Much of American Contemporary Pottery can be sliced into these major branches:
- The Leach School, maybe better named the Leach/Hamada/Yanagi School
- The Scandinavia/Bauhaus School
- The Folk School, drawing from traditional American folk pottery, mostly salt glazed stoneware.
Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach were the most influential potters of their lifetimes. They're pots, books and thoughts, affected functional pottery not only in own countries of Japan and England, but on all continents. Leach was born in Hong Kong and studied ceramics in Japan. He set up his studio at St. Ives, England. Hamada had his studio at Mashiko, Japan.
Within the Leach School there are many branches. Like most generalizations particularly about art there are plenty of exceptions. I am going to talk about generalities. These people make lots of pots. The exceptions are too numerous to note.
Leach had many apprentices. Clary Illian, Warren Mackenzie, Jeff Oestreich, and Michael Cardew were among them. Leach apprentices tend to make pots strictly intended for function. Many of his apprentices place a high value on making pots for local use and at an affordable price. Leach was a great fan of folk potteries and saw the roots of his work descending from a connection with the historic pots of England as much as from his pottery upbringing in Japan. Although he was also a great fan of Chinese pottery the greatest influence on his forms seems to come from England and Japan. He was greatly influenced by Japanese tea ceremony wares. Forms from his pottery often had a clunky soft naturalness. Refinement never came at the expense of freshness. In contrast to his apparent feelings for tea ceremony wares he felt that great pots came out of utilitarian folk traditions and the later teawares were anything but folk. Function was foremost. Clay was cheap. Leach apprentices pots often feature stout rims, and thick handle attachments, a sturdy look. You can see that look in pots of his apprentices Illian and Hewitt as well as other pots in the exhibit. It is also apparent in most Workshop of Warren Mackenzie pottery, just not in the example in the exhibit.
Michael Cardew, one Leach's early apprentices went to Africa and set up several potteries. He was trying to introduce stoneware pottery to parts of the continent where only earthenware pottery making existed. His forms often were heavily influenced by African earthenware traditions; other forms relied on Chinese and European models. Like Leach, his master, Cardew's pitchers were descendants of Medieval English lead glazed pitchers. His other forms when not African were sometimes based on the graceful refined forms of China. He talked of the "Majesty of Form" and did not seem interested in the gesture and naturalistic form of Japanese tea ceremony ware. His work is often more elegant than Leach's. He was a better thrower and consequently his more refined work still retained the same freshness that characterized Leach pots.
Like Leach, Cardew had apprentices. Cardew was asked to speak at a conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in Wichita Kansas. Cardew told a large group of college ceramics instructors that you can't teach good pottery making in a University; the apprenticeship and workshop systems were far superior. Cardew's apprentices include Mark Hewitt, and Todd Piker. Mark Skudlarek is an apprentice of Todd Piker and married to one of Cardew's granddaughters. The vestigial over-the-spout handle on Skudlarek's quart sized teapot in this exhibition is clearly descended from Cardew repertoire of forms. On gallon sized teapots the over-the-spout handle is needed for comfortable pouring.
Mark Hewitt is now beginning to have apprentices of import. Like Cardew, he pokes fun at universities. Rhetorically he is wary of "pots about pots" or "dysfunctional pottery". He expects teapots to function and has no respect for teapots that exist as sculpture without being able to function. He questions the reverence among American potters for Japanese teaware although he seems to accept Sung dynasty Chinese ware perhaps under the umbrella of Cardew's "Majesty of Form". One favorite comment of his refers to his tall tumblers half sarcastically as "Iced Tea Ceremony ware". Despite his rather strict and dogmatic rhetoric concerning functionalism he is best know for forms so large that they cease to have function in any modern setting.
Leach, Hamada, and Soetsu Yanagi (a Philosopher specializing in Folkcraft or Mingei), toured the United States in 1952 giving lectures and demonstrations. The tour was probably the most influential event in 20th century American ceramics. Among those who saw the lectures and demonstrations was Ken Ferguson who went on to head Ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute. Ferguson was greatly influenced by the thought and philosophy of these visitors. Ferguson made pots that were influenced by their pots, but also by American folk pottery. Ferguson often say's, "If you like a potter's pots don't look at the potter's pots but look at the pots that potter looks at. Leach said American pots lacked a deep taproot, Ferguson early in his career worked from the deepest root he could find, American salt glazed stoneware, and slipware. Ferguson combined these traditions with those of Japan
Ferguson had a great museum collection of Japanese pots at the doorstep of his school, the Nelson Atkins Museum. As the seventies progressed h his emphasis shifted away from American Salt towards the expressiveness to gesture. He was becoming more influenced by Japanese tea wares particularly Oribe, and Shino wares.
Ferguson's students and their style are referred to as the Kansas City School. Kansas City School pots mostly feature Japanese style glazes and Japanese glaze decorating techniques, are stoneware fired and have robust features. Among the large number of these students of Ferguson are: Chris Nelson, Josh DeWeese, Sarah Jaeger, Gail Busch, Chandler Dayton, Akio Takamori, and myself. Loose throwing, long on gesture but with good technique are characteristics of these pots. Despite the emphasis on gesture the Kansas City school potters have been criticized as making pots too well or too clean.
Ferguson became disillusioned with the economic prospects for functional potters and after 1980 started to steer students away from "straight" pots. He felt that it was impossible to make a living making pots. Pottery coming from Kansas City moved more towards highly decorated ware and sculpture.
Warren Mackenzie like Ferguson taught at a university, the University of Minnesota. His students are often referred to as the Minnesota School potters. Minnesota School pots tend to be more strictly utilitarian than Kansas City pots but feature similar glazes. It can be very difficult to differentiate these schools. There was lots of cross-pollination.
A subset of the Minnesota school potters is referred to as the Mingeisota Potters. The term Mingeisota, a conjunction of Mingei (Japanese for Folkcraft) and Minnesota, was coined by Ferguson as a pejorative. The Mingeisota potters accepted their new name with glee. They knew that their work exhibited many common features and were proud of it. These potters include Jeff Oestreich, and Linda Christianson. The pots are often made with coarse clays and have vapor glazed (wood, salt or soda fired) surfaces. Applied glazes are usually only used inside and have relatively subdued colors. Mingeisota pots are often altered thrown forms, ovals, squares, or, pentagons. Much of the alteration in contemporary pottery can be attributed to the influence of Jeff Oestreich. Where Warren Mackenzie's and generic Minnesota school pots are designed for every day use, Jeff Oestreich and other Mingeisota pots often require more work to produce and price consigns them to more special uses.
Linda Christianson and others, mostly Mingeisota potters, became interested in a surface produced by introducing small amounts of sodium into the kiln as sodium chloride or sodium carbonate. The surface can mimic a once rare salmon colored surface produced by wood kilns on light clays. The vibrant color has captured the eye of many American potters since 1981. It is often seen on the pots of Mingeisota influenced potters such as MacKenzie Smith, Carol Roorbach, Jeanette Rikowski, Louis Katz and Josh DeWeese. The Buck Pottery piece also exhibits this surface.
Two of the potters in the show, both Leach Apprentices, place great emphasis on price and local use. They purposfully keep their work cheap so that local people can buy and use them. One of these is Clary Illian. Another is Warren Mackenzie. During a recent ceramics conference in Iowa City Clary kept her shop closed. She didn't want all of the potters coming to buy her pots and keep them out of local's kitchens. Warren Mackenzie has also always sold his work cheap. Because he supported himself mostly through teaching people saw his low prices as dumping.