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192 Jim Boone Rd
Bakersville, NC, 28705
United States


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The Best of Sawdust and Dirt

A record of the goings on around Michael Kline Pottery!

Filtering by Tag: Ellen Denker

Karen Karnes Events Reminder

Michael Kline

Curious Reader
Here is a gentle...

about the Asheville area programming in association with
A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes
current exhibition at the Asheville Art Museum
January 28 - June 26
museum entrance fee: adults $8; seniors & students $7

beginning March 22 and currently at Penland Gallery
Many Paths: A Legacy of Karen Karnes
work by Karen Karnes and fourteen artists whose lives and work have been touched by her
free and open to the public
artists include:

Thursday, April 7, 6-9 PM at Asheville Art Museum and Diana Wortham Theatre
discussion, reception and book signing with
Karen Karnes and Mark Shapiro

Friday, April 8, 4:30 PM at Penland School, Ridgeway Hall
Film Screening of the documentary
Don't Know, We'll See: The Work of Karen Karnes
by Lucy Massie Phenix
free and open to public

Friday, April 8, 7-8:30 PM at Penland Gallery
Gallery Reception for Many Paths
with Karen Karnes & Mark Shapiro
free and open to public

Saturday & Sunday, June 4 & 5, 2 PM each day at Asheville Art Museum
Film Screening of the documentary
Don't Know, We'll See: The Work of Karen Karnes
by Lucy Massie Phenix
museum entrance fee: adults $8; seniors & students $7

On Wednesday, April 6, 7 PM at the Black Mountain College Museum Art Center
Film Screening of the documentary
Don't Know, We'll See: The Work of Karen Karnes
by Lucy Massie Phenix
$7.00 / $5.00 for BMCM+AC members + students w/ID

photos from Kathryn at Penland Gallery of ceramic work included in the exhibit Many Paths:
Maren Kloppmann, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Rob Sieminski, Phillips, Maine

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at

Karen Karnes: A Chosen Path

Michael Kline

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can be reached at

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming review of A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes. Mark Shapiro, ed., foreword by Garth Clark. University of North Carolina Press, 2010, that will appear in the Journal of Design History.

Recently Mark Shapiro sent notification that the book/exhibit catalog he edited on Karen Karnes has been published. For those of us who have known about Karnes for many years, this was good news, and we didn't need any more prodding to seek out the exhibition and catalog. But other blog readers may have wondered what all the fuss was about. What follows then is a little review of the life and work of Karnes in the hope that everyone will get on board to learn more.

Renowned ceramic artist Karen Karnes (b. 1925) has created a consistently significant body of work during more than sixty years of practice. Over her long career she studied and worked in the avant-garde institutions and places of the time, including Brooklyn College, Alfred University, Black Mountain College, and Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point NY. Her choices in life and art touched many aspects of the tumultuous social and artistic worlds of the late twentieth century, yet she remained committed to exploring her own impulses.

Karnes was born and raised in a cooperative apartment house in the Bronx, the child of Russian immigrant garment workers who considered themselves socialists. She attended Brooklyn College when the art and design department was headed by Serge Chermayeff, a British architect who brought Bauhaus instruction to the school. “I loved the Bauhaus approach,” she writes in the catalog, “I had suddenly found a kind of art instruction compatible to me.” (p. 80) After graduation she met David Weinrib; after their marriage they spent a summer in Pennsylvania and then went to Italy for a year, working in and around ceramic factories. She learned to use techniques for mass production.

jar, 1952

On their return to the U.S., Karnes attended Alfred University, where she studied independently with Charles Harder. In 1952, David and Karen went to Black Mountain College, where they taught the pottery program that had been started by Robert Turner. They happened to be there during the famous visit of Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Soetsu Yanagi, and Marguerite Wildenhain, who were traveling together and giving workshops across the country: “Watching Hamada work was the most important ceramic instruction I, as a young potter, could have. He had a quiet presence—he didn’t say anything as he worked. (In contrast, Leach talked a lot and worked a little.)” (p. 84) At Black Mountain she also came into contact with composer John Cage and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Robert Rauschenberg was a student. Franz Kline and Esteban Vicente taught painting.

In 1954, David and Karen joined M.C. Richards, John Cage, David Tudor and Paul and Vera Williams in a community of artists in Stony Point, New York, called “The Land.” She stayed twenty-five years, giving birth to a son, separating from her husband, and setting up a regular business of supplying casseroles, jars, and bird feeders to Bonniers at 59th and Madison, NYC, and making special commissions. The seasonal work and occasional commissions gave her time to explore her relationship to clay.

salt glazed vessel
Stony Point 1969 15 "h

In 1967, she participated in salt firing while teaching a workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina because the school had a salt kiln. She submitted to the kiln “…just an ordinary pot with some slips poured over it. But when it came out of the kiln, I was very excited to discover a whole new surface.” (p. 88) In 1968 she met British potter Ann Stannard, whom Richards brought to the U.S. to teach a workshop in kiln building: “We just went mad building things—an oil drip kiln, a salt kiln, a small wood-fired kiln, a peat kiln, a sawdust kiln. It was so exciting because there wasn’t much kiln building going on in the late 1960s.” (p. 91) A few years later, Stannard came to the U.S. to stay on with Karnes.

Gate Hill 1974

Eventually, Karen and Ann retreated to northern Vermont, where Karnes could work out the creative problems she set for herself and be free to teach workshops across the country. In 1998, they lost everything when their wood kiln burned the kiln shed and their house. It was a year before Karnes found a new direction for her work.

split-footed bowl
Morgan VT 1990 13'" h

Karnes describes herself as “fortunate to be in on the beginning of the ceramics movement” (p. 94) and to have had the freedom “to work from my own impulse. … Today there are so many people working in clay that it must be hard for younger potters to know what to make. … So many people try to work from other people’s impulses—one person will make something, and suddenly you will see clones everywhere.” (p. 95) The title of the book is A Chosen Path, but it just as easily could have been called "Be True to Yourself." Judging from the illustrations and essays in this catalog, seeing the exhibition will be an important experience. I urge you to get a copy of the catalog and prepare yourself for the visual journey.

The original installation closed recently at Arizona State University, but the following venues will feature the exhibit on this schedule:

For those readers who live nearby, the Penland Gallery opens an exhibit on March 22 titled Many Paths: A Legacy of Karen Karnes. It will feature work by Karnes and fourteen artists whose lives and work have been touched by her (through May 8).

[ed:More information about the events at Penland, Black Mountian, and Asheville will follow.]

Surface to Form

Michael Kline

One thing leads to another. After cutting the feet into these soon to be rabbit plates, I went back to the wheel to throw some shallow bowls and wanted to use something from the energetic combing in the edges of them and Voilá! (that's french for voila)

the following resulted. Form follows surface?

Monday's are reserved for the Antiques Road Show on PBS. We just saw this piece appraised at $5-7000. Look familiar faithful readers? Maybe message follows form. We'll have to ask Ellen if she was watching...Meanwhile here are a variety of the pig flasks, all with writing.

Now it's time for some after supper pottery. (remember its crunch week!) Cueing up the Jay Z.
On to the next one. See you in the a.m.

Anna Potters Delivered “Sermons in Stoneware”

Michael Kline

Anna Pottery snake jug in the collection of the Illinois State Museum

In the first part of the blog post on the Anna Pottery I promised to describe the amazing temperance-minded objects made by the Kirkpatrick brothers during the second half of the 1800s. They made flasks in the shape of pigs, which were called “Railroad and River Guides.” The idea for the flasks, which were based on old German glass prototypes, was attributed to Cornwall, the older of the two brothers. The stoneware pigs are generally about eight inches long with the flask opening on the nether end of the hog. They were made by throwing cylinders and then altering them with the addition of a snout, legs, a tail, and male genitalia.

two pig flasks showing different sides, inscription

on obverse and

map of Illinois Central Railroad on reverse

These delightful objects were further complicated by elaborate incising overall, usually mapping prominent railroad lines and identifying cities along the routes. Although there are many variations of these routes, the common version shows the Illinois Central Railroad with Chicago (“the corn mart”) at the mouth and Mounds (a town at the tip of Illinois) at the other end. Cincinnati (“the ancient porkopolis” or “the pork city”) is usually underneath. The Mississippi River runs down the spine and St. Louis (identified as “the future capitol”) is shown in the center. There was a movement in the nineteenth century to change the U.S. capitol to St. Louis, which is more centrally located on the continent than Washington, DC.

One reporter in a local newspaper noted that “The pigs are a curious piece of workmanship, and appropriate, for it is rather a hoggish propensity to be guzzling whiskey, and if the habit is indulged in, will soon reduce a man below the level of the hog, and cause him to wallow in the gutter.” In the 19th century people who lived in cities and towns across the US knew a lot about pigs, which were allowed to roam the streets in order to take care of the garbage. Hence, the reference to pigs wallowing in the gutter.

In a broader context these dandy pigs are a metaphor for the economy of the Midwest. Even in the 19th century, corn was a principal cereal crop, but it was worth little on the commodity market. Instead, the clever Midwesterners raised hogs and distilled whiskey as a convenient means of taking this staple to market. These commodities were shipped across the land by railroad. Corn, pigs, whiskey, and railroads formed a tight and profitable economic network that is neatly represented by this humorous artifact.

I can’t think of many examples of metaphorical pottery that rivals these pigs. They are just remarkable objects that combine utility with symbolism in a way that is completely enthralling. Many variations are recorded because the Kirkpatrick's made them on order for saloons and taverns throughout the Midwest and the South.

snake jug, 10½ inches high, private collection

Like the pig bottles, which combine utility with art, the brothers’ snake jugs are remarkable expressions of temperance philosophy. The classic snake jug is about ten inches tall in a shape suggestive overall of the old-fashioned bellarmines (bearded-man jugs – see my last post for more on them and Dan Finnegan’s recent post on his blog). Instead of the bearded face, however, there is the upper torso of a man emerging from the jug, whose head is being attacked by a snake from above. In fact, the jug is covered with snakes. Insects such as dung beetles can also be seen on these jugs, along with frogs, lizards and the like. And there is usually a fair amount of writing that identifies the theme of each jug, many of which are political in nature. The most temperance-minded of the group is called “The Drunkard’s Doom.”

Drunkard’s Doom snake jug, two views, 9½ inches high

It features the bottom half of a male body diving into the jug on one side (labeled “nice young man going in”) and the top half emerging from the other side, looking disheveled and titled “The Drunkard’s Doom.”

This puts me in mind of the scene in Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn (1884) in which Huck describes his father in the throes of delirium tremens: “I don’t know how long I was asleep, but all of a sudden there was an awful scream and I was up. There was pap, looking wild and skipping around every which way and yelling about snakes. He said they was crawling up his legs; and then he would give a jump and scream, and say one had bit him on the cheek—but I couldn’t see no snakes. He started and run round and round the cabin, hollering ‘take him off! take him off! he’s biting me on the neck!’ I never see a man look so wild in the eyes.”

In the snake jugs Wallace Kirkpatrick combined a fascination with serpents

small coiled snake in collection of Illinois State Museum, 4 inches across

and his strong feelings against alcohol with a remarkable ability to model stoneware caricatures of human and animal life. The ghastly images evoked in these jugs are brutal and meant to be a warning to those tempted by liquor. Kirkpatrick “preaches sermons in stone,” noted a reporter in 1874.

It would not be fair if I did not mention that another writer on the Kirkpatricks has taken a different interpretive route. Richard Mohr’s ideas have their followers as do mine. Mohr does not believe the Kirkpatricks were temperance-minded. Instead he feels that their work was produced with tongue in cheek, whereas I doubt that an artist could come up with things that are so compelling unless he/she held a strong opinion, such as being temperance-minded in the case of the Kirkpatricks’ snake jugs and pig flasks.

Other Kirkpatrick jugs investigated the whiskey revenue scandal of President Grant’s administration (1876, now in National Museum of American History, Smithsonian) and the NY City Hall boondoggle perpetrated by Boss Tweed and his gang of nefarious politicians (1871, a gift to cartoonist Thomas Nast). One interesting variation is owned by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Collection in Williamsburg. It has many movable parts.

You can see more Kirkpatrick work at this website.

I wonder as I contemplate all of this whether the upcoming booze vote in Burnsville will engender such commentary in local craft. Perhaps one vote in one town does not a movement make, and it is national/international political events and situations that provoke commentary among today’s potters. My thoughts turn to some of the sculpture by Viktor Schreckengost and Robert Arneson. I know you will think of many more examples of clay used as political expression. Please share them in your comments to this blog post.

There has long been a lot of blather about so-called functional ware vs. sculpture in ceramics and other craft media. But I think the lesson one can take away from the Kirkpatricks’ work is that utility need not limit one’s desire to express opinions on political or social situations, hence bottles in the shape of pigs and jugs covered with snakes. In fact, the Kirkpatricks’ use of utilitarian forms as their starting point is integral to the themes and metaphors of their work.

And Ayumi Horie’s invention of “Obamaware” in 2008 as a fundraiser is proof that the ability to express political opinions while also practicing utility with one’s work is not dead.

Cornwall Kirkpatrick and his children with a giant pitcher

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at

Temperance-minded Potters

Michael Kline

Carry Amelia Nation, described herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus,
barking at what He doesn't like."
There has been a lot of talk lately in the area where Michael and I live about the upcoming referendum on alcohol sales. Last year, Spruce Pine (in Mitchell County) fell to the inebriates. This year, the voters of Burnsville (in Yancey County) will take to the polls in early April to decide if liquor will be sold in town. This includes liquor by the bottle through an alcoholic beverage control store licensed by the state of NC, liquor by the drink at eating establishments, and beer and wine in the super market. There are 100 counties in North Carolina. Only two are still dry counties, where there are no sales outlets for alcoholic beverages. If (or when) Burnsville falls under the spell of spirits, there will be only one left.

All of this got me to thinking about research I had done long ago on the Kirkpatrick brothers, proprietors of the Anna Pottery from 1859 to 1896 in Anna, Illinois. The situation vis-à-vis alcohol in those days was exactly opposite as this upcoming referendum in Burnsville. You see the brothers were temperance-minded potters. I know that seems like a contradiction in terms. Potters, like most laborers, have long been accused of spending their hard-earned cash on beer and booze. But in the late 1800s, temperance was a topic that could boil your blood in the way abortion rights, gay-marriage rights, and gun rights can generate a heated discussion today.

I have heard the argument put forth in Burnsville that allowing alcohol sales will go against tradition. In the U.S. during the 1800s the situation was just the opposite. The widespread consumption of alcoholic beverages was the tradition; temperance was the Johnny-come-lately. The imbibing of alcoholic beverages in those days was seen as an inalienable right by most Americans, keeping in mind that fermented and alcoholic drinks were safer historically than milk, apple juice (cider), and even water. All of which were bound to harbor many more microorganisms than alcoholic beverages. In other words hard cider was safer to drink than apple juice, and milk was more dangerous than beer. Water purification systems were generally desired, but needed invention.

Fulper Pottery stoneware germ-proof water filter made about 1900

Many potters tried to figure out how to build a better stoneware water filter. Most Americans drank alcoholic beverages from childhood as their main source of liquids.

This was the situation the temperance movement was trying to overcome – widespread alcoholism supported by standard accepted practice.

John Greenwood, “Sea Captains Carousing at Surinam”
painted about 1755

Of course, this kind of behavior produced a laundry list of bad habits that are still associated with alcoholism, not the least of which were poverty, chronic shirking of social responsibilities, and abusive tendencies toward wives and children. No wonder some members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (Carry Nation is probably best known of them) routinely busted up taverns and bars (Carry called these actions “hatchetations”) that they considered scourges on their communities. All they wanted was for men to go easy on the booze. Prohibition, an extreme form of temperance, became the law of the land in 1918, but not before many states had passed their own rules.

image of NC newspaper headline, 1908

Well, what does all this have to do with two potters working in a small town in southern Illinois? Alcohol consumption and temperance were major subjects of the Kirkpatricks’ work.

Like most American potters in the 1800s, the Kirkpatrick brothers made lots of crocks and jugs for use in the homes and on the farms of their neighbors.

Anna Pottery packing receipt, ca. 1881

These sturdy containers were beginning to pass from favor, being pre-empted by glass Mason jars, which were easier to handle. The Kirkpatricks filled in the gaps in their income by mining and selling clay (for the ceramics as well as other industries, including metals, paper, paints, and confectionaries). They had a small work force that mined the clay and prepared it for shipment from a nearby railroad siding.

In addition, the Kirkpatricks had five or six journeyman potters working for them who made the standard crocks and jugs at the pottery. This left the brothers free to play in the clay.

They made all manner of whimsies that were sold at agricultural and mechanical fairs in the towns and counties throughout the Midwest, including frogs on shells which functioned as inkwells, whistles in the shape of owls, little brown jugs, mugs with frogs in the bottom to surprise the drinker, and many more.

One type of novelty particularly favored by fair-goers was the miniature jug or log cabin (about one inch tall) containing a Stanhope lens (small magnifying lenses). The jugs and cabins were hollow for stanhope insertion. Users could hold the jug or cabin to the light and view something magnified by the stanhope. These pictures included a miniature rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, a picture of a snake coiled to strike, or a naked woman. (Surprised? You probably thought Marilyn Monroe calendars were the first of their kind.)

All of these fair novelties are fun to contemplate, but it’s the brothers’ sculptural work that is truly amazing. More about these objects next time I visit the Sawdust & Dirt blog.

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at

Review: Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America

Michael Kline

Janine Skerry and Suzanne Hood, Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with the University Press of New England, 2009. Amazon list at $75.00 (currently on sale)

  • format 11.5 x 9 inches
  • 271 pages
  • 245 illustrations, all color
  • some diagrams and charts
  • footnotes
  • bibliography

When Michael was experimenting with new handles for his handled bowls last week, I decided to look up the same form in a new book recently published by Colonial Williamsburg on early American stoneware. The closest I could come is something called a porringer, an all-purpose vessel for eating wet food mixtures (such as stews, oatmeal). For example, Ben Franklin in his autobiography mentioned eating breakfast of gruel or bread and milk out of a porringer. The only ones shown in this new book were made in England of white salt-glazed stoneware.

Porringers of white salt-glazed stoneware
(the one on the left was excavated from a
colonial site in Williamsburg) made in
Staffordshire, England, 1745-1760

The handles of these porringers were made
press molds and have holes for hanging

We would more likely find the precedents for Michael’s bowls in a book on earthenware rather than stoneware, but looking there would not provide a convenient segue into my review of this new stoneware book.

The authors of this handsome volume take a broad view of stoneware in early America. Their time period is before 1800, which covers more than 200 years of colonial occupation. In addition to discussing the stoneware made in the American colonies (American-made stoneware is all from the 1700s), they also cover the English and German stoneware used in America. Their evidence comes from complete objects that survive with histories of ownership in the colonies, many shards recovered from archaeological sites, and colonial inventories.

Their searches yielded some remarkable things; like the German mug made 1550-1575 with engraved English silver-gilt mounts for the cover, rim and foot, and carried by John Winthrop, future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when he crossed the Atlantic in 1630.

Winthrop family mug made in Germany
1550-1575, with English silver-gilt mounts

John was not the first Winthrop to own the mug, nor was he the last. The mug continued to be passed down through generations of the Winthrop family for another two hundred years, until it was given to the American Antiquarian Society in 1825. Without the silver mounts and the long Winthrop family history, this is otherwise a rather mundane mug made in Cologne or Frechen of grey stoneware body coated with a rich brown slip and fired with a salt glaze. Surely the potter who made it thought of it as nothing more than one more piece qualifying for his daily count. Yet it was held in high esteem in the sixteenth century (the English silver mounts tell us that) and acquired magical properties as it was passed from generation to generation of Winthrops, each passage carried out on the Feast of St. Michael (Michaelmas recognizes the coming of autumn and shortening of days, while celebrating the accomplishments of Archangel Michael, who defeated Lucifer in the battle for the heavens). The whole story made me wonder whether any of us would want to set ourselves three hundred years hence to see what has happened to our own objects.

The story above was not meant to put you off your wheel, but to let you know what sorts of things you will see when you page through this book – common objects like the ones handled every day by colonial forbears: Jugs, jars, mugs, pitchers, plates, crocks, tea and coffee wares, chamber pots, and a few figurines and ornaments. Some are remarkable, like this carved cup made in Nottingham, England, about 1700.

Carved mug Nottingham, England
about 1700,
matches fragments found
on the Drummond
plantation in Virginia

This is a double-walled vessel. The outside wall is carved and pierced, while an inside wall holds hot liquids. (The double-walled construction is possibly based on Chinese porcelain examples decorated by the so-called “Ling Lung” method.)

The authors also examine the elaborately decorated German wares, like the brown bearded-man jugs and blue-and-grey Westerwald medallion wares.

Bearded-man jug
made in Frechen, Germany
excavated in Pemaquid, Maine

Ziegler family tankard
made in Westerwald, Germany 1700-1730
the Zieglers were members of the
Salzburger settlement
established in the 1730s
in Ebenezer, Georgia

The German potters used small press molds to create the pads of decoration that were typically applied to the leather-hard jugs, bottles and mugs.

For those of you who try to follow Bernard Leach’s admonition to look for inspiration at historical wares made in your region there is also a chapter on American-made stoneware, especially from Yorktown VA, Philadelphia, New York City, Connecticut and Boston.

Chamber pot
Anthony Duché,
Philadelphia, 1730-1750

In addition, an appendix lists the names, dates, and locations of all the known American stoneware potters of the eighteenth century. Only Delaware among the thirteen original colonies did not boast a stoneware pottery, so if you are resident of the states touching the Atlantic you have stoneware history to mine that goes back to the 1700s.

Although this book was written for cultural historians and stoneware collectors, there is much here to be admired and learned by contemporary potters with an interest in the products of historical kilns. In addition, an exhibition in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg (“Pottery with a Past: Stoneware in Early America”) will be on view through January 2, 2011, which gives every reader of this book the opportunity to see first hand many of the wares illustrated in the volume.

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at

Walking and Talking (With Jack)

Michael Kline

yesterday's output needing work this morning

Bailey's Peak through a bare poplar tree

Poor doggy, Jack, just doesn't get walked enough! He's just got all of this energy that gets wasted and misdirected to the detriment of our shoes, soft toys, and plastic anythings! So off we went this morning on our loop around the high meadow behind our house.

Meanwhile, the studio was getting warmed up for my 12 starters that I was determined yet unsuccessful at getting done by noon. I was close, but I'll blame it on Sam for gumming up the works with inspiring convo! Even with my headset I had to stroll and talk every once in a while. Sam and I are coming up with a really neat something for the blog. I'll fill you in when we have it ironed out. Meanwhile I hope you've enjoyed our other guest bloggers (Simon Levin and Ellen Denker) so far.

Now back to work!
16 tankards by 1p.m.
will you give me credit?

Binns, Alfred, and the Development of Studio Ceramics in America

Michael Kline

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at

Binns, Alfred, and the Development of Studio Ceramics in America

Ellen Denker

What’s in a name?

If you are a graduate of the ceramics program at Alfred it might be your reputation. Alfred graduates seem to dominate ceramic art in this country. Are you interested in knowing the origin of that phenomenon? I’m sure that Alfred graduates are very good ceramic artists and deserve all the recognition they get, but for those who are not part of this good-old-boy network you might be interested in some insights into the origin of Alfred’s high regard. Alfred’s reputation is built largely on the fame of Charles Fergus Binns (1857-1934), its first director and the reputed “father of American studio ceramics, and his students. Margaret Carney, in the introduction to her coffee-table book on Binns (see citation below), listed his achievements: “He is known for his teaching of the teachers of our teachers’ teachers, for his classically formed pots, for his glaze recipes that we have inherited, and for his legacy in his tenure as the first director of what is now the New York State College of Ceramics.” But Binns did not originate the idea of studio pottery. He should get credit for recognizing its emergence, but the movement toward studio ceramics was actually gestated by many mothers. The following is a brief history of how Binns may have stumbled across the phenomenon.

"Daddy" Binns, as he was known around campus,
shown here with students

Binns was born into a family that had long been associated with the ceramics industry in Worcester, England. His father, Richard William Binns, was the art director and co-manager of the Worcester Royal Porcelain Works for forty-five years. Workers in this large factory produced porcelain tableware and elaborately decorated ornamental wares that won major awards at international expositions. Charles apprenticed at the Works beginning at the age of fourteen. As a result of his 25 years in the factory working in various departments and keeping his eyes and ears open, Charles became an expert in ceramic bodies and glazes. It was in this capacity that he was welcomed to the ceramics community in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and, no doubt, his knowledge of these mysteries recommended him as the first director of the newly created New York School of Clay working and Ceramics at Alfred.

The early clay programs in the US (Alfred, Rutgers, Ohio State, University of Illinois), all of which were founded in the first few years of the 20th century, were basically programs to teach the skills needed for ceramic manufacturing. The art aspect was secondary to the knowledge of chemistry and engineering needed by the potters of this era, a time when this complex knowledge was largely unrecorded and still passed on by personal association. Charles Binns’ knowledge of clays and glazes was unsurpassed in the US. His first gig here (1898-1900) was as manager of the works of the Ceramic Art Company (later Lenox China) in Trenton, NJ, where he created and introduced a new porcelain body that lead in part to the company’s transition from artware to tableware.

In his work at Alfred (beginning in 1901), Binns organized classes in which students learned the standard formulas for bodies and glazes and how to apply them in manufacturing situations. Few potters practiced alone in those days. Most worked in factories or small workshops with other potters who had received training at the bench or wheel. The practitioners of ceramic art were mostly the female decorators (or lady china painters as some have called them) who had home studios. Although these ladies had long practiced their decorating skills on porcelain blanks made in foreign factories, many of them yearned to create their own ceramics. They signed up for Binns’s summer courses at Alfred, where they learned the secrets of bodies and glazes. These women, Adelaide Robineau among them (she took the summer course in 1903) already possessed artistic skills in design garnered through study in various art academies. Robineau went on to become one of the great ceramic artists of her era after her experiences with Binns.

Robineau working in her studio at University City, Missouri, on her famous
Scarab Vase (also called Apotheosis of the Toiler);
the vase now belongs to the Everson Museum of Art,
Syracuse, NY

As for Binns, he began to see that the ceramics market was changing. Consumer interest in the fine, extravagantly decorated porcelains of the type made at Royal Worcester was giving way to pottery, especially stoneware, and he scrambled to learn rustic formulas for bodies and glazes. He also taught himself to make ceramics on the potter’s wheel. Richard Zakin in his essay on the technical aspects of Binns’ work (see citation below) notes that Binns began to experiment with stoneware bodies and glazes about 1903. At the same time he was becoming an artist-potter, teaching himself to throw section-formed ware on the potter’s wheel. Through this work he developed a “sense of rightness ideals of design and craftsmanship, that he conveyed to his students.

lantern slide that Binns used in teaching which

shows how he threw vases in parts

Vase, Binns, 1931
h. 9"

But the notion that an artist-potter worked alone to produce work distinguished by a signature style, what we identify today as the hallmark of a studio potter, was not Binns’ invention. Although he refined and codified the concept, he actually borrowed it from the lady china painters he taught in the summer courses

Further reading:

Margaret Carney, Charles Fergus Binns, The Father of American Studio Ceramics.
New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1998.

Ellen Denker, “The Grammar of Nature: Arts and Crafts China Painting” in Bert Denker, ed., The Substance of Style: New Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement, 1990 Winterthur Conference Report. Winterthur, DE: Winterthur Museum and University Press of New England, 1996. (describes the training and practices of independent china painters working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries)

Ellen Denker and David Conradsen, University City Ceramics. St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum, 2004. (documents Robineau’s work during a critical period)

Ellen Denker, “Keeping the Fire Alive: Robineau’s Influence,” in Thomas Piché, Jr. and Julia A. Monti, eds.,

Only an Artist: Adelaide Alsop Robineau, American Studio Potter. Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 2006.

Richard Zakin, “Technical Aspects of the Work of Charles Fergus Binns,” in Margaret Carney,
Charles Fergus Binns, The Father of American Studio Ceramics
. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1998; pp. 112-118.

Websites of interest:

University City Ceramics at the St. Louis Art Museum

photo archives of University City Art Academy and other institutions associated with University City ceramics