When Ceramics in America began publication, in 2001, one of the goals was to involve modern-day working potters in the discussion of the rich heritage of ceramics made and used in the American context over the past four hundred years. This was pursued through publishing numerous articles that explored historical ceramic techniques, as well as lectures at various contemporary potters organizations and outreach at the annual meetings of the National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts (NCECA). The success of these efforts to foster an active dialogue with such an incredibly large and diverse audience has been difficult to measure.
In 2017 an opportunity presented itself for the journal and its resources to help sponsor a project that directly brought history to a group of contemporary potters who might otherwise have never considered exploring historical ceramic traditions and methods. Partnering with the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove, North Carolina, seventeen potters were invited to create new ceramic works inspired by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drinking vessels from the Chipstone Foundation’s world-class collection of English pottery. The artists’ works were shown side by side with the antique objects at the Pottery Center in an exhibition titled “The Last Drop: Intoxicating Pottery, Past and Present.”
The relationship of pottery making to the consumption of alcohol is as old as the history of the craft—Sumerian and Egyptian beer pots are among our earliest recorded ceramic vessels—but even though drinking vessels were the focus of the exhibit, they were not intended to celebrate alcohol consumption. The British prints chosen to represent the Last Drop theme graphically inform us that alcohol is, in many ways, death personified.
One of the more interesting and rewarding aspects of the project was the diversity of the participating artists, who as a group represent a wide range of cultural backgrounds and pottery traditions. Senora Lynch, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe, and Richard Zane Smith, a member of the Wyandot tribe, brought their legacy of hand-building techniques to interpret the industrial-made British wares. Their willingness to address the topic of alcohol, considering its disastrous relationship with Native peoples, was significant. An early telephone conversation with Richard, to encourage his participation in spite of the theme, turned mystical when he expressed interest in using an eighteenth-century Staffordshire bear-baiting jug for his chosen object, since he himself is a member of the Bear Clan within the Wyandot tribe.
Other participants transported pottery traditions far removed from the eighteenth-century Staffordshire world to the Seagrove gallery. Ibrahim Said, an Egyptian potter, also refocused the topic of alcohol to convey his own cultural values and experiences, bringing to bear his exposure to the ancient ceramic traditions of Egypt. Japanese potter Akira Satake invoked the tea rituals of his native country to reinterpret his object in the Iga/Shigaraki tradition of wood-ash firing.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith summoned his interest in contemporary jazz and hip-hop culture to reframe the narrative conveyed in the iconic British harvest jugs. When confronted with the sgraffito technique of slip decorating used on the period harvest vessels, Malcolm confided that he was having issues with the slip adhering to the clay body of his stunning jug form. That turned into a fun eureka moment to share with those who are trying to emulate the past, for virtually all extant British harvest jugs carry the exact same imperfections, a natural artifact of the materials and process!
Roberto Lugo, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, drew on his early career as a graffiti artist for his interpretation of an early London delft tankard. Lugo’s larger, nationally recognized body of ceramic work is a mash-up of social activism, hip-hop, history, and politics. His submission to “The Last Drop” is a more personal statement of his life experiences while providing an insightful twist on the iconography of traditional delft decorating techniques.
Many of the participants are well steeped in regional pottery histories and methodologies. Kim Ellington transported the time-honored North Carolina’s Catawba Valley techniques of using local clays, alkaline glazing, and wood firing to submit a thoroughly modern interpretation of his chosen object. Likewise, Michael Gates, a young Catawba Valley artist, acknowledged his family lineage of North Carolina potters in his contemporary artistic rendering of a Staffordshire owl jug. Kate Johnston, also well versed in the local North Carolina pottery-making and wood-firing tradition, responded to the challenge of the project with a wonderfully thoughtful stoneware jug. Mark Hewitt, one of the initial proponents of the project, is a son and grandson of directors of Spode, the fine-china manufacturers in Staffordshire. Mark brought this considerable DNA and more than thirty years of his traditional North Carolina wood-firing practice to his deconstruction of a utilitarian Staffordshire stoneware mug.
A couple of the invitees were already well disposed to the historical premise of the project. Virginia potter Dan Finnegan, who had early training in a traditional English pottery, announced in his artist statement that his “work stands at the intersection of traditional and present-day pottery,” which he demonstrated by transforming an ancient Bellarmine jug into a growler, a vessel that is all the rage in the modern craft-beer industry. Similarly, New York State potter Mark Shapiro, who is as much a ceramics historian as he is an artist, used a complex Staffordshire double-walled mug to create a present-day political statement. In contrast, Virginia Scotchie, head of ceramics at the University of South Carolina, is internationally known for her decidedly modern, abstract ceramic sculptures and brightly colored, otherworldly glazes. It was fascinating to see how Virginia produced an exaggerated multi-handled loving cup that nailed the spirit of communal drinking yet reflected her own personal aesthetic and methodology.
The invitees for “The Last Drop” also included two husband-and-wife teams with studios in Seagrove. Bruce Gholson and Samantha Henneke, who often work in tandem at their inventive ceramics studio, Bulldog Pottery, chose to interpret an arcane drinking vessel called a tyg. Bruce and Samantha clearly immersed themselves in the history of this vessel form, both the making of it and the social and historical context of its use. Their fascination with the exercise resulted in an extraordinary group of six tygs that contain iconography evoking both personal and larger cultural concerns. Fred Johnston and Carol Gentithes work out of their gallery, Johnston & Gentithes Art Pottery. Academically trained as artists, they are great ambassadors for the history of the larger Seagrove area, which is reflected in their submission of a large punch bowl, thrown and fired by Fred and decorated by Carol. The marvelous decoration tells the tale of Seagrove’s recent approval for the public sale of alcohol for the first time in sixty years.
In addition to submitting a finished work for the exhibit, the participating artists were also asked to write short essays about their interpretation of the historical object they chose and their process of creation. The 2018 volume of Ceramics in America is a partial documentation of that effort; a fuller record is available on the website created by the Pottery Center’s director, Lindsay Lambert, which offers more complete biographies of each of the participating artists as well as photographs of the process. Several artists were reluctant to participate in the project because of the writing requirement. Indeed, potters are not necessarily writers as well, but their words are nevertheless important; and their essays are published here with very little outside editing.
Both “The Last Drop” exhibit and its website (www.thelastdropproject.org/home/) have received national attention and commentary. This shows a gratifying measure of success in advancing not only the goal of fostering the dialogue among potters, scholars, collectors, and enthusiasts, but the visibility of the important resources and programming of the North Carolina Pottery Center as well.
Two installations accompanied “The Last Drop,” and both are included as stand-alone articles in this volume. The first is titled “Michelle Erickson DISTILLED.” Erickson’s work with historical ceramic technologies is well known to readers of this journal, as she has contributed to many important articles since its inception in 2001. Readers might not be familiar with her larger body of internationally recognized ceramic art, however, which incorporates her vast knowledge of both history and technology. The article summarizes some of her recently produced contemporary work that revolves around the topics of alcohol consumption and historical ceramic drinking vessels.
The other installation, curated by ceramics historian and collector Stephen Compton, was titled “In the Pale Moonlight: Pottery and Alcohol in North Carolina.” In his accompanying article, Compton summarizes the ceramics heritage of North Carolina as it relates to alcohol production and consumption. Compton’s prose and the beautiful photography by Jason Dowdle give life to utilitarian jug forms, an essential but oft-neglected production item of the many American potters who once supplied regional communities throughout the South.
There are still countless potters in this country who make their living at the bench or on the wheel. Most of them are making serviceable wares to be sold through their local community networks, supplying dinner sets, teawares, and garden pots. Others work as teachers at all levels of ceramics training. A select few are successful artists who have gained access to the elusive art market and had their works shown in galleries and museums. Often overlooked is a small but consequential subset: potters who have found a living in making reproductions for historic museums and houses, living-history reenactors, set designers, and interior decorators. Stephen Earp, a working potter himself, addresses the significance of this latter group in his article “A Potter Considers the Traditional Decorative Arts.” Earp’s essay is a well-formulated plea to raise the visibility of ceramics made and used in the Anglo-American tradition, a topic conspicuously absent from most academic departments.
Of course history has always informed art, but the degree to which the past is consciously embraced varies considerably from practitioner to practitioner. For working potters Greg Shooner and his wife, Mary, as well as their colleague Brenda Hornsby Heindl, the past is the only portal to the process of re-creating authentic reproductions. Getting there, however, is a long, arduous process of experimentation, trial and error, and sheer perseverance. One of Greg’s trademark laments is “If only I could have been a fly on the wall,” reflecting the difficult task of getting inside the thought process of a long-dead potter. In their article “As Real as It Gets: Lead Glazing and Traditional Wood-Firing,” Shooner and Hornsby Heindl demonstrate that the only way to truly achieve the same results as historical potters is to understand their techniques, their materials, and their intent.
The final article of this year’s volume is a familiar interdisciplinary study for which Ceramics in America has relied on throughout its eighteen years of publication. Using documentary evidence, archaeology, and objects, Scott Suter’s essay “‘Unless Delayed by Unforeseen Circumstances’: A Tale of a Shenandoah Valley Industrial Pottery” narrates the story of a late-nineteenth-century ceramics enterprise. The attempt to make industrial ceramics came at the tail end of the Shenandoah Valley’s storied pottery heritage. Although this industrial-scale effort in Harrisonburg, Virginia, ended in failure, it provides a rare glimpse of one such undertaking outside of the well-documented ceramic centers of Trenton, New Jersey, and East Liverpool, Ohio.
The year 2018 brought some significant changes to the journal. Our long-standing distributor, the University Press of New England, closed its doors. Going forward, both Ceramics in America and American Furniture will be distributed by Casemate Academic, based in Havertown, Pennsylvania. The journals will have larger visibility in the United Kingdom with distribution by Oxbow Books, the world’s leading publisher, distributor, and bookseller relating to archaeology and the ancient world. These organizations are easily accessible via their websites and social media pages. Readers are also reminded that both journals are available in electronic format via Chipstone’s portal www.chipstone.org/landing.php/3/Publications/.
On a personal note, 2018 was the year of my dad’s passing at age ninety-three. Much of my time during “The Last Drop” project involved quite a bit of caregiving and therefore somewhat diminished my participation. And yet, life lessons often come in unexpected ways. In his later years my dad would enjoy an evening toddy before bedtime, a practice he continued until a series of hospitalizations precluded the ritual. My last interaction with him involved wetting a cloth with his favorite Scotch and helping him enjoy a last drop before his transition. I dedicate this volume to my father, Robert Ray Hunter Sr.