The Ceramic History of Westerwald, Germany


The Origins - The Westerwald Clay Region


The vast and extensive clay quarries in the Westerwald region represent the largest connected deposits in Europe. Only a few other regions in the world are known to have clay sources of comparable size and quality. The Westerwald clay is distinguished by its exceptional ductility, virtually impurity-free composition, and excellent sintering properties. These clays are perfectly suited for stoneware production–a high-fired, waterproof, acid-resistant, impermeable clay.

The rich clay resources, together with abundant timber in the region, earned Westerwald the moniker "Pot Bakers’ Land" or Kannenbäckerland. The proximity of major long-distance trade routes such as the Salt Way and the Rhine, key European arteries, was pivotal in transforming Westerwald and its stoneware into an international success story.


Stoneware from Inception to the Renaissance


Kilns capable of reaching temperatures up to 1200 °C were documented in the Rhineland as early as the 13th century. The oldest documented evidence of pottery kilns in Höhr dates back to the year 1402. 

Extremely poor working conditions, warfare, and penury triggered migration movements across Europe, including the Westerwald region. Around 1600 skilled pottery masters from the Rhineland, Raeren in Belgium, and Lorraine began migrating to the so-called Pot Bakers’ Land (Kannenbäckerland). They infused fresh vitality into local craftsmanship, bringing new forms, decorative motifs, and new glazing and firing techniques. As a result, the pottery trade in the region experienced a major boost in the following centuries.

During this period, the distinctive pottery of the Pot Bakers’ Land developed: a grey, salt-glazed stoneware vessel adorned with cobalt blue painted decorations. The vessel shapes often show a carinated or angular shape achieved by the emphasized articulation of the different body parts through fluting or ridges. Cobalt blue painting was complemented by additional decorative techniques such as stamping and applications.

These vessels were embellished with depictions of prince-electors, bishops, biblical narrative cycles, and very mundane scenes featuring barn dances or mercenaries. Apart from everyday household ware produced for local sale, the potters also worked on commissions that were traded and sold internationally. Westerwald stoneware had become a product on the global market!


The Baroque Period


In Germany, the Baroque period, a new Italian style that developed after the deprivations of the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648), had a significant impact on pottery. Westerwald experienced an economic upturn, leading to the establishment of new potteries everywhere. In 1771, the guild in the Pot Bakers’ Land (Kannenbäckerland) reached its zenith with six hundred master craftsmen in twenty-three villages. Aside from these, there were many so-called Schnatzer–individuals who, for various reasons– could not or should not be named master. The increasing number of competing potters led to a decline in quality, subsequently causing prices to fall. Faced with this situation, regional authorities were forced to take regulatory measures.

In addition to everyday pottery, craftsmen in the region specialized in creating drinking vessels, figurines, and ornamental pieces. Appliqué as adornment became popular—lozenges, medallions, rosettes, or blossoms were intricately and elaborately crafted and placed. Furthermore, new patterns were introduced, such as hatched lines or impressions made using a wooden stick and stamped decoration.

The products originating from the Kannenbäckerland were renowned for their high quality supra-regionally. Affluent clientele, including the aristocracy, entrusted and commissioned the potters with their specific wishes and needs. This is evident in the personal crests or emblems, such as "GR" for George Rex (King George of England).


Historicism:

18th to 19th Century


From the 18th century onwards, traditional stoneware products faced stiff competition from European porcelain and modern stoneware, gradually losing favor among solvent customers. Out of necessity, the potters focused on producing greyish-blue everyday household tableware up to the middle of the 19th century. 

A turning point occurred in 1864 with the recruitment of Bohemian modeler Reinhold Hanke. The long-desired technical and artistic change finally began as Hanke applied his skills to the hitherto traditional stoneware production, collaborating with

Peter Dümler, a talented designer in his company. By 1872, they developed a plaster vessel mold for repeated use, accommodating a thrown clay barrel. This new method enabled Hanke to create intricate, custom-made objects. Honored at world fairs and the recipient of numerous international awards, Hanke is seen as a legitimate heir to the long-standing Rhenish stoneware potters.

Progress now took its course. Driven by factory owners Friedrich Wilhelm Merkelbach II and Georg Peter Wick, improvements in industrialized production increased significantly. This marked a transformative era where traditional German stoneware could now be efficiently mass-produced.

Moreover, the educational reforms initiated by the Prussian government led to the establishment of three major technical colleges devoted solely to ceramics: in Landshut, Bavaria (1873); in Höhr–Grenzhausen (1879); and the former Silesian Bunzlau, now Bolesławiec in Poland (1897). The potter's craft transitioned from being solely passed down through hands-on apprenticeships to becoming a subject of scientific research and analysis, reflecting a broader spectrum of knowledge and skills beyond traditional workshop teachings.


Art Nouveau


During the increasing industrialization, an artistic counter-movement arose all over Europe at the turn of the 20th century, striving for a renewed strengthening of individualized craftsmanship.

To prevent the region's stoneware manufacturers from missing the boat, internationally renowned artists and designers were engaged. In 1901, Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) arrived in Westerwald, sparking a radical shift in stylistic approach. Simultaneously, Peter Behrens (1868-1940) contributed style drafts and templates, infusing the traditional greyish-blue appearance of Westerwald stoneware with a contemporary design.

Certain factory owners, including Simon Peter Gerz I, Merkelbach & Wick, and Reinhold Merkelbach, took an active role and established successful connections with renowned artists like Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1957). This collaboration ushered in a period of artistic renewal and innovation within the Westerwald stoneware industry.

To ensure their survival, the majority of companies continued manufacturing conventional household stoneware. Products embodying the Art Nouveau spirit appeared overly ornate for the average customer, leading to limited success for these new ceramic offerings. Only a select few companies achieved success with these new ceramic products.


Mass Production in the Post-War Period


After a reduction in output during World War II, pottery factories gradually returned to pre-war levels of activity in the 1950s, with a primary focus on the mass production of tableware. The Westerwald potteries emerged as the main designers and producers of the Fifties, experiencing a flourishing business that led to the creation of numerous new jobs. For instance, the Jasba company saw a sixfold increase in its workforce between 1948 and 1955.

Immigrant workers from Italy and Turkey also found employment in the concentrated pottery industry, centered mainly around the town of Ransbach-Baumbach. This economic miracle in the stoneware industry ushered in an era of prosperity for the Westerwald region, which endured until the 1990s.


Developments in Craft During the 20th Century


In contrast to other fields of fine art, the evolution of ceramic arts unfolded gradually and without sharp stylistic incongruities. This continuity was partly because handicrafts were not condemned as degenerate art by the Nazi regime; instead, they were supported for their perceived (Germanic) folksiness. 

Potters such as August Hanke (1875-1938) and Elfriede Balzar-Kopp (1904-1983) received high acclaim in national and international competitions for their traditional craftsmanship.

In the post-war period, Westerwald potteries survived by producing crockery in the style of the Thirties. As economic conditions improved, potters began to experiment once again, seeking more individualized forms of expression. The ceramic vessel started to free itself from its traditional role as a functional object, evolving into an autonomous art object. Creative principles from the fine arts and performing arts, such as assemblage, repetition, rhythm, or deconstruction, were applied to ceramics.

Elfriede Balzar-Kopp carving pattern, probably 1930s - photo courtesy:
Kreisbildstelle des Westerwaldkreises, Foto Georg Gerlach

Contemporary Art in Höhr-Grenzhausen


Those working or studying at the State Technical College for Ceramics (Fachschule), the Institute for Ceramic and Glass Arts (IKKG), or those active in the many workshops of the region share a common curiosity about what ceramic and glass materials can convey and how to express the art form.

But, the long history of Westerwald stoneware also calls for reflection: What does this place and region mean to us? How does our ceramic culture relate to neighboring regions or other cultures? Many artists employ century-old pottery techniques like wheel throwing or salt glazing to create new and contemporary objects. Every two years, students carry out a firing in the last functioning traditional salt kiln. By immersing themselves in this historical continuum, the region remains vibrant and well-prepared for its artistic future. The narrative of Westerwald pottery continues!


CONTRIBUTOR

Nele van Wieringen has been the Director of the Keramikmuseum Westerwald since 2018. She completed her master's degree at Koblenz University, Institute for Ceramic and Glass Arts in Höhr-Grenzhausen. There, she earned her doctorate in collaboration with the University of Art and Design Linz with a thesis on the art-theoretical conception of color in ceramics.

The Mapping of American History: "Points of Origin" at C24 Gallery


C24 Gallery - Chelsea, NYC 
560 W 24th Street 
New York, NY 10011

To the left, right, horizon, and periphery, fifty conical ceramic masks of various proportions are plotted throughout the gallery, echoing an ominous air. The staccato-sharp masks, coated with buzzing blues and adorned with pointillist protrusions, are animated with disconcerting expressions, interlocking and confronting viewers with their cryptic and unwavering gaze. Taking a reticent step closer, the contours of masonite prayer fans and plotter ink drawings featuring symbolic and figurative imagery emerge—anchoring the abstracted hoods with narratives personal to the artist, Tammie Rubin.

Originating from multiple axes to create a nexus of works revolving around the common theme of faith, Points of Origin, C24 Gallery’s latest exhibition, serves as a documentation of Rubin’s extensive historical research, a celebration of her master craftsmanship, and an intimate glimpse into her lineage. Although the ensemble of pieces possess contrasting formal qualities and viewpoints, David Terry, the director of the gallery and curator of the show, explains:

“When you think of the point of origin, and where you come from, that could be from many places. [Rubin’s] work and this body of work come from many different areas of her life, African American culture, American culture, women in her family, and the threads that make up the fabric of the country.


So when she was bringing [the pieces] out, I got really excited because they’re all from the same context, but she's exploring different media. And I love it when artists carry the same theme through but realize and recognize it through different forms, communicating at many levels to many different people.”

Creating a metaphysical altar and paying homage to her family and the Black American experience, the varying vantages harmonize in spiritual unison with their shared explorations of The Great Migration and Reconstruction—subjects Rubin hadn’t considered in her practice until she migrated to Texas in 2015. She elaborates:

“It was specifically about this idea of moving to Austin. You know, I moved here for a job, and that's when I started to think about my parents in a historical context. I'm taking from my family stories and then expanding that into larger research about other Black families that have had this experience and whose stories haven't been told. I’m reflecting on conversations about Black Americans having their history not being represented in our world.”

In fact, according to author Isabel Wilkerson, The Great Migration—a period from roughly 1910 to 1970 when six million African Americans mass relocated from the Jim Crow South to the North—was “the greatest and biggest underreported story in the 20th century.”

Always & Forever (forever, ever) No.14 - Photo by Daniel Krieger, courtesy of C24 Gallery

As the descendant of parents who migrated and met in Chicago (mother from southern Mississippi and father from Memphis, Tennessee), Rubin unveils their neglected history and memorializes her family and Black families alike in an archival collection.

Always & Forever (forever, ever), Drift No.2 - Photo by Daniel Krieger, courtesy of C24 Gallery
Always & Forever (forever, ever), No.24 - Photo by Daniel Krieger, courtesy of C24 Gallery

A clan of three ceramic hoods with pigmented Delphinium and Vivid Blue skin and scars of Radiant Red stand on a floating shelf by the entrance. The central figure, with a leveled head resembling a motherboard, represents a map of Chicago. Similar patterns of cities and migratory paths are also present on other masks in her Always & Forever (forever, ever) series.

On the right of the No.17 tribe, a funnel-shaped form with sgraffito rain strokes, dots, and beaded relief creates a sensational feast for the visual cortex. Although the mask isn’t directly portraying routes, the dynamic movement metaphorically alludes to migration as the pulsating red synchronizes and dances with the blue.

The particularly pointy, slanted hood has a more regal personality. Embellished with an obscured badge, a symbol originating from the Medieval Period, the hood contemplates power, principally within the context of law enforcement. Laced with Medieval and magical influences, the masks may appear solely, or most familiarly, to reference the Ku Klux Klan, but they also attribute to Knight and Shaman helmets, dunce caps, and wizards.

Rubin builds sizable, totemic red stoneware forms as seen in her Unknown Ritual Mask series and practices slip-casting smaller everyday objects—cones, funnels, food containers, and vintage lighting—reconfiguring them into non-functional headdresses. After making a mold, she speedily scratches, carves, punctures, and pipes beading onto the surface as they quickly dry.

“I think of all the mark-making that is repetitious as black bodies moving through space and time, so I’m physically marking that onto the surface of the ceramic forms. […] I’m interested in how to suffuse the form with another point of visual communication through the surface itself.”

Rubin then paints the pigmented porcelains, with sumptuous lines, shapes, and stencils. Some cones resemble Abstract Expressionist and contemporary paintings, others African beadwork, Aboriginal mark-making, and ornamental designs.

The exhibition is filled with a profusion of symbols. The plotter ink drawings portray hagiographical portraits of her grandmother, mother, and aunts all adorned with turnip, mustard, and collard green halos—food staples prominent in Rubin's upbringing. Masonite fans, framing the ceramic cones, are symbolic references to the prayer fans that were predominantly present in black churches and funeral homes to keep the congregation cool. Marked with text, figures, floral, dotted, and migratory patterns, the iconographical fans provide a window into the past and become profound relics that take on resonance and emanate the power of faith.

Rubin’s cerebral and complex perspectives are captured in Points of Origin, a transcendental exhibition visually and conceptually mapping and highlighting one of the most significant and overlooked demographic shifting events that will forever change the structure, history, and future of the United States of America. She emphasizes, “Black history is not separate from American history. These are Americans.” The diverse array of works converges into a singular point of origin, commemorating and celebrating the contributions and stories of Rubin and Black families who’ve built the foundation of the country.

“There is no American culture without black American culture. You can't say, well, they did it. We did it. We did it together.”

- Jacob Lawrence


Visit C24 Gallery at 560 W 24th Street New York, NY 10011, or explore and learn more about the exhibition "Points of Origin" and Tammie Rubin's works online at C24 GALLERY

Visions of Shigaraki, Japan


To see ceramic destinations in Shigaraki, Japan, and other sites worldwide, check out Ceramic World Destinations (CWD), MoCA/NY's interactive map listing over 4,000 destinations!



En Iwamura, a ceramic artist currently residing in Shigaraki, shares his experience working in the cultural heritage site and the benefits and challenges of living in the region. This essay is part of our three-part feature on the cultural heritage site Shigaraki. GET TO KNOW SHIGARAKI written by Michio Sugiyama provides insights into the historical, cultural, and traditional aspects of Shigaraki, and Hitomi Shibata shares a personal essay, Shigaraki - Our Journey in Clay, reflecting on her time living, working, and making art in Shigaraki.
Miho Museum: photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Local train station - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

I was born in Kyoto, Japan, and received my BFA and MFA at the Kanazawa College of Art and Craft in Kanazawa. I decided to study in the US and received my second MFA at Clemson University. After living and working in the US for six years, I returned to Japan and moved to Shigaraki. 

Shigaraki is not far from my hometown (about 30-40 min driving distance) and I found myself missing time spent with my family while I was abroad. I also want to raise a family with my wife in Japan.

While traveling and working at residencies, I felt like a nomad. Every time I moved, I had to also transport all my studio equipment, tools, and glazes and I found this to be too burdensome and prevented me from developing a consistent studio practice. I wanted to find the perfect place to settle and Shigaraki was the place as it not only has an international ceramic reputation but also because of the quietness and peace of the atmosphere necessary for my practice. I moved to Shigaraki in 2018 as a resident artist at Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park.

Shigaraki is a small village located in southeast Shiga prefecture, and known as one of six ancient ceramic kiln sites in Japan. The environment is pretty calm, surrounded by mountains, and the population is small. The image is like a picturesque Japanese traditional old village. My first impression was “What a beautiful and peaceful place!” It was nice to stay away from the business of the city and have a place to focus solely on my work. I quickly fell in love with the city.

Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Palace ruins Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

Of course, even with the positive aspects of Shigaraki, there are issues with this small village in the countryside of Japan. A key issue is the low population density. Getting to know the community and communicating with local people, I began to realize the reality of this place. After many years of shrinking demands for Japanese ceramic industries, there are so many factories and businesses that are closing, risking the future of this cultural heritage site. The younger generation of local people is leaving Shigaraki for a bigger city to seek their own life therefore, their heritage, passed down from generation to generation is disappearing. So, there are many empty houses and factories but people have no idea how they should approach these challenges.

En Iwamura in his studio in Shigaraki
En Inwamura's ceramic in his studio in Shigaraki
En Inwamura's ceramic in his studio in Shigaraki
En Inwamura's ceramic in his studio in Shigaraki

As an artist who works at this cultural heritage site, I would like to use existing resources and am thinking about the potential of the town. Thinking about all the empty factories, and houses, I would like to see the younger generations of people utilize the opportunities Shigaraki provides and create their own creative and innovative community here. For instance, I bought an abandoned gift shop and renovated it as my studio. I hope to see some kind of new creators’ community here in the future to preserve Shigaraki and its culture, traditions, and history.


CONTRIBUTOR:

En Iwamura

En Iwamura was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1988. Under the influence of both parents who are painters, he grew up in an artistic environment. After graduating with a BFA in craft at the Kanazawa College of Art and Craft, he began to be interested in the international Art world. he considers that ceramic has the potential to be one of the international languages, that can cross different cultures, people, and countries. En Iwamura's current research investigates how he can influence and alter the experience of viewers who occupy space with his installation artworks.

WEBSITE


Exploring Identity and Cultural Dichotomies with Brendan Lee Satish Tang at C24 Gallery


C24 Gallery - Chelsea, NYC 560 W 24th Street 
New York, NY 10011

On a suspiciously quiet Thursday evening near the Chelsea piers, the streets are bathed in fading sunlight, the day prematurely surrendering to dusk. The crowd of gallery goers looking for visual stimulation, networking prospects, or free drinks has yet to proliferate, and amidst this quietude stands C24 Gallery, a beacon with its luminous lights casting an alluring glow through the window and onto the sidewalk. A veritable unopened treasure chest awaiting discovery.

The gallery is a reliquarium, a sacred box showcasing Ming Dynasty vessels that have been penetrated by and entwined with anime-inspired robots and gilded ormolu.

Adorning the walls and encircling these mutated cyborg vessels, are expansive, bulletproof stretched kevlar sculptural paintings, stained by steel rust and varnished with a luminous patina.

Albeit stylistically distinct—abstract vs. representational and muted color palette vs. an explosion of hues—the contrasting aesthetics of Brendan Lee Satish Tang and Coby Kennedy’s works meld beautifully in the space. Non-competing and complimenting, the industrial features and the matte and glossy surfaces of both artists’ work harmonize to present Cultured, a duo show on view until December 23rd.

installation view of "Cultured" - photo courtesy: C24 Gallery

C24 Gallery describes Cultured as “refined, cultivated, nurtured, artificially grown, or synthesized.” When asked about the exhibition’s title in connection to the works on display, David Terry, the director and curator of the gallery, explains how the artists’ underlying processes align and how the concept and content behind them are parallel: 

“The two artists are deep within their analysis of their own culture, personally and within a historical context with Brendan being inspired by the Ming Dynasty and Coby exploring the African-American diaspora.” 

With their post-colonial explorations of race, identity, and heritage, Cultured showcases the multiplex manifestations and individualistic interpretations of socio-cultural issues experienced collectively.

Manga Ormolu

Manga Ormolu 4.0-aa, 2023, Ceramic and mixed media, 22 x 10 x 10.5 in. (55.9 x 25.4 x 26.7 cm) - photo courtesy: C24 Gallery

For over two decades, Brendan Lee Satish Tang (he/they) has been working on their series entitled Manga Ormolu—a fusion of distinctly Asian aesthetics accented with European filigree. 

A cobalt blue landscape, dragons, fish, florals, and warriors are painted with precision on the ‘porcelain’ facades—imagery referencing the style of vessels from the 18th-century Ming Dynasty, a prosperous period of economic and cultural expansion in China. 

Agglutinated and burgeoning onto the melting Chinese relics are Japanese robotic features that have spored and taken control over the vessels—a sci-fi parasite. The glossy cyborg mutants are inspired by Tang’s longstanding love of Mecha: “a genre of Japanese manga and anime that heavily features or focuses on mechanical innovation. Robots, cyborgs, androids, and space stations, for example, all fall under the wide umbrella of mecha; however, robots are usually the primary focus” (NYPL).

Tang’s infatuation with science fiction and utopia began as a child, which coincides with when mecha grew to peak popularity in the West. They were engrossed in playing video games, reading manga, and watching shows like Transformers, Astro Boy, and Star Trek.

Manga Ormolu 5.0-aa, 2023, Ceramic and mixed media, 23 x 12 x 13 in. (58.4 x 30.5 x 33 cm) - photo courtesy: C24 Gallery

Unsurprisingly, those formal and conceptual themes became parents to their visual language and permeated into their practice—bringing the fictional robots into the physical realm.

Although the Chinese vessels and Japanese cyborgs come from the same continent, that is their only shared variable. The traditional vessels are monochrome, soft, fleshy, and matte, with a crackled glaze, and delicate brushstrokes with value. Meanwhile, the futuristic, graphic robotic parts are hard and manufactured, glossy, and engineered.

The contrasting evocations of the past colliding with the future evoke nostalgia and hope—or detachment and fear—depending on the person and how they view the flourishing omnipresence of technology.

Concerning the geopolitical relationship between Japan and China, Tang explains how this wasn’t initially a forefront concern, however, they became aware of the contentious history between the two nations when they had an exhibition in Richmond, Vancouver.

“It was really interesting to have that experience because there were a lot of people from mainland China that live in Richmond and when they came to the show, they saw [the Manga Ormolu pieces] as an affront and it was like almost an insult onto the historical vessels and that sort of thing. As, you know, we always think of a colonial agenda within a Western context, but it was a colonial agenda within a Japanese context as well. And so there was a weird form of telephone game where it's like I'm unpacking my 'Asianess' through the West unpacking 'Asianess'.”

As a Chinese, South Asian Canadian who was born in Dublin, Ireland, Brendan has always lived within a Western landscape and felt disconnected from their heritage as they assimilated, negotiated, and suppressed their “Asianess” to steer Western spaces. When they discovered the ormolu—the 18th-century French and German aristocratic practice of embellishing pre-existing, often foreign or “exotic” objects—they saw themselves reflected in the gilded Chinese porcelain.

Manga Ormolu 4.0-bb, 2023, Ceramic and mixed media, 23 x 10 x 11 in. (58.4 x 25.4 x 27.9 cm) - photo courtesy: C24 Gallery
Manga Ormolu 2.0-t, 2023, Ceramic and mixed media, 20 x 14 x 13in. (50.8 x 35.6 x 33cm) - photo courtesy: C24 Gallery

“I was excited by what I was seeing kind of in a way of seeing myself in the work where I am very much an Asian identity but I have all this Western filigree all over me. I am the Ming Vessel with the gold filigree and the strange architecture and stuff like that. But then I started seeing things where they started making these elaborate pieces with Buddha and put all these things that have no business being together. I felt a bit revolted, but also equally fascinated.”

Unearthing these appropriated, fetishized, and Westernized Asian relics became the genesis of their Manga Ormolu series and an outlet to explore their identity. Akin to Asian fusion restaurants, where spices and ingredients are modified to become more accessible and digestible, the cyborg vessels appear Asian whilst garnished with European flavors to suit the Western taste. 

These sculptures are a self-portrait of Brendan, they humorously scrutinize and satirize the Western lens and cultural appropriation, whilst simultaneously confronting their self-inflicted discrimination. No longer, are they molding and denigrating themselves to accommodate and please others, however, their people-pleasing tendencies have sublimated and materialized in their craftsmanship.

work in progress of Manga Ormolu 4.0-bb, 2023 - photo courtesy: Brendan Lee Satish Tang

“I am a chronic pleaser,” they state whilst chuckling, “I go to ridiculous lengths to make [my work] seem so seamless.” 

Tang is unquestionably skilled and perfectionistic, with a meticulously torturous yet satisfying process. It begins with sketching, measuring, and drafting the sculpture’s foundation. Subsequently, they throw a vase, base, and ‘shot glasses’ (trimmed and attached to the sides of the form) on the wheel, then proceed to build the composition by extruding, slab building, hand-building, manipulating, pinching, and sanding. Tang then fastidiously hand-paints traditional Chinese imagery and dresses the piece by airbrushing, glazing, and applying gold luster treatments.

The laboriously constructed sculptures and impeccably glazed surfaces imitate porcelain and metal, despite being made from low-fire earthenware. As an exercise in trompe-l’œil, Tang teases the viewer into thinking the piece is constructed from separate parts using varying materials. They further confuse the viewer by grounding the form on a wooden plinth and adding rubber gaskets, screws, and bolts—some of which are real and others ceramic.

Manga Ormolu 2.0-s, work in progress - photo courtesy: Brendan Lee Satish Tang
Manga Ormolu 2.0-s, 2022, Ceramic and mixed media, 40 x 19 x 15 in. (101.6 x 48.3 x 38.1 cm) - photo courtesy: C24 Gallery

The result is an intriguing, animated mutation that illustrates Tang's expert understanding and decades-long experience in playing with trompe-l’œil and the interrelationship between reality and fantasy.

Traditional and futuristic, Western and Asian, industrial and fine art, and imperial elitism and commercialism—Tang gifts us with sculptures filled with juxtapositions, complexities, and perplexities. The cyborg vessels invite you to question your heritage (within your ethnic and cultural tribes), your identity (within society), and your existence (in the Digital Age).

Study 8, 2018, Ceramic and mixed media, 6 x 11 x 5.5 in. (15.2 x 27.9 x 14 cm) - photo courtesy: C24 Gallery

Visit C24 Gallery at 560 W 24th Street  New York, NY 10011, or explore and learn more about the exhibition "Cultured" and Brendan Lee Satish Tang's works online at C24 GALLERY

Watch C24 Gallery's artist talk  for their exhibition in 2021 entitled "Earthen Delights" with artists Brendan Lee Satish, Hinrich Kröger, and Steven Montgomery - moderated by MoCA/NY PResident Judith Schwartz. 

A Beloved Collection - Kathy Butterly at James Cohan Gallery

James Cohan Gallery - Tribeca, NYC 
48 WALKER ST
NEW YORK, NY 10013

photo courtesy: James Cohan Gallery

For over three decades, New York-based ceramic artist Kathy Butterly has ventured into the realms of color, form, and the intricacies of ceramics. Her relentless dedication and mastery of clay have solidified her position as a prominent and revered figure in contemporary ceramics. Butterly's remarkable body of work comprises small-scale sculptures characterized by meticulous and whimsical details, evocative colors and compositions, and unparalleled technical expertise.
Recently, Butterly showcased her tenacious commitment to ceramics in an enthralling mini-retrospective titled A Beloved Collection presented by the James Cohan Gallery. Concurrently with the exhibition at their Tribeca location, the gallery also exhibited Butterly’s latest sculptures at the ADAA: The Art Show. Although the exhibitions have concluded, selected works remain available for purchase. View MoCA/NY's President, Judy Schwartz on-site video interview with Kathy Butterly, Elizabeth Harvey Levine, and collector David Kirschenbaum.

A BELOVED COLLECTION, 1994-2022

Works from the private collection of Elizabeth Harvey Levine

Upon entering the viewing room at James Cohan Gallery, visitors are immediately enveloped by a vibrant ensemble of sculptures spanning from 1994 to 2022, offering a comprehensive voyage through the evolution of Kathy Butterly's artistic vision. The thirty-six petite sculptures arranged chronologically, are sourced from the private collection of Elizabeth Harvey Levine, an ardent and longtime patron of Butterly’s work.

The space unfolds with delicately adorned and opulently ornate sculptures positioned on the left side of the gallery—the genesis—and crescendos to Butterly's most recent lively and gestural creations. Despite their demure scale—excluding two exceptions—each sculpture exudes a grand energy, brimming with vitality, distinct personalities, and animated expressions.

“It is a beloved collection because each piece in this magical collection is such a magical gem. They’re infused with her sense of humor, they all have sensuous body folds, they’re meticulously executed, and the details are beyond what people are willing to explore in ceramics.” - Elizabeth Harvey Levine

Humor imbues the exhibition not only in the cheeky and amusing configurations of the sculptures but also in their titles, setting a tone and offering a glimpse into Butterly's intentions and interpretations. For instance, a lemon-yellow glazed figure adorned with oval green forms on its lip and hip emanates refined elegance with polished gold accents, yet it comically bears the title "Nancy Beans," adding a playful twist.

Associating these titles with the sculptures is almost as enjoyable as experiencing the pieces themselves, inviting speculation, contemplation, and insight into Butterly’s mind.

This collection, akin to a personal diary, exemplifies Butterly's artistic innovations in composition, color palette, and treatment of glaze while documenting significant and pivotal periods in both her personal and creative life.

Pointing to a piece named "Knititation," Butterly reminisces, “I was pregnant. [I remember] just the waiting and the knitting." She elaborates further on the show, "It’s my diary, my diary is on display. I knew exactly what I was thinking and what I was doing and each one is very specific to a time period of my life.”

"Knititation" beautifully encapsulates Butterly's earlier works—the lyrical pastel and shocking neon color palette, skin-like folds, intricate line marks, and fine carvings, complemented by a whimsical and playful "pedestal." It vividly showcases her technique of painting with and on clay.

Her painterly treatment of clay can be attributed to her early studies as a painter when she was drawn to ceramics but was reluctant to fully accept the medium as she viewed ceramics as functional pottery ware. It wasn’t until she met Viola Frey, an artist known for her non-functional, figurative, animated ceramic sculptures and painterly expressions, that she embraced ceramics.

Intuitively created, Butterly starts with a ready-made cast, molding it into a functional vessel before sculpting, folding, denting, and smoothing the clay. Subsequently, she applies glazes and subjects the disfigured vessel to multiple firings, often reaching up to 20 to 30 times. The layers of clay and glazes illustrate Butterly’s devotion and profound connection with each piece imbuing them with a unique history and seducing you into a portal awaiting exploration.

Tiny pearlescent beadings, crackling and crystalline glaze textures, sharp and fluid surfaces—the porcelain and earthenware amorphous sculptures gift us with a splendid visual orgasm. They not only serve as pages from Butterly's diary but also as testaments to her exceptional technical skill and artistic aspirations.

With their diminutive scale, the sculptures beckon viewers to draw closer, inviting a magnified appreciation of every minute and intricately carved detail, cultivating an intimate relationship with each piece. They entice, hypnotize, surprise, and inspire a desire to explore and decode their narratives and language—a journey into their portal, into their distinctive universe.

“[Butterly’s sculptures] are irresistible,” Elizabeth Harvey Levine states, “and Kathy, herself, is the most genuine person I know and her pieces are straightforward and honest, complex, fused with humor and that is what Kathy is. They are just an embodiment of her.”


Visit James Cohan Gallery at 48 WALKER ST NEW YORK, NY 10013, or explore and learn more about A Beloved Collection and Kathy Butterly online: James Cohan Gallery

Organic Reflection: Steen Ipsen at HB381 Gallery

HB381 Gallery - Tribeca, NYC 
381 Broadway, New York, NY 10013

HB381 Gallery window
Lighting up the corner of Broadway and White Street sits HB381, Hostler Burrow’s contemporary art gallery in Tribeca, exhibiting recent works of Copenhagen-based ceramic artist Steen Ipsen. Ipsen's immaculately crafted, vibrant, and dynamic biomorphic sculptures draw the attention of passersby, captivating onlookers through the gallery's glass windows.
 Entitled Organic Reflection, the exhibition, running until December 22, 2023, marks Ipsen’s debut solo exhibition in the United States, albeit not his first collaboration with the gallery.
In 2021, Hostler Burrows collaborated with Copenhagen Ceramics—an exhibition platform showcasing contemporary Danish ceramics. Ipsen, along with co-founders of Copenhagen Ceramics Martin Bodilsen Kaldahl and Bente Skjoettgaard, co-curated and participated in Bend, Bubble and Shine: Copenhagen Ceramics, showcasing nine contemporary Danish artists. Subsequently, Hostler Burrows began representing Ipsen and Kaldahl, both of whom held solo exhibitions at the gallery this year.

Organic Reflection

On one side of the gallery, nine pieces from Ipsen’s Ellipses and Tied Up series are presented equidistantly on plinths. Upon first viewing, the earthenware, monochromatically glazed pieces exhibit a shared polished and bulbous sensibility, eliciting admiration for their expert craftsmanship and vibrant colors. However, a closer examination reveals the individuality of each sculpture. The blobjects (a word that defines curvilinear flowing shapes - a portmanteau of “blob” and “object” - as described in Garth Johnson’s catalog essay) adorned with PVC or leather strands, offer distinctive characteristics and expressions–provoking an idiosyncratic experience. 

Organic Reflection - photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery

For instance, Ellipse 8 and Ellipse 13 resemble a croquembouche, enticing and delectable, while Ellipse 12 and Ellipse 15 evoke the appearance of konpeito candies. In contrast, Ellipse 9, Ellipse 11, and Tied Up 3 exude a biological, cellular essence. Despite the association with smooth, glazed surfaces that evoke confectionery, Ipsen draws inspiration from growth principles like crystallization and cell division. Notably, Ipsen’s titles–Ellipse, Balls, Bubbles, and Tied Up, emphasize the physical form over the conceptual context, demanding subjective interpretations while highlighting the significance of design. 

Ellipse 8 - Glazed earthenware, PVC, photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery
Ellipse 13 - Glazed earthenware, PVC, photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery
Ellipse 12 - Glazed earthenware, PVC, photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery
Ellipse 15 - Glazed earthenware, PVC, photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery
Ellipse 11 - Glazed earthenware, PVC, photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery
Tied Up 3 - Glazed earthenware, leather , photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery

Steen Ipsen has devoted decades to studying and mastering ceramics, exploring myriad shapes and compositions, leading to recognition by the Danish Arts Foundation as "one of the most gifted ceramic artists in Denmark."

His expertise shines through in meticulously crafted forms devoid of flaws or imperfections. Ipsen casts and sculpts ellipses, balls, and spikes from earthenware clay, refining their surfaces through sanding and polishing. He then applies layers and layers of glaze–pouring, spraying, and painting until perfection is achieved.

Contrary to the appearance of the sculptures being held together by the PVC or leather threads, the clay spheres are sliced to the most accurate angle to join seamlessly together. The addition of PVC comes last as he ties the strands, creating an abstract, spatial net resulting in a vibrato of tension, stability, complexity, and simplicity.

Steen Ipsen in studio - photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery

Juxtaposing and situated across the Ellipses and Tied Up sculptures are six works from Ipsen’s Black Organic Movement series. The animated forms, liquid in demeanor, defy gravity with their undulating, concaving curves—suspenseful and seductive. The stark purity of the glazed surface mirrors the surrounding environment and forces the viewer into a psychological confrontation as they discern reflections of themselves. The inkblot-like sculptures are akin to a Rorschach test.

Black Organic Movement at HB381 Gallery

Intuitively sculpted, Ipsen coils from one side of the piece to the other, a divergent approach from his other series which are precisely methodological. Still, Ipsen’s unwavering commitment to flawless surfaces, reflective glazes, and masterful design is a consistent throughline in his impressive oeuvre. 

Black Organic Movement 4, 2023, glazed earthenware, photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery
Black Organic Movement 3, 2023, glazed earthenware, photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery

Organic Reflection encapsulates both the physical and psychological essence of reflection. The glazed, reflective blobjects serve as a distorted yet captivating mirror, inviting viewers to delve into a hypnotic and visually opulent world. Each piece not only mirrors its physical environment but also prompts a reflective introspective experience.

The exhibition stands as a testament to Ipsen's artistic odyssey. The Ellipses and Organic Movements series signifies a notable evolutionary shift from his earlier geometric explorations in clay (Moduls (1996) and Spikes (2005)). These newer series represent the pinnacle and embodiment of Ipsen’s decades-long commitment to mastering the art of ceramics and design, showcasing his enduring dedication and growth throughout his career.

Steen Ipsen in his studio - photo courtesy: HB381 Gallery

Visit HB381 Gallery at 381 Broadway, New York, NY 10013, or explore and learn more about Organic Reflection online: hb381gallery.com


SHIGARAKI - Our Journey in Clay

Hitomi Shibata, a ceramic artist and author of the book Wild Clay, shares a personal essay about her time living, working, and making art in Shigaraki. This essay is part of our three-part feature on the cultural heritage site Shigaraki, aiming to provide the most robust coverage of this historically rich and significant region. Read the first feature - Get to Know Shigaraki written by Michio Sugiyama, which provides insights into the historical, cultural, and traditional aspects of Shigaraki. Stay tuned for the last essay written by Shigaraki-based ceramic artist En Iwamura which will be published later this month. Subscribe to MoCA/NY and follow us on social media to keep up-to-date on upcoming features and interviews!
Takuro and Hitomi in front of our Shigaraki style Anagama plus a chamber wood kiln in Seagrove, NC. Photo taken in 2022 - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
Wheel Throwing studio at the Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute. This research center provides pottery training programs to support succession planning in Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Mr. Hiroaki Takahata, A Chief of Ceramics Design Department, Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute

I first became involved with ceramics in 1990 as a craft education major at Okayama University in Japan. I found ceramics to be the most challenging medium, so I worked diligently to become proficient. In 1996, after earning a master's degree in art education with a concentration in ceramics, I became an artist-in-residence at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, which is the most prestigious international ceramic art center in Japan.

Shigaraki, a small town steeped in a thousand-year legacy of pottery, was one of the few places in Japan where young potters who were not from pottery families could learn how to make a living, and this experience led me to pursue a career as a professional potter.

During my time in Shigaraki, I held a variety of positions, from employee at a local pottery studio to sales representative at retail and wholesale pottery galleries, but my most educational and useful job experience was as a research assistant at the Ceramic Research Institute.

My thirst for knowledge and practical experience was insatiable, but as a young female potter, I faced numerous challenges. It was during this period that I met Takuro Shibata, who would become my lifelong partner and teammate.

Takuro had earned a degree in applied chemistry at Doshisha University in Kyoto and had been working as an engineer in his hometown of Osaka. However, in 1997, he seized an opportunity to become an apprentice at Tanikan Gama, one of Shigaraki's oldest pottery studios.

His apprenticeship not only allowed him to hone his craft but also facilitated interactions with numerous other potters and ceramics businesses in this historic pottery town.

Together, we leased a modest studio space in Shigaraki's historic kiln site area and embarked on our journey as independent potters. While we sold our pottery in galleries, we also juggled various other jobs. At times, we engaged in mass production for the commercial market, although it wasn't our preferred path, it was a necessary step to make a living. Our true passion lay in the Shigaraki style of wood firing, and we took advantage of every opportunity to participate in wood firings and refine our craft. Despite being young and strapped for resources, we poured our hearts into chasing our dreams.

Old Noborigama’s details - photo courtesy: Takuro Shibata
Old Noborigama on the pottery trail - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata

Shigaraki has a flourishing ceramic industry, supported by a diverse range of auxiliary businesses. These encompass local clay companies, clay cooperatives, tool manufacturers, kiln builders, glaze producers, machine workshops, box makers, freelance wheel throwers, wholesale enterprises, and a multitude of shops and galleries. 

Additionally, the town hosts several educational ceramic art organizations such as the Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute and the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park. These institutions offer programs for ceramic material research, pottery training, and cultural exchange, regularly hosting lectures, workshops, and events that foster connections between professional ceramic artists and potters from local, national, and international communities. This exposure inspired us to seek opportunities abroad as we aimed to further our careers in ceramics.

The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park’s International Clay Studio accommodates about 10 ceramic artists from Japan and abroad. The artists work together to create a diverse atmosphere in the old pottery town by sharing studio space, accommodations, firings, information, and cultural exchange. photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
One of the biggest clay companies, Seido, in Shigaraki. There are many filter press machines in their huge building - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
A view of Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park’s Clay studio from their wood kiln site - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata

Today, Shigaraki is a unique pottery village that blends the old and the new, tradition and innovation, and toughness and kindness. While it was not our permanent home, it was a place where we honed our skills, deepened our understanding of materials, and expanded our knowledge. It is a powerful and special place that attracts people from all over the world. Now, there are many new businesses, shared studios, and interesting events taking place in Shigaraki. They are seeds for a new era and a hope for the future of the ceramic field.

Tanikangama was one of the oldest and biggest pottery studios in Shigaraki, and Takuro studied there as an apprentice for several years - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
One of the remaining old kilns in Shigaraki. This old Noborigama was well maintained and tourists can see it on the pottery trail - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata

CONTRIBUTOR:

Hitomi Shibata

Hitomi Shibata is a Japanese ceramic artist based in Seagrove, North Carolina. She holds a Bachelor of Education in Art and Craft, and a Master of Education in Fine Art, Ceramics from Okayama University in Japan. In 2001-2002, she received a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to study at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. She has been a member of the International Academy of Ceramics since 2017, and is a co-author of Wild Clay, published by Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK in 2022.

WEBSITE

Instagram: @studiotouya @hitomishibataceramics

GET TO KNOW: Shigaraki, Japan

MoCA/NY asked three Japanese ceramic artists and academics to collaborate on our feature exploring the traditions, culture, and history of the significant cultural heritage site Shigaraki in Japan. Stay tuned for Hitomi Shibata's personal essay about her time working and participating in the artist-in-residence program at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, and En Iwamura's essay about his experience working as an artist in Shigaraki.

Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Michio Sugiyama, who formally worked at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, currently operates as Director of “Shigaraki Share Studio.” Sugiyama, with his extensive knowledge of the region, answers critical questions about the cultural heritage site. 

HISTORY OF SHIGARAKI

Shigaraki, one of Japan’s Six Ancient Kilns Sites, is one of the oldest pottery-producing regions in Japan. Shigaraki was a crossroads for transportation between Nara and Yamashiro of the central Kinai region and the Tokai region (Nagoya area).

Since Shigaraki is near Kyoto and Nara, where the tea ceremony was born, Shigaraki teaware developed naturally. With rich deposits of high-quality clay, Shigaraki is an ideal location for potters.

Shiga Prefecture on MoCA/NY's Ceramic World Destinations Map
Old Shigaraki Ware from 15th C. - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

The Koka region (the southernmost part of Shiga prefecture), where Shigaraki ware is fired, is adjacent to the Iga region (Mie prefecture), and it is said that Shigaraki-ware and Iga-ware are very similar, but this is because they are made from the same clay layer of the Old Biwa Lake layer, which gives a unique clay flavor known as "Old Shigaraki.'' The rustic and warm feeling of the clay is due to this Old Lake Biwa layer.

By the end of the medieval period, Shigaraki potters were making jars, vats, and mortars and firing them in anagama kilns. Shigaraki had begun to develop its unique style as one of Japan’s pottery-producing centers.

Shigaraki-ware is known for the special quality of its clay. By firing in anagama or noborigama wood-firing kilns, effects such as warm, reddish hiiro flashing, deep green natural ash biidoro, or burnt black koge can be achieved. As a form of art using the media of clay and fire, Shigaraki pottery communicates the Japanese aesthetic of wabi and sabi to the present age.

Old Climbing Kiln - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Firing Anagama N. Shinohara - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

The rusticity of Shigaraki ware expresses the emotions of the Japanese people. For this reason, since the Muromachi (1338-1573) and Momoyama periods (1573-1603), Shigaraki teaware evolved along with the tea ceremony and was prized by tea masters and people of culture. Charcoal braziers with namako glazeware for tea ceremonies became increasingly popular through the Muromachi, Azuchi, and Momoyama periods. 

In the Edo period (1603-1867), tea jars were produced in large numbers, and as a commercial infrastructure developed, daily cooking ware such as plum jars, miso jars, sake bottles, and flameware began to be produced in mass quantities.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Shigaraki potters began to produce hibachi charcoal braziers glazed with the newly developed namako mottled blue glaze. These hibachi proved to be extremely popular, at one point garnering a more than 90% share of the market across Japan. In addition to hibachi, Shigaraki produced small wares such as ritual vessels, sake vessels, and tea ware, along with large wares such as storage jars in ever-increasing levels of both quantity and quality.

In the Showa era (1926-1989), particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, one result of Japan’s rapid economic growth was the development and popularization of electric and oil heaters. The rise in the standard of living along with changes in the Japanese lifestyle meant a severe decline in the demand for hibachi, a catastrophic development for the Shigaraki economy.

Kaiseki cuisine served in Shigaraki ware bowls (UOSEN)
Kaiseki cuisine served in Shigaraki Ware (UOSEN)
Small sushi served in Shigaraki plate (UOSEN)
Cooking rice in the hot pot (UOSEN)

However, the innovation of local craftsmen combined with traditional techniques resulted in the adaptation of the namako glaze to ceramic planters. The emphasis of production shifted to planters for high-quality bonsai and other plants. These new products were well received by consumers.

Shigaraki ware was designated as a traditional craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of the Japanese Government in 1976, and in April 2017, Shigaraki ware was certified as a Japanese heritage as one of the "Six Ancient Kilns of Japan.'' 

Product of Shigaraki with Flower Arrangement

Flower Vase - N. Shinohara
Flower Vase - N. Shinohara

SHIGARAKI TODAY

Organizations in Shigaraki today include the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, the Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute,and the Shigaraki Pottery Industrial Cooperative Union,which is comprised of over 100 manufacturers.

The Shigaraki Pottery Wholesale Commercial Union has over 40 wholesalers, and the Shigaraki Art and Craft Ceramists Association is made up of over 80 ceramic artists.

By fully utilizing its high-quality clay and technological tradition, Shigaraki ware enhances our enjoyment of life. Shigaraki is now striving to become a world center for ceramics, creating a new culture of ceramic art based on historical tradition.

Tanuki Figures - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

Shigaraki today produces utilitarian ware such as planters, flower vases, and tableware, as well as exterior ceramics such as architectural tile, garden furniture, and decorative ornaments such as tanuki (raccoon), dogs, and frogs. 

Shigaraki ceramics are rooted in our daily life and new technologies are developed in response to demand. Shigaraki clay is highly refractory, and while high in plasticity, it is also strong, making it ideal for both large-scale ceramics and small work.

The ability to develop and construct in a variety of ways is one of the unique characteristics of Shigaraki ware.

Anagama Firied Bowl(Y.Sako)
Vase (N. Shinohara)
Mizusashi N.Shinohara

There is also a characteristic phenomenon of kiln change that is often seen in old Shigaraki. One of its characteristics is that the surface of the vessel is rough and contains many fine stone grains (quartz grains, feldspar grains, and silica sand).

In addition to ash glaze, there are many types of glazes, such as the “sea cucumber glaze'' seen on flower pots and braziers, probably because there are few painted products, and the molding, drying, and firing techniques used to create large items are also typical of Shigaraki ware. 

Another characteristic of Shigaraki ware is that you can enjoy a wide variety of pottery, such as yakishime and kohiki, depending on the artist. Therefore, it can be said that modern Shigaraki ware is unique and uses a variety of techniques.

Vase N. Shinohara
Work of N.Shinohara

Like many traditional craft production areas, the recent annual production of Shigaraki ware is around 3.5 billion yen. This is about one-fifth of its peak in 1992 (16.8 billion yen). The number of establishments has also decreased by about three-quarters.

The lack of successors is especially serious. There are no living national treasures among Shigaraki ware potters. This is because "We have made everything without specializing in one thing'' (President Takahara). There are both advantages and disadvantages of Shigaraki ware. However, if one technology is not inherited, it will simply die out.

Large Bath Tub made in Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

However, looking at the modern history of Shigaraki ware, even if an item no longer sells, new items are always created. Current hit products such as bathtubs is an example of this.

Even in the world of traditional ceramics, there are no Living National Treasures in Shigaraki ware, but many potters, from veterans to young potters, are taking on the challenge of creating the natural glazes produced by firing in anagama kilns.

Although the pottery industry generally has a difficult time finding successors, younger generations are gradually increasing in number, drawn to the charm of this Shigaraki production area, and it is a hope that they will become the bearers of a new Shigaraki tradition.

Factory Uzan - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Factory Making Large Bath tub Okuda - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
View of Pottery town Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Factory making table ware Hinomigama - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Tea plantation - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

CONTRIBUTOR

MICHIO SUGIYAMA

Michio Sugiyama has MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland California. After graduating, he moved to Montana to attend the AIR at the Archie Bray Foundation. In 1989. He returned to Japan and worked at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Shiga Pref. He has been organizing and operating the Artist in Residency at the SCCP until 2020. In 2018 he established a private rental ceramic studio, in Shigaraki named SHIGARAKI SHARE STUDIO and now he is the Director of the Share Studio. He is a member of the IAC and the Japan Ceramic Society.

READ MORE ABOUT SHIGARAKI

Terra Sigillata (Re)imagined with Shamai Gibsh

Shamai Sam Gibsh is an expert ceramicist, teacher, and owner of a ceramic studio in Jaffa, Israel. He has exhibited in the United States, Israel, and London and teaches workshops worldwide. Gibsh recently published his book titled “Terra Sigillata: Smoke, Fire & Clay,” which explores the history, chemistry, and various methods of using and firing terra sigillata–an ancient technique where a thin coat of clay slip acts as a glaze to produce a beautiful idiosyncratic effect. MoCA/NY’s writer Ilsy Jeon speaks with Gibsh about his inspired research that has already sparked great interest and enthusiasm.
ILSY JEON (IJ): Congratulations on publishing this educational book! I was impressed by how much you’ve explored and excelled at using terra sigillata (TS) in your works and how knowledgeable you are about it. Before discussing the book, can you explain to our readers what terra sigillata is?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: Terra Sigillata, meaning sealed (stamped) clay, is a very fine clay particle slip that was originally used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to seal, stamp, and decorate vessels and artifacts. Using TS involves the process of making TS, as well as its application on clay objects. Preparing TS is achieved by collecting the smallest particles (platelets) of clay, resulting in a mixture of suspended particles that do not settle, like whipped cream. TS, which can be made of any clay, from wild clay collected in nature, as well as from industrially processed clay, is classified into two categories according to the sintering temperature: low temperature like earthenware clay, and high temperature like stoneware or ball clay.

Applying TS to a bone-dry surface is usually performed by brushing, spraying, as well as dipping, or even pouring it over the surface. The fine platelets set according to their electric charge when burnished with a cloth, resulting in a smooth and unique shiny surface.

IJ: The book includes wonderful images of your artwork and the diverse ways you’ve sculpted, decorated, and fired your terra sigillata pieces. You go in-depth and provide directions on techniques like sgraffito, cracked effects, and luster. You also include numerous illustrations, recipes, and in-progress images. How long have you been working with this medium and what about TS made you spend much of your career studying, using, and perfecting it?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: Terra sigillata has been my fascination starting early in my career. Being intrigued by the effects of TS when first exposed to it in museums exhibiting ancient Greek and Roman ceramics, I investigated it and found out that TS can be made on my own by collecting clay in nature worldwide. Unlike glazes, TS represents a natural way of covering and decorating clay artifacts. Using this ancient technique, and expanding it with dozens of TS preparations, made of different clays collected worldwide, enabled me to bring the world into my work and to create an impressive palette of hues, which enriched the surfaces of my work.

IJ: All your experimentations, workshops, and historical research using terra sigillata have led you to become an expert and share your knowledge with the ceramic community. What was your approach in writing this book? Were there any surprises about TS that you weren’t aware of?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: I believe that it is very important to share knowledge, skills, and expertise. Throughout my career, I realized that many of my colleagues possess vast, sometimes unique, knowledge; however, some of this experience and knowledge had been lost since it was generally not shared and was never published. This, in fact, was the main motivation to write this book. While undertaking this commitment I was compelled to evaluate and reevaluate my own work and ponder on new ways of addressing terra sigillata; thus, a novel idea of shortening the process of making TS emerged as described in the book.

IJ: Terra Sigillata: Smoke, Fire & Clay is so informative - it’s almost like taking a course in terra sigillata as you provide significant historical, cultural, and scientific context about the medium and how best to incorporate it into one's practice. Can you elaborate on your historical research for this book and how significant it was to include this context? 

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: I have been working and researching alternative firing techniques for many years and was very privileged to have met many wonderful ceramic artists over the years who shared their knowledge with me while actually, encouraging me to continue researching and developing new ways of looking and addressing the ceramic world. One example of such a master is Allan Cagier Smith whom I was very fortunate to have met at the Harvard ceramic program many years ago, assist him, and learn from him the way he employed luster. So, in essence, my book summarizes both my experience and the ongoing research.

IJ: Your book covers all facets of terra sigillata and includes chapters on how to build and fire smoke, pit, and raku kilns and step-by-step guides and tutorials on how to incorporate various decorative techniques like horsehair, milk and egg, and obvara.
How do these techniques affect TS and what was your decision in choosing these particular topics? Were there any chapters you wanted to include but couldn’t due to limitations?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: It was obvious for me to include some of my research on the origin of TS and Greek/Roman firing techniques. Organizing the book required several chapters, starting with terra sigillata. This was followed by instructions for building the kilns which serve most of the needed firing for all other chapters. These included TS layering techniques, saggar and other firing techniques, such as pit firing, raku, naked raku, horsehair raku, milk & egg decorating & firing, obvara, and finally Greek & Roman TS and Luster. 

For me, all these are considered alternative firing techniques. Naturally, there are other “Blackening” techniques that were not included in this book and wait their turn in a future continuing project.

This book is not only geared toward those first encountering clay but also for artists who have decades of experience with ceramics. Was it a challenge to cater to both the novice and expert and what do you hope readers gain from reading your book?

IJ: This book is not only geared toward those first encountering clay but also for artists who have decades of experience with ceramics. Was it a challenge to cater to both the novice and expert and what do you hope readers gain from reading your book?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: Indeed, the challenge was to reconcile my wish to incorporate as many details and instructions aimed towards new ceramic artists, while keeping the more experienced readers interested. I believe that my efforts were fruitful, as they were rewarded with many positive reviews from both novice and experienced artists. As to what I hope the readers gain from my book: first to share their knowledge for the purpose of preservation; second, to open one’s mind, research and dare to experiment with unorthodox ideas and practices; and finally, maybe the most important of all, explore what you like and enjoy it to your utmost ability.


To explore and learn about Shamai Gibsh's and his work, CLICK HERE
To purchase Terra Sigillata: Smoke, Fire & Clay, CLICK HERE

Vulnerable Cultivars: Judy Fox's "Harvest" at Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Judy Fox is a ceramic artist based in the Hudson Valley with a rich history of masterfully transforming ceramics into surrealistic figures and forms. She studied biology and sculpture as an undergraduate at Yale University and received her MA in Art History and Conservation from NYU. Fox pioneered painted figurations of nude children during the 1980s in the East Village that raised controversial issues and over her 40-year career, she has been awarded numerous accolades—recognized for her skill, creativity, and feminist approach to her subjects.

MoCA/NY’s writer Ilsy Jeon speaks with Judy Fox about her recent exhibition titled Harvest at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Chelsea, New York City, which is on view until the 21st of October. The show includes fifty terra-cotta sculptures that portray animated fruits and vegetables in various sizes, all evoking a sense of sensuality, vulnerability, and humor—a delicious and amusing feast to the eye. 

ILSYJEON (IJ): Your exhibition Harvest is a gorgeous amalgamation of the subjects and sculptures you’ve been studying and working on since COVID-19 hit in 2020. The all-engulfing collective confrontation of disease, age, and dissociation that the pandemic brought forward has directed and influenced your new series that explores mutated vegetables and fruits. Can you speak about how your experience and contemplations during those tumultuous years are reflected in this new body of work?

JUDY FOX: In my prior exhibition, Garden, I used plant forms as a way of exploring forms and imperatives like growth, differentiation, and reproduction that are common to all kinds of life. The plants were animated by structures analogous to what you see in animals. For example, there are functional parts like roots and branches, and then there are displays like leaves and flowers that tend to be more beautiful, in the way that faces and breasts may be more beautiful than bones and guts.

With Harvest, I was really continuing in that vein of using plant life as illustrative of all life. I honed in on the cultivated, showy parts of the plant.  Those parts are bred to be appealing and tasty looking, so when something is off, it is more pointed. And I was looking for a way to express the tenuous mortality we were all feeling during COVID-19, the sense that even if we were OK, our bodies could go awry. I think that threat is something one starts to feel anyway with aging.

Plants, like us, are marred by deformed growth, scarring, disease, rot, desiccation, and damage. Specially bred cultivars may be especially delicate and vulnerable to those things.  I wanted to point to this common vulnerability in a humorous way by using plants that remind us of our own body parts.

Cassava, 2023, terra cotta, casein paint, 18 x 23 x 16 inches
Broccoli, 2023, terra cotta, casein paint, 4 x 10 x 7 inches
IJ: This series considers the cause and effect of human activity on Earth as you say, “It is not about what people have done to the Earth, it is about what the Earth will do to people as a result of what people have done to Earth.” What do these deformed plants say about our impacts on the planet and the relationship we have with nature?

JUDY FOX: There is lots to say about environmental problems: about the many ways that we poison and deface our environment, as we try to exploit and cultivate nature to supply human life and lifestyle. But environmental science isn't my forum.

As an artist, my language is visual. I can only make broccoli that is a bit rotted, like tar-stained lungs. I can show a radish that looks butchered, a citrus that looks like it is praying, or a scarred, crouching eggplant.

I can only make people feel the truth about ourselves and how we consume and grow and grow awry. 

IJ: Your previous exhibition Garden with Nancy Hoffman in 2019 was rooted in the story of Adam and Eve in the biblical Eden. Many of your works are inspired by mythology, folklore, and fairytales. Is there a narrative that motivated this new installation? Also, you have a long history of sculpting human figures, what attracted you to focus solely on plants for this show?

JUDY FOX: Having dug deep into evolution, religion, and mythology, I felt a need for a simpler, perhaps more approachable presentation. Harvest avoids character and mythological references. The human body is not directly depicted. I feel like people can no longer handle the naked truth of what the flesh looks like in the kind of idiosyncratic detail that interests me.  

However, I can pay close attention to fruit flesh and not have people look away and wonder if I am shaming someone.  But the body is present in my work, of course.  With plants, I have given myself more freedom to pursue the truth of mortal form.

Twin Tomatoes, 2023, terra cotta, casein paint, 8 x 9 x 5 inches
Navel Orange, 2023, terra cotta, casein paint, 8 x 8 x 8 inches
Parsnip, 2020, terra cotta, casein paint, 30 x 19.25 x 11 inches
Lemon, 2023, terra cotta, casein paint, 3 x 6.5 x 3.75 inches
Peach with Buttoning and Scarring, 2023, terra cotta, casein paint, 10 x 10 x 9 inches
IJ: It's undeniable that your academic background in biology, conservation, and art history has guided your practice—not only in the subjects you sculpt but also in your process. How do you determine the subjects you want to explore? How did you develop your distinct signature style of painting layers of casein paint on clay and why do use ceramics as your primary medium?

JUDY FOX: I learned to sculpt with clay on an armature, which is the best way to experiment with the form itself. And clay is the most direct vehicle for shaping form. So though I moved away from the armature and sculpture casting, continuing to work in clay was natural for me. I like to stick to a traditional medium as a way of having a defined language and historical discourse in my work.

My use of paint grew out of two convictions: that the abstracted modernist nude was played out, and that the academic figure was hopelessly sentimentalized and conventional.  So I looked back to gothic polychrome sculptures that celebrated the way people really look.  Back in the 1980's when I started, I was not aware of any other contemporary artists painting modeled figures.  

My specific figurative subjects: well-known characters in well-known identifying poses, were chosen because their stories and their gestures had interesting readings by contemporary standards. Misinterpretation is almost unavoidable when translating across time and culture. It becomes part of new times and cultures. I was highlighting appropriation at a time when awareness of it was dim. Now that everyone is hyperaware of that issue, the reading of gestures in my older work has likely changed.

IJ: The way you sculpt the various vegetables and fruits has a beautiful human quality where they look alive, have their own personalities, and are reminiscent of the human body. Twin Tomatoes and Peach with Buttoning and Scarring take the shape of breasts, Carrot, Parsnip, and Cassava look like legs, and Ackee resembles a vulva.

You’ve noted: “I wanted all those non-animate things [plants] to express all of those animated qualities.” Was it a challenge maintaining the character of these vegetables while incorporating human attributes? How do you envision viewers interpreting and responding to these works and has any feedback about your exhibition surprised you?

JUDY FOX: When sculpting the form, I very often had to pull back the figurative shapes that naturally inhabit my work. I studied photos of many examples of each kind of fruit to figure out its physical language (lumps, grooves, plumpness, texture) and I tried to stick to that.  But it turns out it doesn't take much for people to see themselves in anything. I am very pleased to report that people seemed to enjoy and get this work on many levels - a pleasant surprise.


To explore and learn more about Judy Fox's work, CLICK HERE

To explore and learn more about the Nancy Hoffman Gallery and Fox's exhibition Harvest, CLICK HERE