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192 Jim Boone Rd
Bakersville, NC, 28705
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The central information hub for Michael Kline Pottery, a small one man shop of pottery making in the mountains of western North Carolina.

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The Best of Sawdust and Dirt

A record of the goings on around Michael Kline Pottery!

Filtering by Tag: Mark Shapiro

Coffee Break vol. 35

Michael Kline

Did I hear someone say #MugshotMonday? Or is just an echo in my memory?

Well neither, actually. It's just another volume in the undying series, Coffee Breaks™here at the Sawdust and Dirt BLOG, not to be confused with the podcast of the same name. This is about the clickety clack sound of the old keyboard but I must admit it is a reprint from another "blogging" platform. But, BOY, can i drop links into THIS format like nobodies business!

At any rate, here is the blog post I set out to cross post in the first place,

I met Marsha Owen at the Penland School of Crafts 25 years ago in a workshop being taught by GA potter Michael Simon. I also met Sam Taylor, Aaron Weissblum, Jane Shellenbarger, Suze Lindsay, and Mark Shapiro! It was quite a group. We were all young and wanting to be potters. Sam had only been making pots for a little over a year.

Suze and Jane were #corefellows at Penland, I had graduated from UTK and had only made pots for 5 years. Mark was probably the most experienced one being a little older than us and making pots since high school. We see each other from time to time.

We were all very much imprinted by Michael's demos and just being together working and playing at Penland for those 3 weeks changed us. Marsha and Suze and myself went on to be Penland resident artists. (at different times) and I teamed up with Mark and Sam (and Aaron for a time) as the brothers in clay in western Massachussetts. We lived and breathed pots.

For the last two winters Marsha has been to Penland to work in the #winterstudio at #Penland and we fired the salt kiln together. This paddled cup was in our valentine's day firing and Marsha gave it to me. But it has been sitting in the office at Penland with a little note. So today, I finally get to drink out of it and think of Marsha and all the rest.

Objects have all kinds of ways of engaging us with their forms, colors, and the memories they can evoke.


Michael Kline

We come together at conferences to share our fascination and love of our vocation, but sometimes it simply comes down to communing with our peeps! I'm sure there will be plenty of time (when the power comes back on) for instruction of technique, exchange of ideas, and the validation for our irrational passion for the mud, but sometimes it's the simple act of coming together that we crave as artists. It's a tribal thing. #ncpotterconf


the timelessness of night

Michael Kline


 The thaw is happening, I think. During the #hunkerdownbythewoodstovepolarvortex the kids got home schooled and I beat a path from wood stove to wood stove, studio and house, respectfully. I also checked water pipes, chickens, road conditions, email, calendar. Seems like I would have had plenty of time to make pots, to get that studio hoed out and crystallize my vision for a bump free flow.

[insert perplexed, vexed, and cross-eyed emoticon]

On the heels of my declaration of a 500 word guarantee here on ye olde blogge, I stood there like a deer in the headlights of the big brain freeze, mental frostbite. So, just as one rubs hands to create friction, thus heat, thus thawing, I will try to rub some brain cells together and make a clickity clackity sound with this keyboard to illustrate a few "thaw-ts".

So, here we go. [pause, deep breath, now go!]

Something interesting happened at the wheel the other night. Yes, I did say night. That time of my day when it is quiet and all are asleep, except for me. The darkness of night has a timelessness that, MS and I used to jokingly referred to as "3 o'clock in the morning". Timelessness in the sense that the darkness (outside) is not specific, compared to the light of the sun, glaring morning light through to pink o'clock, then dark.

Unable to train my thoughts on much through my day, I was able to sequester and focus on the pots later that night. With headphones on, some music playing in my head, I was able to get some pots made. Some really great pots, IMHO. I know what you might be saying. "This guys has some kind of mental problem, either distraction, or maybe something worse!" Could it be that I go through a brief period of ADD or PTSD before the highly prized momentum flows? I'm sure someone more qualified than I can diagnose what potters, like moi, might be experiencing.

[note to self: don't stray, get to the point]

Oh, right. I do want to share something other than a pathology of distraction with you.

So, I've heard potters speak about the wheel as their sketchbook and I would say, yes! It's the only way I can "draw" pots. Some potters are very good at portraying pottery in 2 dimensions, I applaud them and I think that a 2D sketchbook is a must, but in reality I don't draw pots in mine. I use my sketchbook to work on patterns and loosen up my "brush-mind" (I'm about the start a new one that Stacey gave me! A beautiful new sketchbook (made by John Hartom) for Christmas!) So, yes, put me in that group who think that the wheel is a better sketchbook for pots. Ha! Maybe our wheels are the original 3d printers!

In the past I have certainly played around with this notion of the wheel as sketchbook. Throwing a series of pots can result in a board of pots all the same or all different, depending on one's intentions AND skills. I've written about the impact that first pot can have on the rest of the pots and how there is redemption in a series of the same.

The other night I had a bit of fun chasing down something that happened unexpectedly. Rather, maybe it happened from some sort of prodding by my sub conscience?(the best kind of prodding?) Maybe I was bored with the way I usually make swirl ware and that boredom exerted itself and prompted me to take a risk, after all, it's just clay, as Cynthia Bringle would say. But I tend to think, or better yet, obsess, of the times that I have failed when I take a chance.

I never think of those momentous times when my whole body of work has shifted because of something I tried that was out of the ordinary. Hmmm, more psychological evidence of pathology...But why are we afraid of risk if the outcome of something wonderful, something truly personal, and new can come of it?

Most people would probably say that pottery is a pretty safe business. But think of the speculation, the risks that a potter makes/takes when submitting our pots to the kiln?! Not to be too melodramatic, but, instead, to make the point that potters aren't to blame for playing it safe because of this looming risk of the kiln, but does playing it safe promote healthy living pots?

[OK, now I've done it. Which rabbit hole should I take?]

Let me reel (real?) myself in just a bit. Which risks do I decide to take, which sleeping dogs do I let lie? We can't always work at the edge. We can't always run at full clip. Pace is everything. Change is slow, Just ask Carl Sagan. But when we, as potters, are ready for change, we make it happen, perhaps prompted by a kind of boredom, perhaps triggered by our sub conscience.

So I guess I was ready to insert the wrench into the way I make my swirl ware. It wasn't something I put on my to do list that night. It was something that happened spontaneously. Maybe this emerged from the noise of the day, from the "urgency" of the day, or maybe from the desire to see something different.

This new "twist" on my technique was kind of thrilling. In this small way I am changed and I am motivated, jazzed, pumped up! The hexagonal wheel makes a light bump and down the road we go. It's an exciting thing when this happens in the shop. As potters, it is our challenge to make this happen, over and over again. Give life to the pots. Give our life to the pots. No pressure, as my friend Scott would say!

When we talk about giving life to our pots, what do we mean? When we talk about pots having something special, what do we mean? I guess we mean that something from our soul has somehow been transferred to the clay. Something that can't be written, something like a quality without a name. Maybe it's simply an excitement we feel when we are making . Maybe it's a kind of joy we are experiencing?

Hey, come on, it's just clay, right?

Conference 2014

Michael Kline

l-r, Martha Grover, Ronan Peterson, and Jake Johnson at the 2012 NCPC (photo: Pincu Pottery)

I hope everyone had a wonderful start to the New Year and shares my excitement for what's ahead!

It will be a busy Spring for me as I will be on a panel at this year's NCECA conference in Milwaukee and I will also be going to the NC Potter's Conference!

It's always great to reconnect and network at these events, but especially great to get charged up by seeing OTHER people make their work. My bro-in-clay, Mark Shapiro will be demonstrating at this year's NC Pottery Conference along with Michelle Erickson, and John Gill! I'll also get to hang out with my cousins in clay and my other bros in clay, KC and RP! At $225 (which includes Lunch and Dinner on Friday & Saturday, and Lunch on Sunday) conference is a no brainer for this potter!

So, I hope to see you at one or both of these get togethers! Let's conference!

Thanks for reading.

Coffee Break vol. 33

Michael Kline

A person in my position as maker in chief has no business sitting down to write about pottery. He needs to be strapped to the wheel making pots. With just a few more days to make pots for an upcoming firing, writing a blog post is the last thing I should be doing. But I need a break this evening and I have been promising this post all day in my other channels of social media.

The other thing I should not be doing for this coffee break entry is writing about an empty cup of coffee. Normally I take an actual real time break with a particular cup of joe. Sipping while writing is how thoughts flow best. But here I sit at 10:30 at night trying to summon some distant memory of a break I took earlier in the day, amongst the sunshine, the table of pots covered in plastic or the sheen of being just thrown. The coffee was fresh and hot. The pottery is at its peak when the coffee is just made. The handle is warm, not hot, like the side of the cup that isn't quite ready to be "cupped" in one's hands. Held comfortably at a distance, the cup is coy with its cargo of hot.

Moments later the drink is drunk and cup is retired and work continues. But only after a few pics are snapped. That is the way of the potter blogger. One foot is inside the moment, while another steps back to grab the camera to record it. At the core of my blogging experience is this dance between the making and the recording of the process.

Now the sharing of it.

Mark and I in the Smoky Mtns this past September
The cup is by my brother in clay, Mark Shapiro. In a masterful way the cup is a paradox of stoneware density and it's soft touch. The rise of the cup undulates with a continuous spiral of a deep throwing groove. The salt glaze varies from smooth sheen to a sugary melting with fly ash from its wood fired origins. The unreadable faux script covers the pot in a message in some unknown pattern language. Some of the marks almost look like letters or numbers, Misspellings? Codes? The marks are as varied as the salt glazed wood fired surface.

Evidence that the pot was once stuck to a wheel head and cut with a wire graces the bottom of the pot in parallel lines where wire was pulled straight beneath it and the salt and fly ash have fused themselves ever so subtlety.

The unusually narrow handle has the robust of a handle made out of iron, instead of clay. Sometimes it's more about the confidence and the attitude of the maker than the physical attributes of the material. My thumb fits nicely at the topside of the handle, while my truncated index finger points comfortably at the center of the cup, middle finger loops inside, and ring finger supports outside and underneath the handle.

The fine vertical lines on the cups sides are a result of brushing the freshly applied slip and might foreshadow the lines one might find after emptying the cup and seeking out a view of the bottom and its fine parallel lines left by the wire tool.

Well, this is what I have learned of this pot so far. I have had dozens of cups of coffee since stealing it from Mark at this past summer's Cousins in Clay Sale where Mark and my other brother in clay, Sam Taylor were my guests. (along with my Seagrove cousins, Bruce and Samantha) and barring its premature Waterloo, many mouths will drink from it for years to come.

Now it's back to the wheel. Somehow I'm sure this cup's qualities will creep out of my subconscious onto my own pots. That's how it all works in this inheritance of pot making. That's why you should also be careful which pots you steal, literally or visually.


Michael Kline

the cousins in clay: mark shapiro, samantha henneke, michael kline, bruce gholson, sam taylor
it's an early morning for this night owl, but there's lots to do today. the studio is overflowing with pots from XLIII and they await judgment of the pricing kind. this is a most difficult moment for me as a potter. sure, i have my standard pricing structure, but it doesn't account for the slightly unusual, the rare beauty. my daughters have picked out their one pot allotted to them from each firing.

maybe this process of grading should be done by some outside agency, really. price waterhouse? my mind is lost in the fog of expectation, or what my ceramic mind's eye saw as i glazed the pots and placed them in the kiln. lost in a fog of hope and desire.

but their true nature is better judged and appreciated by those other than their maker. (for now) without expectation, instead anticipation, the pots can shine in the eyes of their beholder.  like some sort of serendipity, customers will be excited when they discover them this weekend. just as a potter hopes while waiting for the kiln to cool, he hopes that the pots will be well received. that they will find good homes and be used there.

he also hopes that you are near enough, this weekend, to come to a row of massive oak trees along a mountain ridge just a short walk from the shop and kiln where these new pots will be. in the shade along side many other kindred pots that have come as far as seagrove, nc and as far as western massachusetts, all with the same hope of finding a place in your home.

Funny Numbers and Fresh Clay

Michael Kline

I'm a bit behind reporting on the happenings leading up to the next firing and the Cousins in Clay reunion, but here goes in a matter of a few photos!

I was happy and a bit overwhelmed to have two helpers yesterday, my intern Adam MacKay and his partner Molly Belada. Molly and Adam are undergrad ceramics majors at App State, in Boone. Adam has been helping me every week and Molly has been helping my neighbor, Courtney. After some number crunching and clay body calc, we set up the mixing area where I proceeded to find not one, but two wasp nests in two open bags of clay. Ouch. After some thorough paranoia and nest removal M and A mixed up enough of the fireclay mix that will be added to my red dirt in a week or so (I hope!)

The girls came up with a friend to make some pots (read: show off their pottery skills to their friend) but their wheel was covered with reclaim clay, so I set up my Shimpo banding wheel and hand turned it for them. It was just the thing and soon they were off to the woods to do some exploring and I was back to work.

I'm managing to get some nice pots made in and around carrying out final plans for next months Cousins in Clay Show. There's a lot to do but I'm so looking forward to seeing my old buds, Mark Shapiro and Sam Taylor, and all the pots they will be bringing. Check out our Facebook page to find out more.

OK, time for some lunch, then more pottery this afternoon.

Princess Grae and Queen Anne

Michael Kline

I'm yawning as I try to remember some of the thoughtful thoughts I had during my day. It was a great day, but it's late and I'm fading. [no nap] Courtney and Grae stopped in today and 1 y.o. Grae thought she would help an old guy out and wedge some clay.  Her ambition is amazing! My kids just ignore me when I ask them to do anything. ;-(

I went back to my old way of stacking sections and it was just fine. I have been using the more traditional capping technique for a while now, but I wanted to get a more ovoid shape. With capping I tend to get a taller shape, not as round. I was pleased with the shapes!  I'll put collars on top of these tomorrow to finish the necks.

On my walk home this evening I took some pictures of the Queen Anne's Lace in the field. Seems to be a bumper crop this year. Maybe it's on some kind of super productive cycle this year?! I love the lines of the drooping blossoms and the delicacy of the leaves and flowers. But in the coming days I will have to cut it all down as I prepare the grounds for next month's Cousins in Clay!! Mark and Sam are coming down from MA and Bruce and Sam(antha) are coming over from Seagrove. I'm totally consumed with planning, but it's all coming together and it should be a blast.

Just have to few pots before then!


Michael Kline

Here's the thing.

It's been non-stop since NCECA.

It's been Karen Karnes week here at Penland and in Asheville.

All very exciting stuff happening, no doubt. If I were some sort of pottery news outlet, I might have a bunch of folks editing and putting together all of the videos from all of this. I'd have a bunch of writers meeting deadlines and getting stuff up on the blog, but unfortunately it's just me, despite my sarcastic mentions of my youTube crew, my staff, etc. Then throw in the emergence of the video of the Michael Simon talk in Minneapolis last month has had me enthralled and my hopes to share it with you. Do you hear the sound of metal crunching and tires screeching yet?

So what about all of the shows I'm getting ready for? Well, the Crimson Laurel Show is coming right up and the stoneware pots are finished and will be delivered on Monday. The porcelain part of the show is in process and I will post some pictures later today or Sunday. The Potters of the Roan show in Raleigh are being delivered in a week or so, the piece I'm donating to the annual Penland School auction and the NC Pottery Center Auction are due May 1, I'm firing my wood kiln again in early May, my kiln opening is happening in mid May, then there is Cousins in Clay in late May!

Holy Toledo!

Well, pots are getting made, not by potter/hacks or hired hands, but by me.

All this just to say that the breaking point of any pottery blog is that place where dirty hands and keyboards collide. It's not a crashing, screeching kind of sound, though. On the internet it's no sound at all. It's just that same post from a couple of days/weeks ago that stares back at you when you come 'round looking for the latest post. But I'm up in the shop clocked in at my other job. The money job, the one that sometimes pays a few bills. The vocation that I feel closest to, the occupation without which this blog wouldn't exist. (oh if only I were more witty, or entertaining, or whatever)

So in the coming weeks, hopes of getting all the NCECA stuff out there, and all the blog stuff in here, and all the pots out there may compete for my time. Until g00gle checks start pouring in or sows fly overhead dropping cash from their ears, this here blog is on scholarship, and the pottery shop is footing the bill!

Tampa Bound!

Michael Kline

Hopefully these shoes were made for walking, because I'm going to be doing a lot of it in Tampa this week at the annual NCECA conference! I'm heading down there tomorrow and in planning for the work, realized I needed something to carry around all of my gear so that i could do the mobile blogging thing. Wooo Hoo!

Sawdust & Dirt will be the premier pottery blog covering the event with official press credentials. I'll be joined by Simon Levin and Mark Shapiro to cover the conference and hopefully we can get words and pictures up to the web for those of you who can't be there. I'm not sure if I'll look like a typical media guy with this backpack, but I figured the red color would be easy to locate if I wander away from it. I may be a little hampered by not having a laptop, or a smartphone, and I'm sure I'll be scoffed at by ceramics students with all of their up to date gadgetry. But I have my ways of using the tools at hand.

So I'll be tweeting from @klineola and Mark, Simon, and myself will be sending up blog posts here in the coming days, so I hope that you will be able to come along.

If you know of any online NCECA stuff you would like me to post please send those to me. As I find out about content that you can access from your device I will post that also.

OK, now to fill up that backpack with batteries, chargers, camera.....Am I forgetting something?

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.]


Michael Kline

I have two good friends named Mark, both whom make enviable pots. One of the Marks has a show at the Ogden Museum that opened last week. And the other Mark is coming to Asheville and Black Mountain soon to open the Karen Karnes show at the Asheville Art Museum.
I had a chuckle when I read the former Mark's statement from the Ogden Museum web site, and I wanted to share it with you. (maybe you'll chuckle, too!)
About his pots, Hewitt says, " they break new ground while tipping their caps to the great jugs and jars from the potent pottery tradition of the South; and, while delightfully big-assed, they are also profoundly big-hearted."

A Chosen Path

Michael Kline

Mark Shapiro is a potter, workshop leader, occasional curator, and now editor! from Worthington, MA. Mark Shapiro has made wood fired functional pots in Western Massachusetts for the past twenty years. Mark's pots can be seen in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Racine Art Museum, the Mint Museum (NC), the International Museum of Ceramics at Alfred,NY, and the Currier Museum (NH). Mark can also be reached at

I have recently edited the book A Chosen Path: the Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes published by University of North Carolina Press. Over her long career, Karen Karnes has created some of the most iconic pottery of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The body of work she has produced in her more than sixty years in the studio is remarkable for its depth, personal voice, and consistent innovation. Many of her pieces defy category, invoking body and landscape, pottery and sculpture, male and female, hand and eye.

Equally compelling are Karnes’s experiences in some of the most significant cultural settings of her generation: from the worker-owned cooperative housing of her childhood, to Brooklyn College under modernist Serge Chermayeff, to North Carolina’s avant-garde Black Mountain College, to the Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, New York, which Karnes helped establish as an experiment in integrating art, life, family, and community. After twenty-five years of communal living, Karnes moved to rural Vermont with partner Ann Stannard and began making some of the most complex work of her career.

Karen’s life and work illuminate both the golden age of the American craft movement and the ethical, aesthetic, and living choices that all craftspeople face today.

Editor's note: Here are some reviews so far,


"Filled with high-quality images spanning 60 years of [Karnes's] work. After reading the book, you will understand why she is commonly referred to as the 'grandmother of American ceramics.'"

"There are too few books that treat pottery as seriously as other art forms; too few that pay sufficient tribute to the achievements of women artists; and too few that situate great art within a rich biographical context. This finely textured book does all three, providing in-depth analysis not only of Karnes's pots and sculpture, but also of the life of the fascinating person who made them."
--Glenn Adamson, Deputy Head of Research and Head of Graduate Studies, Victoria and Albert Museum

"Mark Shapiro has assembled a stellar cast of essayists to explore the intriguing life and work of potter Karen Karnes. They write with a grace, clarity, and reverence befitting this maker of sublime yet curiously humble clay masterpieces."
--Mark Hewitt, potter and co-author of The Potters Eye: Art and Tradition in North Carolina Pottery

"A great book about one of the important potters of our time. Seven artists, critics, historians, and friends, followed by Karen's own observations, document her life and work. Central, analytical, and factual, it is a fascinating story of creativity and dedication. Inspiring and long overdue, it is important reading for all artists."
--Warren MacKenzie, potter

Back @cha, Shapiro (and Adamson by association)

Ellen Denker

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 Baseball Vase, 1876.

Modeled by Isaac Broome and made at Ott & Brewer's Etruria Pottery, Trenton, NJ. Shown as illustrated in Jennie Young's "The Ceramic Art" (1878). The Baseball Vase was the first piece of American clay officially classified as art.

I have been thinking about Mark Shapiro's several blogs on the NCECA meeting in Philly and especially his two-part piece on Glenn Adamson's address re: post-studio ceramics. I've read and re-read them several times, and it seems to me that something is amiss here. I understand that public addresses have to be glib summaries of critical thought and that a summary of a summary (Mark's description of Glenn's point of view) is not really the nitty-gritty of the issue - it's something more like a suggestion of what lies deeper, the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so to speak. But, here's the thing on my mind: I was surprised that we are already in a post-studio ceramics world. Were Adamson's arguments really legitimate? After all, his perspective is not that of a maker, but rather a cultural critic and big-time museum person. Did the perspective of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London really have relevance to artists working in the American idiom? When he says "post-studio" is he talking about studio artists making sculpture and/or those making objects for everyday use?

The second issue that struck me in Mark's blog of Glenn's address was that Glenn saw some artistic association with industry as the new path in the post-studio era. Arguing that schools and museums were coming on hard times financially, Adamson thinks that hooking up with industry will help artists find new markets. Considering that the current economic climate affects everyone and every institution, it might be good to also take a look at the position of ceramic manufacturers in today's world. It's dismal. Most of the great makers of the twentieth century - Lenox China, Wedgwood, Doulton, etc. etc. either own each other or are teetering on the brink of (or just emerging from) bankruptcy.

Why is this any wonder? Just look around you. How many people do you see using real ceramic objects for food service? These days most of us buy deli foods to heat up, take-out lunches and dinners, and packaged foods. And we eat out of the packages. Oh, I know there are exceptions - like me, I always decant my pre-made foods into ceramic containers to serve and eat - but we are few and far between.

Besides the economic issue, I see that working for industry is a designer's life, not an artist's. To give Adamson credit, he did cite Clare Twomey's installation "Trophy" (2006) at the V&A of birds she modeled and had produced by Wedgwood. This installation, however, was more about the relationship between museums and their visitors (visitors were encouraged to touch and take away something on exhibit at the V&A) rather than Twomey's relationship with Wedgwood.
While I pondered these issues I remembered that Tom Spleth was teaching a course on mold making during spring concentration (8 weeks) at Penland School. The use of molds has long been associated with industry, so maybe I would find some answers to my questions about Adamson's point of view. As I drove over to Penland for the meetings I had set up with Spleth and two of his students I thought about use of molds in the history of ceramics.

Song Dynasty (China, 960-1279 AD) mold for a dish with motifs
incised in the surface. Clay pressed on this mold would pick up the design.
Celadon glaze would pool in the incised patterns.

Chimu stirrup bottle and the two-part mold used to make it.
The holes on one part of the mold are where the stirrup handle will be joined to the bottle.
The Kingdom of Chimor was in the Moche Valley on the north coast
of Peru between the Pacific Ocean and the western slopes of the Andes.

Of course, as you might expect, molds are ancient - truly there is nothing new under the sun, and most of it was thought of before the Christian era. Sprig molds, press molds, drape molds, and jigger molds were used at different times and places ranging from the ancient Mediterranean to the Andes. I don't want to get started down that road. You can read about them briefly in the introductory chapter of Donald Frith's Mold Making for Ceramics (1985). For those of you who were not in Spleth's Penland class, this is a good place to start learning about molds and their uses. For our purposes I will start a little closer to our own time and place.

Diagram from George Cox "Pottery" (1914) showing the steps in creating
a plaster of paris mold from a turned plaster shape.

Molds in Industry During 1800s
In the 19th century, molds were an important part of both mass production and art in ceramics. Invented in the mid 1700s in England, molds gave rise to the most enduring aspect of the industrial revolution in ceramics - ownership by everyone. Use of molds made ceramics less expensive so that more people could own ceramic objects. Some critics would say that molds cheapened English ceramics, but that is putting a negative economic argument on ground-breaking technology, like saying that computers cheapen intellect. It's not so much a devaluation of ceramics (or intelligence), but a short cut to better living. These things are what we make of them, not inherently evil.

In the 1800s, the use of molds formed an important bridge between art and industry. English industrial ceramic manufacturers distinguished their wares in the marketplace by continuing to introduce surface decoration in less expensive forms. Transfer printed ceramics were special and expensive in the 1700s, but widespread and cheap in the 1800s. The same thing happened with objects that had surfaces elaborately ornamented with relief decoration. For example, hand-modeled figurines began to be made in press molds. Bar pitchers were made in two-part press molds that became ever more elaborate with complex iconography referencing hunting, fishing, political issues, and many other subjects. Later in the century many of these had handles shaped like rustic branches.

In the 1830s, English ceramic manufacturers experimented with new ceramic bodies that gave the appearance of fine marble in the hope of producing figural likenesses of famous sculpture, just as famous paintings were reproduced as steel engravings. The idea was that consumers would buy these smaller format replicas for use in their homes, thus introducing morality and culture to their domestic environments. A middleclass Englishman could think well of himself when surrounded by engravings of great paintings and statuettes of great sculpture. Furthermore, his children might learn something and grow up with a taste for art.

Mintons, Copeland & Garrett, Wedgwood and other manufacturers had expert mold makers, who generally used pantographs to greatly reduce life-size sculpture to sizes suitable for a home's mantelpiece. They usually had to create numerous large and small slip-casting and pressing molds in order to make all the parts for just one figure. In addition to ancient and famous sculpture, ceramic manufacturers also engaged contemporary sculptors to create new work.

In the 1870s, the making and using of molds in American ceramics lead to the first piece of American clay that was officially classified as art (see illustration at the head of this post). The Baseball Vase, a covered vase three feet high, was made in duplicate by Ott & Brewer of Trenton, New Jersey. The two vases flanked their booth at the Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876. At the time the fair opened one of the vases was moved to the Hall of Sculpture in the Art building for display thus officially accepting a mold-made clay object produced in multiple as a work of art.

As recently as the late 1800s, molds were revered and the artists who designed them and made them were honored as well. The sculptor of the Baseball Vase, Isaac Broome, was later appointed commissioner of ceramics for the US at the Paris Exposition of 1878. For the occasion, he made a bust of Cleopatra that won new awards in Paris.

So how does something that is revered in one era fall so far out of favor in another? In this case, how did the designing, making and use of molds for the production of ceramic sculpture become so denigrated by artists in the west? Tastes change.

During the latter years of the 19th century, the American ceramics market was flooded with parian porcelain trinkets made in Scotland, which damaged the public perception of the material. Furthermore, the Aesthetic movement in home furnishings turned away from art reproductions in favor of buying artistic objects for one's home. A reporter writing in 1884 for the London Pottery Gazette complained that "one of the things aestheticism did for us was to make it vulgar to have copies in art. ...It is a mistake to imagine that art only exists in the most cultured or the most wealthy. ... Of all exclusiveness, exclusiveness in art is the most to be lamented." As the studio movement unfolded in the 20th century art copies continued to fall from favor as home decoration.

Twentieth-Century Opinions on Molds
The potter's mentor, Bernard Leach, voiced the 20th-century attitude toward molds (or rather moulds) in A Potter's Book (1940) when he argued that " is debatable whether, from the point of view of beauty, plaster is to be welcomed, not so much because of any inherent evil in the material, as of the fatal facility with which it has been used to multiply florid forms. To the studio potter plaster is of far less import, unless he happens to be a figure modeler..." In an attending footnote he added that " is easy to overlook the vast distribution by this means of plain and practical domestic crockery and sanitary ware, which, although seldom beautiful, has nevertheless brought a large measure of physical refinement to millions of homes." In the end Leach stated emphatically that "Plaster of Paris is to the factory what the wheel used to be to the potter's workshop."

Susan Peterson echoed Leach's pronouncements in her The Craft & Art of Clay (1992): "European ceramics became increasingly mechanized, with cheap duplication by molds. Industrial factory organization meant that a series of workers performed separate, repeated functions; a single artisan did not create a piece from start to finish." She doesn't mention parian porcelain statuary anywhere in this book.

Tom Spleth Uses Molds for His Art
The use of molds in ceramic art remained out of fashion throughout the 20th century. When Tom Spleth set up his own studio about 1970 in Alfred, NY, nobody worked in molds. He started using them, however, because he didn't like the domination of radial symmetry that came from depending on the potter's wheel to make work. He taught himself how to work with plaster largely from tech sheets put out by plaster suppliers. When he started he was aware of the stigma of mold-made things and solved this in his own mind by not making models. Instead he cast plaster in blocks and cut the form out of the center of them, sculpting a void. As he worked with plaster he learned to love molds more and saw the material in new ways unconnected to their industrial past. On the few occasions when he has had a classroom full of students he has learned even more from their enthusiastic embrace of the medium.

Bowl made by Tom Spleth about 1973 while working in Alfred, New York.
He carved the shape from a solid block of plaster creating a void.

a side view of Tom Spleth's bowl.

The Penland Class on Mold-Making
The Penland concentration students to whom I spoke - Veva Edelson and Kelly O'Briant - confirmed the positive nature of Spleth's class. Both told me that they had taken the class in the hope of learning some ways to streamline their making process, but came away with renewed respect for plaster and its ability to stimulate the creative process. Since both of these women are working in the trenches, so to speak, as studio artists, they were good informants for my inquiry.

Veva pointed out that if this is a post-studio era as claimed by Adamson it was defined in her work by an inability to make cost-effective objects. She wants to be making ceramic art, but has found that her methods are not sustainable. In order for her to expand to new markets she needs to be able to streamline some processes while retaining complete control of each object. The making of molds has helped her achieve this goal, but has also transformed her objects into something that is "more crafted." Veva says she now sees that making the mold is a skill in itself, a way of creating sculpture. In addition, she was not expecting to be stimulated by the possibilities inherent in manipulating the mold after its making, but found that the use of molds had opened new ways of thinking about her work. She likes to spend time making objects (the object then becomes a witness to unfolding time and helps the viewer engage in that experience). The use of molds has not changed this relationship to object making. Rather, they have enhanced the experience for her.

Kelly was surprised to learn that we have entered the post-studio era: "I've just kept right on working." The life-style, she said, suits her. As a young artist she is still developing a market and exploring various marketing methods, using the Internet "a lot" and marketing with other potters as a way to show buyers that "hand-made" comes in many forms. Kelly had taken a mold-making class from Spleth when she was a Penland Core student, but that class was two weeks long, only enough time to get interested in the process, but not long enough to learn it. Thus, she was drawn to the eight-week time frame from previous experience. Like Veva, Kelly was interested in introducing the use of molds to her studio practice as a way of reducing cost on repeated forms. But she quickly learned that the mold-making process is not a time saver. Rather, she became interested in using the method as a way of editioning her work, exploring different surfaces on the same form; or making higher end work in small quantities, encouraging buyers to follow her progress. Kelly thinks that her biggest struggle as a studio artist is finding new directions in her work. Change has been a "glacially slow" process for her. But the use of molds creates possibilities for trying out new ideas. She also discovered that making models in plaster is a more intimate way to create form.

After speaking with these two artists I felt certain I would find that the other students had been similarly stimulated by learning to use molds and exploring their potential. I complemented Spleth for the enthusiasm he had instilled in his charges. He said they had stimulated him to see new possibilities in his own work.

The Take-Away Message
What had I learned from this investigation? Studio work in clay remains vital despite having entered an era that makes it sound dead*. And although molds were a game changer in 18th-century ceramic manufacturing, their use in contemporary hands is going in directions that manufacturers would not recognize. In other words, the use of industrial methods does not necessarily result in industrial products, unless that's what you want them to be.

*Spleth subsequently sent a note reminding me that painting was declared "dead" in the 1960s, but few painters noticed. They just kept right on painting. "Painting is such a marvelous human invention," wrote Tom, "that it is always renewed--it is a basic manifestation of intelligence. Studio practice is much the same. Something happens in a studio that is so essential to thought that studio practice will never disappear."

NCECA Report: Glenn Adamson, Part II

Michael Kline

[ed. note-- this a continuation of Mark's coverage of and reaction to Glenn Adamson's lecture at NCECA "...And into the Fire: Post-studio Ceramics", originally published in Sawdust & Dirt on 4th April 2010]

II. A Quintessence of Dust, Eating from Tubing, and Tiny Shoots of Hope

That we are at the end of something is undeniable. It is reflected in the decline of domestic Western ceramics industries just as it is in the decline of studio pottery and ceramics programs generally. Capitulation to, or appropriation of, the strategies of Big Art will always be the arc to which ceramics will have to bend to justify its place within academic art departments and art museums where, however ennobled by theory, it will in the best case still be tainted by the valueless dirt under its fingernails. Academic and museum ceramics exist in a precariously funded environment of shrinking budgets where everything—especially culture—is being put to the sword. Everything, that is, except for the sword-makers workshops, they being indispensable to the unstoppable expanding military and national security complex. No doubt the recent economic collapse has put the squeeze on us all (I know a couple of recent PhDs in micro-electrical engineering who can't find jobs). While studio pottery may be an increasingly small dot on the increasingly small map of non-pop culture, it claims a space within the growing slow-culture critique of late-day capitalism. The buy-local, artisanal, unhurried foodies are interested in connection/specificity/place/ethical production/haptic experience in the face of an increasingly unsustainable and devitalized world order. They bring together concerns around health, ethics, aesthetics, sustainability, and community. They are buying pots at studio tours, home shows, and (Glenn Adamson did allow for the internet's yet-to-be determined dynamic influence) web-based sales directly from the potters themselves, though that doesn't mean it's easy when nobody except the super-rich seem to have any dough. The international movement that announced itself in Seattle in 1999 was a manifestation of a more general reconsideration of the unpaid costs of global capitalism. That rejection runs the spectrum from DIY through backyard gardening, to the hand-couched loaves at upscale farmer's markets, and yes, knowing who, how, and where both your coffee and its cup was made. Any incipient doubts about free-market capitalism’s future were vindicated by the market crash of last year. While we potters are economically minuscule players, we are part of something enduring, radical, and important that begins in its small way to address an alternative vision of a viable future. We are not sentimental dreamers, but contemporary interpreters of ancient continuities that are more relevant now than perhaps ever before. Until we eat and drink from tubing, pots will have a future. As the center becomes more and more aridly self-referential—a sterile promontory—the margins offer tiny shoots of hope.

Mark Shapiro is a potter, workshop leader, and occasional curator from Worthington, MA. Mark is reporting from the 2010 NCECA conference in Philadelphia and will join the Sawdust & Dirt bloggers thereafter.
Mark Shapiro has made wood fired functional pots in Western Massachusetts for the past twenty years. He is a frequent workshop leader and panelist. Mark's pots can be seen in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Racine Art Museum, the Mint Museum (NC), the International Museum of Ceramics at Alfred,NY, and the Currier Museum (NH).
Mark can be reached at

NCECA Report: Glenn Adamson, Part I

Michael Kline

I. Alas Poor Cup, I Knew You Well

Glenn Adamson's "...And into the Fire: Post-studio Ceramics" stood out among the general hum and drum of good-enough thinking and speaking at the panels and lectures that I caught at NCECA. This was anticipated; after all it was the "distinguished" lecture. Agree or disagree with his thesis, his performance at the podium upholds—well, maybe in our field it's more a case of creates—a very high standard of discourse. (Jody Clowes was another exceptional presenter. I’m sure there were more—I could only make it to so many panels.) Adamson spoke his speech trippingly on his tongue, with a temperance that did give it smoothness. His argument as I understood it, that the increasing vulnerability and precariousness of the practice of studio-based craft—that's us potters—and the decline of the studio as a sacrosanct space, is a given. The way forward lies in "distributed authorship" a kind of partnering between studio, factory, with a good measure of reappropriation of artifacts thrown in. He points out that craft has always been present on the factory floor (skilled workers cast, glazed, and fired the Great Urinal that Monsieur Mutt signed). He cites John Roberts's—not the guy who recently enshrined the corporation's own First Amendment protection, though given the abstruseness of the logic, could be—idea of a dynamic triangle of "skill" (we know what this is) /"deskilling" (selecting objects)/"re-skilling"(re-engaging those objects in an artwork); any skilled labor can be claimed and re-contextualized into practice—and therein lies a craft. We are left with either the "China syndrome" wherein anything at all can be made cheaply with amazing skill (by people whose working conditions are what?who live how? and are paid how much?) to the specs of our pay-as-go and ship-it-out whims. Alternatively, there are "disappearing acts," studio-based use of non-studio based techniques (sandblasting grandma's china for example), a dystopia of reskilling: subtracting, curating, editing down; the physical and cultural abrading of reappropriated objects. A heap of shards from a doomed pottery industry is piled against a wall in a museum. Clare Twomey's bluebirds for-the-taking are strewn about the gallery floors of the V&A, her swan song in blue to the end of a good run for clay in the Western world, perhaps the one really moving—rather than simply interesting—image shown.

Adamson’s closing remark that monuments to death are some of the most powerful artworks seemed grimly nuanced: Alas poor cup (produced by factory or studio domestically), I knew you well. R.I.P.

[ed. note-- to be continued on Monday, Part II. A Quintessence of Dust, Eating from Tubing, and Tiny Shoots of Hope]

Mark Shapiro is a potter, workshop leader, and occasional curator from Worthington, MA. Mark is reporting from the 2010 NCECA conference in Philadelphia and will join the Sawdust & Dirt bloggers thereafter.
Mark Shapiro has made wood fired functional pots in Western Massachusetts for the past twenty years. He is a frequent workshop leader and panelist. Mark's pots can be seen in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Racine Art Museum, the Mint Museum (NC), the International Museum of Ceramics at Alfred,NY, and the Currier Museum (NH).
Mark can also be reached at

Key Texts: They're the Bomb

Michael Kline

Ezra Shales presided over a look at the critical discourse in ceramics. He asked Garth Clark, Jenni Sorkin, and Glenn Brown to talk about their picks of key texts in 20th-century criticism. There seems to be a lot of talk (maybe here specifically in advance of NCECA's planned Critical Santa Fe conference planned of this fall) about the absence, need, etc. for a discourse of one's own, to rise up and, as per Ezra's first slide: "Stop wallowing in cultural amnesia, solipsistic rants, medium-based inferiority and love the bomb"

I'm not sure the bomb had as much bang as we'd all have liked.

Garth's paper, carefully read by Ezra--Garth is sadly attending to a medical emergency and could not attend--was a billet-doux to Philip Rawson's Ceramics that evoked the rich language--"kinetic traces", "silhouette", "linear articulation", and those great black on white taxonomic charts of shapes, lip and foot designs. Jenni Sorkin, a PhD candidate at Yale, talked about MC Richard's Centering (1964), in print for almost 50 years. While considered as irrelevant by today's ceramic students, Sorkin drew some provocative parallels between Marshall McCluhan work on media and MC, and argued for MC's relevance as a model for "thinking through" (I might say continuously evolving and reflecting on that evolution) as a creative project). Glen Brown chose Rose Slivka's well known 1961 article in Craft Horizons "The New Ceramic Presence" that identified Voulkos & co's abstract expressionism. I had the impression that Glen somehow believes that if Slivka had just carried the clay ball all the way into the end zone of real art eschewing her more inclusive footnote about the value of the old ceramic presence we'd all be driving better cars now. For me the notion that one writer's characterization (in Craft Horizon no less) could be so determining seems a stretch.

Next: Glen Adamson: Studio Ceramics, R.I.P????

Mark Shapiro is a potter, workshop leader, and occasional curator from Worthington, MA. Mark is reporting from the 2010 NCECA conference in Philadelphia this week and will join the Sawdust & Dirt bloggers thereafter. Mark Shapiro has made wood fired functional pots in Western Massachusetts for the past twenty years. He is a frequent workshop leader and panelist. Mark's pots can be seen in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Racine Art Museum, the Mint Museum (NC), the International Mueseum of Ceramics at Alfred,NY, and the Currier Museum (NH).

A Parochial Mess? The End of Somethng??

Michael Kline

Paul Greenhalgh, interviewed by Walter Ostrom in the June 2005 issue of Studio Potter1, offered this withering critique of NCECA:
The North American scene is huge, and so we will always be able to find great artists. Taken as a giant single thing, however, it is in a bit of a parochial mess. American ceramics has forgotten about the rest of the world. The endless miles of post-funk, post-modern, post-George Segal, post-Zen, post-sincere, over-ornate, neo-neo-Rococo, under-intellectualized (and for the most part under-skilled) rubbish is truly depressing. It all feels the the end of something rather than the beginning of something.And rarely does one ever hear interesting discussion of what is happening in Europe, in China, in Brazil or in India. It has become and assumption that there is nowhere outside the States...

Greenhalgh goes on from there and believe me it doesn't get any prettier.

Today, the panels and lectures start. I did notice a panel on whether British ceramics education can survive--that seems at the top of everyone's list of international concerns--and now that there are so many universities with partner programs in China (since they own the US anyway), there are a few presentations on China. I will hope that Greenhalgh's take proves uncharitable and that this event is evolving toward a broader and more rigorous program.

More to come.

1. (The Studio Potter, vol.33 #2, June 2005)

Mark Shapiro is a potter, workshop leader, and occasional curator from Worthington, MA. Mark is reporting from the 2010 NCECA conference in Philadelphia this week and will join the Sawdust & Dirt bloggers thereafter. Mark Shapiro has made wood fired functional pots in Western Massachusetts for the past twenty years. He is a frequent workshop leader and panelist. Mark's pots can be seen in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Racine Art Museum, the Mint Museum (NC), the International Muesun of Ceramics at Alfred,NY, and the Currier Museum (NH).

They Blew In On A Noreaster

Michael Kline

High winds and sheets of rain blew them into the Philadelphia convention center. Carharts and Keens, slightly scruffy, generally caucasian and road-weary, (someone delivered David Eichelberger's pots from Lincoln driving 24hrs straight), the potters seemed uncannily set into the relief in the lobby of the Marriot where a contingent of very sharply dressed African-American church officials was also based. With the sun reemerging the next few days will tell whether the NCECains will find what they are seeking.

Mark Shapiro is a potter, workshop leader, and occasional curator from Worthington, MA. Mark is reporting from the 2010 NCECA conference in Philadelphia this week and will join the Sawdust & Dirt bloggers thereafter. Mark Shapiro has made wood fired functional pots in Western Massachusetts for the past twenty years. He is a frequent workshop leader and panelist. Mark's pots can be seen in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Racine Art Museum, the Mint Museum (NC), the International Muesun of Ceramics at Alfred,NY, and the Currier Museum (NH).

Name Dropping

Michael Kline


After publishing the previous post, I realized that I forgot to mention that Matt K is in a show at RedLodge Gallery with Brad Schwieger, Matt Long, David Hiltner, Jason Hess, James Brashear, Ted Adler, Dean Adams, and our wood-kiln-map guy, Simon Levin! After all, what would this blog be without mention of Simon!? The show is called INFERNO! Here are some other pots from the show.




Speaking of whom, Simon will be joining the Sawdust & Dirt columnists later this month, along with Mark Shapiro, Ayumi Horie, Don Pilcher, and Sam Taylor. More on this exciting news later.