Hampton VA United States
Studio Potter v. 32 no. 1 (December 2003) p. 57-61
by Robert Hunter
For centuries, the ceramic medium has been used to document cata-strophic human events. In western society, wars, fires, plagues, and other devastating conditions have been memorialized on mass-produced ceramics and sold as remembrances to a diverse populace. The British in particular have long recorded elements of their history on pottery, including tragic circumstances from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the horrors of trench warfare during World War I. This phenomenon of ceramic commemoration has flourished in the industrialized age, in most cases the objects outlasting conscious memory of the events that have been memorialized.
The great English potter Josiah Wedgwood used this particular form of ceramic art for a number of mass-produced works featuring images of the physical remains of the magnificent Greek and Roman cultures. One of his simpler but more profound memorials is a flower vase composed of broken fluted columns resting on a cracked and crumbling plinth (fig. 1). Although these vases were functional, they better served as ornamental devices alluding to the ultimate decay and ruin of a great classical civilization. Wedgwood used his famous jasperware body to create this architectural reminder of a culture's inherent transience.
Throughout the 19th century various commemorative pieces were produced depicting the full range of western historic events. With the advent of transfer printing, commemorative ceramics could be made for the public market in a very short period of time following their commission. These printed images were able to convey the horrors and pathos associated with warfare, natural catastrophes and general social ills, and were placed on all sorts of ceramic forms from chamber pots to meat platters (fig. 2). But with the use of printed images these works become less of a potter's art and more within the realm of the artist and engraver.
One late 19th-century exception was the commissioning of another blue and white British stoneware piece, created by Spode Copeland for the Burley Company in Chicago to coincide with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (fig 3). This piece was a molded jug decorated with applied sprigging detailing the events associated with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire, which started around 9 o'clock on Sunday evening, October 8 of that year, was one of the worst disasters that this country had faced; over 300 people died and another 100,000 were left without homes or shelter. The fire destroyed a major part of the city, covering an area four miles long and nearly two-thirds of a mile wide. Over $200 million in property was lost -- a considerable sum for that time.
The fierce conflagration is depicted on the sprigging around the neck of the Spode Copeland jug, along with several related details on the body (fig. 4). Of particular significance are the vignettes of firemen fighting the blaze, and another immortalizing the somewhat mythologized Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over the lantern that started the fire (figs. 5 and 6). In keeping with the mass-produced nature of commemorative wares, 500 copies of this jug were made (fig. 7).
The documentation of cataclysmic events continues to this day, although with the growth of studio pottery in the 20th century many clay artists produce only singular works rather than mass-produced items. Potter Michelle Erickson recently extended this age-old custom, capturing in clay her perspective on the destruction of the World Trade Center during the horrific events of September 11, 2001.
Precipitated by an invitation to participate in Garth Clark's "Blue + White = Radical" group show in July of 2002, she created three works reflecting her thoughts and feelings on this historic and life-changing event. Best known for her extensive repertoire of 17th and 18th century ceramic techniques, Erickson had a substantial historical toolkit with which to build her artistic vision, utilizing porcelain, tin-glazed earthenware and jasperware in her efforts. The selection of the material and specific historical technology reference play an integral role in conceptualization and execution of all of her work.
The most literal of these is the blue and white jasperware depiction of the ruined facade of one of the World Trade towers, an image burned into our consciousness through both television coverage and subsequent photography of the aftermath (fig. 8). Although this fragment of the great wreckage was indeed a powerful physical artifact of the destruction, Erickson drew a parallel with a technique used 200 years earlier by Josiah Wedgwood. Erickson's choice of jasper as the medium for this work has significance beyond the symbolic comparison with Wedgwood's ruined column.
One of the greatest ceramic stories of all time is Wedgwood's perfection of the jasperware body while attempting to copy the famous Portland vase in the late 18th century. Jasperware was developed to simulate the look of this ancient Roman cameo-glass masterpiece. Thus, in developing jasperware, the emphasis was on its decorative properties, which included a degree of translucency and the ability to be polished. It was this purposeful intent by Wedgwood to memorialize the past through his choice of material that Erickson found fascinating.
Using an original 18th-century formula, Erickson herself experimented endlessly to achieve a workable clay body. The jasperware body, largely composed of barium carbonate, is extremely volatile and very difficult to manipulate. It is prone to slumping and cracking and, as Erickson observes, "it is the last material you would want to use for a tall and skinny sculpture." Nonetheless, these very properties help convey the enormous force in the cracking and twisting of the Trade Center tower's metal structure.
While the Trade Tower ruin will forever symbolize the specific events of September 11, another more cryptic piece explores the greater context of the tragedy. Working in the style of traditional Chinese export porcelain, her thrown and cast bowling pins depict the Manhattan skyline painted in blue, suggestive of the famous Blue Willow pattern (fig. 9). While her choice of a porcelain body suggests strength and stability, the splayed stance of the pins imply that the skyscrapers are frail targets waiting to be knocked down. Beyond this allusion, Erickson also includes images of Afghan women dressed in the traditional birkas, shapes reminiscent of the bowling pin.
Erickson has written about this work; "The environment in which terrorism thrives is oppression, and the breeding grounds for extremism are poverty, desperation and hopelessness. The images of women anonymously shrouded, transposed onto the bowling pin forms, simultaneously suggest extreme vulnerability and strength. The precarious stance of the pins, frozen by fire in time, provide a window into a poignant, horrific moment in history and evoke in the viewer a consideration of universal humanity."
Erickson's final work related to the events of September 11 is a tin-glazed earthenware or delftware sculpture of Liberty (fig. 10). Although this figure is a nearly universal icon used in countless patriotic and artistic endeavors, Erickson's version also alludes, through the subtle but powerful suggestion of crucifixion, to the sacrifice of Liberty. The bust-length, armless composition also pays homage to the remnants of classical figures that have survived from the Greek and Roman cultures. Her choice of delftware also has implied historical content. This earthenware body, typically used for a variety of utilitarian purposes and rarely for sculpture, was found in the homes of peasants and nobility alike for several centuries. Thus, her crucified Liberty is sculpted from the most democratic of all ceramic bodies. Erickson's works can be justifiably included in the long continuum of ceramic commemoration of historical events. Beyond mere personal expression, she has created timeless reminders of the tragedy while supplying some cathartic relief for our social conscience. Although the events of September 11, 2001 are painfully close to us today, studying historical ceramics provides evidence of other equally sorrowful events that have disappeared from public consciousness. For example, a 19th-century Staffordshire dinner plate depicts the Great New York City Fire of 1835, an event that is unfamiliar to most of us. Yet the conflagration destroyed 674 buildings over 17 city blocks in the middle of Manhattan, leveling the Stock Exchange and the Post Office -- a disaster of international proportions. Ceramic artifacts such as this plate are among the many ways in which we try to not forget our past. The very act of memorializing our cataclysmic events in clay -- whether it is the sacking of Troy or the Hiroshima blast -- is an important testament to the artistic spirit and the enduring relevance of the craft.
Robert Hunter is an archaeologist and specialist in historical ceramics. He is currently editor of Ceramics in America, an annual journal published by the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee, WI. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 114, Yorktown, VA 23690, or at CeramicJournal@aol.com.
Photographs by Gavin Ashworth.
FIGURE 1: Jasperware Vase, Josiah Wedgwood, c. 1785-1795. H. 7" (Courtesy, The Saint Lewis Museum of Art)
FIGURE 2: Detail of Transfer Print on Porcelain Jug, Staffordshire, c. 1855, showing a grieving widow during the Crimean War (Private collection).
FIGURE 3, CENTER LEFT: Stoneware Jug, Spode Copeland, 1893. H.8" (Private collection; photo: Gavin Ashworth). FIGURE 4, TOP: Detail of sprigging on the neck. FIGURE 5, INSET: Detail of sprigging on the opposite side of the neck. FIGURE 6, LOWER LEFT: Detail of sprigging on the body, showing Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over the lantern. FIGURE 7, BOTTOM RIGHT: Detail of mark on the bottom of jug, identifying it as No. 318 of 500 copies.
FIGURE 8, LEFT: Ruin by Michelle Erickson, 2002. Jasperware, H.17"
FIGURE 9, ABOVE: Garniture by Michelle Erickson, 2002. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt decoration. H.14" (Courtesy, The New-York Historical Society).
FIGURE 10, OPPOSITE PAGE: Liberty by Michelle Erickson, 2002. Tin-glazed earthenware. H.16"
I have been working in clay for twenty years and have concentrated on 17th- and 18th-century English ceramic technology-a period in which English pottery rose to the height of the world ceramic industry.
The evolution of these rich and varied ceramic techniques permeates my works as a contemporary ceramic artist and provides a unique glimpse into the past through the present. The juxtaposition of these techniques outside a framework of traditionalism enables me to explore the irony in the making of ceramic objects in an age where they are entirely irrelevant.
Beyond techniques, my interest in working with a wide range of clay bodies and decorative finishes continuously reinforces the rich heritage of ceramics in several different cultural traditions.
My life’s work is my love for expressing my feelings through all forms of art-from the most unassuming object to the most exalted. As such, the imagery embodied in my pots tends to reflect the underlying archetypes of the human condition regardless of time period or cultural beliefs.
1982 Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia
1993 - present Owner, Michelle Erickson Pottery Inc.
1995 - present Co-Owner, PERIOD DESIGNS, Yorktown, Virginia
1987 - 1993 Owner, Artifacts Pottery
1987 - 1990 Master Potter, Jamestown National Park
1985 - 1987 Master Potter, Busch Gardens
1983 - 1985 Potter, Decorator (brushwork), Holdcroft Stoneware
1982 - 1983 Potter, Busch Gardens
2008 New York Ceramics Fair, National Academy of Design
2007 New York Ceramics Fair, National Academy of Design
2006 Smithsonian Craft Show, National Building Museum
2006 New York Ceramics Fair, National Academy of Design
2005 Timepeace, Milwaukee Art Museum, Object of the month, Wisconsin
2005 Tour de Clay, Mount Clare Museum House, NCECA 2005, Baltimore
2004 New York Ceramics Fair, National Academy of Design
2003 New York Ceramics Fair, National Academy of Design
2002 New York Ceramics Fair, National Academy of Design
2001 New York Ceramics Fair, National Academy of Design
2000 New Neo Exhibit, Christopher Newport University, Virginia
1995 - 2006 PERIOD DESIGNS Annual Special Exhibits
1994 Nancy Thomas Gallery, Yorktown, Virginia
1993 - 1994 Tableauxware Solo Exhibition, Peninsula Fine Arts Center, Newport News, Virginia
1993 Nancy Thomas Gallery, Yorktown, Virginia
2009 Remains: Artists of the Material Past. Milwaukee Art Museum, Curated by The Chipstone Foundation
2008 Confrontational Ceramics, Westchester Arts Council. NY
Curated by NYU PHD Judith Schwartz
2008 NCECA 2008 Invitational Exhibition Voices, Society for Contemporary Craft. Pttsburgh, PA
2008 Hot Tea Del Mano Gallery, LA
2007 Contemporary Castings, Lora Robbins Gallery, University of Richmond
2007-2009 Craft in America, www.craftinamerica.org
2006 Staunton Augusta Art Center, Staunton VA, Amazing Clay 3
2006 Cross Mackenzie Gallery, Washington DC, Coffee
2006 Pewabic Pottery, Detroit Michigan, Tooth and Claw: An Ark of Animals
2006 -2009 The Holter Museum of Art, Helena Montana, The Yixing Effect Traveling
2005 Chester Springs Studio,PA Platters and Plates, The Blue Plate Special,
2005 Cheongju International Craft Biennale, Cheongju City, Korea, Temptation,
2004 Milwaukee Art Museum, Slipware Traditions, WI
2005 Owensboro Museum of Art, Indiana,Art of the American Frontier
2005 Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Idaho, A Great Mania: The Influence of Delft Pottery
2005 Garth Clark Gallery, New York, Menagerie
2005 Garth Clark Gallery, New York, Infusion
2005 John Micheal Kohler Art Center, Wisconsin, A Tale to Tell
2005 Academy Art Center, Maryland, Particles and Passion
2004 Lacoste Gallery, SOFA New York,
2004 Lacoste Gallery, Concord, Massachusetts, Group Show, Old World/New World
2004 Leslie Ferrin Gallery, SOFA Chicago, 2003
2003 Sherry Leedy Gallery, SOFA New York, 2003
2003 Lacoste Gallery, Concord, Massachusetts, Group Show, After Palissy.
2002 Nancy Margolis Gallery, SOFA Chicago, 2002
2002 Garth Clark Gallery, New York, Group Show Blue + White = Radical,
1996 Dream House Group Exhibit, Peninsula Fine Arts Center, Newport News, Virginia
1993 Tidewater Artists Association Small Portfolio Show, Hampton, Virginia 1st place winner
2008 Lecture Demonstration, Making a Pickle Stand, The Art of Bonnin and Morris. Philadelphia Museum of Art
2007 Lecture Ethnic and Folk Art Expression in Contemporary Craft: The Smithsonian Associates Masters Program in t2007 Lecture Demonstration Picking up the Pieces Decorative Arts Trust in the Hennage Auditorium at the Dewitt Wallace Museum of Decorative Arts Williamsburg VA
2007 Lecture Demonstration Contemporary Casting The Potters Council University of Richmond, VA
2006 Lecture Demonstration, Slipware and agateware, The Potteries Museum Stoke on Trent, UK
2004 Lecture Demonstration, Slipware Traditions, Milwaukee Art Museum
2003 Lecture Demonstration, Lacoste Gallery, After Pallisy. Concord MA
2003 Lecture and Demonstration, Eastfield Village Ceramic Seminar, East Nassau, New York
2003 Lecture and Demonstration, St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri
2002 Lecture and Demonstration, Historic Deerfield Inc. Symposium: “Delftware: A Delicate Deception”
2002 Lecture and Demonstration, Ceramics in America Conference, Winterthur Museum
2001 “Two Thousands Years of Making British Ceramics@ Lecture and demonstration at the Milwaukee Art Museum
2000 Lecture and Demonstration, Eastfield Village Ceramic Seminar, East Nassau, New York
1999 Lecture and Demonstration, Department of Art History and Fine Art. University of Wisconsin, Madison
2000 Lecturer, Sotheby’s Institute the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
1999 Period Ceramic Techniques Lecture & Demonstration,
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Antiques Forum (1994, 1996, 1999)
1999 Lecture and Demonstration, Eastfield Village Ceramic Seminar, East Nassau, New York
1998 Lecture and Demonstration, Joint Conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology and the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology, Yorktown, Virginia
1998 Lecture and Demonstration - Wedgwood Society of New York
1998 Lecture and Demonstration, Eastfield Village Ceramic Seminar, East Nassau, New York
1997 Lecture and Demonstration - British Museum; Museum of Mankind, London
1997 Lecturer, Sotheby’s Institute at Winterthur Museum, Delaware
1997 Lecture and Demonstration - Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
1997 Lecture and Demonstration, Eastfield Village Ceramic Seminar, East Nassau, New York
1996 Period Ceramic Techniques Lecture & Demonstration, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Antiques Forum
1995 - 1997 Ceramic Consultant on archaeological resurvey of Jamestown
Colonial National Park, Williamsburg
1994 Period Ceramic Techniques Lecture & Demonstration, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Antiques Forum
1992 Period Ceramic Techniques Lecture & Demonstration,
William & Mary Decorative Arts class
1986 Demonstration of polychrome brushwork for Wedgwood Society at Colonial Williamsburg's DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum
Early American Life
Town and Country Magazine
The Magazine ANTIQUES
The Colonial Williamsburg Journal
The William and Mary Alumni Magazine
Ceramics: Art and Perception
American Craft Magazine
Maine Antique Digest
New York Times
Chicago Tribune Magazine
Virginia Living Magazine
Art & Antiques Magazine
2008 “Conflict Ceramics” Ceramic Review July/Aug issue UK, Robert Hunter
2008 “The Ceramic Works of Michelle Erickson” 9th Annual New York Ceramics Fair 2008
Catalogue, Robert Hunter
2008 “Glazes of Gory” Art & Antiques Collectors Sourcebook Winter 2008, Marilyn Fish
2007 Making a Bonnin and Morris Pickle Stand. Ceramics in America 2007
2007 Art in Review, New York Times
2006 The Yixing Effect, Marvin Sweet
2004 500 Figures in Clay, Lark Books
2003 “Swirls and Whirls: English and American Agateware Technology”Ceramics in America 2003, The Chipstone Foundation
2001 “Dots, Dashes and Squiggles: Early English Slipware Technology” Ceramics in America 2001, The Chipstone Foundation
1999 “The Green Spring Planter” Early American Life Magazine (April)
2002 “Making a Delft Posset Pot.” Produced for Historic Deerfield Inc.’s exhibit: “Delftware: A Delicate Deception”
2001 Milwaukee Art Museum, Ceramic Installation and Video Display of 18th-century ceramic technology
2000 “Early Colonial American Pottery Techniques” Produced for Colonial Williamsburg’s Annual Antiques Forum
1996 “Making a Puzzle Jug” Produced for Colonial Williamsburg’s exhibit: “Revolution in Taste”
2008 “The Ceramic Works of Michelle Erickson” 9th Annual New York Ceramics Fair Catalogue, Robert Hunter
2008 “Glazes of Gory” Art & Antiques Collectors Sourcebook Winter 2008, Marilyn Fish
2007 “Art of Recreation” Virginia Living Magazine,October 2007, Anne Wright
2004 “ Specializing in the Diverse” Kerameiki Techni ( July) By Rob Hunter
2004 “Cataclysmic Ceramics”, Studio Potter (January) By Robert Hunter
2003 “Making History”, Ceramic Review (March/April) by Robert Hunter
2002 “Michelle Erickson”, American Craft (August/September) by Glenn Adamson
2001 “The Stylized Works of Michelle Erickson” Ceramics: Art and Perception. Issue No. 46 by Robert Hunter
1999 “Period Designs,” William and Mary Alumni Magazine (Fall)
1998 “Masterworks: Period Designs in Yorktown,” Colonial Homes (May)
1996-1997 “The Freshest Advices” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter)
1995 “At Period Designs,” Early American Life (April)
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The Chipstone Foundation
The Long Beach Museum of Art
Milwaukee Art Museum
Museum of Arts & Design
The New-York Historical Society
Mint Museum of Craft and Design
Potteries Museums Stoke on Trent
The Sonny and Gloria Kamm Collection
Yale University Museum
2008 Ceramic technology images on recreating a Bonnin and Morris Pickle Stand Philadelphia Museum of Art
2007 Ceramic Technology images on English slipware to be on permanent display in the newly reinstalled collection of slipwares, Victoria and Albert Museum, UK
2007 Commissioned by Jamestown 2007 to create an original artwork in clay to be presented as the official gift to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll during her historic visit to Jamestown May 4th 2007
2005-2007 Designed and produced ceramics for HBO series John Adams
2004 Designed and produced 17th century ceramics for The New World New Line Cinema
2002 Designed and produced futuristic ceramics for The Time Machine, Dream Works Productions
2000 Consulted, designed, and produced 18th-century ceramic reproductions for The Patriot, Tri-Star Columbia
National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts
American Craft Council
American Ceramics Circle