Burnt Offerings


As a potter shapes a pot, our lives are shaped by the objects we use — often thoughtlessly — every day. The emotional texture of a person’s day is affected by the sensation of a teacup’s rim on lips, sunlight inside a bowl, flowers in an urn … the innumerable rituals through which we organize our lives.

The vessels, plates and other functional items in Stoneware: For Daily Ritual suggest the exalted rites of spiritual pursuits as much as domestic habits such as reading the newspaper over morning coffee. Each work from the 21 participating exhibitors is imbued with qualities that disguise, or at least overshadow, its utilitarian role.

Unlike earthenware, which dates from 50,000 or more years ago, stoneware dates from perhaps 4,000 years ago and is fired at higher temperatures. Stoneware is thereby able to withstand hot and cold and thus find a place in virtually any garden, kitchen or altar. In addition to its strength and durability, stoneware is also watertight, ideal for rituals involving fluids. Clearly, an object that can be used over the long term is more likely to assume a sacred value than one that dissolves or breaks after only a few uses. Even when the sacramental use is scorned, the repeated use of an object lends it emotional value difficult to deny: A vase serves as a reminder of a long-departed lover; a handled pot brings back memories of visits to a grandparent’s farm.

Linda Christianson’s stoneware is particularly nostalgic, recalling the early days of American stoneware and America itself. Her small, exquisite “Cooking Oil Can,” for example, bears a blue checkerboard pattern atop the unglazed stoneware, which remains a lovely sand-beige omnipresent in this exhibition and the result of natural impurities in the clay. Its handle is constructed of heavy-gauge wire and a stoneware grip also decorated in blue checks. The piece reminds the viewer and holder of country kitchens full of useful tablecloths and enamelware wherein the ritual may have been as simple as Sunday dinner and the agreeable companionships of family and friends.

Words like “soul” and “passion” and “ritual” and “home” pervade these potters’ statements. Many potters discovered their art in the 1970s, during hippie days of trying to “get back to nature” and a simpler way of life, says Steven Hill, co-owner of Red Star Studios. The natural look of stoneware’s earth-tone surfaces reflects the ecological awareness of the era, and pottery’s renaissance in the 1990s may have been tied to a similar urge toward simplicity and environmental concern.

Hill’s “Urn,” for example, is distinctly feminine in its soft and bulging profile; its classical handles seem borrowed from a Grecian urn, and a gentle spiral wraps the vessel like a gossamer toga. But its color is a subtle homage to nature — a landscape of pale olive, sand, rust and loamy brown created by spraying many layers of glazes on the surface while the pot is raw. Hill’s pots are so painterly — like Fragonard landscapes — that to use them for tea or coffee or flowers must come as an afterthought.

The same can be said of “Large Urn” by Peter Sohngen, a longtime mentor of Hill’s. Sohngen’s lidded vessel is a funerary container, made to hold the ashes of the dead. Its matte surface, glazed in a somber red-brown, bears a heaviness that is both material and emotional. The potency of its simple lines conveys a masculine presence so that the urn’s ultimate contents — whether human ash or air — are not so much irrelevant as secondary. The urn is, as are the still-living who view it and feel its solid weight.

It’s important to note that virtually all of the works in Stoneware are created for display and for touch. This purpose and the works’ matter-of-fact titles distinguish them from works that have no functional purpose.

The title of Randy Johnston’s “Vase Form” emphasizes the duality of stoneware; it is the form of a vase, not necessarily a vase. The distinction is critical in the artist’s approach to his work. When viewed as an exploration into the idea of “vase,” Johnston’s piece takes on a narrative that relates as much to the human body as to clay. The object is frankly basic in shape: a slightly squared cylinder upright on a thin slab base. The handles appear deformed, almost useless, with fingerholds too small for any digit. The body is a raw, reddish umber except for the top surfaces, where the wood ash has collected and turned a stony gold. The sides have been lightly incised with downward sweeping grooves like ribs. The grooves meet in the center at a narrow ridge resembling crudely stitched flesh, as if the piece has been sliced open and sewn back together. This is a lovely sculpture that happens to resemble a vase.

Similarly, Chris Staley’s “Plates” are lovely paintings in clay that are more akin to tiles than to the round plates from which Westerners eat. But it is the East to which Staley refers. The plates are appropriate for sushi rather than steak: square, flat and minimalist in their surface designs. One particularly lovely plate consists of a large white globe (the shape of the “Rising Sun” of Japan’s flag) in a black sky, mirrored below by a smaller globe pushing down into a sandy plain. Unlike the soft, ethereal landscapes of Hill’s work, where all edges are blurred or blended, Staley’s surfaces are about sharp contrasts: black and white, square and round, yin and yang. The simultaneous opposition and interaction of sculptural and functional, painting and throwing, plays most acutely in his “Teapot” — a black-and-white series of squares within circles within squares within the circular form of the pot itself, which has a square-edged handle shaped like a semicircle. If displayed but never used in a tea ritual, this teapot would fall short of the artist’s intended “paradox of who is touching whom.”

Whether sacramental or domestic, rituals provide comfort and security, assuring us that at least this one moment, this one object remains unchanged in a rapidly changing world.

This is the second article in a series on ceramics.

Categories: A&E, Art