated in a lovely landscape, up in the rolling hills just outside Ojai. There is also an exhibit there with plenty of photographs, text and of course her luster pottery, that tells the legendary exploits of this woman who lived to be over 100 years old, took many of the great artists of the 20thcentury as her lovers and friends, and had an independent and passionate spirit that lasted until the very last day of her very long life.
In his book, “Shards: Garth Clark on Ceramic Art”, Clark has a very touching essay on Woods, titled “A True and Romantic Pragmatist”. He featured her several times in his gallery over the years. I want to provide you two segments of that essay here,
“We were friends for twenty years, and I know why her lovers clung to her friendship even after the passion had passed. Wood has a way of bringing light and optimism into one’s life. Witty, positive and a fascinating raconteur, she was able to communicate her enthusiasm for life and for the present. While she may have enjoyed telling stories from her long life, she never lived in the past. She was an extraordinary friend. Almost every momentous event of my life during our friendship is punctuated with a letter from Beatrice, congratulating, encouraging, commiserating. I never knew where she found the time to write these elegant, warm, poetic notes. Many times I did not even know how she had found out about those moments.”
In the last passage in this essay, Clark mourns the recent passing of this vibrant and unique person,
“To say that I will miss her is strangely incorrect. There are some people whose passing cannot lessen their presence in one’s daily life. Certainly, I mourn that I cannot drop in at her studio and home in Ojai and enjoy her laughter, and lively discussions about art, sex and politics. I will miss the aromatic meals off her glittering plates. I will miss walking after her as she shuffled barefoot to her studio to show me the latest ‘horrors,’ as she jokingly referred to her newly fired work in the kiln. But death alone cannot take away a spirit as vital and contagious as that of Beatrice Wood. She lives on in the life of her many friends, and one must compliment God for the wisdom of allowing her to stay somewhat longer than the average mortal. Certainly she used that time wisely and played out a life that shimmered, glittered, sparkled and seduced every bit as much as the luster pots she made for the last sixty-five years.”
Clark has provided us not only a sensitive tribute to a dear friend recently deceased, but something about this woman and the way she choose to live her life. Her life was a work of art as well as her luster pottery. She dared to create herself and insist that others make room for her. She was born to wealth and privilege but shunned the life it offered and went her own way. She gave up the superficial respectability that her privileged origins provided, but she gained a greater and truer respect in developing her unique person-hood and pottery.
Our Way in the World
You might respond to my portrayals of both George Ohr and Beatrice Wood by saying they were rare characters, larger than life, and we can’t all be that spectacular in our behavior and character. I would agree with you. Each of us must find our own way of being in the world. But I hope we would both agree, however we are able to demonstrate it, that passion for life and passion for work are essential components for a rich and meaningful quality of life. I am a quiet, shy man in many respects; a short, bald-headed, bookish man that in retirement spends much of my time in the solitude of my home with my books and pottery. Yet a flame still burns and flickers in my soul and I greet each day and the morning sun with an increased tempo of anticipation, marshaling all the energy still at my command at this late time in my life, engaging the day and all the potential splendors and wonders that each day brings to me. I think what I have just said constitutes a summary and definition of a passionate life. How would you describe your life passions?
Searching for Beauty
I wrote a book about searching for beauty and many of the readers of this blog have devoted their lives to creating beauty with clay. This commitment to beauty, however one might define the qualities that make up beauty, also contains, according to some, the elements of the erotic and the quality that we call love. The study of the beautiful is contained in that field of scholarship called ‘Aesthetics”. However academics might wish to shape this discussion into formal theory and reduce it to analytical thought, this study of beauty is essentially a study of feelings. The following quote reinforces the commentary by Garth Clark in his tribute to Beatrice Woods. Here is the quote, in the book, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”, an anthology edited by Dave Beech, in an essay by Kathleen Marie Higgins titled “Whatever Happened to Beauty?” Higgins talks about the relationship of beauty to our emotions.
“When beauty transforms raw emotion in times of loss, does it necessarily make us more ‘philosophical’, in the colloquial sense of more stoical, more distanced from the wound we have suffered? Loss, besides provoking pangs of anger, regret, and sadness, has a deadening influence on the person engulfed by it. Loss is depressing. The bereaved often doubt that they can continue in a world devoid of a loved one. Enter beauty. Beauty makes the world seem worthwhile again. Plato described our stance towards beauty as erotic. We are drawn to beauty. Beauty incites ardor. It is the bridge to sense that reality is lovable. Plato, as much as Kant, would say that beauty makes us philosophical. But for Plato this means that beauty makes us fall in love with what is perfect. I want to suggest that beauty typically, perhaps especially in times of loss, urges not stillness but renewed love of life. Beautiful elegies reflect our sense that the only fitting remembrance for one who lives is to renew life, and that our own march forward into dying is itself an affirmation that life, in its basic character, is good.”
We are moving from discussion of that utilitarian passion that accompanies physical sexuality to a generic or cosmic sense of passion as the very stuff that allows an affirmation of life, that makes life good, that celebrates beauty; all this can be accomplished by a special intensity and rush of feelings that brings excitement and joy in our ordinary and daily attempts to cope and survive. Ceramic artists provide those concrete objects that can set off these celebrations of the spirit. I think we have now established beyond any shadow of a doubt that pottery are indeed containers of passion. It is the transfer of that passion to someone like me, who tries to bring his entire self to that engagement that sparks my own transformation to a heightened state of aesthetic arousal. I can only conclude, and perhaps you were not aware of this before, but for those of you that are represented in my pottery collection, we do indeed have a very intimate and passionate relationship. We need not alarm others by disclosing it. I will deny all rumors.
The Comforts of Home
I am in my pottery gallery right now, just finishing some iced tea. The air-conditioned interior resists the intrusion of a very warm afternoon. I am surrounded by pottery, surrounded by beauty. I would like to feel that I am not only a docent of the pottery in my home, but also the custodian of the passionate efforts that the makers invested in the creation of that pottery. I try to honor the potter in attempting to provide protection for the pottery. We are both invested, maker and collector, we both care very much. I am not embarrassed by proclaiming my feelings, by caring; by feeling both the joy of my close proximity to those things I love, but also, as indicated in the quotes by Clark and Higgins, the pain of possible loss, the fragile and often dangerous connection between passionate love and the universal status of our tenuous mortality and those uncontrollable disasters that can claim what is precious to us. We should not avoid loving in order to evade the pain and loss later on. If you should sometime in the future read in the newspapers that a violent earthquake hit Glendora, think of my destroyed pottery collection, and remind me of what I have just said.
We can hone the ability to express our feelings as we can further develop our skills in expressing our thoughts and creating the artifacts that reflect them. In writing this text, I am trying to express my feelings about my feelings. I think that is also an interesting idea. When caught in the moment of intense feeling, we are one with that sensation and situation. We are on intimate terms with that thing or person that stimulated our response. But later, after our removal from that intense moment, how do we make sense and learn from our passions? Can we develop the capacity to meditate on those moments that others might say we temporarily lost critical control of ourselves? Can we gain wisdom from our emotional experiences as well as from our thoughts?
We tend to know when we are trying to think something out and then make a mistake. It might be a mistake of fact or a conclusion unsupported by available evidence. I read and evaluated thousands of student papers through the years in which I would point out such errors. But how do we know when we have made a mistake of passion? We can’t check out the facts or google some information that might rectify and correct our thinking. Affairs of the heart are much more difficult to correct. And they might very well require a time for healing not necessary for more intellectual matters. Our emotions are much more tender than our thoughts. There is a safer distance involved in our opinions about things. We could disagree on what our foreign policy should be right now on what to do about Syria. I would not find that upsetting. But if someone thought my intense feelings about my pottery collection were silly and told me so I would be really upset. You do not display disrespect for another person when you happen to disagree with that person’s opinion about something, but you cannot be said to respect another person if you do not respect that person’s feelings. It is so much easier to ridicule a person’s emotions than a person’s thoughts.
I will continue this discussion in Part three regarding the role of passion in the creative process and pottery as a container of that quality.
Pottery as Emotional Containers: What Role Does PASSION and the Other Human Emotions Have in Pottery and the Creative Process? – Part 2July 3rd, 2012
Pottery as Emotional Containers: What Role Does PASSION and the Other Human Emotions Have in Pottery and the Creative Process? – Part 1June 19th, 2012
I am assuming that all readers of this blog are fully consenting adults. I would require some kind of identification and confirmation of your adult status before allowing you to read further but my meager knowledge of computers and the way they work forbid such regulation. We have the generic question – what is the role of passion in the creative process, in the arts, and in pottery in particular? I will try to restrain myself and maintain my decorum and not embarrass myself or any reader of this blog in leading this particular discussion. Passion in the widest definition of that term would mean any behavior or state of being that demonstrated great intensity of feeling, an exuberant emotional state that can take on physical and emotional dimensions in terms of aroused or celebratory behavior.
The Art of Passion
I am trying very hard to think of any passionate potters I know, but perhaps that emotion was thought best displayed elsewhere and not in my presence. Can the pot show passion if the potter cannot? What form does passion take both in the making of the object and in the final artifact that comes out of it? Can passion be an innocent emotion devoid of sensuality or is passion displayed outside sexuality a very poor substitute or sublimation for the real thing? I do hope you are prepared for this discussion. Please put away anything that might distract you and really concentrate on helping me through this blog. I might be mistaken but I do believe I have some very passionate pots in my pottery gallery. It would be rude of you to inquire if this very old man responds in kind. A lot of people think passion is an unseemly emotion for old people to display in any form or kind.
Is passion an ordinary emotion that all of us display in doing what we love to do? I am a passionate gardener though I doubt that this emotion is visible when I garden. Surely someone can see me every morning in the front garden, look at the spectacular, blooming results of my devotion, and realize my emotional investment. First if all, there is a level of caring in passion, then joy in performing that function or performance, and finally results external to you that you are responsible for and fully justify your efforts. I think all of us can locate in our lives such attitudes and activities. Can such a demanding emotion in terms of energy and focus deteriorate into automatic habit? Can you really spend years of your life with that soggy clay getting your hands dirty on the wheel and yet declare your continuing passion with that experience? Sadly, we know that passion can dissipate and die when associated with other human beings, that has often been the stuff of great poetry. Can it also fade and decline in those things you do that once brought you the greatest joy? How do you protect and preserve passion – with both people and pottery?
Can’t any burst of passion directed toward those objects and subjects of desire become a potential source of great pain and loss if that source of desire is not accessible or obtainable? Isn’t it safer to play it cool, not get too invested, not to take a chance? Doesn’t passion have to be in some sense reciprocal in order to bring personal satisfaction? My garden, in late Spring, is now giving me, in return for my loving attention, the most beautiful and glorious flowers. You have to take a risk when committing to your passions, and the outcome is always in doubt. The bedrock of all passions is the fundamental passion for life itself. I still have it though it has been severely tested at times during my life.
Creativity and Control
When applied to the creative process, does passion lead to innovation and vivid expression or does it distort the artifact by its excess? Don’t most potters believe that they have to control the entire process, plan and design the result, ensure that everything remains predictable and reliable? Doesn’t passion mean at least a partial loss of control; letting go and allowing previously unknown and unruly feelings play a role in the creative process? Isn’t the very idea of mastery in craft defined by the conscious management of a supreme skill, which allows no irrational deviation? How can you combine skill and passion? Aren’t they very unlikely partners at the potter’s wheel?
Passion in the Past
Let us first examine the relationship of passion to sexuality and relate that to pottery. If we go back to classical Greece, we can see vivid portrayals of nude men and boys on some of their pottery. I remember taking a group of high schools students to the Getty Museum in Malibu, CA many years ago and walking them through the galleries that contained nude sculptures and pottery. Sure enough, it didn’t take a few of the adolescent boys very long to locate that pottery that illustrated the aroused affection of those ancient Greeks of long ago. As for Classical sculpture and contemporary pottery in regard to eroticism, this was what I said in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, about this matter, ending with a quote from a book by Paul Mathieu,
“The nose and the penis are always the first to go. Fortunately contemporary ceramics are replenishing the latter. A quick perusal of the classical collection of Greek and Roman sculpture confirms my observation. I have just finished “Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics” by Paul Mathieu. I hide the book from my grandchildren and guests, bringing back warm memories of the surreptitious concealment of certain magazines and illustrations in my adolescence. I have obviously underestimated up to now just how exciting ceramics really can be. I browse the book, with ceramic evidence of projected penis and dented vulva on countless objects across history and cultures. I do continue to be concerned about the future durability of contemporary works with potentially vulnerable appendages. I fully appreciate the importance of pottery and clay objects in human ritual and the analogous references to the human body in the form and function of ceramic vessels that connect ceramics to human sexuality. Mathieu further explains this idea:
‘…ceramic objects and human bodies remain basically interchangeable as the metaphorical level, but also through somatic analogies within forms and parts. Pottery forms are presentations, abstractly, of human bodies. Through touch and direct contact, they are experienced intimately by bodies, and their inherent functions mimic as well as support bodily functions. This emphasis on tactile aspects, on physical touch, differentiates objects from images, which operate solely at the visual level.’”
Admittedly, this is a major departure from the serving of tea in fashionable 18th and 19th century drawing rooms with an elegant porcelain teapot and delicate cups and saucers, all hand painted with bright periwinkles or other such pretty flowers. We have established, both in classical culture and in contemporary ceramics, that pottery has been employed to portray human sexuality as inspired by the primal emotion of passion. We simply cannot label these historical references of thousands of years of human civilization as obscene or vulgar. Many are sublime homage’s to the regenerative capacity of humans to reproduce and others are in themselves ritual objects of that same fertility capacity as symbol and metaphor.
Passion – Gender Specific?
At one time in Western culture it was thought that the very existence, much less the expression, of passion was strictly a man’s prerogative. In the same sense, it was once thought that women were reluctant participants in sexual activity, the price they had to pay for domestic stability and the attainment of motherhood and family. Women who did demonstrate passion were thought limited to those who had become fallen women, devoid of respectability and not the type who married but were kept in another capacity. We have largely forsaken these sexist notions in our society but the residue of these attitudes still haunts us today. It is particularly ironic that women were once thought inherently emotional and thus inherently unstable. Yet the one emotion they supposedly lacked by their very nature was the emotion of passion. In contrast, men were allowed to be emotional in their display of passion as an integral part of their manhood but socialized to suppress all the other emotions as unmanly. When you think about it, this cultural construction of the emotional makeup of humans by gender didn’t make any sense for either men or women.
In the next blog I will continue this discussion.
Pottery as Emotional Containers: What Role Does Sentimentality and the Other Human Emotions Have in Pottery and the Creative Process? – Part 3May 25th, 2012
Nineteenth century Romanticism encouraged the expression of the emotions as integral to the creative act and to the resulting object or performance. Here the advocacy and activation of the emotions was at least partially a reaction to the technological mechanization resulting from the Industrial Revolution. This took place not only in music, drama, literature and the fine arts and other media but was expected to be demonstrated in the larger than life persona of the artist or performer. Here the artist as an eccentric and flamboyant character often took darker directions and there emerged the profile of the artist as a self-destructive agent of excessive consumption of drugs and drink and other assorted vices. The glorious culmination of the romantic life was the agonizing propensity for a final tragic fate. Off hand I don’t think craftspeople were usually included in this motley crowd and thus avoided both the notoriety and dangers of Bohemian life. I don’t recall stories of struggling potters, sunken in poverty and near starvation, throwing clay in dingy garrets on the left bank of Paris. Poets seemed to be far better in enjoying that fate.
There is a passage in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter”, that discusses aspects of Romanticism. The quote cites comments in a book by Nicols Fox titled, “Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives”, where I briefly introduce Fox after confessing my own romantic nature.
I am not sure what to label myself without offending friends, becoming foolish, or revealing my lack of sophistication. How can one confess affinity with nineteenth century romanticism without suffering ridicule? In a chapter entitled ‘Romantic Inclinations’, Nichols Fox describes this impulse:
” ‘Romantic’ was a way of seeing, a certain cast of light that could transform anything. In this new illumination, the imagination could play with the unfamiliarity of familiar things, accentuating the strangeness of the half-visible. This sensation of newness, of possibility, of transformation defined the word. This was the mind at playful work, allowed to range and create and interact with the ever-changing nature of reality. The Romantics’ priorities were with the exercise of imagination, with excess, with the mystical and, at times, the irrational. The natural world was a powerful and important place where God dwelt: human emotion, intuitions and yearnings were not simply valid, but vital, and could be trusted.’ ”
The pattern of commentary about emotions, including sentimentality, is beginning to form around patterns of definitions that reinforce each other. One is this question of the irrational. I have always assumed that to be irrational was to be out of control. Irrational behavior might lead to violence and other frightening things. What should be included under the umbrella of irrational behavior? Is the creative process a rational or irrational activity? Some artists and potters talk about the carefully controlled design of the ceramic form, the calculations of the chemicals in the glaze, the appropriate composition of the clay, the temperature in the kiln, the mastery of the wheel through disciplined procedures. Yet I have read and heard other potters talk about the excitement of the process, the surge of that creative spirit that can bring about unexpected results that deviate from past practices and seem to make no immediate sense. Well, how is it for you? Can you train a future potter through rational how-to-do-it lessons or is there something more that comes from the gut or the heart that no one can explain and no one can give to you?
Are the romantics right – can human emotions be trusted? I thought the sign of maturity was supposed to be the successful suppression of emotions. Are emotions only appropriate under certain conditions and at special sites? I would prefer that other drivers on the freeway restrain their emotions; certainly I would include the brain surgeon, especially if one is operating on me, and also the reader of this blog, particularly when disagreeing with me on some point I have just made. Do both anger and love involve a loss of control? Are some emotions good and other emotions bad? Is it difficult for emotional people to allow the full expression of some of the more benign emotions but suppress others who might do harm? I will now petition the Renaissance writer and sage, Montaigne, for his advice by way of a writer, Sarah Bakewell, who recently wrote a book about him. I have long depended on him as my mentor and guide through life. I know that he will not disappoint me.
Both sentimentality and vulgarity can be extreme emotions. Some have concluded that art requires one or both elements. Some others seek moderation far less exuberant. I want to refer to my good friend and mentor Montaigne in this regard. Sarah Bakewell, in her book, “How to Live” describes his essential moderation in this way,
“By singing the praises of moderation and equanimity, and doubting the value of poetic excess, Montaigne was bucking the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. This was why he so admired Espaminondas, the one classical warrior who kept his head when the sound of clashing swords rang out, and why he valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humors frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘good-will’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.”
Montaigne does identify some admirable emotions but emphasizes moderation in the expression of them. Notice that he advised all to avoid “the fiery furnace of inspiration”. To be sentimental one has to be inspired by optimism. The sense of well being derived from sentimental experiences justifies and reinforces that emotion. Despite the tantalizing pleasures of vulgarity, its great danger is when it is realized that vulgarity, like addictive drugs, often requires a greater and greater dosage to produce the resulting thrill. The inability of being shocked ruins vulgarity. Do you have a creative thermostat which switches off when you need to make a crucial decision in the creative process? Would you argue with Montaigne when he advised us to avoid “poetic excess?” Somehow, however much I admire Montaigne and am influenced by him, I don’t think he understood much about the creative process and those who practiced it.
There is one legendary American potter who never avoided ‘poetic excess’ in the display of his emotions. That potter was of course George Ohr. We all know the essential story here: an eccentric genius thought mad by some, a master at the wheel, long forgotten after death, boxes and boxes of his pottery stacked for years, his rediscovery decades later and his belated recognition as one of our greatest potters. Eugene Hecht, in his book, “After the Fire: George Ohr: An American Genius”, tells us about this strange fellow in the following two passages I have selected from his book.
“Surely, George was already being singularly idiosyncratic – when a vase inadvertently got chipped, he chipped it all around, turning the accident into a disquieting decorative motif. That gesture says a lot about his relationship to both the concept of accident and to the traditional notion of perfection so valued by the craftsman – but of course Geroge E. Ohr was an artist with a very different agenda. The craftsman seeks a kind of utilitarian perfection, the artist struggles to capture some essence of humanity, however imperfect. Constrained chance and spontaneity, driven by passionate intuition and an unfailing sense of the sensual, formed the basis of the dynamic process of creation Ohr was already evolving.”
Before I offer you the second quote from this book, I need to question you about what this statement means to you. Hecht established the differences between the craftsman who seeks a utilitarian perfection and the genius of George Ohr who was able to take advantage of the imperfections of human existence to capture some essence of humanity. Where are you? Where do you stand? Do you seek a utilitarian notion of perfection or the employment of that “constrained chance and spontaneity, driven by passionate intuition and an unfailing sense of the sensual” that Ohr demonstrated? Can devotion to both approaches result in great pottery? Ohr proves that mastery of the medium and creative genius in highly unique and expressive pottery can be partners and not rivals. Can you be rational on one hand and yet somehow irrational at the same time? Can you be emotional in the expressive power to create unique work and yet employ reason necessary in the sound construction of the object at the same time? Does your own pottery enjoy the integration of human creativity and the making of things? Ohr proves that emotion and reason were his allies in the creative process. How does your pottery prove this?
Now for the second offering from this book about Ohr. I do want you to know, without going into details, that Ohr was a vulgar man, an obscene man. Do you know about his brothel tokens? I won’t go into further details but in talking about Ohr and his genius, you are also talking about sensuality and lust as chosen elements in his life and work. American culture, given our religious traditions, has been historically very, very nervous about sexual aspects of passion and its unseemly association with aesthetics and art. Ohr breaks rules, conventions and supposed tenets of good taste along with creating great pottery. I really admire George Ohr but I am not sure I would want him as my next-door neighbor. My fire insurance rates might go up considerably, as a devastating fire once destroyed his studio and neighboring structures, along with badly scorching his pots. Here is more from Hecht about Ohr’s powerful emotions.
“Along the way he began turning the vaseforms thinner than he ever had before, and that made possible a whole new range of manipulative gestures that carried the work to a still higher level of expressiveness. The potter was there whirling each vessel into existence. And the sculptor was there, swiftly, spontaneously, taking each beyond itself; imbuing each with the wordless voice of humanity. Those were sure hands, confident in a mature, powerful intuition; an existential intuition that was all passion, grace, and wit, sensuality, and lust, and angst; an intuition that was the man. Liberated from the contemporary tenets of good-taste and energized by the self-assumed imperative to produce no-two-alike, Ohr was forever risking it all at the boundaries of his own wonderful imagination.”
Wow, that is a potent emotional cocktail that Hecht is attributing to Ohr. We have passion, grace, wit, sensuality, lust, and angst, all involved in “an existential intuition” that combined with “sure hands” that created pottery that articulated, again according to Hecht, the “wordless voice of humanity”. Listen up, my potter friends; we are talking about pottery that contains the wordless voice of humanity. Wow, I think we should pause here to really reflect on this. What potters would you place alongside Ohr in their capacity to provide some of the qualities that I think Hecht rightly accords to Ohr’s pottery? We are not talking about technique here or practical function. We are talking about the most profound and sublime feelings of human beings expressed with clay and taking the shape of pottery.
I am sure you could help me make this case with examples from many ceramic legacies and cultures. We could also select and honor those contemporary potters who have attained an expressive level with clay that communicates essential human emotions in a unique visual voice. We must assert with greater confidence the central placement of ceramic achievements in the arts with other supreme expressions of human culture from various media. I am going to continue this discussion of the emotional components active in the creative process in ceramics. Without this creative capacity and its proper recognition, pottery is restricted to domestic accessories that serve as household appliances. We need not be embarrassed by the utility that pottery offers in this capacity, but I think we have been habitually modest if not defensive in not fully celebrating the aesthetic and artistic elements that indeed have contributed grace, meaning and beauty to our world over centuries of human civilization.
Pottery as Emotional Containers: What Role Does Sentimentality and the Other Human Emotions Have in Pottery and the Creative Process? – Part 2May 10th, 2012
After bringing up these unsavory attitudes toward sentimentality, I going to take the risk and confess that I too have critical reactions to excessively sentimental depictions in various artistic media. It is not for the same reasons as discussed above. A film I saw recently inspired my reveries about sentimentality. Judy and I went out to dinner and a movie with friends on New Year’s Eve. We went to a huge mall not too far from us located in an adjoining suburb, connected by the freeway that runs close to our house and goes through a string of suburbs on its way to Los Angeles. We saw the film, “War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg. I had concerns about going to see the film, concerns about Spielberg’s tendency to make conventional Hollywood films even out of the most unconventional themes. We are due to see the play soon in a month or two. It originated in Britain and was adapted from a novel. I anticipate a very different experience with the play. The film served the standard Spielberg formula, with intervals of two rather brutal and realistic World War I battle scenes sandwiched between sentimental slabs of overripe storytelling lit by rose-colored skies. The visual scenes of the English countryside with those charming huts with thatched roofs have been seen before on calendars, jigsaw puzzles and on the covers of boxed candy. It was this combination of the inherent vulgarity of war and the sloppy sentimentality of the remainder of the movie that triggered the contents of this letter.
John William’s lush music lathered the film with sweeping and rolling romantic crescendos that constantly tugged at my heartstrings. Spielberg somehow succeeds in manipulating the audience to care only about the survival of the boy and his horse despite the graphic horrors portrayed of the war, bodies of young men piled in the trenches, rats gnawing corpses, all representing the bloody and savage end of prior European civilization. There is a faint and latent message embedded in the film that perhaps if men only loved each other as much as they loved horses we would have no more wars. It contained almost all the elements I dislike and find all too common in Hollywood movies.
I will offer this review of the film by Andrew Pulver, who, in the Tuesday 20 December 2011 edition of “The Guardian”, had this to say about the “War Horse”,
“Following hard on the heels of the rousing, if charmless, ‘Adventures of Tintin’, Steven Spielberg has opted for a lachrymose, buttery treatment of the Michael Morpurgo book-then-play, which is still packing them out in the West End. The original novel is famous for its horse-viewpoint narration, while the stage version is celebrated for its puppetry; Spielberg has jettisoned both of these (relatively) adventurous devices, and tells it pretty straight. But straight doesn’t mean unvarnished. From the first swooping shots of a chocolate-boxy English countryside, this ‘War Horse’ is rooted in a buffed-up sanded-down version of rural England, where even alcohol-fuelled poverty is given a picturesque, storybook patina.”
I do appreciate that at least Pulver agrees with me on this film. I seem to have two choices in engaging the arts today. Most media in popular culture offers a variation of the sentimental to lure a big box office. The other box office strategy is the vulgarity of violence. The avant-garde in the fine arts regularly offers the vulgar, often under the cover of claiming satire, but most often merely adding to the towering modern and postmodern achievements of the vulgar. A few of the most highly successful artists in the fine arts today have managed to achieve a deadly combination of both. My aesthetic tastes and standards do not appreciate the domination of either possibility. I can tolerate elements of both present in the artifact or performance but only as counterpoints to some greater purpose or meaning. If I reject the sentimental and the vulgar as aesthetic standards, what is left for me? I do not find the vulgar offensive but rather banal when its need to shock becomes a desperate strategy.
I do often find the sentimental offensive, trying to deceive me into believing in the ultimate triumph of a happy ending that ignores the fact that we cannot escape death. Life teaches you that there are thorns even on something as beautiful as a rose bush. Sentimentality requires experiences that successfully turn past reality into today’s fiction. In this case the falsification of past life transforms present life into a romance. Sentimentality becomes the emotional cemetery for our lives, the buried memories that are awakened and sweetened with the help of stimuli created for that effect. Sentimentality wisely avoids the significant and focuses rather on those intimate experiences and relationships of personal lifetimes. To be sentimental one has to demand that your memories of the past promise to faithfully tell you loving falsehoods. Sentimentality lacks the resources to be profound. But it just might make life worth living for those of us who have known great suffering. Sentimentality often becomes a well-intentioned lie justified for the purposes of overall morale. The lie is in what is left out, the harsh and cruel aspects of the human condition. It a lie of omission, necessary for the sweet bits and pieces to triumph in the one sided presentation stacked to make you feel very, very good.
Well, I do seem to have rather definite feelings about the employment of sentimentality in the arts, don’t I? It appears that most people might well disagree with me. The film, “Warhorse” was nominated for best picture for an Oscar, although it did fail to achieve that goal. You might well think it is one of the greatest films you every saw. I need to argue a bit with myself about my critical attitude. To love is to feel sentimental. Not just at that moment of joyful revelation, but hopefully ever afterward. Children would not want parents who were not endearingly sentimental in their feelings toward them and demonstrative in displaying those feelings. Judy and I are going to have our 40th anniversary later this year in the fall. We have been planning a trip, maybe to Europe, to celebrate the occasion. I have a rich memory bank of our lives together, things we have experienced together over the years and now share in our fond recollections. These rich memories form a sentimental web that wraps around and bonds our present lives. Yes, yes, I also feel quite sentimental about my old Golden Retriever, Morris, and to remain completely candid for at least another sentence or two, even though it might weaken my argument, I absolutely adore my 19th century Royal Doulton pottery that has bright and pretty hand-painted flowers against deep blue backgrounds. Do you get the feeling that I am a bit conflicted about the whole subject?
That said, I am going to get back to critiquing sentimentality. I do get so emotional about emotions. I want to compare this sentiment with another quite popular element in our society and in our arts, and that is vulgarity. I have a deep aversion and prejudice of anything sentimental or vulgar that achieves great popular or commercial success solely because of those attributes. In our world today, too often vulgarity and sentimentality have ceased being authentic human emotions. Today the demonstration of the vulgar and the sentimental are commercial activities and these emotions and the behavior they inspire become contrived for profit in the marketplace. When something vulgar becomes successful or acceptable it stops being vulgar. When something sentimental becomes a success, it remains sentimental. Sentimentality can be bonding in forming a community of people. Vulgarity separates people and can be most divisive. The new or unusual cannot be vulgar on those grounds alone and should not alone be the cause of alienation. The greatest curse of sexism for both men and women is to charge that women are naturally sentimental and men are naturally vulgar.
Again I must retreat and reconsider my brash declarations of personal taste. Almost all great art, even including the French Impressionists, were once declared to be vulgar as compared with the traditions and practices at the time. Any innovation or change at first appears to be an insult and challenge to what went before it. Sentimentality has a generosity and kindness that can be therapeutic even though on occasion most unrealistic. Vulgarity can celebrate those essential animal lusts that are authentic sponsors of our passionate and excessive expressions. Sentimentality can be used to overly domesticate the unruly powers that make great art possible.
Some who might be amused or even perplexed that I collect pottery might charge that contemporary pottery is in itself a sentimental attempt to retrain an obsolete way of making things. Plastic is practical, modern and tough. It is only the nostalgia of yesterday – a key ingredient in sentimentality – that keeps us making and collecting something called pottery. Now, don’t get upset. You know I don’t believe that for a minute. But isn’t sentimentality a key element in ceramic traditions? Can we justify maintaining and continuing artistic legacies practiced over centuries based on such a defense of continuity and tradition? Is the only way to make pottery modern to take an abstract expressionistic approach and tear holes and punch dents in them just like you know who? (Initials P.V.) I do have some rather modern pottery in my gallery that I hesitate to pour liquids in because they might leak. Is leaking pottery just more modern and less sentimental than the old fashioned pottery that doesn’t leak? Many modernists would assert that to be sentimental is to be weak and that anything sentimental in a work of art diminishes its artistic value and rigor. But isn’t a love of humanity central to a love of the humanities? Should we be that judgmental of it’s appearance in our art and culture? Maybe I am just a softy after all.
I am not through yet with sentimentality. On to the third part…
Pottery as Emotional Containers: What Role Does Sentimentality and the Other Human Emotions Have in Pottery and the Creative Process? – Part 1April 2nd, 2012
The supposed difference between what is called fine arts and what is called craft, including pottery, is that the former can contain profound expressions of human thoughts and emotions while the latter, at best, can become efficient in their function as objects made with great skill and mastery of the medium. The corollary to that is that one can engage and experience human emotions while engaging painting or sculpture but cannot extract that while engaging crafted objects, and this would include pottery in particular. Do we want to challenge that idea? I don’t know about you, but I have a house full of pottery and I think one or more human emotions are embedded in some form or another in them. I can certainly locate these emotions in me as I engage and experience them. Is that because I am obviously abnormal in my obsessive love of pottery and should seek immediate therapy? Or is it because the containers themselves house one or more aesthetic elements that represent these basic emotions? Would potters, usually a modest and humble lot, claim one or more of these emotional properties present in their own pottery?
The answer to these questions is of course more obvious in ceramic sculpture, where clay is used in a figurative or even abstract construct. Here ceramic artists can claim to be a part of that long and prestigious history of sculpture as a fine art medium. I collect antique and contemporary tiles and here again a long history of visual portrayals of human activities and natural landscapes places them within a tradition of narrative that can contain visual images and symbols more easily interpreted and translated into metaphorical aspects of essential human emotions. What can a teapot tell you? How can a vase or bowl convey or arouse strong feelings? Should I even try to prove my point with a teacup and saucer of all things? Maybe I should stop this discussion right now and just give up.
The very idea of emotions has never enjoyed a good reputation in the Western World. Emotions were associated with irrational behavior while the triumph of reason in the Age of Enlightenment was considered the true emergence of mature civilization. This idea that emotions are more primitive, less intelligent, less dependent, and more dangerous and had to be controlled and governed by reason is embedded in our history and culture. Art was once considered by some to be an unstable activity that threatened the order by stimulating the emotions. Plato condemned flute music as conducive to licentiousness. I am not sure how he regarded potters back then but surely potters are at least as dangerous as flute players. I can verify that every time I walk into my pottery gallery something really intense happens with my emotions that might fully justify Plato’s concerns.
In an essay by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins about “Emotions: An Overview” in the 2nd volume of the Oxford ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, they concluded this about the role of emotions in aesthetics,
“In contemporary aesthetics in the English-speaking world, the role of emotion is still a matter of considerable debate. Much of this debate turns on the nature of emotion, which, as this brief history suggests, is no simple matter. How we conceive of emotion depends not only on science but also on ethics, one’s conception of human nature and the good life. And to this short list we can add one’s conception of the arts and their role in the good life. Insofar as emotions are conceived as primitive, unintelligent reactions or forces, straining for release, then aesthetics will reflect the satisfications and dangers of such catharsis. On the other hand, insofar as one’s conceptions of the emotions become more complex and sophisticated, aesthetics will become more complex and sophisticated as well.”
Can craft have a sense of humor? Can there be a tragic element in pottery? Ever met a sensuous vase? Does something made of clay have to be called ‘ceramic art’ in order to possess these qualities? As with all questions I have asked you, I do not have a single or final answer. What do you think? I have always identified myself as a pottery collector. Pottery historically/traditionally has provided dependable service in the kitchen or dining room table. The function of pottery was to hold liquids and food in some essential form. Much of it continues in that noble role. I am very proud of that history and do not need to defend it here. But some people that work with clay, maybe even some who call themselves potters, do try to go beyond function, do try to integrate sentimental, tragic, sensuous or humorous elements in both the form and decoration of their work. Are some of you pottery purists who can’t accept that? I want to explore this with you, might even take a few blogs to try to sort this out. Are you with me?
Let’s approach the sentimental first. Of all these qualities, isn’t sentimentality the most often and common element present through the centuries in ceramics? Lots of pottery, from previous centuries especially, had hand-painted portrayals of sweet children or adorable animals or beautiful landscapes in ripe colors on porcelain pottery, surely enough to melt your heart. Does that give this kind of pottery a bad reputation today? In those industrial potteries in the 19th century women were restricted to painting or decorating pottery and not allowed to throw the pots themselves. Did this imply that not only was sentimentality inherent in the aesthetic taste of that time but also assumed that it was also an integral aspect of women’s nature and far easier for them to replicate on pottery?
It was of course other women in the domestic kitchens of that day that were using the pottery that their sisters in ceramic factories had decorated. Do we still think that sentimentality is thought more natural or normal for women than men? As a man, I resent the implication that a man can’t be as tender and sensitive as a woman. As an amateur gardener, I object to the fact that I have great trouble when I go shopping and find only gardening gloves and hats designed and sized for women. We now recognize that women can be and are great potters. We have made some progress in the last hundred years. Well, it works both ways. Men can be great gardeners too and why is that considered a women thing in our culture?
It is not fashionable for either men or women to be sentimental these days. For women, seeking full scope and definition of their human hood, sentimentality is a part of the old stereotype of them that held them back for so long. Some want to prove that they can be as tough and strong as any man. It is particularly important to display these qualities in the work world where they must compete with men. Many women, particularly if they are executives or elected to office, try very hard to avoid crying in public. Many men are insecure in demonstrating their feelings and emotions in public, assuming that this violation of traditional definitions of masculinity would result in damage to their manly image. Artistic activities of any kind were not always considered appropriate for ‘real men’ in the history of Anglo-Saxon societies. Perhaps men potters are considered more ‘macho’ because they can throw huge piles of clay on the wheel and are in better shape than those ‘sissy’ men artists that dab a canvas with a paintbrush. I felt this gender prejudice as a boy when I loved to paint and later as an art major in high school and as a young art major in college. Please tell me that it is long gone and buried.
I am looking around my pottery gallery right now as I sit at my desk and computer in the front of that big room and I do notice some blue vases, although offhand I can’t seem to find any pink ones. Should I assume that the blue ones were made by men or for them? Should I assume women made them if some vases have soft, pastel glazes? It gets kind of silly, doesn’t it? Yet we are talking about centuries of gender discrimination based on such ridiculous premises. Why should we assume that pottery was not impacted too? Do men and women potters escape from these limiting culture stereotypes today? Do women who purchase and collect pottery generally look for different things those men? I know many husband and wife teams of potters that work side by side in the same studio and display their work together in the same gallery. This was true in Seagrove, North Carolina where I visited late last year and was the subject of my previous three blogs here. What would they have to say about this issue of sentimentality?
I am really going to explore several rather provocative positions here. One is that the potter is no more innocent than any other maker or citizen of the republic. We are all products of a particular time and place and the orientation of the culture at that time and place is embedded in us too. If some influences are toxic or invidious, then they have to be consciously eradicated by a self-conscious purging of that cultural prejudice from our very being. Another is that the general culture impacts all of us and can contaminate, pollute, even corrupt the creative process (as well as inspire and inform it) at the potter’s wheel as well as any other site in the culture. In saying that, I would also balance that charge with full credit to the positive aesthetic and cultural influences that inspire great work and outstanding ceramics effects that are hopefully more dominant in our ceramic legacy and in your own work. As I have alluded to earlier, the chief accusation against sentimentality resides in the historic gender prejudice that it is a women’s trait and lacks the rigor and discipline of a masculine characteristic. I do not accept this idea, it is offensive to me, but it is an essential part of our history.
I am just getting warmed about the role of sentimentality and other emotions in aesthetics, craft and art. I will continue to explore the subject in the next blog.
North Carolina Pottery: Ceramic Traditions are Alive and Well in a Pottery Paradise in The Rural Countryside – Part 3February 1st, 2012
North Carolina Pottery Center and
Bulldog Pottery – Bruce Gholson & Samantha Henneke
We followed the map provided to us at the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove. This center is a wonderful place to start your Seagrove ceramic adventure. It has ongoing pottery exhibits of the local potters as well as a collection on display of the historical achievements of families of potters in the area over many generations. We made a much sought after discovery while in Seagrove. Bulldog Pottery had been recommended to me as one of the best places during our first trip to Seagrove many years ago. No one seemed at home at Bulldog Pottery during that first visit and again when we visited for the second time a few years later. This time our determined effort really paid off. We met the two outstanding ceramic artists represented here – Bruce Gholson and Samantha Henneke. The work on display in their gallery was astonishing. We met and talked with these two friendly and welcoming people. Judy and I decided on a very large and stunning vase by Bruce. It was the most expensive pot we bought on this visit to Seagrove but well worth it. Today it is situated on a Japanese lacquer box in our living room. The unique flow of vivid glazes running down this tall vase offers continuing pleasure for us. These two devoted craftspeople epitomize the great pride and dedication of the Seagrove community to the highest levels of ceramic mastery. By the way, Bruce expressed surprise when I told him that we have tried two times before to visit their gallery and failed to find anyone home. He assured us that their absence from this site is actually quite rare. Bulldog Pottery was well worth the effort to locate and to finally receive the full benefits of meeting Bruce and Samantha and obtaining one of their very special ceramic artifacts.
Whynot Pottery – Mark & Meredith Heywood
I have been to Whynot Pottery on previous visits. We have two or three pieces of their work in our pottery gallery at home. This time I got a chance to meet and talk with Mark Heywood, who, along with his wife, Meredith, are the potters and owners of this establishment. We choose a lidded vase with a rich impasto of running glazes in golden hues. I try to introduce myself in a way that will convey my long involvement and dedication to pottery as a collector, lecturer, and writer without sounding self-important or pretentious. I also try not to initiate a passionate and lengthy tirade about the pleasures incurred in my experiences in these various capacities. Judy has warned me that my enthusiasm can result in a dense rush of commentary that can be overwhelming to the newly introduced potter. Most potters forgive my excess. Regardless, I found potters in general most responsive to those of us who display genuine investment in our mutual devotion to ceramics.
I want to include a quote about Seagrove pottery from a fine book, “The Remarkable Potters of Seagrove: The Folk Pottery of a Legendary North Carolina Community” by Charlotte Vestal Brown. This is what she had to say,
“Understanding the chemistry that seems to pervade this amazing congregation of potters is not easy. It is tempting to see parallels between the potters’ personalities and their work….These makers are complex, talented, and, above all, private people. The work they show represents but a facet of the world in which they live. The work we see is the result of huge efforts and long years of questioning their personal visions and goals and of struggling to attain a satisfying standard. We never see what is thrown away. All of the Seagrove potters are driven by an individual ideal of perfection, to make nothing less than strong and consistent work. Some have goals that drive them perpetually to make new kinds of work, work that is sometimes vastly changed from what came before, sometimes only a few throws different from yesterday’s jug. Of such progress, Pam Owens said, ‘we take baby steps,’ and I don’t believe she means justly small steps, but explorative, experimental ones, to find the best ways to make their wares. These potters consistently make work that speaks directly, without benefit of their makers’ intervention. I walk into a shop and wait for the work to speak to me in the voice that the potter has chosen. I don’t always know if the clay is local or commercial, if the kiln is gas or wood, if the maker mixed her own glazes or not. Of course I usually am able to identity all these things, but first comes the voice of the work itself. The ability of these people to elicit powerful feeling through their work is part of what makes me go back to the area again and again. Sometimes I need a new mug, sometimes a plate or a vase, and sometimes I just need to escape to a place that I know is not like where I live. Some of the potters’ favorite stories are those that tell of the difference their work makes in the lives of those who use it. What more could one ask for than to know that the work of one’s hands could cheer, comfort, amuse, and enrich a person’s daily life?”
I want to refer back to Jugtown Pottery. We returned to this historic pottery as we have on every previous visit. Vernon Owens grew up working in his dad’s shop, learning and working along side his father, M.L. Owens and his uncle Walter Owen. He started working at Jugtown in 1960, over fifty years ago. Today he and his wife, Pamela Lorette Owens, a gifted potter in her own right, are partners in this enterprise. They have been joined by their son, Travis, who stared making pots at age 2 and now works full time at the pottery. They have a great museum at this pottery, which has samples of generations of local potter’s who created their pottery while at the Jugtown Pottery. Judy and I took a leisurely stroll through the rooms of the gallery, enjoying the classic designs of Jugtown pottery carried on by Vernon and Pam Owens. We noticed larger vessel forms and more intense glazes on some of the ceramic pottery. These were recent work by Travis, who is offering a new generation of contemporary statements that emanate from past traditions but provides his own unique creative infusion. We purchased one of his vibrant pots and were quite pleased when he came out to meet and talk with us. It is very reassuring to know that he is quite willing and able to continue the work of his family into the coming decades. We also purchased a fine pair of candlesticks by Vernon in that frog skin glaze long celebrated by Jugtown.
We returned to a pottery we knew well in Seagrove, Westmoore Pottery and the work of David and Mary Farrell. They came to Seagrove in the 1970’s, first as apprentices at Jugtown, then stayed on to establish Westmore Pottery. Here they create redware plates and pots faithful in many ways to the German and Pennsylvania work made by Moravians of Central Europe in earlier centuries. They make dinnerware decorated by stylized floral forms, bands of color and other designs, all made by slip trailing on the surface of strong red clay intensified by a clear glaze. We already had a big, stylized chicken and a plate obtained on previous visits. I spotted a large brown pot with a base relief face of a beautiful, old bearded man. I immediately recognized that I saw that same face every morning when I looked in the mirror so I had to have it. The Farrell’s are focused on taking a particular pottery tradition that came to North Carolina with some early settlers and to continue that tradition with variations that can be directly traced to the source of their inspiration. At the same time the work is not only charming but also novel because of their unique distinction of seeking to preserve and continue a cultural tradition of long standing.
A Collector’s Reasoning
How can I justify all these purchases of something as non-essential as pottery? Is it a foolish self-indulgence, particularly at my time of life? Should I have long stopped the acquisition of pottery and rather concern myself with how I am going to dispose of it? Do I dare claim that my acquisition of pottery is somehow a more noble impulse than those who prefer to do their shopping at Wal-Mart or Target? Is not the raw lust of consumerism behind all such activities? Schiller, the German Romantic poet of the 19th century, discussed this issue and I responded to his comments in my 46th letter to Christa Assad,
“One cannot easily shift consumer desires from commercial and manufactured commodities to the more ephemeral objects of aesthetic refinement. It is difficult, as creatures of habit, to accord objects of beauty a different status than those objects bought off the shelf in other consumer transactions. How can we claim a special endowment and more noble intention in seeking to secure a work of art? The desire of acquisition, ‘restless and plagued by imperious want’ as stated by Schiller, might obtain the object, but it cannot give you the resources to appreciate the beauty of the object. How do we attain that ‘higher power and greatness’ inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful? Without beauty, is not consumerism, even possessed by those with the ability to sponsor extravagant purchases, finally a state of ‘exhausted desire’?”
I am fully aware that there are many creative centers and communities of pottery making in other regions of America as well as elsewhere in the world. Why do I find so much encouragement and hope when I travel to North Carolina and Seagrove in particular? I am truly inspired when I encounter a new generation of potters, in an area where pottery making goes back well over two hundred years, potters like Travis Owens and Alex Matisse who are determined to further that ceramic legacy into the future. I want to believe that pottery has that kind of future, still attracting young people who see purpose and pleasure in creating that pottery whose existence has brought me such aesthetic joy over my lifetime. I also profoundly respect that older generation of potters who have not only contributed great pottery of their own but have provided leadership and training to those who aspire to reach the same level of mastery and achievement that they have already accomplished.
I cannot predict the future, particularly the future where I will no longer be around to observe and experience. I do see great hope and concrete evidence of the vitality and creative endeavors of the makers of pottery. I do not think that external circumstances or current events in the world can ever totally obstruct or defeat that primal drive to take a wad of earth and shape a memorable container of timeless beauty out of it. I am grateful to be a part of that web of people who either make or celebrate pottery. It is a very good thought to have as I experience the last days of this year. I fully accept my portion of responsibility in this relationship. I will continue to make every effort to further develop that “higher power and greatness inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful.” This endeavor can never be fully completed but gives me ample reason to look forward to the next day and the day after that and the coming new year and even beyond.
Note: If you would like to view an aerial map of Seagrove’s pottery community click here.
North Carolina Pottery: Ceramic Traditions are Alive and Well in a Pottery Paradise in The Rural Countryside – Part 2January 18th, 2012
Judy and I are partners in our joint venture of collecting pottery. While I was talking to Mark Hewitt in his studio, she went into a large gallery space and picked out one vase among the many there she wanted to take home with her. I eventually left Mark to join her and she told me she had already made her choice without identifying it and told me to do the same. I walked through the large space and finally, after several minutes of intense concentration, pointed to one vase on a shelf in the corner of the gallery. We had picked out the same vase. This is not only an indication of our close aesthetic affinity, but also a very good omen for the harmonious continuation of our already rather extended relationship. Tradition, according to Mark Hewitt, should not be considered a toxic or invidious term in regard to the legacy of the past or present practices in ceramics. I would add to his testimonial regarding ceramic tradition my own record of almost 40 years of martial bliss with Judy as further proof of the benefits and virtues of traditions.
We also visited Tom Turner, the marvelous potter of exquisite porcelain vases at Mars Hill, near Asheville, NC. Tom is a highly respected master craftsman, gives workshops and demonstrations across the country. His vases are highly refined with a level of attention and caring on the part of Tom in every elegant vase. He also experiments with various glazes that are unique in their effect and impact. I have several of his vases in my pottery gallery. One of his vases is on a shelf below one of the skylights in the gallery, which has a very high ceiling. This vase has a deep red glaze. Every afternoon around 2:00 o’clock sunbeams from the skylight turn that vase on fire, with a vivid flame of radiating red that is spectacular to experience. Tom fervently believes in the continuing viability of making pottery and has expressed concerned that schools and university ceramic programs have largely abandoned the pottery wheel and replaced it with instruction and activities in the making of ceramic sculpture. He does not oppose more abstract and three-dimensional uses of clay, but laments that many schools do not balance that with the practice and painstaking efforts to achieve mastery at the potter’s wheel as well. We could not leave his home/gallery/studio without taking two of his pots with us.
Tom wanted us to meet another up and coming young potter who lived nearby. He drove us to the gallery, studio and home of Alex Matisse out in the countryside. Alex comes from a distinguished family of artists, including Henri Matisse, the French painter. He grew up in a small New England town, apprenticed with Mark Hewitt and Matt Jones. He is full of energy and hope for the future, having recently completed the construction of a large kiln and buildings at the site. Some of his pots were on the front porch of his home. Tom thinks that Alex is going to be one of the true giants of ceramic art as he continues to establish himself and create his work at his own facilities. With the sage advice of Tom, we selected a vase with a delicate filigree of white linear patterns on a brown surface. I research Alex when I got home on Google and found a statement he made about his work on the website “Potters of Madison County”. This is what Alex had to say,
“For three years, I apprenticed in the workshops of North Carolina potters Matt Jones and Mark Hewitt. Their work combines traditions, from the Anglo-Oriental school of Leach, Hamada, and Cardew to the folk pottery of the south-eastern United States and many places between. In their workshops I learned to love these simple pots; adorned or bare, quiet and strong, they make their place comfortably at the table or hearth and speak to the thousands of years of pots before them. My work is made in a fusion of pre-industrial country traditions in both process and material. It is fired in a large wood burning kiln and made of as many local materials as the chemistry will allow, while still affording me the physical attributes necessary for my aesthetic decisions. I believe in the beautiful object; that there are inescapable aesthetic truths, physical attributes that remove time and place from the defining characteristics of the made object. These objects can be viewed today or many years from now and understood as beautiful. Though their quotidian value may become antiquated, their aesthetics will save them. I believe in making pots that carry this truth while, as Henry Glassie told me in passing one day, holding one hand to the past with the other outstretched to the future.”
Now to Seagrove itself. I will not attempt to list all the potters and galleries that we visited but we met potters whose work impressed us but who we had not met before as well as potters we encountered on other occasions. Before I introduce you to some of them I would like to refer to my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” where I described the historical background and context of this center of ceramic culture at the time of our first visit in spring of 2004.
“The ceramic origins of Seagrove and much of this region go back to the early pioneer settlement of the area. The families of potters represent many generations here. They have co-existed within a limited geography, often related by kinship, certainly by common history and experience. The vernacular tradition produced functional stoneware jugs, crocks, and pie plates for immediate use by neighbors and also merchants along the plank road running from Winston-Salem to Fayetteville. These working containers are the bedrock of this local tradition. Seagrove is a fascinating story of both tradition and innovation. This is in fact the name of the book edited by Douglas DeNatale, Jane Przybysz, and Jill Severn, “New Ways for Old Jugs: Tradition and Innovation at the Jugtown Pottery”. DeNatale relates how Jugtown Pottery comprised an attempt in the early 1920’s to revive traditional pottery in Moore Country, North Carolina. Two prominent and sophisticated outsiders, Juliana Busbee and her husband, Jacques Busbee were responsible for this effort. They were not content to simply revive the ‘folk’ tradition but wanted to introduce the other ancient ceramic influences of China and Japan to these potters. This addition of grace and style would make the pottery more marketable to their bohemian friends in Greenwich Village, New York. This attempt to form an unlikely synthesis between remote traditions is essential to understanding the current anomalies of Seagrove.
DeNatale further explains this idea,
‘From the perspective of the potters, they were full collaborators in the creation of Jugtown and its pottery. And rightly so, for the potters’ knowledge and skills acquired through their cultural upbringing contributed at least as much as the Busbees’ artistic sensibility to the synthesis that was Jugtown. Where the Busbees decried the enthusiastic experimentation by area potteries with new glazes and forms, that creative, problem-solving impulse was an essential element of the very tradition they claimed to grasp; and it was this impulse Ben Owen actively brought to the process of creating the oriental translations with Jacques. In retrospect, the fairest and most accurate evaluation of Jugtown’s history in the life of Moore County must view the contribution of local ideas and aesthetics as an active force, not merely a resource that the Busbees mined.’
As mentioned by DeNatale above, the Busbees employed a young local potter, Ben Owen. The history of the Owen family as potters goes back to the mid-19th century. Jacques took young Ben Owen to visit art schools and museums in Boston, Washington, New York, and New Orleans. Outside influences of historical and modern ceramics from diverse cultural sources were melded and synthesized by Ben Owen. Another branch of the extended family, who added an ‘s’ to Owen for reasons not known to me, Melvin Owens and his family did not stray as far from local traditions and traditional pottery. The salesroom looks like it occupies the original home with a front porch on a modest wooden structure of long standing. In sharp contrast to this rustic scene, a short distance away we drove up to a handsome state-of-the-art two-story structure that is the gallery and salesroom of Ben Owen III. Nearby work is being continued on a new residence for the Owen family. Huge outdoor kilns occupy another nearby space. Adjacent to the showroom is a museum of four generations of family pieces. Ben III continued the tradition of his grandfather, learning as a child playing with clay in the old man’s pottery shop. He also continued another tradition from his grandfather; he left the area and acquired an education, graduating from East Carolina University with an art degree in ceramics. He later traveled to Japan to study their ceramics techniques and tradition.
His wife, LoriAnn, welcomed Judy and I to the Gallery. The beautifully designed interior contained a varied representation of his work. We purchased a small vase with his layered Chinese Red glaze. Two different worlds, two very different orientations, all in the same extended family. Ben Owen III, like his grandfather, had bitten the apple, tasted the sweet flavor of forbidden worlds far away. I know it is foolish to simply contrast a sophisticated and eclectic approach with a ‘folk’ tradition. The Busbees had introduced and exposed many potters in the area to Asian pottery many years ago. All traditions, however ancient and insular, are embedded with the historical penetrations and invasions of multiple traditions, none are pure. But I must push the matter for purposes of our investigation. How do you place value on the vernacular experience of ceramic practice that has been handed down in the family or region against the worldly sophistication of the ‘educated’ potter who has no allegiance to a single way of making things? What kind of a potter would you be, Christa, if your grandparents and your mother and father had taught you pottery from the time you learned to walk, and you stayed home in that single place, uncontaminated by formal education and training? Isn’t innovation just the desperate strategy of isolated and culturally deprived strangers who have no cultural legacy or ceramic tradition and thus have no other ceramic choice but innovation? Can you borrow from these ‘folk’ traditions without shame, since it is not your family, not your region or culture, nor your worldview? What is it that bonds all potters, regardless of site, history, or orientation? Are you all brothers and sisters, regardless of tradition or education? How do you achieve membership in a tradition if you are not a citizen of that tradition? There are many outsiders, educated at fancy art schools and universities, now living in Seagrove, implicitly competing with the ‘natives’ for the pottery dollar of tourists and collectors. I wonder how they fit in; how they are accepted by those families whose ceramic legacy goes back hundreds of years? How would you feel toward the indigenous ‘folk’ potters if you lived in Seagrove? Please explain all these things to me, Christa.
How does your own background as a potter stack up with these potters in Seagrove? Did you grow up in a family and community where ceramics were celebrated and making pots was a natural and normal thing? Did you have to struggle and rebel against what your parents expected of you when you decided to be a potter? Was this decision of yours a fall from grace for you in the eyes of your parents and family? Did your decision not to be a banker or lawyer or dentist cause much turmoil in your family? How can you explain to others the unique pleasures and great satisfactions of being a potter? Does it matter if those people around you who might have loved you the most did not comprehend this eccentric impulse that drove you to the potter’s wheel? Any regrets now?
North Carolina Pottery: Ceramic Traditions Are Alive and Well in a Pottery Paradise in the Rural Countryside – Part 1December 18th, 2011
I have recently returned from a three-week holiday visit with my wife to the east coast. We stayed in Boston the first week and ended in Charleston, South Carolina the last week. During the second week, we stayed in North Carolina, in the Asheville and Seagrove areas. Judy and I have been there 2 or 3 times in the past. We love to travel to the Seagrove where over 100 potteries exist in a small village and environs. Often the making of pottery is a family affair, involving not only spouses but also their offspring in generation after generation of potters. It is a sort of ceramic paradise on earth. We know several potters there from previous visits. Fall is a special time on the east coast. It was warm and mostly blue skies, windy at times. The thick groves of tall trees were in full fall glory with intense outbursts of red, orange and gold leaves along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Falling cascades of whirling, dancing leaves had made some trees bare while others still proudly displayed flashing leaves of brilliant sun soaked color. There was little traffic on the roads and I could drive our rented car as well as view the lovely landscape. I did have to venture off the paved roads onto dirt roads to reach many of the potteries. City born and bred, to actually drive on a dirt road appeared to me a most dangerous and unwelcome adventure. I blissfully ignored the perils and drove down the rutted rustic lanes to the potential treasures awaiting me.
I can hear the hum of the freeway from my own garden in Glendora but here it is quiet and quite peaceful. I need the cultural resources of a nearby big city, having been born and raised in Los Angeles and living in one of its suburbs for over thirty years. I do value my occasional escapes to the countryside of Britain or rural regions of the United States. In the US, a suburb is often just an appendage to a large urban community; a bedroom community that empties out each workday for the commute to work in the big city. In contrast, a village in the rural countryside is an autonomous and unique community that is historically rooted in the local life of that place. Seagrove is that kind of village. When I went to a local restaurant, it was not like going to a franchised fast food place where I live, where you order food to take home or sit among strangers and eat the food in isolation. Here in Seagrove I noticed neighbors greeted each other when entering the locally owned restaurants, people who have lived their lives in close proximity and have known each other’s families and shared their common experiences from church socials to school assemblies. Does it take a village to raise a child? Am I romanticizing rural life, as I perhaps tend to romanticize potters and their glorious pottery? Or did I miss out on something important and precious in never experiencing rural or village life? What would rural folks say was missing with my urban attitudes and suburban lifestyle?
In “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine”, Lewis Mumford talks about the very beginning of village life during the Neolithic period. He paints a very positive image of this life. Today of course, all over the world, there has been a profound and significant shift in rural populations moving to the bigger and bigger urban areas of millions and millions of people. What is the world losing here? Do villages today still possess some of the virtues as described by Mumford? He thinks so.
“Wherever the seasons are marked by holiday festivals and ceremonies: where the stages of life are punctuated by family and communal rituals: where eating and drinking constitute the central core of life: where work, even hard work, is rarely divorced from rhythm, song, human companionship, and esthetic delight: where vital activity is counted as great a reward of labor as the product: where neither power nor profit takes precedence of life: where the family and the neighbor and the friend are all part of a visible, tangible, face-to-face community: where everyone can perform as a man or woman any task that anyone else is qualified to do – there the Neolithic culture, in its essentials, is still in existence, even though iron tools are used or a stuttering motor truck takes the goods to market.”
I do wonder and speculate about the vast differences between rural and urban worlds today. What are the differences between rural and urban potters? Can you tell the differences in the pots themselves? Are rural potters inherently more sensitive to nature and the natural environment than urban potters? Aren’t all crafts, in their origins and character, essentially rural activities the world over? Maybe, because of modern technology, everyone is now exposed to what is happening everywhere else and the differences between rural and urban life are not all that different anymore. How do potters explain their choices between living in the peace and beauty of rural life and the contrasting tempting cultural riches of an urban life? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?
Seagrove does not have a total monopoly on potters and potteries in North Carolina. We drove out to Pittsboro to see Mark Hewitt, an absolutely great potter of huge, magnificent jugs as well as a multitude of containers and vessels. I enjoyed his good company and of course left his lovely rural home, studio and gallery with several wondrous ceramic objects. Mark was able to talk to me while at the same time working at the wheel, spinning balls of clay into highly refined bowls one after the other. In his book, co-authored with Nancy Sweezy, “The Potters Eye”, he defines tradition as a dynamic process, not a static and rigid freeze of something from the past.
Does change, in art as well as life, have to bring disorder? By creating disorder in the artifact, does one gain control over unwanted change elsewhere and thus restrict its impact to manageable proportions? Is any kind of stability and order, in life, in art, in theory, just a fairy tale spun by a most insecure species? Does conformity to tradition promise an illusionary order that exists only in the artifact, not in reality? Do those of us who talk about pottery in particular make a choice of craft over art? Doesn’t everything complex, including people and pots, contain inherent contradictions that enrich the complexity and thus demand forgiveness of the contradictions? For anyone who has ever viewed one of Mark’s jugs or vases, there is no possible distinction between the designations of potter and ceramic artist, craft and art. They are one and the same thing in this person and his pots. He provides proof in his work of my more general assertion that one does not have to abandon or destroy the vessel to become a ceramic artist.
As a potter, is it a false pride to insist that what you are doing has never been done before? In confessing those potters and that pottery that has influenced your own work, are you thereby reducing the claims of your own originality? Why is novelty so prized today in the arts? Why does tradition seem like a dirty word? I cannot go on without offering you a brief quotation from this very thoughtful potter and articulate writer from his book about tradition as an active agent. In his introductory essay, “Tradition and the Individual Potter”, Hewitt makes the case for the value of tradition in art.
“Tradition is good, tradition is beautiful, tradition is valuable. To say so is unconventional and a little dangerous, for as T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, ‘Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure.’ Indeed, tradition is often perceived as a hindrance to individualism and artistic originality. But I agree with Eliot that the opposite is true. In his words, ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists’. Thus we must look to the past to the very roots of our art, to guide us toward new forms of self-expression. Potters and ceramic artists use ceramic history and particular traditions to inform their work, and those traditions inspire rather than discourage innovation.”
I will continue this discussion and my visit to Mark Hewitt and other potters in North Carolina and the village of Seagrove in the next blog.
I have often stated that I have a passionate affection for pottery. It is indeed in the very title of this series of blogs. I must confess, and I know my wife, Judy, will be relieved, that I have never felt real passion for a potter. I know this will disappoint, if not devastate some of my potter friends. Don’t get me wrong. I am really very, very fond of a number of potters I have known for many years. It is a special delight to realize that beautiful pots often come from the same kind of person. I would like to feel that it would be unlikely that a truly beautiful ceramic object could come from a truly unlikable person but I might be a bit naive if I made that declaration. How do potters get along with other potters? Is there a natural rivalry and competition for my attention? Again I will remain within the romance of my illusions, not wanting to know those things that could disillusion me in this regard. Maybe it is a good thing that I don’t take the potter home with the pot. With all that energy it takes to make pots, they probably eat a bit more than the average person and they might find out where I hide my scotch
In my 30th letter from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I discuss my relationship to pot and potter,
“Christa, do I communicate with the potter when I gaze onto the pot? After the point of purchase, the potter does not go home with the pot. Yet I do interact with the author of the text. I question the implied assertion, accept and slide inside the style, hoping to catch the rhythm and mannerisms of language and metaphor. I accompany the author’s journey and surface her argument, seeking knowledge and wisdom for my own purposes. I never surrender my independence, but provide a leap of faith that must eventually be rewarded. To answer my earlier question, I do think I engage the potter as vigorously as the author of the written text; seek to discover the creator’s intention, to locate those imaginative deviations that mark originality, to place the object in context. The potter, fresh in the miraculous creation of the pot, might immediately claim a unique status for that object unmatched in previous ceramic history. As collector and perceiver, I must humble the pot by placement in a communal context that attaches that object to my world. The company of other pottery in my collection does not represent a hierarchy, but does teach that no individual pot or potter has a monopoly on creativity or aesthetic accomplishment.
What is the difference in my relationship to pot and potter? As a friend, you are always welcome in my home. I would even extend that invitation to all the potters represented in my collection. As host, I would try to provide my potter friends with food, drink and exposure to my beloved collection, home and garden. Your pot, in contrast, would join my family. I would take responsibility for the care and safety of that object. Accepted and housed, the pottery cannot cause me pain or disappointment. People are more volatile and uncertain in their possible behavior. This does not diminish the value and need of love and respect for family and friends. The risk is greater. As a teacher, my rewards were in the engagement with students. Whatever the differing degrees of anxiety, I still seek out and enjoy friends and family, the pot and potter. The creation and appreciation of pottery is a manifestation of the complexity and virtue of human beings and human culture. These gifts of the human hand encourage my contact and appreciation of people. I do not have to make a choice. Revealed insecurities do not embarrass me. I consider myself self-sufficient, social interaction does not come from concerns about individual isolation. Reading and art do not require the company of others. The sources of my life preferences and habits can be traced to the origins of my existence. A virtue becomes operational when it successfully compensates for the more obvious inadequacy. It is the inadequacies that give me humanity, it is the virtues that give me grace. Whatever virtuous habits I do possess, including the love of reading and pottery, they reflect both the joys and pain of a long life. I have no reason for complaint.”
I must admit I do so enjoy reading what I have written in the past. I am especially impressed if the portion I re-read was published as text on a printed page from a book with my name on it. Is there an author who would not admit what I have just confessed? Yes, yes, I do occassionaly re-read a passage I have written from my book and am a bit embarrassed and wish I could do it over. Is it similar to how a potter feels about their own work? Surely there must be a surge of pride when you walk into a gallery and see you work on exhibit? Can ceramic artists gaze on their own work and not admire it? I fully understand the high demands and standards artists or writers make of themselves, never fully satisfied and always seeking to improve. I too feel that when I write and will indeed often go back and revise and try to improve a sentence or paragraph. Sometimes it’s a single word I change, sometime a complete sentence, sometimes I simply delete a paragraph and start over. As a collector I am constantly moving my pottery around, always seeking to improve the arrangement of ceramic objects. Sometimes after moving a single object from one shelf to another, or even just turning it around to the side formerly facing the wall, I marvel at what a difference it makes and wonder why I didn’t do it years ago.
In the quote above, I try to explore the idea that I place a single pot in the company of other pots in my home that are initially strangers to that pot. Do potter’s like that idea? That a collector sticks their pot alongside pots from many different potters? Could your pot get lost on that shelf with twenty or more other pots of mine? In a gallery like I have with several hundred other pots all around it? Have you ever been to a collector’s house and seen a pot of yours and your heart sank because you believe it was in the wrong space and with associated in close placement with the wrong pots? I feel that all my pots are equally presented and displayed. I honestly don’t play favorites but rather enjoy all my pots. Admittedly I will sometimes spend a bit more time with a few pots for a day or two, enjoying the discovery of features that I had not fully perceived before in those particular objects. But if a parent would never confess a favorite among their children, surely you would not expect that kind of confession from me. Some pots seem to attract attention because of their size or rather spectacular shape or glaze. Sometimes I am in the mood to fully appreciate that bravado display but there are other times that the subtle variations of a smaller or more refined pot brings other kinds of aesthetic rewards. No, I don’t play favorites and that is the end of that.
I like the idea of placing pots in close proximity that are very different in character and type. For instance, maybe an antique pot that displays a highly disciplined and traditional character sits next to a contemporary pot with maybe a more outlandish attitude; a pot from an indigenous potter showing its local or regional distinction sits next to a highly sophisticated pot no doubt from a potter with at least an MFA from Alfred or some other distinguished institution. I also place ceramic animals from various sources among my pots, plates, cups and other kinds of vessels. I mix them all up, wanting to feature a central claim that I have always made as a collector – that human creativity and genius is not limited to one group or nation or culture – but is inherent and embedded in all groups, nations and cultures. It is this amazing diversity and infinite variety in the ways that diverse personalties and groups express themselves that proves the glory of the hand-created ceramic artifact and comprises convincing evidence of the rich achievements of human culture. I must also claim that all my ceramic objects eventually become friends with each other, relate to each other by their shared space, and compliment each other by their very differences, all coexisting and cooperating in my domestic community of ceramic objects.
I discuss this very idea in this except from my 41st letter from my book,
“This process of haphazard appropriation is essential for my temperament. It was not by accident that my MA thesis was on collage, the collection of disparate and discarded elements at one place on a two dimensional surface. The meaning comes later, after the relationships among the newly situated elements become more obvious. Placement and context invite improbable and novel relationships and alliances. It is difficult to be self-conscious and knowledgeable about the patterns of placement of ideas within my own active mentality. Multiple influences impact me, yet are filtered through a resistant and stubborn persona that eventually takes credit for any summary or results. It is difficult to calibrate or assess their consequence in my behavior. Yet there is a continuity to my attitude toward a number of things. The placement of my pottery within my collection is overt and visible. I do create a visual and physical collage with my pottery, an original composition that occupies each room and all the items within that room.”
Can collectors claim a moral imperative in what they do? After all, isn’t collecting the very essence of a selfish act? I buy art and craft and it becomes my personal property and I take it home where I lock the doors of my home every night before I go to bed. My home is my private space, not a public one. All those artifacts, over 1,200 of them, are reserved for me, my family and invited friends to enjoy. How can I weave a convincing story that changes this reality to a noble one? In this next and last excerpt from my book, taken from my 44th letter, I talk about stewardship and what it means to me. I am totally sincere about this role and responsibility and will continue to argue that the protection and preservation of our cultural legacies is as important as the protection and preservation of our environment. At a time in our society when there is a profound gulf between the pursuit of individual private profit and the collective attainment of civic welfare, this might be a difficult argument to make credible.
“Stewardship is another concept from the environmental literature that has great meaning for this collector. I care about things -I care for things – a grove of oak trees, the pottery in every room of my house. Stewardship is always brief – a lifetime or less, an essentially transient obligation that must be ultimately transferred to others. What we seek to cherish and maintain is under constant threat and carries a finite term of existence due to the mortal limitations of nature or the incidental accidents of history. We seek to lengthen and prolong that existence, believing in their sacred and irreplaceable properties. Nature has inherent recovery systems and can renew itself if our abuse of nature can be discouraged and finally denied. Our cultural traditions and treasures are more fragile. Our devotion demands heroic resistance to those forces that would threaten the endangered subjects under our care. Here the collector can claim a moral function, similar to those who seek to protect the natural environment. It springs from an altruistic dedication that transcend self and self profit, inspired by a transcendent love for the highest attainments of the species, of human civilization.”
I plan to continue this discussion at least in the next few blogs. Summers are interior months for me. Perhaps an hour or two early in the morning in my garden, then a hasty retreat to my air-conditioned house. I read an article or two about global warming in one of my journals while on my exercise bike this morning. Summer is not a good time for me to read articles on global warming. I reach out to a few vases for reassurance and they are still cool to the touch. It seems we are living at a time right now when systems are breaking down – natural, cultural and economic systems. Collectors needs stability as much as investors do. The maintenance of various systems are now global and require intimate cooperation because we have somehow all become interdependent.
Maybe it’s the hot weather impacting my morale but right now I huddle with Judy and my pots within the refuge of our home, uncertain in a world that seems to be growing ever more uncertain around me. I cannot compare my time to the turmoil and tragedy of Edmund de Waal’s family as discussed in Part 2 blog in this series. That story took place in the context of the previous century. The tides of history do not always predict an easy time or guarantee everyone a happy ending. De Waal’s book did demonstrate one thing, collections have their own unique history. This history includes the succession of people who care for them. In contrast to his story of the Japanese netsuke, my pottery collection is still young in its rather brief history and certainly younger than this old collector and blog writer who finds so much joy in taking care of them.
I am quite aware that many potters are also collectors. Some potters also write in addition to creating ceramic art and collecting. British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal is one of the most distinguished of the potters/writers/collectors today. He has written several important books regarding ceramics, including “Bernard Leach” and “Twentieth Century Ceramics”. He has had many important exhibits and installations of his ceramic work, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain. In the last few years he has assembled multiple ceramic vases of his in compositions that occupy large spaces in galleries and museums. As I continue this discussion about collecting, I would like to share with you a book of his that I am currently reading. The title of his latest book is “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”.
Here de Waal tells the story of his descendents, a fabulously wealthy Jewish family in the 19th century, with huge mansions in several major cities of Europe, great masterpiece paintings on the walls of these vast palaces, villas in the most plush mountain and sea resorts, and scores of servants to attend to their every need. Among the treasures collected by members of the family was a group of antique wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. These objects were Japanese netsuke and they form the central spine of this book. Despite the devastation and chaos of World War I, Hitler and World II, this collection was handed down from generation to generation and finally to Edmund de Waal. While their world was being destroyed and many family members were tragically eliminated in the holocaust along with millions of other Jews in Europe, those 264 objects somehow survived intact.
In an article de Waal wrote in the Saturday Guardian 29.05.10, he explains more about his collection,
“I have 264 netsuke: street vendors, beggars and monks, rat catchers, dogs, lovers, a woman and an octopus, an elderly lady on an elderly horse, a witch trapped in a temple bell, a persimmon about to split, a hare with amber eyes. It is a very big collection of very small objects. I pick one up and turn it round in my fingers, weigh it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones; there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?”
This is truly a fine book by a great ceramic artist about his legendary family and that special collection whose responsibility for preservation and care he now assumes. Unlike de Waal, I do not come from a family of collectors. There was little or nothing of value to pass down. My grandfather on my father’s side was a shoe salesman, on my mother’s side her father was a bartender who became rather wealthy and owned several valuable properties in downtown Los Angeles that his sons lost during the Great Depression. I have two brothers and they do not collect anything but the usual household goods and appliances. So my obsession with collecting ceramics must be a unique trait that cannot be traced by genes or attitude back through my family ancestors. Indeed I may well be the first and last collector in my family. I know that someday this will be very bad news for all the potters now dependent upon me for their lavish lifestyle but that’s the way it is.
I want to offer you another quote about collecting from my book. This comes from my 22nd letter, November 24, 2003,
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of Oak trees in my community by justifying their value; the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, sway of branches, sunlight filtered through the tall trunk and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthy quality of existence.”
Like de Waal’s netsuke, some of my pottery has a very long and unknown history before I acquired them. How did that German Mettlach antique Griffin vase, quite beautiful with such detailed precision and vivid colors in the shape of the mythical animal, get that severe break at the base that was so clumsily repaired? I am sure that this visible repair was the only reason I won the rather low bid on ebay and obtained it. I had to pay a considerable shipping expense because I had purchased it from someone in Australia. How did that antique German vase get to Australia? Every object has a story to tell but most of them we will never know. I can see it right now from my desk in the pottery gallery, the neck of the vase also the neck of the griffin, his head at the very top with an open mouth and his wings in back, his paws clutching the side of the rounded belly in the front of the vase.
Or how about that British Royal Doulton biscuit jar with the silver plated lid and handle that dates from 1881-1892? I don’t think we use biscuit jars in Glendora anymore, if we ever did. I am not sure we eat that many biscuits anymore either, having several donut shops in the area. Times changes but these objects stand still – just like that Jacaranda tree I was talking about above. I am sure you don’t want this old man to lament the cruel changes that have occurred in his lifetime without his permission. Maybe that’s why I go into my pottery gallery so often and stay so long. Nothing changes except when I want it to – and then only the movement of a vase from one shelf to make room for yet another pot just purchased. That’s enough change for me right now. My pots and I are frozen in an unbreakable embrace, locked within my home and gallery, safe and secure in our timeless pursuit of a durable beauty. Surely, unlike de Waal’s family, no foreign army will invade me, no adversaries will seek to take my collection away from me. You see, we collectors have so much to worry about and such heavy responsibilities to protect and preserve those things we love and collect.
I want to provide you now with another excerpt from my book about collecting. This is from my 28th letter, dated June 7, 2004,
“What is not prerequisite for me is the technical knowledge involved in the construction of the piece. I do not need to know the firing temperature of the kiln or the chemical mixture of the glaze, nor have the skill to throw a pot to engage the finished artifact with great benefit. It is the aesthetic engagement that is new and unique on each occasion. Even approaching the same pot daily, it is never quite the same. I am never exactly in the same condition, what has happened to me just before and since the last time I encountered the pot. The pot changes with the light, reveals portions once shaded; seems to shine with greater intensity, modesty abandoned and brazen in its beauty; then, depending on the time of day, withdraws, once again sublime in its continuing mystery. Still the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself. This community of intent and appearance remains general, you still need to stop and look at the individual pot for an experience that cannot be predicted by known class, category, or type.”
How can I justify the acquisition of all that pottery over years without becoming an expert on how pottery is made? I wonder if potters really understand that I have an aesthetic interest in their pots, not a technical one? When I indicate I wish to purchase a pot, many potters in the past have tried to explain to me how they made it. I do attempt to remain polite, even nod my head, but these are things I simply do not wish to know. Does that ignorance of the essential knowledge of how a ceramic artifact is created limit me to a superficial level of understanding and appreciation? Do gourmets who love great cuisine have to know how it was prepared (or even able to prepare it themselves)? Does a connoisseur of really fine wines have to understand the complex procedures necessary for it to arrive in the wine goblet shortly before sipping? I want my experience with pottery to be a cultural event, not a lesson in the chemistry of the glaze or the process of hand and tool manipulation of clay on the potter’s wheel. Would my attitude annoy some potters? I hope not.
What do I mean in the quote above by “the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself?” This has to do with the complex issues that I have discussed in this blog and in my other writings over the years. They bring forth such issues as attempting to maintain a craft whose functional capacities as vessels have modern alternatives in materials such as plastic that threaten to replace them; a postmodern art market that seems to privilege the remnants of manufactured debris as assembled art rather than a hand-crafted artifact as object; and the onslaught of electronic means to design artifacts that do not require the direct manipulation of the human hand. All this takes place within dynamic cultures that are currently being shaped by the fluctuation in a globalized economy that values quantity over quality; in economies that prize the disposable product as the most dependable source of continued profit. All these contemporary issues are only the current manifestations of the long history of ceramics as a primary activity and legacy going back to the origins of human civilizations.
I assume that what I contribute to the discussion as formulated above is of value to potters. I have reason to be confident of that because over the years many potters have communicated their support and appreciation for my efforts. The placement and integration of ceramics as a significant contribution in the wider patterns of cultural and aesthetic meaning provide my chief interest and essential motivation. In a sense that is what collectors do in their actual behavior. I literally take ceramic objects and place and integrate them in my home in original compositions of forms and color. The arrangement of multiple objects within interior space requires a pattern of intention and design. I create and organize the rooms of my house with ceramic objects as the central resource. That is what a collector does.
I have more to say about these themes and will continue to explore them in the next blog…