June 10, 2010

Back @cha, Shapiro (and Adamson by association)

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can be reached at ellen@sawdustanddirt.com

The Baseball Vase, 1876.

Modeled by Isaac Broome and made at Ott & Brewer's Etruria Pottery, Trenton, NJ. Shown as illustrated in Jennie Young's "The Ceramic Art" (1878). The Baseball Vase was the first piece of American clay officially classified as art.

I have been thinking about Mark Shapiro's several blogs on the NCECA meeting in Philly and especially his two-part piece on Glenn Adamson's address re: post-studio ceramics. I've read and re-read them several times, and it seems to me that something is amiss here. I understand that public addresses have to be glib summaries of critical thought and that a summary of a summary (Mark's description of Glenn's point of view) is not really the nitty-gritty of the issue - it's something more like a suggestion of what lies deeper, the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so to speak. But, here's the thing on my mind: I was surprised that we are already in a post-studio ceramics world. Were Adamson's arguments really legitimate? After all, his perspective is not that of a maker, but rather a cultural critic and big-time museum person. Did the perspective of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London really have relevance to artists working in the American idiom? When he says "post-studio" is he talking about studio artists making sculpture and/or those making objects for everyday use?

The second issue that struck me in Mark's blog of Glenn's address was that Glenn saw some artistic association with industry as the new path in the post-studio era. Arguing that schools and museums were coming on hard times financially, Adamson thinks that hooking up with industry will help artists find new markets. Considering that the current economic climate affects everyone and every institution, it might be good to also take a look at the position of ceramic manufacturers in today's world. It's dismal. Most of the great makers of the twentieth century - Lenox China, Wedgwood, Doulton, etc. etc. either own each other or are teetering on the brink of (or just emerging from) bankruptcy.

Why is this any wonder? Just look around you. How many people do you see using real ceramic objects for food service? These days most of us buy deli foods to heat up, take-out lunches and dinners, and packaged foods. And we eat out of the packages. Oh, I know there are exceptions - like me, I always decant my pre-made foods into ceramic containers to serve and eat - but we are few and far between.

Besides the economic issue, I see that working for industry is a designer's life, not an artist's. To give Adamson credit, he did cite Clare Twomey's installation "Trophy" (2006) at the V&A of birds she modeled and had produced by Wedgwood. This installation, however, was more about the relationship between museums and their visitors (visitors were encouraged to touch and take away something on exhibit at the V&A) rather than Twomey's relationship with Wedgwood.
While I pondered these issues I remembered that Tom Spleth was teaching a course on mold making during spring concentration (8 weeks) at Penland School. The use of molds has long been associated with industry, so maybe I would find some answers to my questions about Adamson's point of view. As I drove over to Penland for the meetings I had set up with Spleth and two of his students I thought about use of molds in the history of ceramics.

Song Dynasty (China, 960-1279 AD) mold for a dish with motifs
incised in the surface. Clay pressed on this mold would pick up the design.
Celadon glaze would pool in the incised patterns.

Chimu stirrup bottle and the two-part mold used to make it.
The holes on one part of the mold are where the stirrup handle will be joined to the bottle.
The Kingdom of Chimor was in the Moche Valley on the north coast
of Peru between the Pacific Ocean and the western slopes of the Andes.

Of course, as you might expect, molds are ancient - truly there is nothing new under the sun, and most of it was thought of before the Christian era. Sprig molds, press molds, drape molds, and jigger molds were used at different times and places ranging from the ancient Mediterranean to the Andes. I don't want to get started down that road. You can read about them briefly in the introductory chapter of Donald Frith's Mold Making for Ceramics (1985). For those of you who were not in Spleth's Penland class, this is a good place to start learning about molds and their uses. For our purposes I will start a little closer to our own time and place.

Diagram from George Cox "Pottery" (1914) showing the steps in creating
a plaster of paris mold from a turned plaster shape.

Molds in Industry During 1800s
In the 19th century, molds were an important part of both mass production and art in ceramics. Invented in the mid 1700s in England, molds gave rise to the most enduring aspect of the industrial revolution in ceramics - ownership by everyone. Use of molds made ceramics less expensive so that more people could own ceramic objects. Some critics would say that molds cheapened English ceramics, but that is putting a negative economic argument on ground-breaking technology, like saying that computers cheapen intellect. It's not so much a devaluation of ceramics (or intelligence), but a short cut to better living. These things are what we make of them, not inherently evil.

In the 1800s, the use of molds formed an important bridge between art and industry. English industrial ceramic manufacturers distinguished their wares in the marketplace by continuing to introduce surface decoration in less expensive forms. Transfer printed ceramics were special and expensive in the 1700s, but widespread and cheap in the 1800s. The same thing happened with objects that had surfaces elaborately ornamented with relief decoration. For example, hand-modeled figurines began to be made in press molds. Bar pitchers were made in two-part press molds that became ever more elaborate with complex iconography referencing hunting, fishing, political issues, and many other subjects. Later in the century many of these had handles shaped like rustic branches.

In the 1830s, English ceramic manufacturers experimented with new ceramic bodies that gave the appearance of fine marble in the hope of producing figural likenesses of famous sculpture, just as famous paintings were reproduced as steel engravings. The idea was that consumers would buy these smaller format replicas for use in their homes, thus introducing morality and culture to their domestic environments. A middleclass Englishman could think well of himself when surrounded by engravings of great paintings and statuettes of great sculpture. Furthermore, his children might learn something and grow up with a taste for art.

Mintons, Copeland & Garrett, Wedgwood and other manufacturers had expert mold makers, who generally used pantographs to greatly reduce life-size sculpture to sizes suitable for a home's mantelpiece. They usually had to create numerous large and small slip-casting and pressing molds in order to make all the parts for just one figure. In addition to ancient and famous sculpture, ceramic manufacturers also engaged contemporary sculptors to create new work.

In the 1870s, the making and using of molds in American ceramics lead to the first piece of American clay that was officially classified as art (see illustration at the head of this post). The Baseball Vase, a covered vase three feet high, was made in duplicate by Ott & Brewer of Trenton, New Jersey. The two vases flanked their booth at the Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876. At the time the fair opened one of the vases was moved to the Hall of Sculpture in the Art building for display thus officially accepting a mold-made clay object produced in multiple as a work of art.

As recently as the late 1800s, molds were revered and the artists who designed them and made them were honored as well. The sculptor of the Baseball Vase, Isaac Broome, was later appointed commissioner of ceramics for the US at the Paris Exposition of 1878. For the occasion, he made a bust of Cleopatra that won new awards in Paris.

So how does something that is revered in one era fall so far out of favor in another? In this case, how did the designing, making and use of molds for the production of ceramic sculpture become so denigrated by artists in the west? Tastes change.

During the latter years of the 19th century, the American ceramics market was flooded with parian porcelain trinkets made in Scotland, which damaged the public perception of the material. Furthermore, the Aesthetic movement in home furnishings turned away from art reproductions in favor of buying artistic objects for one's home. A reporter writing in 1884 for the London Pottery Gazette complained that "one of the things aestheticism did for us was to make it vulgar to have copies in art. ...It is a mistake to imagine that art only exists in the most cultured or the most wealthy. ... Of all exclusiveness, exclusiveness in art is the most to be lamented." As the studio movement unfolded in the 20th century art copies continued to fall from favor as home decoration.

Twentieth-Century Opinions on Molds
The potter's mentor, Bernard Leach, voiced the 20th-century attitude toward molds (or rather moulds) in A Potter's Book (1940) when he argued that "...it is debatable whether, from the point of view of beauty, plaster is to be welcomed, not so much because of any inherent evil in the material, as of the fatal facility with which it has been used to multiply florid forms. To the studio potter plaster is of far less import, unless he happens to be a figure modeler..." In an attending footnote he added that "...it is easy to overlook the vast distribution by this means of plain and practical domestic crockery and sanitary ware, which, although seldom beautiful, has nevertheless brought a large measure of physical refinement to millions of homes." In the end Leach stated emphatically that "Plaster of Paris is to the factory what the wheel used to be to the potter's workshop."

Susan Peterson echoed Leach's pronouncements in her The Craft & Art of Clay (1992): "European ceramics became increasingly mechanized, with cheap duplication by molds. Industrial factory organization meant that a series of workers performed separate, repeated functions; a single artisan did not create a piece from start to finish." She doesn't mention parian porcelain statuary anywhere in this book.

Tom Spleth Uses Molds for His Art
The use of molds in ceramic art remained out of fashion throughout the 20th century. When Tom Spleth set up his own studio about 1970 in Alfred, NY, nobody worked in molds. He started using them, however, because he didn't like the domination of radial symmetry that came from depending on the potter's wheel to make work. He taught himself how to work with plaster largely from tech sheets put out by plaster suppliers. When he started he was aware of the stigma of mold-made things and solved this in his own mind by not making models. Instead he cast plaster in blocks and cut the form out of the center of them, sculpting a void. As he worked with plaster he learned to love molds more and saw the material in new ways unconnected to their industrial past. On the few occasions when he has had a classroom full of students he has learned even more from their enthusiastic embrace of the medium.

Bowl made by Tom Spleth about 1973 while working in Alfred, New York.
He carved the shape from a solid block of plaster creating a void.

a side view of Tom Spleth's bowl.

The Penland Class on Mold-Making
The Penland concentration students to whom I spoke - Veva Edelson and Kelly O'Briant - confirmed the positive nature of Spleth's class. Both told me that they had taken the class in the hope of learning some ways to streamline their making process, but came away with renewed respect for plaster and its ability to stimulate the creative process. Since both of these women are working in the trenches, so to speak, as studio artists, they were good informants for my inquiry.

Veva pointed out that if this is a post-studio era as claimed by Adamson it was defined in her work by an inability to make cost-effective objects. She wants to be making ceramic art, but has found that her methods are not sustainable. In order for her to expand to new markets she needs to be able to streamline some processes while retaining complete control of each object. The making of molds has helped her achieve this goal, but has also transformed her objects into something that is "more crafted." Veva says she now sees that making the mold is a skill in itself, a way of creating sculpture. In addition, she was not expecting to be stimulated by the possibilities inherent in manipulating the mold after its making, but found that the use of molds had opened new ways of thinking about her work. She likes to spend time making objects (the object then becomes a witness to unfolding time and helps the viewer engage in that experience). The use of molds has not changed this relationship to object making. Rather, they have enhanced the experience for her.

Kelly was surprised to learn that we have entered the post-studio era: "I've just kept right on working." The life-style, she said, suits her. As a young artist she is still developing a market and exploring various marketing methods, using the Internet "a lot" and marketing with other potters as a way to show buyers that "hand-made" comes in many forms. Kelly had taken a mold-making class from Spleth when she was a Penland Core student, but that class was two weeks long, only enough time to get interested in the process, but not long enough to learn it. Thus, she was drawn to the eight-week time frame from previous experience. Like Veva, Kelly was interested in introducing the use of molds to her studio practice as a way of reducing cost on repeated forms. But she quickly learned that the mold-making process is not a time saver. Rather, she became interested in using the method as a way of editioning her work, exploring different surfaces on the same form; or making higher end work in small quantities, encouraging buyers to follow her progress. Kelly thinks that her biggest struggle as a studio artist is finding new directions in her work. Change has been a "glacially slow" process for her. But the use of molds creates possibilities for trying out new ideas. She also discovered that making models in plaster is a more intimate way to create form.

After speaking with these two artists I felt certain I would find that the other students had been similarly stimulated by learning to use molds and exploring their potential. I complemented Spleth for the enthusiasm he had instilled in his charges. He said they had stimulated him to see new possibilities in his own work.

The Take-Away Message
What had I learned from this investigation? Studio work in clay remains vital despite having entered an era that makes it sound dead*. And although molds were a game changer in 18th-century ceramic manufacturing, their use in contemporary hands is going in directions that manufacturers would not recognize. In other words, the use of industrial methods does not necessarily result in industrial products, unless that's what you want them to be.

*Spleth subsequently sent a note reminding me that painting was declared "dead" in the 1960s, but few painters noticed. They just kept right on painting. "Painting is such a marvelous human invention," wrote Tom, "that it is always renewed--it is a basic manifestation of intelligence. Studio practice is much the same. Something happens in a studio that is so essential to thought that studio practice will never disappear."