Ronnie Watt is a collector and historian of South African studio pottery. In June 2014, he visited the USA to do research in the archives of the Studio Potter journal and explore the studio pottery community of the New England region.
Mary Barringer, a studio potter in the small town of Shellburne Falls, Massachusetts, was busy creating a textured surface on a pot. She has been scratching, hatching, and gouging an assemblage of irregular lines into the leather-hard clay of a high-necked, keel-shaped vase. Then she erased much of the surface with a grater and sanding paper. And started the work afresh. She was teasing and merging surfaces from one another and onto one another, guided as much by sight and touch as by intuition. She wasn’t forming a texture. She was performing a texture.
Barringer, who has been an independent studio potter since 1973 and has exhibited to great acclaim in her own country and internationally, is revered rather than merely admired for both what she makes and for the thinking that she puts into such making. She is not producing “intellectualised pots” but they most certainly are intelligent in having been thoroughly deliberated, their forms and surfaces flowing from steady progression.
This same commitment to evolution rather than invention, can be read in the oeuvres of the other New England studio potters, many of whom learned the art of their craft through long and even multiple apprenticeships after completion of their formal training. In fact, it is as though they are perpetually apprenticed in their symbiotic relationships with mentor studio potters, sharing studios, kilns and exhibitions. The result has been the rise of a New England studio potter genealogy, evidenced in their shared memes of making. Memes have been described as ‘the cultural counterparts of genes’1 and in the sense of studio pottery, it is particular to the transfer of an idea of purpose and form which permits and prompts crossover and adaptation. A meme is not about mimicking and replicating the same but to assimilate and interpret it, and then expand (or even abbreviate) the essence of the original.
One such consistent essence in New England studio pottery, is the patent tactility in the forms and surfaces of the pots. Rob Cartelli in Brattleboro, Vermont produces porcelain with super-smooth surfaces. In his interpretation of the tradition of American redware, Steven Zoldak in Portsmouth, New Hampshire decorates with lush slip-trailing and his partner Maureen Mills offsets intricate surface designs with contrasting planes of simple but profound glazes. Eric Smith in Cummington, Massachusetts is an exponent of grainy salt-fired wares. Four other wood-firing studio potters in the vicinity of Smith’s studio who produce surface work of note are Sam Taylor in Westhampton, Michael McCarthy in Goshen, Maya Machin in Ashfield, and Steve Theberge in Turners Falls. The facetted forms of Jeffrey Lipton in Bowdoinham, Maine, reveal their maker’s mastery of concept.
The co-leaders of the pack of New England studio pottery are undoubtedly Chris Gustin in South Dartmouth, Maine and Mark Shapiro in Worthington, Massachusetts, both having exhibited in premier galleries and museums and are rightfully credited as contemporary studio pottery trail-blazers. Their works command attention not only because they are exemplary and in high demand, but because they address the simple dictum of success: commitment. Gustin boasts, without being supercilious, that he “can turn a $20 lump of clay into a $3000 pot” 2 for the single reason that in his 40-year long career as studio potter, he refused to skip steps in production. For Shapiro, studio pottery is a perpetual development of form and motif: “It doesn’t matter who started it. The question is, who’s going to finish it?” 3
New England studio potters are creating pots with physical, visual, functional and emotive substance. Stuff that one can use. Stuff that one wants to use. Bowls, plates, mugs, jugs, vases, containers, and ornamental pieces. The usual variety of pots, looking and functioning more or less like any other similar pots. But here’s the difference… they are pots that invite to be admired and to be held and used. To put it another way: they offer events of experiences. Much of that of course relates to the form and how that fits both eye and hand. It also relates to the textures which are not skin-deep, dressing-up glazes but are integral to the matrix of materials and process and the studio potter’s reference world. A reference world is assembled from training, experience, exposure, intuition but is also influenced by shared and evolved memes, and most importantly by an ethos. By definition, ethos constitutes the guiding values which characterise a person, people, culture, community or movement. The New England ethos is revealed in how the curator, promoter and dealer of high-end ceramic art, Leslie Ferrin of Ferrin Contemporary, would dash from her office in Cummington to nearby pottery studios to be the chief cheer leader when kilns in which functional wares have been fired, are opened.
It is an ethos of taking delight in a pot not only because it is a good pot, but for every way in which its pot-ness appeal to our senses and values.
1 “meme”. Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary. 1991. London: Random House
2 Gustin, Chris. Interview, June 2014
3 Shapiro, Mark. n.d. Stonepool Pottery: The Studio of Mark Shapiro. (O) Accessed 5 October 2014. Available at http://www.stonepoolpottery.com/