Martha B. Vida
Founding Director, The Marks Project, and collector of American studio ceramics
Conducted by Anna Mikaela Ekstrand on April 17, 2016 at Bard Hall, New York, New York
In this interview, Vida describes her longstanding engagement with American studio ceramics. She explains her motivations as a collector, such as her interest in artistic process, and discusses her personal collection, including works by Gillian Lowndes, Ian Auld, Mary Roehm, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Julius Forzano, Louise Hindsgavl, James Haggerty, and Richard W. James. She discusses the history of The Marks Project and her role as founder and director, including her perspectives on documentation, information sharing, and institution building. She also shares her advice to artists, and reflects upon the state and future of American studio ceramics.
Interview duration: 2 hours and 3 mins.
Anna Mikaela Ekstrand (AME): Let’s begin by talking about your collection and what it is to be a collector. So, you told me that your father was an avid collector and that you yourself began collecting at a young age. Do you think that collecting is a learned behavior?
Martha B. Vida (MV): I was thinking about that question. I think it’s not necessarily a learned behavior, but it’s a transmittable enthusiasm. My father collected New England furniture, very good New England furniture, and also had a passion for Sandwich Glass and chairs. No couches, only chairs, we had a very vertical life. [laughs.] We really did not have a comfortable thing to sit on until I was in junior high school.
AME: Straight backs! [both laugh.]
MV: I learned to look at things at a very early age. I learned from my grandmother to turn every teacup or tea bowl upside down; to look at the foot rim and see how the glaze gathered against the inner foot rim. And to identify where it might have been made. A certain pale blue clear glaze gather was, I believe Wales if I remember. You know, we just went through this every time I was in her antique room. I am sure this early experience is why to this day I turn objects over to look at the foot rim and mark.
AME: Where did your family live?
MV: We lived in a small town in Rhode Island and the antique room was what was left of my grandparent’s antique shop. That is where we always had these conversations. With my father the enthusiasm came from getting up early in the morning and driving to country auctions up in New Hampshire and Vermont to preview the day’s sale. We would look at the furniture and my father would turn things over examine, whisper or point, very hush-hush, then on the way home would tell me why he did or didn’t bid on a piece. At one of these auctions in a little farmhouse, I bought a Cantagalli head of a Venetian man, very much in the Della Robbia style, that we showed to Nicolaus Boston at the Connecticut Ceramics Circle’s recent seminar. He was the first of everyone I had showed it to—except one—who understood not only that it was Cantagalli, but also where it fit. That it was actually an interesting transitional piece.
AME: Representing a shift in styles?
MV: Yes, the transition from Renaissance reform majolica to the majolica of Mintons, et cetera. Anyway, I bought that at an auction with my father where the piece was put up as an object of ridicule by the auctioneer to get the audience laughing. While everybody was laughing I think we had it for twelve dollars at the most, it was a lot. [laughs.]
AME: How old were you?
MV: I was probably eleven. My father would just say, “Well, she’s got an eye! An artistic eye.” I think you can certainly inherit enthusiasm from a collector. I didn’t inherit from a series collector. I didn’t grow up with a passion for completing a series with every coin or every form of pedestal on a certain glass pattern. I grew up with somebody who looked at objects and if they met his criteria for not being what he would call a "monkey;" where the top didn’t go with the bottom or where somebody had replaced a drawer, or in other ways was fooled with. He liked to buy things that were really clean and original.
AME: Listening to what you were interested in with your father’s collecting and the conversations you had with your grandmother in their antique room it sounds like you at a young age were interested in identification, categorizing, and understanding larger narratives. It sounds like you have an analytical brain.
MV: The older I get the more I agree with that observation.
AME: Do you see yourself as a creative person? I am thinking about your schooling—
MV: —as an interior designer, a book designer, a graphic designer before that, and a painter before that. I see myself not necessarily as a creator anymore but as creative. It is different.
AME: How is it different?
Vitrine in breakfast room at Martha B. Vida’s Connecticut residence showcasing work by Gillian Lowndes, Mary Roehm, and Ian Auld.
AME: Which relates more to being creative than being a creator.
MV: Yes, I could simply have had the Gillian Lowndes as it was shown with the extension laying on the shelf next to it. And, I could have had only teapots on one shelf. Of which the Mary Roehm was one of several. I think when you have training as a designer, you tend to design. Space and objects in space are certainly design.
AME: I think this idea of linking objects speaks to how Catherine Whalen looks at collecting as cultural production.
MV: You know, I would change that word. Because I think that collecting is more cultural documentation than cultural production. The objects are already there. I think it was Michael Monroe [Curator Emeritus of the Renwick Gallery] who was the curator of the White House Collection that said something to the effect that collectors are the first editors of material, and then the second are the museums. When you look at what is happening right now with museums' acquisitions of twentieth-century ceramics, studio ceramics, it’s coming from great collections that are being disposed of. And, the museums are determining whether they will access or not, even if gifted, they are making those decisions. Which is the next level of discernment. So I think the museums definitely are deeply in the process but, I would say, of documentation and discernment more than production. Because I think it is hard to produce—well, maybe she [Catherine Whalen] is talking in reference to the final collector, the museums because they are the moderators that write the books validating certain objects and not others, are the final collectors identifying the cultural icons and in this sense involved in cultural production. I am kind of beyond that, or before that point in thinking about what the museums do because they have to access the objects first. I really have to think more about collecting as cultural production.
AME: As a collector you are amassing, you are a patron for individual makers, you are thinking about creating narratives. In turn, The Marks Project is a resource that, most probably, will be important beyond your lifetime.
AME: What do you think about collections as an entity—is it important to keep them intact?
MV: No, no. Because we all start. And, the question, what advice would you give to a potter or collector? And, for the collector, I would say talk to people that collect, local potters, ceramicists, go to fairs, exhibitions, get involved with institutions, universities, ceramics programs, clay non-profits like Penland [School of Craft], Archie Bray [Foundation for the Ceramic Arts], the Clay Arts Center.
MV: Initially buy what you like then refine what you like. This I think just happens and it’s that refinement which is why collections shouldn’t be intact. Usually in every collection there is the first object that is basically a mistake. You know, I know my first object I won’t say who it is by. In some part of the recesses of the brain, I thought I should be buying for my children and that they would actually like it, so I bought three by the same artist, which was a huge and stupid investment. Now I happen to own all three, the first one was actually good and the others were buttresses of, you know, the work that this artist did, so it more fills out what he was doing during this four or five year period but definitely I learned. [laughs.] I think that, buy what you like initially and then refine what you like and that is how you—now, a lot of major collections are done with a great deal of excellent information and human resources.
MV: You know curators and private curators, or advisors; I never went that way. I think that when you have serious collections where you really are—warehouse collections, like Forrest Merrill in California who has such a collection, but he is passionate about collecting and supporting artists who are living. He is committed to collecting the ceramic production of the state of California mostly and getting it to places where the public can see it and interact with it. That collection needs to be in a real environment where people are continually understanding and looking at the objects for his contribution in amassing it to go forward. I don’t think that it can go to just one place. You know, personally I think that type of a collection really needs some kind of a mechanism for travel for really being exposed constantly and to different populations.
AME: So dispersal—
MV: —dispersal, but more than dispersal. Dispersal in a way that it remains an active study engagement.
AME: Loan programs, study objects that can disseminate via the internet.
MV: Because it is really an incredibly dense and important collection. I don’t think any museum could actually do anything but store ninety percent. Which would be devastating to the collector. He really has collected the majors. And, also some people that aren’t yet majors. And, that is what The Marks Project does. That is what I think Forrest has done. Not editing tightly to what is considered at the moment to be the best, but using your own, I mean we don’t edit The Marks Project, but really understanding that people in the future, researchers in the future, will have. Maybe a curator goes through the stacks and finds an object that tickles that back eye and wants to find out more about this person. If the information is available, this may be a discovery of an Ohr, George Ohr, or someone who needs to be seen who has not been seen just because they were not picked up in the first round of their life by those editors and producers of, you know, the list. But yet they worked, and they worked in some clay medium, so they become important to the future and we don’t know what taste will develop. Who will be those important persons?
AME: I always think that way with contemporary art and craft that it is interesting because there are certain artists that are relevant today to comment on the society we live in and in the future there invariably will be other artists of this day that will serve as commentary on our time.
MV: Yes! I think that collections in general, unless it is in a purpose-built museum, like the Daum Museum [State Fair Community College, Sedalia, Missouri]. You literally walk through the vending machine lobby to get to it and when you go inside, it is an absolutely jaw-droppingly, well-selected—the keynote speakers of the twentieth-century studio ceramic movement and it was developed by Dr. Daum for students of all ages. The Daum has a very active education program bringing the public school children in constantly. There is [Michael] Lucero—oh gosh—[Steven] Montgomery, Arthur Gonzalez—I mean it is just one after another and it is well-spaced. You really have room to see. It is just this brilliant diamond, kind of small museum, if you come from the east coast going to the west coast there it is in the middle of the country where you find this museum community of interesting people who have produced an outstanding group of monographs on the artists. They are well-photographed, and well written and for some the only monograph I have seen. And there you have the Daum Museum, and one doctor who collected to expose children to art. In that case, that collection and that man—and his wife I would hope—have really affected the way children, who may never have that experience of seeing clay—used in this way, think. There it is, all of this wealth spread out around the country. This is why NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts] is important, each year the conference is held in a different part of the country, 2016 was Kansas City, Missouri. I never would have seen some of the work I have seen because it is by ceramic artists known mostly in this region. It is not that the work is not good, it is that the ceramists are known regionally, they are excellent. There is nothing different from what you would see in a gallery in Manhattan or in San Francisco or Chicago or anywhere else. That is why it is so important to really document the regional makers. To allow them to be searched, to be found, to be stumbled on as somebody goes through The Marks Project, and just to really give the regional makers a new way to increase their visibility.
AME: To compare and look at.
MV: And a curator who has an object can search it by name, mark or by material or construction, assemblage.
AME: I want to get back to your collection. So you were telling me that you think that craft has bloomed at the turn of each century, and you started collecting at the turn of this century, correct?
AME: I liked the way you said that. How did you get into collecting American studio ceramics?
MV: I actually started collecting—well. My husband and I had decided that I would take care of home and hearth, while he did his career, worked and travel. And about three years before he was ready to retire, I would go back and re-tune my skills and start a business related to the arts. And at the time that I met Julius, I was a book designer, a graphic designer. So I went to Parsons and I re-tuned from two-dimension to three-dimension to interior design, and started my business and completed enough projects to have a nice enough residential portfolio and a concept of operation to really push a business. When Julius retired, however, he was so well-known in his field and was such an important brain, that it was apparent I had it all wrong. [laughs.] I became his business partner, and we worked together for a long time and that really enabled me in the early 1990s to think about, if I wasn’t creating through interior design, where was this energy going to go? And I decided I would make it possible for living artists to exist by buying from them and documenting their answer to the question: Where do you begin? Or, How do you begin? That was the first thought. I found Mike Mendelson [Mendelson Gallery] in Washington Depot, Connecticut. I was buying glass, wood, and ceramics.
AME: You were buying from living makers and galleries?
MV: I had to buy through galleries. The glass I bought, I was interested in one person who was doing cast glass. It just became impossible to find her. The wood was because Mike Mendelson was a wonderful gallerist, and he loved turned wood. So I bought David Ellsworth, Ron Kent, and Ron Flemming, Rudy Osolnik. In the UK I bought Bert Marsh turner of small exotic wood vessels. When the David Ellsworth, which was a beautiful spalted maple pod, with a tiny orifice at the top, one day—you know, spalted wood is wood that has a bacteria that causes it to disintegrate so it really looks like lace wood lace. One day, I looked at my really, really magnificent piece of art, which was this David Ellsworth spalted maple pod, and the top had caved, because the spalting was still active. And that was it for wood.
AME: You were over it.
MV: [laughs.] I’m over it, I’m out of here, that’s it. Yet, the David Ellsworth, the bottom is marked, and if someone wanted a study piece to see—some museums show the bottom of objects, which I love to see—it’s a major diagnostic. Even with wood, it tells a lot about how something is made. So, if somebody wanted that piece to show a David Ellsworth underside, I would be happy to donate it, but the top of it [laughs.] has to be at a very high angle so you don’t see it.
AME: [laughs.] So that’s when you went into ceramics?
MV: That’s when I began to focus on ceramics. We were going to London frequently, several times a year. I made appointments, I first made a list of who I wanted to own and who I wanted to meet.
AME: I’m sorry, why did you choose to go to London?
MV: My husband was working with a UK company. On one trip I made an appointment with Anita Besson who was the first dedicated gallery of Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, with Tatiana Marsden, it was Barret Marsden at that time, now it’s Marsden Woo Gallery. Joanna Bird, who was an independent dealer and was just really beginning. She didn’t have a fixed space so I met her in a house. Ben Williams who was the twentieth-century ceramics specialist at Bonham’s, which used to have the first and best secondary market for twentieth-century ceramics, I think, worldwide.
AME: For studio ceramics?
MV: Studio ceramics. Ben Williams, and now I understand he was with another house and now he’s gone out as an advisor. On my first visit, I was introduced to and drank tea from a Japanese tea bowl in Joanna Bird’s kitchen. I purchased my first Lucie Rie bottle with an undulating rim from Anita Besson. I saw my first Gillian Lowndes, Gordon Baldwin and Ewen Henderson at Barret Marsden. On a later London visit, I met Anthony Shaw, who’s collection is now at the York Art Gallery [York, UK], along with the very famous Reverend Eric Milner-White collection of the early twentieth century, Alfred Bill Ishmay, who is always spoken of. These are collections that really need to be kept together along with the collection of Henry Rothschild, the founder of Primavera Gallery. I was one of the curators of the last exhibition of the Anthony Shaw Collection at 10 Billings Place [London, UK], the original home of the Anthony Shaw Collection. I became a friend of Anthony’s, and I learned to speak more slowly and to listen more with Anthony. When I asked the question of him during an interview I would learn such a fascinating relationship between collector, artist and the collective. I asked Anthony, if you had to take one object out of your burning house, what would you take? He said that, I can’t choose any of them. And then, he said, you know, if I touch an object, I’m back in the room where I first saw it. I’m in the smells of when I—everything about the space. The color of the light, the smell, where the piece was located, when I first picked it up, if I touch an object, I’m back in that moment. We did go on further and he did say he would probably pick up the Gillian Lowndes pieces. It was hard to get there. That’s really the arc of how I started collecting the twentieth century. I would find a book, uh, there used to be a wonderful bookstore in London, Foyles. Which was truly, kind of like the old Strand in New York City. It wasn’t computerized so you could actually find things. [laughs.] You know, out of the disarray, you could discover. I came home with the Eric Milner[-White] collection book and it’s explanation, which was a period that I wasn’t interested in and material that I wasn’t interested in, but I was interested in him. Anthony’s collection has ended in the same museum, the York Art Gallery, which now, if I were studying studio ceramics, I would go to York. They have the archives of these four great collections, they have the material, and with that archive, you really have the archive of the twentieth century UK studio ceramics. It’s really, really an incredibly exciting thing they, the York, has done with Anthony’s thing. Anthony believed that objects should be seen in a house setting which is why his foundation’s initial idea was to stay at 10 Billings Place to receive guests there, and to bring in curators at regular intervals who would select and people his house with ceramics from the Collection. When it went to York that was a requirement. That it has a house-like integration with other art. And it does. I think that you had mentioned a question about the recent show—
AME: At the Yale Art Museum, exactly. [The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art, curated by Sequoia Miller and Jock Reynolds.]
MV: At the Yale Art Museum, which is a wonderful way of showing ceramics integrated with the artwork, but you have to keep in mind that the other institutions have been working on this concept. The Crocker Museum has its studio ceramics collection shown in the fine art galleries. It’s an evolution in the way of thinking, and what they did at Yale, what Sequoia [Miller] did was bringing in objects from their collections, ceramic objects from their collections, to fill out a collection that they were showing, and also to juxtapose it against artwork that was contemporaneous or related in imagery. He did a very good job of curating it. It was very interesting.
AME: It was a fantastic exhibition.
MV: It was.
AME: Do you think it’s important to not show ceramics alone, or do you think it gives more context not showing them alone? I’m thinking sort of in dialogue with, like Anthony Shaw in his home—
MV: I think that it adds a dimension because, you know, makers like Cynthia Bringle and a lot of makers of functional wares, consider an object completed when it’s in use. Use is part of the process. Anita Besson told me that both Hans Coper and Lucie Rie considered their production to be for use, not shelves. Even some of the very important objects of Hans Coper are functional vases. They just have a sculptural form. I only have one Hans Coper, it’s from the period when he had just left Lucie Rie’s studio and really was working to discover his own personal voice, 1954-56 date range, it is absolutely a sketch of where he was going. The engobe application to the bottom comes up and almost a temmoku glaze drips down on it. The interior has a very quick expression, and the form is related to some of the Lucie Rie asymmetrical wave edge kind of bowls, but it’s not hers, but I can see the relationship. Looks fantastic with onions. And so it’s my onion bowl. Great mark, fantastic mark. It was passed over at an auction several years ago and I bought it actually from Ben Williams after the sale, on the advice Anthony. He said he thought it was a wonderful piece. When I did an interview with him, at lunch there was one of Hans Coper’s Cycladic figures in the center of this little round table, and he said, you know, “You only need to own one Coper.” [laughs.] “That’s enough.” But even those Cycladic figures, some of them basically can receive a flower, or, you know, some kind of—I mean, the concept of utilitarian as being negative, I think it’s really unfortunate.
AME: But is it negative?
MV: There was the reaction in the sixties and seventies; they almost developed two camps of ceramic makers. The functional vessel makers, who were predominantly throwing, slab building or coil building objects to be used for food and storage and sometimes referred to as traditional or brown ware. From this group we got makers like Val Cushing and Karen Karnes who pushed the clay and the form but, during the period, retained the function. And the concept/sculptors, who were sometimes starting with throwing, like Paul Soldner. And then forcing torn clay wedges into the vessel as if they are like flying wedge pieces, or, throwing objects from the floor that finished taller than he was. Even Voulkos’ forms are based on a volumetric form because he was a superb vessel maker, even if they’re slashed, torn and reconstructed. I wouldn’t want to have my last drop of water go into one of these to be held for when I was thirsty next, because if the definition of functional is that it can hold fluid, they’re probably not, but the form is evolved. Even his large plates, are thrown on a wheel and they are a large charger form that have then been attenuated and really moved into a different level.
AME: But his work is based in non-functional work. You mean it’s based in the non-functional, but it’s still functional.
MV: You remember when he [Voulkos] started he was considered to be a talented thrower, somebody who really knew vessel form, and then he changed, moved, worked—he did other things. He came back to this, but if you look at his columns, they have a relationship to the vessel form. He might not say so, but when I look at it that’s what I see. But the brown ware, meaning the brown pottery, was looked down on for a period, but during that period—
AME: And this was in America and the UK?
MV: In the UK we had Bernard Leach and, for a period of time, Shoji Hamada, and the idea the potter craftsman, the simplicity of digging your own clay and making wares for use and not marking the objects made. Michael Cardew, Joanna Bird was his student, and you have that return to the traditionally based decorations and vessels. This philosophy of the romanticized craft potter evolved. It also came here, and so you have makers who have never signed their work and worked in this tradition, but at the same time you have people like Val Cushing and Karen Karnes who took really functional forms and made them art. They also marked their work.
AME: They’re American.
MV: They’re American, and they made vessel forms into sculptural forms by really looking at the quality of what can clay do. Val Cushing used a limited number of forms but continually refined them. His acorn jar form is a piece of sculpture. Many of his pieces relate directly to sculptural forms, because the forms have been so refined and really beautifully so, and yet they remain stoneware, they remain turned and they remain functional—
AME: Do you think it’s interesting to look at these functional wares and the non-functional wares together?
MV: Yes. I think it’s important to understand that things don’t work in isolation. The material is the binder. Gillian Lowndes uses found objects and frequently, paper porcelain, wire, seashells, and dabs of ceramic or something. Her pieces will sit next to a Ruth Duckworth and a Lucie Rie, and everybody is happy. I thought when I bought my Duckworth that it could be next to the Rie, and it was like the clash of Titans. The juxtaposition was so wrong and so ugly, you couldn’t even leave them in the same cabinet for a minute, you had to move them.
Ruth Duckworth seldom signed her pieces, however occasionally she would carve an "R" into the foot as shown in the image below. The important identifier for her work is the five-digit number added to the piece post-firing. These numbers came into use in 1984 and contain the code for when the piece was made. In the example 19886 the last two digits indicate the piece was made in 1986. The first three identify it as the 198th piece made that year. Six or seven-digit numbers were put into use with the fourth and fifth digits indicating the month therefore 198289 would have been the 198th piece made in February, 1989. Ruth Duckworth marks, 1986. Photo and caption courtesy of The Marks Project.
MV: Because the Duckworth has a wonderful, uh, it was a period when she was doing unglazed porcelain vessel form, and with these bone forms on the top. Mine happens to have a very beautifully articulated bone form, very, very fine edge that is a kind of a keel that goes down into the vessel form, so that when, if you blow on it, it will balance on the edge and move so gently on the edge of the vessel. It is so refined.
AME: Her work is beautiful, so delicate.
MV: This [Duckworth] is a very simple, beautiful form. And the Rie is a stoneware bottle undulating rim bottle, with an oxide glaze. The ion-oxide came out in random triangular forms. The little brown triangles on this blue-grey background, understatement. Having the Rie with the Duckworth, it’s just wrong. [laughs.] I mean, aesthetically, it’s appalling. It kind of reminds you of the old Victoria and Albert [Museum], twentieth-century galleries, where they had cases that ran probably thirty-feet long and were maybe three-feet deep, and had Mary Rogers surrounded by warehoused studio ceramics, you know, everything was cluttered in.
AME: It was not curated.
MV: It was just, we got it, we’re putting it here, and it’s safe. [laughs.].
AME: Yeah, according to year.
MV: If anyone really interested in influences or relationships like, Mary Rogers was a teacher of who, or Mary Rogers was working with porcelain like—you had to run from one end of the case to the other to make any connections. It was horrendous. It was just such a disturbing experience, but I used to go back every time I was in London because it was the only place to see studio ceramics.
AME: Of course. Because that’s how you learn, by looking. But the curation itself didn’t teach you anything, because it didn’t speak—
MV: —I am sure that when the display was first done the philosophy of display was far different from today, even the mahogany, probably late nineteenth, early twentieth-century cases lining the wall spoke to a very different time. Today the galleries are beautifully done, a sea change.
AME: So you’re in the UK, that’s where you get your education, from the collectors, dealers, makers. How do you then go into American and—
MV: It was the case of living here and meeting Mike Mendelson, and starting to buy my first mistake. [laughs.] And then I was in London and I was looking and buying, and I came home and the UK was already in its second edition of their dictionary of marks, and I think it was Contemporary Crafts or one of the shops I was going to had a book of all the makers that were members, their mark, work, and biography. Anytime I picked up a UK published book on ceramics, at the back there would be an appendix with the artists listed, their mark characteristic work and some kind of biographical information. When I came back to the United States, they never showed the mark, there were books galore, you never saw the underside of anything or a detail of how a handle was attached. Anything that could be diagnostic for an unmarked piece, it didn’t exist. You would see John Mason’s red cross on a piece of ceramic, but not his mark.
AME: So you were frustrated.
MV: I was frustrated. I started buying marks books. The latest one was [Lois] Lehner in 1988, and in her preface, she discusses the studio ceramic movement. I think she estimated there were thousands, because Paul Evan’s book had listed 800, when he did it for, I think that was done in connection with the Everson. So she posited that there were thousands who were undocumented studio ceramic makers in the United States as of 1988. We are now 2016 and they haven’t stopped coming. This is really—
AME: You mentioned you were frustrated, when did your intentions for The Marks Project surface?
MV: It had been coming up, and then I realized in 2006 that I wasn’t getting any younger, and I had to set some goals for the next part of my being. I decided that things that frustrated me should be fixed. One of them was that there was no marks dictionary for American studio ceramics, and because I was a book designer, I designed the book on paper. I knew exactly how it’s going to be. Then I started doing the feasibility studies, and I started talking to curators, writers. One year, at the New York Ceramics Fair, I met Rob Hunter [editor of Ceramics in America] and Suzanne Hood [Associate Curator of Ceramics and Glass at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation]. I had already been discussing the concept of an American studio ceramic marks dictionary frequently for several years, and I was saying that I want to get it off the ground and Susan said, “it has to be a searchable database online. There’s no other way of doing it.” Rob and Suzanne said absolutely, it has to be online. So that was where the new idea started, the switch from book to online, which I knew nothing about, I use the computer for word processing. I did not have a cell phone at that time. [laughs.] 2006, most people had cell phones already, and they weren’t the big shoebox sizes. I started working on it in earnest about 2006 when we really went out for feasibility concept testing. Ulysses Grant Dietz was the one who said, use as the start date at the end of World War II, so we say A Dictionary of American Studio Ceramics, 1946-present was born. That means we include makers who could be working before 1946 but bridged into the period after. Waylande [Desantis] Gregory is listed. Victor Schreckengost is listed. People who were very important in establishing this new way of thinking. Maija Grotell who worked afterwards but who is definitely making before WWII, the Natzlers, Marguerite Wildenhain—we really were able to capture important makers who pre-dated ’46, but were here and working afterwards. Also to get the diaspora, those makers who came during that period to the United States and generally settled in clay communities somewhere or near universities or places where they could work or teach. That had a profound influence on current makers in the States.
AME: So again, you’re coming back to the idea of the regional.
MV: Regional, sure. Except in that case, with the exception of Duckworth who went to the center of the country, to Chicago, Grotell and the Natzlers went to the west coast. The clay programs then were beginning. It was the GI Bill at the end of the Second World War that was the huge impetus to building and establishing ceramic programs in universities. You mentioned in one of your questions that there were no Ivy League schools with clay programs. Well, Kathy King has a very interesting kind of clay incubator program at Harvard. That is how the Otis program began with Voulkos. Most of the clay programs that were formed in the fifties and sixties were formed because a dynamic instructor came into the faculty and a program was established. Right now, Joan Takayama-Ogawa is out at Otis, reestablishing a ceramics curriculum. She has a student population that is very highly scholarship based and a talented group of people. They need to have a job. So her program is not only looking at the concepts and the structures of learning to be a ceramist, but also the industrial applications and equipment. So if you were going to be a mold maker, you will not only know how to make the mold, but how to design a product that that’s worth being produced.
AME: And this is something new?
MV: This is new, she’s in the process now of filling this new curriculum. So I think that you have changes in curriculum, certainly digital devices are being used more than before in new ways, in conjunction with old, so that you have this assemblage kind of thing going on with a lot of makers really experimenting with how can they use printing machines with objects they have made or cast. This has been done in different ways throughout the history of working with ceramics.
AME: In terms of universities and residency programs, what are the differences between the two, how do they interact with each other?
MV: I think they’re very complementary. A good master’s degree program takes a kid who hasn’t decided exactly what he’s going to do in design, but somebody who shows that they have the ability to look at ceramic and in some way think about it. A good graduate program is taking those students and giving them a place to work and really formulate a language of their own, or to really understand what direction they want to go to. Their thesis shows really if you’re a collector, you’re looking for imagination and approach, something that says this guy actually knows how to make a concept a reality, and to what degree is going to be the degree of refinement he’s going to need at the next step. Then the residency and internship programs are absolutely fantastic. I know one fellow right now who’s resident at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York, who just came from Archie Bray where his first job was literally to throw thousands of clay mug forms. What that does, it’s kind of like the Japanese process of being with a master who has you throw tea bowls for the first year, really, really develops a zen or a craft of getting it right every time. Once you’ve got that, you can do anything. Bobby Silverman did a series of stacked bowls when he was young. Now he’s very, very, concept, two dimensional and very graphic, but those towers of bowls were fantastic. What are you going to do once you master this skill? That’s what you learn, and what you should be developing while you’re in graduate school. Just like the programs at Tanglewood for musicians or Jacob’s Pillow for dancers, before you go on the stage professionally, you need that next level of really getting into your own voice, and really, really working with materials and in environments that are animated. Also, frequently, they have teaching experience in these residency programs. Learning to do something, like to be a studio manager, to manage the firings and the kilns, to do something functional means you’re not relying on a ceramicist’s income alone to start out with, because you will be flipping hamburgers to pay for kiln time. You know this is the practical side of life. You’ve got to find a way of making it into something to make your rent. Firing clay is expensive. You have to find a community where this is possible. And that’s where the residency and graduate programs are really complimentary. For somebody who might have, for instance, in North Carolina where you have a heritage of ceramic, and you have generations of potters. Probably some of those kids would benefit from seeing other ways of handling the material, but the tools may well be in their blood. This is a generalization; there will be kids who will never throw a pot, who grow up in North Carolina. But there is such availability and a depth and wealth of basic knowledge of what trees will have a hot fire, what trees will not—
AME: The technical—
MV: I mean just, all that you absorb when you stand next to somebody who’s firing a kiln and you hear him and learn, how to do it, where to put your pots. These things, you just get. Those kids may not need the level that somebody coming from a high school who is a talented ceramist and has done a high school program with gas kilns in a controlled environment, with material and ready-made glazes.
Richard W. James, The Horn Blower, 2016. Earthenware, textile, wood, metal, found objects, 79 x 12 x 12 in. Signature underside of foot. Photo courtesy Martha B. Vida.
AME: A combination of skill and intellectual curiosity.
MV: —references, articulated as one object, which no piece of it—you have to discover it. You are looking at it and your brain is constantly trying to sort the back eye information that’s all of the things you’ve seen and studied in your life and experienced, and is trying to think about what this is you’re looking at. You can’t stop discovering. Even the clothes that James uses. He learned to sew as a boy on the farm from his mother and he learned carpentry from his father on the farm. The clothes are fantastically related to the medieval period, but the codpiece instead of coming up from the pants comes down from the jacket. It’s got so many layers—
MV: —that you look at this and you say, a graduate student did this. Okay. I want to own his work because I don’t know where he’s going.
AME: Did you buy it?
MV: Michelangelo said about concepts, this is a really crude paraphrase. It’s easy to come up with brilliant concepts but if you can’t execute it, it’s wind. When you see somebody in a graduate program after working as a carpenter and is graduating at the age of thirty-seven you see all of the threads of if he has a concept, no matter what that concept is, or if I like it or not, this guy will execute. This guy has learned the tools of a complete statement. That’s what I look for in graduate students. And at the end when I look at work I ask, can they say something? Have they developed a voice that isn’t their teacher's? The students of a good teacher don’t do the teacher’s work.
AME: No, you can see a mirror but you don’t want to see it mimic.
MV: The great thing that Voulkos did was he turned out Ken Price and Michael Frimkess, Jerry Rothman, and Jun Kaneko. When you look at the students of Voulkos, there is not another Voulkos in the group. He created an environment where everybody worked on their own voice. That’s a brilliant teacher. That’s a brilliant environment.
AME: So I’m thinking Richard W. James, what’s the trajectory of his career from now? What do you think? Will he be showing in museums soon, how are the opportunities for studio ceramicists to show in museums?
MV: That piece is going to Los Angeles to a show. I don’t know what the gallery is or who will be showing it, but when he gets back from that trip, I sincerely hope, because he does mark on the bottom of the foot of his pieces, I do hope that he documents his work and mark on The Marks Project’s website. I think he’s one that we want to see develop. He may go to something that’s very minimalist eventually, because he has so much context and so much in this piece that I could, over a career, see a simplification. I have no doubt that it will be really narrative on a level that’s unique.
Irina Zaytceva, Triton. Front, reverse, and typical mark. Porcelain. Photo by Irina Zaytceva, courtesy of The Marks Project.
MV: Irina Zaytceva.
AME: Yes. Zaytceva’s work also has the sort of grand narratives, renaissance, very figurative, just like this graduate student you’re talking about.
MV: Yes, but on a three-dimensional surface but painted in a two-dimensional fashion. Although, all of her vessels are pinch formed, and she does do a lot of reaching out from the edge of her vessels. Some of her vessels are accumulations of two or three objects that fit together. So there is a sculptural, but it basically is vessel form. Others who does that is Kurt Weiser, and Edward Eberle is another one. There are several who work with really interesting surface on vessels that they also make in some fashion. With Weiser, he pinches, he pinch pots his forms. He creates molds, and his pieces are slip cast and china-painted. His china painting can also be narrative with a somewhat distorted face on an attenuated vessel. In some cases, it’s purely botanical, but beautifully executed. So, what was your question?
AME: What does your collection look like? Do you have both figurative and non-figurative pieces and in what ratios? Are there different connotations between the two within the studio ceramics field. And, what are people making now?
MV: Well I have collected mostly vessel-based forms, although, very different treatments. So I wouldn’t say they are basically wood-fired, although I own some and I like it very much. But it is different. It sits right with everything else. I was going to bring you a piece of Julius Forzano, who’s an eighty-three-year-old potter from the Tempe, Arizona area. When I was out there this year for the ceramic study center at the University of Arizona fundraiser, I was asking people, who should be documented? Who do you consider your top regional potters. Everybody said Forazno’s name. And one other fellow Hador Hjalmarson. So I went to see Forzano and his pieces are stoneware that are heavily potted. He does sculptural pieces that are very interesting. He has his own iconography. The symbol of the male is a fish. He uses sculptural and functional forms and inscribed drawings and line art drawings, all done so well. Narrative with ships with a flaming sail, flying fish, human figures. I mean, everything has this consistency. Even the well of a bowl’s foot is painted with imagery. So you turn it over and look at the foot, and you see a boat with a navy blue sky, and a fish jumping out of the water or something. On the inside of the bowl are two people and it’s just fantastic work. That’s a functional piece of ceramic which was wheel thrown, stoneware fired, but this maker—
AME: Figurative motifs on them.
MV: Unbelievably honest and really well done. Not fussy, not going back into rework. You can see that it’s direct. This is an example of a person who is worthy of recognition, who’s only recognized by the people he knows because he has worked in one location where he’s been known. I don’t currently own a lot of sculptural pieces. I am quite space inhibited. But I do have a few, but they tend to be small in scale. The one from the graduate student is the first large scale piece, it is life-size.
AME: It’s life-size?
AME: Oh, I didn’t understand from the picture. [laughs.]
MV: It’s taller than I am.
AME: That’s amazing.
MV: And then the little two figures—
AME: So he fired it in several parts?
MV: Oh I’m sure it was fired in sections and then it was assembled with all of these other components that are non-ceramic. The wood is actually wood that’s been burnt. The fabric is actually fabric that I will have to keep away from the moths. [laughs.] Things like that. That piece is life-size.
Peregrine Honig, #Showtime, 2014, ED 3/10. 3-D print with glass cover. PH.168.3.15, signature on bottom of foot. Peregrine Honig, #Textime, 2014, ED 3/10. 3-D printed with glass cover. PH.167.3.15, signature on bottom of foot.
AME: What’s a digital piece? That she designs it—
MV: Oh, it’s all done digitally.
AME: Is it 3-D printed?
MV: I think it’s 3-D printed. I don’t know. This is what I have to find out. But these are like, three-, four-inch high complete, articulate, female figures. And she’s holding her cell phone as if she’s taking a selfie of her backside. When they’re put together, it’s really something odd, and the gallery shows the two of them under separate glass domes, on the shelf. So it’s as if the movie The Fly—oh, you’ve got to go back to your archival movies, 1950s.
AME: Classic, okay. [both laugh.]
MV: It looks like somebody captured them by, like you would capture a fly under a glass. That these two women exist, they are on the shelf, they’re not on a plinth.
AME: They’re like captured in time and space.
MV: In the dome. And so I hope to acquire the pair, because I think next to one another, they’re more interesting than individually. It explains what they are more fully, and it really is an animated conversation. Although they are mimicking one another, totally, one of them has flesh and a tattoo on her back, the other one is white porcelain. So one is right out of a sugar sculpture from the eighteenth century, or the white Meissen figures which replaced it, and the other one is absolutely twentieth century, right down to the rose tattoo.
AME: How fascinating!
MV: So, you know, that’s what you find in Kansas City.
AME: Yeah. And it’s interesting that, I’ve been doing a lot of studies into Chinese contemporary ceramics, and a lot of them are referencing—
AME: Yes, Jingdezhen. Exactly, and a lot of the artists work in blue and white, and they’re referencing the history of Chinese ceramics.
MV: Which is traditional to reference. The Ming were not knocked off, they were honored by being reproduced during later periods.
AME: Exactly. So this piece also sounds like a sort of reflection and echo, or communication with history to create the present.
MV: Now, you see this is why I like to actually talk to the artists. Because if I were a curator, that’s what I might say. But I don’t know what the intention of the artist was.
AME: What did the artist say?
MV: I haven’t met her. I’m going to ask the gallery, if they can give me contact information, because I want to know what her approach was. What she was thinking and why did she do one glazed, white ware, and the other one fully fleshed? That’s when, with your background information, you impose on someone your information stream, that may be total different than theirs. A well-known curator tells the story of having these two guests for lunch, who had produced white dinnerware in Jingdezhen with transfers of New York City garbage trucks on them. The museum had just bought a place setting and the curator was opining what a wonderful play on image and material it was to have produced the plate with a New York City garbage truck image on it, a lowly image, on the porcelain of the Chinese emperors in Jingdezhen to be sold in New York City. He said he looked over and there were the designer/producers staring back with blank faces. “Ah, it was just the cheapest place to make them.” There you have it. Where the curator or the collector can impose their background on an artist who doesn’t have that background. Who may not be thinking about that at all, and yet that’s what amuses me.
AME: I think sometimes when an artist creates a piece, it is out of their hands, and then it is also out of the way that they had envisioned it.
MV: That’s true.
AME: It can very relevantly be put into a different situation, well, if you’re doing something that mimics these sugar pieces, even if that wasn’t the idea of the artist, which it must have been because she must have seen those—
MV: We think, but not necessarily. I just think it’s important to know how somebody approaches beginning so you have an understanding—I don’t want to own things just to own objects. I want a piece of their soul. [laughs.] I want to have that connection. I think that experience of buying those two pieces and listening to myself talk about them, not knowing what the artist’s intention was, I’m thinking, well that’s really the nutshell of why you have to know what the artist intended. Because even if you lay something else on top of it, you should still have an idea.
AME: So, how do you catalogue your work that you have in your collection?
MV: I did had an Excel table going there for a while but we’ve gone beyond that. Right now, I try to leave the shelf label. I’m not good at that. I will need somebody to help me do that eventually. [laughs.] We have two people working with The Marks Project who own objects with marks, and luckily most of the pieces now they have another life on the website.
AME: Especially if it’s available to you, if you can, and that’s what’s so exciting about contemporary ceramics, craft, and art, that you are able to speak directly to the artist.
MV: If they’re still alive. Because remember, for America, studio ceramics goes back actually before 1946. A lot of the people who were kind of the kings and queens of the early production, post-World War II, have also been departing, leaving the scene. I think I do have a Louise Hindsgavl who’s a Scandinavian maker, and has really an interesting and quirky approach. Creamware, I bought it at the—
AME: You know I’m Swedish.
MV: Are you really? Do you know Hindsgavl?
AME: No I don’t, I’ll have to look it up.
MV: Oh, you’ll have to look. She may be Danish. But she is definitely Scandinavian. She works in cast forms that are then seriously attenuated. Figural and definitely related to Meissen groupings. But in a very, not, way. The first time I saw the work was at the first [UK Crafts Council show] Collect at the V&A. The V&A purchase award for the whole show was one of Hindsgavl’s pieces which was a crouching panther with flowers going down his—these were all ceramic flowers. Everything was creamware glazed. The piece that I have are two people, one seated with a goat’s mask face, and a standing male figure with no face but a series of masks in his hands and masks down the body of the one below. What is very odd is there is no limb that can convincingly stand or hold anything because she’s taken these very anatomically correct molds and then pulled the arms, or done something strange to the leg. It is a convincing static Meissen-related grouping. Until you look at it, and then it is not. My family hates it. [laughs.] I love it. I continue to love it, and the only thing that disturbs me is I have a very gestalt kind of brain. The plinth to me looks like an upside-down jelly mold. You know, one of the molds that has a flat top and then down, or it may have been a cake mold or something, but definitely a mold form. Which was what she was using when she first showed. And now her plinths are equal to her work. I’m sure her gallerist might have said—
AME: —we need to change this.
MV: But that is a sculptural piece that I’ve had for a very long time. In Kansas City, I really did pivot to being interested in sculpture and buying those and seeing those two pieces and then one by Shalene Valenzuela, which is a really quirky toaster with ceramic burnt toast in it, all of which comes out. You know, a slip cast actual toaster that’s been painted by her, so it’s very much surface, with these very odd titles, but really well done. It is a sculptural piece but a domestic sculptural piece.
AME: What do you mean a domestic sculptural piece?
MV: It related directly to an object of domestic life.
AME: Ah, a toaster.
MV: A toaster. I think those are very interesting, that you take a toaster from a period that the collector lived through, and you make it into something it’s not, by slip casting it, it’s no longer functional. But keeping it’s functionality that the references, actual slices of burnt toast in the toaster, and then decorate it in a way that’s very narrative and quirky and cartoon, so you really are making a leveled object. Not just a toaster. At the Belger [Art Center] in Kansas City we did see one person who had done a fantastic rift on a Singer sewing machine, which was gunmetal and darkened. It was an old fashioned commercial sewing machine that obviously had been slip cast. And then he had layered over it parts of maybe another machine, as if it were patched up, but it could almost work. It was really interesting.
AME: While doing the social media [for The Marks Project] it’s been fun to see how these studio ceramicists who are working with one-off production. How they’re hand-made, small scale produced work references industrial design. I really like that meeting of craft and industry in their hands.
MV: Yes, and it’s on many levels. In May we’re going to have a lecture at the Connecticut Ceramic Study Circle, by Kristin Pulcar, Kohler Art/Industry Coordinator. The Art/Industry residency program introduced slip casting to artists, many of whom were teachers, for the first time in the 1970s. Before that slip casting was not taught in university. The teachers went back and started teaching slip casting. Which became a basic part of the tool kit of the studio ceramists.
AME: It seems for studio ceramics that things have happened very quickly, in terms of schooling, in terms of establishing different places to work, pottery studios and whatnot. I wanted to talk a little bit about gender. Sequoia Miller did an interview with Mary Barringer in which she speaks about when she went to school in the 1970s, she made a trip around the US, she went to California, she did the east coast, and she said that they were visiting studios of male studio ceramists, and that there weren’t so many females. To me, when I look today, I feel like there are a lot of women in studio ceramics.
MV: I’ll bet there are almost more women than men.
AME: Exactly. But it seems like there wasn’t in the seventies, and far less in the fifties and sixties.
MV: I think that there needs to be more of a discussion of who is recognized and how did they recognize the makers. Most probably everyone who was working during the seventies, not just women in ceramics, had similar experiences. It was the time of change, Mary knew the ceramics side, I was a graphic designer, it was the time of the women’s movement. But I just did off the top of head list and Duckworth was here. Gertrude Natzler was here. Maija Grotell was here. M. C. Richards, Beatrice Wood, Viola Fry, Marge Levy, Karen Karnes, Cynthia Bringle, Sandy Shannonhouse. These were known people.
Karen Karnes, Double Vase and signature, 1951. Earthenware. Everson Museum of Art Collection. Photos by John Polak, courtesy of The Marks Project.
MV: Bennington was a women’s college at that time, wasn’t it? Because I only know women who went there [laughs.] maybe that’s why—great museum. I would not dispute Mary; Mary knows what she’s talking about. I know Mary, she’s a really interesting potter. There were people who were working then, and there were people who were doing important work. I have talked to some women, potters, actually Marge Levy who’s been very important in the formation of NCECA from the beginning, who had to overcome a tremendous male prejudice when she was in school. Those guys would be fired if it were today—very politically incorrect and obnoxious. So, I know that there were those elements in some of the programs, but there were a lot of women who were also making. Maija Grotell’s students, you know, there was a woman who was forming vessels her whole life, but then she inlaid platinum. Her vessels were more than vessels. Her surfaces were beyond brilliant. And she came here from Finland because in 1927 she wasn’t allowed to go to school for ceramics there. So she came here. She couldn’t advance, the making of ceramics was a man’s thing to do.
AME: In the twenties—
MV: When Gertrude Natzler came, her wheel came with her. Up until that point, the universities, the programs, did not use a wheel that you could sit at. It was a standing wheel. The standing wheel was very awkward, so the programs taught slab building and press mold making for plates and building. When Natzler arrived in the Los Angeles area with her sitting kick wheel, it was a revelation. Actually, the making of a wheel and improving its mechanisms was done almost immediately. They ran across the country and then throwing was suddenly taught.
AME: So it shifted very quickly.
MV: It shifted very quickly. Although we had wheels, they were standing treadle wheels. They didn’t have a kick wheel, which was easier. We didn’t have an electric wheel. People had to stand and they had to brace their forearms and their arms were extended, one foot was planted the other worked the treadle, I mean, really? [laughs.] If you want to make it hard, that does it.
AME: [laughs.] So, where do you think American studio ceramics are going today? We were talking a little bit about this program where they’re merging industry with craft.
MV: And now there are many of them.
AME: Yeah, so I think that’s one trend. Another might be the digital.
MV: They have to find a place for digital. It will be used. The idea of using it for mold making can be really interesting. I’ve seen it used for making very crudely woven pieces that are then used and integrated into a small sculptural form and to be perfectly honest, it looks like a crudely woven piece of digital something. Not well thought out, just, I got this machine and this time, and this is what I made and I’m going to put it into something or onto something, isn’t it great? It’s like everything else. It’s going to take a little bit of time to find out where it belongs. It does give a tool for young makers to really think about how they want to use and form things, and what they want to do with it. The idea of being able to do what Peregrine Honig did with the three-dimensional nude form for instance. I mean, my brain says, okay, she took a picture, a 360-degree image, she Photoshopped it, and then she fed that program into a machine that made it. I have no idea if that’s how it’s done. That’s how my brain would figure out would be a way of accomplishing what she accomplished. But again, I’ve got to talk to her.
AME: You’ll see. [laughs.]
MV: I’ll find out, because I don’t know. It’s the challenge as a collector, I’m looking at work that’s been done. And one of the things that happens is if an object, for instance, if a vase is formed and decorated one hundred percent digitally, do you want to own it?
AME: I’d say absolutely, but I’m a millennial kid.
MV: You are. But I don’t know if collectors want some involvement other than sitting at a computer panel.
AME: You mean the hand.
MV: In some way an intellectual or emotional involvement. Ceramic is emotional. When you talk about the influence of technology on ceramics, your question about Voulkos, I think there’s a story that has to be investigated. I don’t know the answer. First of all, the taxonomy of ceramics, go to the Library of Congress and try to find it. There is nothing for studio ceramics. They don’t recognize the words, or studio pottery, which is the correct term. They don’t recognize it at all. The taxonomy of ceramics is abysmal. It’s just abysmal.
AME: And why is that?
MV: I think that there just hasn’t been a serious approach to the language of ceramics. I am working in a very crude fashion, on a glossary for The Marks Project, and I started by buying every dictionary, old and new, that I could find on ceramics. Some of them were so bad that you couldn’t take them seriously. But there were serious differences in the way words are used.
AME: Do you mean in speaking to shapes, technique, to clay, history, everything? What do you mean?
MV: Well, for example, some were not intellectually written at all. They were just ego publications. Your dictionaries have to relate to something that’s a standard, so that it’s considered to be a dictionary. The word ewer, in [George] Savage and [Harold] Newman [An Illustrated Dictionary of Ceramics], is a pitcher or jug form usually with a handle and a basin, used for washing hands. But today, ceramic artists who title their objects Ewer, are usually talking about something that is a small piece, maybe covered, maybe not, maybe with a saucer maybe not, used to pour, but not water for bathing. More like oil, wine, or even some of the sake vessels may be called ewers. Well, that is not the traditional definition of a ewer. It is what contemporary makers are calling a ewer. Which means that in the contemporary ceramics, we have to write the definition differently.
AME: You mean we need to say ewer, right? But the ewer has a different definition—
MV: Webster’s definition, 1., 2., 3. For contemporary ceramics, we need to be able to develop the formal language that lets people understand what something is, in context of traditional definitions.
AME: I like that. So, that’s going to be a component of The Marks Project?
MV: We are, fingers crossed, it’s a very slow birth. But luckily I know a lot of eighteenth-century specialists who really understand the language. Any time you find an old dictionary, pick it up for me and I’ll—
AME: Send it to you. [laughs.]
MV: I’ll reimburse you. But [Arthur Edward] Dodd, who wrote a dictionary for ceramic engineering, is a fascinating book. It’s one that you read through and you note on the columns because there you have all of the definitions of all the different clays. A ball clay, the glazes and what the constituents are, firing, and it really is interesting. It gets into the industrial also, you know, cement is considered a clay.
AME: I can understand that.
MV: Yes, the engineering of ceramics. But this is a little book and fantastically interesting. It doesn’t discuss form. Sometimes discusses surface, but usually surface in terms of slip glazing, things like that. It’s really one of the best dictionaries for contemporary ceramics. Savage and Newman is great if you are doing eighteenth-century. It’s got it. It’s amazing, some of the references to influences, I couldn’t find, and in Savage and Newman I can find it.
AME: I was doing some research into Swedish majolica. I had no background in ceramics before I went into it, and I did find that it was difficult to grasp because ceramics is so much about all the different recipes, and they are not always so open. So I think in ceramics, in terms of terminology and definitions that, it is already difficult. Each clay or where it comes from is so different from another. There’s a wealth of different recipes for clay. In American studio ceramics today, is there a lot of secrecy about clays and glazes? How does this work?
MV: First of all, there’s an awful lot of commercially produced glazes and ceramic clay bodies. You can pretty much set up a studio and never make anything yourself, other than the object. If you want to. Most people really want to have their own tweak, and some are very serious about what they do.
AME: For example, this piece that you brought, it’s amazing—
MV: Oh yes, [James] Haggerty.
AME: Haggerty, the glaze, he must have engineered the recipes.
MV: I think he, yes, definitely. Those are his glaze recipes, and I think he’s very open, he lectures. He’s very smart, really very good. I think there is a real sense of community among studio ceramics. For instance, if you’re having a wood firing, rarely does a wood firing happen without a community spirit. First of all, it takes twenty-four hours to keep that fire going, so one guy doesn’t do it alone. If he has a large enough kiln, frequently there will be other potters who will bring their pots to be fired. If you own your own gas kiln, that’s a little different. There are blogs that will answer ceramic questions, because there is always the problem that, “I’ve always used the same clay body, the same mix from the same vendor, and this time it’s bubbling” getting a defect of this or that, or, whatever your problem is. People will share what they know. When Ruth Duckworth went to Lucie Rie and asked for her glaze formulas, Lucie told her to go and learn how to throw a pot first, that she wasn’t ready for glazes. There’s a lot of collaboration. Now there is one maker that I know who has worked for half of his professional life probably, perfecting a certain yellow. The Smithsonian has asked for his recipe and he has not given it up and probably won’t until he passes away. He’s the only person who is doing—
AME: It’s his life’s work. [both laugh.]
MV: You do have occasionally people who want to hold things very close to their chest, but it is a life’s work. It is a bit of an aberration. I think the school programs are very open, everybody is making their living going around doing demonstrations. You cannot do a demonstration with your hand in your pocket. You’ve got to have your hand spread out widely, that you’re helping these people understand how to do something. I think it’s collaborative. That would be my take on it.
AME: All right. Well, I think we’re going to have to round up so. I did want to talk more about The Marks Project. Tell us why a mark is important, how potters should be marking their work, and then also maybe we can do a diagnostic exercise.
AME: It’s a lot at once, but—
MV: Okay. I’m going to go to my sheet—
AME: That’s fine. [laughs.] But I think we need this in oral history.
MV: Yes, one of your questions was, what would you tell an aspiring potter? I said first, develop a legible mark and a way of signing that is legible. To be searched, a signature needs to have three legible letters in a row. Frequently, people who sign, with the exception of Haggerty who is dead clear on every letter, you can’t get three consecutive letters that you can read. So first, develop a legible mark or method of signing, date consistently, document it with the Marks Project along with your CV and images of your work, and remember that this is building your personal brand. As you change, as your mark changes, as your work changes, add it to your artist’s page, document it. So that people who are following your career or might come late to your life of work, your production, can look back and see its trajectory. It really gives a person the ability to build not only their brand, but also their legacy. This is important to do because when you have things that are marked, not only does it allow a collector to understand what he has gathered, it’s a way of knowing whose work you’ve collected. If a piece isn’t marked and the collector loses the piece of paper that says who it’s by, his children and executor will have no idea of who made this fantastic piece, and the maker will not be credited for it. The potter will become one of the ubiquitous makers who share the name ‘anonymous’. When I started The Marks Project, I was looking at auctions of marked ceramic pieces that were really beyond good, and they were all attributed to anonymous. In order to be seen, understood and found, I would tell the aspiring potter to register their mark where contemporary curators are going to regularly, because it’s the one place where they can search over a thousand makers. If they go to a Google search, they get 150 pages for a maker, and they have to go through every page to get the basic information, and even know it’s the person they want. So it’s important to makers to be listed, to be found and discovered. The average person who visits our site looks at ten pages, which means they came to look for one person, and they keep looking.
AME: That’s a lot.
MV: Between seven and ten pages, depending on when the number is taken. It means they keep looking. That’s the way I go to websites. If I go to the Northern Clay Center to look at their shop, I don’t look at one page. I go through and I look at a lot of people in one night, and I may sit there for four hours going through. This means that we link the artist’s page to his or her website. This means you get traffic. If you have objects in public collections, we link not to the collection but to the objects in the collection. Curators have told us that that is so important, if they have a piece offered to them, and they don’t know the artist, it allows them not only to look at the artist, but also to look at where they are and where does this piece fall in the history or volume of work. To make decisions. If they’re deciding on a show, and they have a preliminary list of artists, on The Marks Project you can search by name, mark, residency program, you can search by material used, is it porcelain, is it stoneware, is it white stoneware, is it, whatever it is. By surface technique, you can search by letters, numbers, shapes of marks, you can search by type, is it conceptual, sculptural, vessel form? It’s a very simple search. If a curator or gallerist is looking for new people, and they want conceptual sculpture, they can look and they will get an array and be able to select and go to the pages and see if this is what they want. It allows you to be seen. So it’s important to makers.
AME: It’s an incredible, I think, just coming on recently, resource. The Marks Project is a project that involves, engages, and grows dynamically with help from the studio ceramics community. It is a reflection of studio ceramics itself. Which I think is nice about this pioneering project.
MV: Thank you. [laughs.] That’s really nice to hear. What’s really interesting is Elisabeth Agro, who’s the curator of contemporary ceramics at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, came up to me in Kansas City all aglow. They have a double signature, F. Carlton Ball with a second name Aaron Bohrod, that she found when she arrived. There was a question on the mark. She had been Googling over a long period, every so many months she’d go on Google and she’d look and see if anything came up, and this last time, The Marks Project came up and she said, there it was. She said, nobody else had the image of the combined mark. We like to have as many marks as we can for a maker, dated if possible. If possible, the best is to have a representative piece of ceramic from that marking period, full view, foot view, or underside and mark. It really is a history of the maker.
AME: Yeah, I like that.
MV: Good. [laughs.]
AME: This is very dense but I think it’s great.
MV: It is dense.
AME: Dense, but good. Is there anything more that you think we’ve missed, or anything you’d like to say?
MV: Just that we are a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit and that we did launch one year ago in March, 2015 at NCECA in Providence, Rhode Island, so we’ve only been live for a little over a year. We launched with our beta test list of around 230 makers, and we were at the thousand makers listed by January 1st, 2016, and many of those are pages under construction, which means we have a name, a mark, and we have an image of an object. We really need help in completing those pages and filling them in with the information. So that is something that we need. What else—oh you asked about where are American contemporary ceramics being shown. And you mentioned the collections that have had shows. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is being one of the encyclopedic museums, but, they have just hired their first American studio ceramic curator. They have never had one.
AME: Oh really, who is that?
MV: I don’t know his name, but just hired. Ali Baldenebro, our research coordinator, actually did the first photo documentation of the American studio ceramic collection at the Met, for the Met’s use. So it’s basically the registrar’s photographs. The museums that I would say are really doing a great job, the Boston Museum of Fine Art with Emily Zilber and Nonie Gadsden, who are doing changing exhibitions in one space, a large gallery of American material; Elisabeth Agro at the Philadelphia Museum; Peter Held and his successor Garth Johnson at the Arizona State University Ceramic Resource Center, which is, if you need to be here in America and you need to survey and are studying, that is a brilliant collection, and it’s shelved accessibly; Bruce Pepich, at the Racine Art Museum, now that is not only an interesting museum, it’s a very interesting shop, because they have materials from makers and the Racine Art Museum has a fantastic collection of studio ceramics. The one that’s really not well known but should be, is the John Michael Kohler Art Museum in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. They not only collect material of twentieth-century studio pottery, but more importantly they’re studios. So they go in and document an artist’s studio, they box it up, take it away, they store it, and then from time to time they change their shows and show different contemporary ceramic and artists’ studios.
AME: Studios, that’s cool.
MV: That is brilliant.
AME: That’s something you hardly ever see.
MV: And then of course there’s the Daum, which is outside of Kansas City at one of the universities. But what is so important to understand about this country and studio ceramics, is you never know where you’re going to find them or what town you’re going to drive into and find a public collection that’s mind-blowing. It’s because everybody has a collection. Every area has a collector who’s collecting that local material others more broadly. Some of them gift it to local institutions, so you have this opportunity to see wonderful collections all across the country. I think the next database should be where to see it. The San Francisco Ceramics Circle has a great website which is a listing of their member’s recommendations and comments on ceramic museums and open exhibitions around the world. I think we need one for the United States.
AME: So maybe that will be a next [laughs.] The Marks Project.
MV: No, no I’m figuring The Marks Project is going to take me well into my nineties. My estimate is by the time we reach ten thousand makers, we will have scratched the surface of those of the twenty-first century. We are 2016, that is a huge deficit. We really need to have people who are interested in documenting the material regionally help us to document those makers who worked in the regions of the country.
AME: With your network and the website being up and running for only one year you’ll definitely be able to find institutional partners that you can partner with, that will make documenting and sending things to you.
MV: We have really good relationship, there is the Rosenfield Collection, Louise Rosenfield, has been very helpful and access to their images has allowed us to put up over three hundred makers of that thousand, with one object and one mark, and a name. That is golden. Because then my research coordinator, Ali, sends out an email to the artists saying, ‘this is your page. Help us complete it.’ So, we do have help form museums, the Crocker, shared images of their Native American contemporary collection. If you go to our website and put in Crocker, or Crocker Museum, or native American contemporary, you will get an array of the most fabulous work. I think we may be one of the larger online repositories of this material, and it has broken it down by Nation so it can be searched by Nation. It’s just a fabulous asset to have. Mills College Museum is now documenting their collection, and a large part of it is the Antonio Prieto collection. It’s being used as a fabulous program for their works study program, where the students are learning actually how handle the material, to use a registrar’s database, to photograph and document, how to make registrar’s catalog numbers, and they are giving us access to all of those images. Now the Prieto collection had the names of the makers with it, but there is also part of that collection which is not attributed, and so we’ll be helping them attribute those marks of the unknown makers, and they’re helping us find—
AME: So it goes both ways.
MV: It’s a two way, it’s collaboration. Two girls came up to us from the University of New Hampshire, they have been working at the Currier Museum, which received a large donation of American studio ceramics, of a period that we cover without attribution. And they have been working on our website, they said, "Oh my God I’m so excited, we’re working on your website every week," and it was like, they were meeting stars. [both laugh.] Donald Clark, our project manager, was the first person that I hired who really knows the makers, and is dedicated to this project, because he really sees the need to go that next step. As a former gallerist, Donald is focused on the artists and seeing that they can be found and that they can be known during their lifetime, and afterwards. It’s that continuation. Think of the makers and the artists who are being found, I’m not sure how to pronounce it, the painter Caillebotte, French.
MV: Cailebotte, this fantastic painting has been at the Chicago Art Institute for years, and rarely did you see his work in any other institution, and every time I would see it I would go, "Oh my God, this is fantastic, look what he did with that light." Out of the grey. It was just brilliant. Now he’s having a renaissance. Why wasn’t he popular? Why was somebody else’s work better than his? I think that’s part of our history, that people are forgotten and re-found. Or they’re not known, and then found. This is—
AME: And that’s why The Marks Project is going to help shape American studio ceramics. The—
MV: —knowledge of it.
MV: We had one major maker—
AME: The history writing, the exhibition producing, the collecting.
Richard DeVore, Untitled #561 and underside, 1988. Stoneware. Everson Museum of Art Collection. There are no known signed pieces of DeVore’s work. Each piece bears a number indicating where chronologically that work occurred in his production. Photo by John Polak, courtesy of The Marks Project.
AME: Yes. Thank you for your time Martha, these two hours flew by quickly. I’m looking forward to doing another oral history with you when you are ninety! Until then, if you are a ceramicist, sign up for The Marks Project.
[End of interview]