What Is The American Ceramic Tradition?

What is the American Ceramic Tradition?

Last year my wife and I made our first trip to Japan after 40 years of dreaming of such a trip. In Japan tradition rules, and here in the United States we wonder what it is. It seems they are locked into tradition and we are locked out. Back in the 70’s I was introduced to Southeastern folk pottery after 5 years of University Art School, and there I saw another type of tradition. I met and became friends with William J. Gordy and Lanier Meadors of Georgia; along with Dorothy and Walter Auman of North Carolina; Otto Brown of South Carolina and his brother Javon Brown and his son Evan Brown of North Carolina, and the many Coles and Owens of North Carolina. Tradition in Seagrove, North Carolina or Mashiko, Japan, is all the same, just different locations. It’s based on local clays, local forms, and local customers. For a long time I have been thinking and wondering what our real American Ceramic tradition is. Is it the Native American pottery; or the lead glazed pottery of the 1700’s; or the salt glazed stoneware of the 1800’s; or the alkaline glazed stoneware of the Southeastern United States in the 1800’s to early 1900’s?  Is our tradition from Rookwood in Cincinnati, or Weller in Zanesville?  Talking to my friend Mike Thiedeman about contemporary potters, he said, “Our tradition is Academic”, and he is right. For many reasons our teachers were not in touch with American traditions and the Bauhaus and Oriental pottery traditions were stressed in Art School. I believe as well that we Americans threw away our traditions with the industrial revolution when mass production became the norm and accepted way of seeing not only pottery, but all of our everyday items. This is why the “Arts and Crafts Movement” was begun by William Morris in the first place and why Leach carried it on and preached for the hand made item. Mass production replaced the individual craftsman as glass, plastic, and refrigeration replaced the need for ceramic canning jars and liquor jugs; store bought butter eliminated the need for butter churns; and the mass produced and very inexpensive pottery beat the potter to death.  Fortunately for America, the southern potters did not industrialize and we still have areas like Seagrove and Jugtown, N.C., as well as the Catawba Valley tradition in Vale, N.C.  Ben Owen III in Seagrove, N.C. has 5 generations of pottery making and customer education supporting his hard work today. The State of North Carolina has always supported the craftsman and around Seagrove you can see state highway signs pointing the way to local potters. Craft never became a dirty word down there like it did in the University system. Go visit Seagrove and Jugtown, N.C., or go to Mashiko, Japan and you’ll see the very same thing-TRADITION. Japan has had something like 200 generations of potters and we here in the United States have had about 5 or 6, but only in isolated areas.

We had incredible teachers back in the mid 60’s who were not potters, but knew how to stimulate us and to direct us on our own path. We were taught not to copy and to try to find our “own way”. The only books back then were by Glenn Nelson, Daniel Rhodes, and  Bernard Leach. Paul Soldner had a brochure out on how to build a catenary kiln and that was about it. Herb Sanders book came out on Japanese pottery, Richard Peeler went to Japan and made 16mm films of pottery villages, and along with Leach’s  book, these were the main influences of Oriental pottery. As mentioned earlier, Leach traveled the world preaching for the hand made pot and in affect, he was our Pied Piper. He was a voice to be heard and a person to follow. At the Universities there was a little Bauhaus and Scandinavian design thrown in, but it was the Oriental pots that made the strongest impressions. Maybe Japanese brush work related most closely to the Abstract Expressionism  that was then the fad, or movement in the New York art world. It was easy to follow Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock and Peter Volkous, Paul Soldner, Toshiko Takaezu, and Don Reitz all developed dynamic brush work on their pots. Don Frith followed more of a Scandinavian influence with his forms and surfaces, while Ralph Bacerra became the American Imari master with incredibly beautiful pots decorated in the most masterful ways. People like David Shaner developed quiet forms and decorations that were “theirs”, derived from all that they could read and see around them, but it was theirs. In the 60’s and 70’s it was not the accepted route to become a potter. There were no apprenticeships available except in England and Japan and most everyone got their MFA’s and were offered teaching jobs. It was an exciting time to be a clay student with workshops going on all over the country as Universities developed programs. An Academic Tradition was born.


 But then  what happened? The schools in their attempt to be new and different every semester, began to downplay pottery and leaned toward sculptural clay as being “more academically accepted as “ART”.  Peter Volkous, the new Pied Piper emerged at Berkley filled with Abstract Expressionism and the classic pot was beaten to death for the next 30 years. Since the 70’s we have had a plethora of “graduates” coming out of school and getting teaching jobs who don’t have a clue as to what the “Art of the Potter” is. Pottery has been academically put down in the US for at least 30 years now and it’s been a big mistake. Today, I can think of only a few places where a student can work on an MFA in the “pottery mode”. Although once in a program they succumb to the academic pressure of “making art”, not “craft”, and they merge into the sculptural side of clay working.


The big mistake was not allowing both to be within a ceramic art educational program. I know many schools today who will not allow wheel work, or if they do, it’s for one semester, before “advancing on to sculptural clay.” I realize too that many of us who really loved the “Art of the Potter” left University teaching because we wanted to make pots more than attend meetings. People like David Shaner, Tom Coleman, Tim Mather, and Don Pilcher to name a few, got out of the University, or stopped teaching clay. I left the University and felt that if I could make my very best pots, then they would be my very best teaching. Others climbed the academic ladder and became Department heads, or even Deans and stopped making and teaching pots. Fortunately for ceramic art education Tim Mather got back into teaching and is part of a great program at Indiana University. Pilcher, now retired, is back making pots and writing and the United States will benefit from that.


I am not against ceramic sculpture, I am against ceramic sculpture being toted as the art side of clay and pottery as the craft. The trickle down is immense. Who gets asked to jury shows and art fairs- academic persons. Since most have had no training or exposure to the “Art of The Potter’, they jury the potters out and put in what “looks new”.  Universities don’t hire the experienced artist with years of experience, they hire the freshly graduated MFA because their salary is less, they are making what is on the magazine covers, but they have little experience. Secondly, without classes on the “Art of The Potter” we loose educated customers who appreciate really good work. People really want to learn about pottery as well as own it and enjoy it. Art Centers and private gallery/studios have sprung up out of the need for instruction. Early studios were The Torpedo Factory, 92nd Street Y in NYC, Lill St. in Chicago, and now there is Terras Incognito in Oak Park, Illinois and Red Star in Kansas City. These are only a few names of the many new studios teaching classes because people are hungry for information.


While in Japan we visited Ceramic Research Centers that encompass a Museum, school, and research center. They are about CLAY only and I wonder if it isn’t time that we do the same here in the United States and keep it out of the Art Departments. The big, big difference is that pottery is revered in Japan and looked down upon in most of the United States. Yes, I realize that funding is the problem, but we need to start working on it.


I know very good potters without MFA’s and I’ve seen some very poor potters with them. I have more questions than answers, but it is hoped that this starts a dialogue that can lead us away from where we are and towards a more reasonable, practical solution to educating people in the United States about “The Art Of The Potter”. I realize I am opening up a can of worms, but I have been silent too long.


I believe we need to look very hard and deep into what is being taught as “Ceramic Art” today. Do we have a tradition; are we too far removed at this point from our original traditions; is the Academic tradition based on anything real; where do we go from here?

Who am I; where am I; where have I been; where am I going; what do I need to get there?


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