Ceramics—with its brilliant colours, innovative designs, and varied forms is among the most enduring and fascinating of the decorative arts. Artistic expression has been hugely prevalent in society since the early man drew paintings on a cave wall. It is ever-present in the world, and its magical lure has impacted societies forever. Nothing ever begins a perfect form, and just as ceramics has evolved over the course of American History, so too, has America’s appreciation of it. Through the ages, ceramics has been the most enduring and important American art form due to the grand effect it has on society.Order now
From its earliest beginnings in the seventeenth century, ceramics development in America was as diverse as the newly arrived settlers from all parts of Europe. Whether English, French or German, these settlers brought with them the techniques and tools of their craft, typical to their native homelands (Levin 13). Widely dispersed among the now emerging colonies, the potter learned to adapt his methods and materials to the conditions imposed on him by the new frontiers. Where in Europe, form and design had been hugely important, in the colonies it became an afterthought, with ceramics serving only functional purposes: brickmaking being a primary example (Ramsey 403). In times of hardship and emerging growth, the ability of potters to create beautiful work was nullified by consumers who were only interested in their own survival. Thus, as early as 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, there was no semblance of beauty in American ceramic work.
The original works of America: Ovoid wide-mouth jars which functioned as pitchers with the addition of a loop, handle, and spout. These pitchers were in wide use in the early colonies but often to deadly effect. In order to make the porous clay watertight, it was necessary to add glaze to the inside of the piece. Especially in New England, the potters, not knowing how harmful lead was, utilized it on the insides of their pieces. The consumers, often leaving water in the pitchers for storage, contracted lead poisoning and in extreme cases, died (Levin 15). Thus Stoneware, (the most popular clay in use today) was created due to the fear of lead poisoning from unsafe glazes (Ramsey 43). The trend of function over form grew less and less obvious as the colonies became wealthier and colonists no longer had to fight for survival.
Even by the mid 1700’s, New England homes continued to display unsophisticated redware pottery deemed only for common use. There was no beauty, no forms that would serve no purpose other than adorning an otherwise bland wall. With trade beginning to boom in the colonies and their continuous expansion, a new merchant class was developed. These merchants, like the prosperous Southern plantation owners, created a demand for better-made wares. The merchants had the money to spend and as with most colonists, were influenced by the European upper class that advocated for lavish lifestyles. This increasing demand and appreciation for beauty indirectly led to a shift in balance of power away from the clergy that had previously exercised Puritan restraint over the “acquisition of luxuries” (Levin 16). With the Puritans beginning their downward spiral, there was hope for more unified colonies. Through the mid 1700s, the demand for decorative pieces increase dramatically, and thus the call for greater efficiency in the studio became heard.
During America’s industrial revolution, Ceramic piece production began to mirror that of factory and assembly line production. More pieces were produced a lot faster, however the segmentation of work divided the potter from the original designer of the piece. The designer often came up with ideas that were not physically feasible to appear on clay. This factory system led to an overall period of disarray in the industry. The speed with which the pots were made promoted the idea of “quantity over actual quality” causing an overall decline in the expected craftsmanship of the pottery (Levin 49). In response, the English essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, anxious due to the deterioration of crafts warned, “The factory system will erode the human spirit” (Levin 49). Carlyle believed that art could only come from inspiration in nature and within (Carlyle et al) . Anything manufactured for the sole purpose of business was not truly considered art at all. After the brief industrial phase of ceramics, the industry enjoyed a peaceful post-modern style leading up to the Civil War.
After the great American conflict, interior decoration became an increasing preoccupation of affluent Americans. Many obtained wealth following the civil war, and with it, were able to afford and expected to want: excess. The newly rich saw themselves as the American counterparts to European royalty and were as intent of living in an atmosphere of cultured taste as they were in amassing oil pools, trusts, and monopolies (Levin 50). This new spending on interior design caused another boom in the ceramics industry and allowed the artists themselves to experiment with more ‘natural’ pieces.
Before the ‘Feminist Movement’, women were not allowed to participate in most societal activities under the belief that they were to be ‘American Housewives’. The emergence of the cult of domesticity, the idea of separate spheres, and the idea of ‘proper republican motherhood’, only served to reinforce that idea. These housewives became increasingly frustrated in their lack of mobility, and were particularly receptive to the critic John Ruskin’s belief of, “ones surroundings influence their moral and ethical values” (Levin 50). And so, with coming of the Victorian era, women began to shed some of the constraints imposed by the contemporary social norms. Women started to work outside of the home as teachers, domestics, and typewriters that by 1870 about 3.5% of the female population were at work outside of the household. None of these women however, worked in positions that allowed them true freedom of expression. Eventually, the need for change became noted, and the female cultural leaders of their communities stepped up. Sara Worthington King Peter of Cincinnati was one of the first few women to organize her social rights for the purpose of giving art-starved women an outlet. Peter founded the Ladies Gallery of Fine Arts where women learned to create ceramics as well as other fine art in order to raise the overall population’s level of culture. After the Civil War, the socially prominent women in other cities across the United States were influenced and inspired by Sara Peter and began fundraising for their own institutions of fine art (Levin 51). These new art centers needed funding to run, and thus they became ‘commercial’ and began selling some of their work.
Commercial potteries had many kinds of progenitors. They came into existence not only for economic and cultural reasons, but for reasons of social welfare as well. The settlement house movement had great effect in engendering new interest in pottery making (Levin 112). Originally formed in the late 1800s to acclimate the large influx of immigrants coming to America, settlement houses offered instruction in marketable skills such as ceramics. Greenwich House, founded in 1902 in New York City, began its ceramics classes in 1908. The more widely known Hull House in Chicago actually sponsored the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society’s first meeting in 1897, kick starting it to future success (Levin 112). Not constricted to Settlement Houses, pottery helped acclimate immigrants all over the country. Newcomers to Boston could find refuge in the Saturday Evening Girls Club—a club for young immigrants coming together to produce pottery. The club, which originally met in Brookline, lasted for 24 more years until it’s funding ran out due to the Great Depression (Levin 118). The domestic sales of pottery soared due to the new commercial aspects.
Now, not only was pottery a marketable skill, many also saw it as being therapeutic. Dr. Herbert J. Hall, the founder of a sanatorium in Marblehead, Massachusetts often told his patients to take up ceramics if they were suffering from any kind of nervous disorder (Levin 112). This treatment was extremely successful and spread from coast to coast, eventually emerging in Marin County, California. Here, Doctors would tell their patients to work with clay in order to help treat their tuberculosis. Again, extremely effective, the diseased patients would report back significantly improved (Levin 112).
Approaching the early 1900’s, the American ceramics industry began to decline mainly due to the popular exports of stoneware from Europe. However, the American industry had a lucky break with the declaration of World War I.
The Great War effectively ceased the importation of European ceramics. This gave the American industry much needed time to consider methods of challenging the international trade while at the same time appealing to the home market (Levin 133). President Woodrow Wilson was the industry’s saving grace when in 1917 he ordered a 1,700-piece set of porcelain dinnerware for the white house (Mcmillan). Decorated with the presidential seal and embroidered with stars and stripes of gold, the new tableware represented a “coming-of-age for the American dinnerware industry” (Levin 133). Wilson had started a fortunate trend: later, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt placed similar orders during their presidencies. The designs of the American manufacturers abetted by the prestige of presidential support met with the approval of the buying public, thus reviving the industry. This boom however quickly led to a bust in the late 1920s.
Beginning with the stock market crash in 1929, the Great Depression ultimately affected all areas of American life. With a faltering economy, rapidly increasing unemployment, and the depletion of relief funds, starving artists were hit especially hard by the depression. Then, when everything seemed bleak and hopeless for ceramicists, there came President Roosevelt on his white steed of New Deal programs. A specific goal of FDR’s relief program was for the federal government to employ the needy artists hit hardest by the depression. Art activists George Biddle and Edward Bruce, who implemented the first programs, believed that art should not be allowed to disappear in times of crises (Levin 147). The two believed that if art should disappear, then the natural beauty of the world would also disappear.
Using the relief funds, both Biddle and Bruce saw opportunity to make art accessible to all levels of American society (Matthews). As a result, the two sponsored ceramic tiles to be put on public buildings such as hospitals, schools, post offices, and libraries. This plan brought ceramic culture to both small distant communities and urban centers (Levin 147). Under the Public Works of Art Program in 1933, one of the first projects specifically for ceramics was sponsored. Edris Eckhardt, a former potter who was commissioned to direct a five-month pilot project in Cleveland, Ohio producing small ceramic sculptures as part of a children’s literature program (Levin 147). The pilot was extremely successful, and led to the FAP sponsoring an even longer program.
The road for ceramicists was tumultuous in the 1900s to say the least. They got out of the Great Depression only to face World War II. Following the war however, art education began to change drastically for the better. At the end of the war, congress passed The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 known informally as the G.I. Bill. This was a bill that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans (commonly referred to as G.I.s). Benefits included low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business or farm, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation (Levin 191). The G.I. bill thoroughly changed the nature of ceramic education. The WWII veterans now able to enter college advocated that ceramics be taught not as art education for teachers, but as an art form instead. The governmental support the students received, encouraged many of them to take courses not necessarily tied to a specific career. Postwar, there was money and time to focus on passions other than work, and so adult education, community college classes, and university extension classes entered a period of expansion (Levin 191). The press of students created huge demand for ceramic teachers… preferably those who were well versed in the art form. This allowed many struggling ceramicists to find stable jobs at universities teaching others their craft. Even at this time, Ceramics was still an ever-changing beast.
Ceramic art continued to evolve in the 1900’s going from Art Deco to Pluralism then to Post-Modernism. During the post modernist period, human rights, women issues, environmental concerns, and of course the seemingly inevitable threat of a nuclear holocaust led to artists taking extra care in their work. Society demanded that: “the artist portray a sense of responsibility in their work” (Levin 334). The previously humorous works of Gilhooly, Morrison, and Baldwin would not have been appropriate for the time period. In response, the artists did as they should have, and focused on more ‘mature and responsible’ works so as not to offend anyone unnecessarily. Morrison devoted his time by attributing his works to the innocent humans who died during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Motivated by the recurring theme of recognition, Judy Chicago, an active feminist artist, began production of her masterpiece: Dinner Party. This six-year task involved a massive group of volunteers who helped complete a forty-nine-foot open equilateral triangular table containing thirty-nine place settings (Levin 334). Each handmade ceramic plate would be painted in china to represent a different woman. “The plate interpreted the history of women” (Levin 335). Chicago’s project toured the country, eliciting intense reactions to its “political-feminist statement”. The Dinner Party successfully rallied many people in support of the women’s movement. Chicago’s utilized her beautiful ceramic plates as a “vehicle, marking, through her project, almost a century of social and artistic transformation.” Judy Chicago’s goal of ending the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record was hugely successful. Without utilizing the ceramic plates, she would have had no standout history of the extreme oppression of women, and her project would have been unsuccessful.
Today, the American Ceramic Society has just celebrated its 114th anniversary marking the long and hard ceramic evolution. Where 20 years ago there were only 50 contemporary studios, now there are over 1900. There are ceramic studios springing up literally everywhere to allow all people to partake in the beautiful expression. Ceramics in America is so hugely prevalent to this day because of the enormous impact it had on original American society. Mankind needs ceramics – for functional reasons and for artistic reasons. As humans, we have to express ourselves. Making something creative that can last a lifetime with our hands is relaxing, stimulating and infinite. There is no surprise that during these difficult times while other industries struggle to survive, ceramics is enjoying yet another boom.