2020 NCECA Annual: The Burdens of History

The Burdens of History does not claim to represent every voice but instead seeks to broaden the narrative of ceramics history by featuring artists and artworks that both celebrate and critique the field.

The origin story of American Studio Ceramics starts with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, signed into law in 1944, and the opportunities it afforded soldiers returning from World War II, many of whom went on to study and later teach ceramics in academia. The structure of the bill, much like other laws, disproportionately benefited white soldiers over soldiers of color and as women’s roles in the military were limited at that time, very few were eligible for the funding.1 Thus from its founding, the field was structured to benefit a white, patriarchal system..

In 1961, Rose Slivka published “The New Ceramic Presence,” an article claiming ceramics as deserving of status alongside painting. Slivka structured her argument around a description of this moment in ceramics as being particularly American and from the “only nation in the history of the modern world to be formed out of an idea rather than geographic circumstance or racial motivations.”2 To modern ears this statement rings false, disregarding and eliding the colonial, slaveholding history of the country, and the attempted eradication of indigenous populations spurred by the idea of manifest destiny. Slivka describes the climate of beauty in America as “a climate which not only has been infused with the dynamics of machine technology, but with the action of men —ruggedly individual and vernacular men (the pioneer, the cowboy) with a genius for improvisation.”3 Tellingly, all but one work depicted in the article were pieces created by men.

Today, more than 50 years removed from these early beginnings of studio ceramics, artists are reconsidering these origins and choosing to assert and affirm their voices as part of a wider discourse. Many approach ceramics history with a longer view, one that encompasses the material history of adobe, the practices of indigenous ancestors, or the economic and political implications of the ceramics trade from centuries before American Studio Craft’s post-war moment. Others question the gender implications of this era of ceramic art’s founding myths.

Throughout, bricks play a prominent role. And not without reason — they have a long precedence in the field, playing a critical role in establishing many of the programs that feed the field of studio ceramics. The Ohio State University and the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University both founded programs at the turn of the 20th century that included specializations in ceramic engineering and the material science of clay alongside ceramic art making. Much of the early coursework centered on brick making. That so many of the artists in The Burdens of History use bricks is fitting: they are building a new future for contemporary ceramics, by resetting the foundation brick by brick.

In February of 2018, Nicki Green presented Dismantling the Patriarchy One Brick at a Time: Voulkos and the Changing Landscape of Ceramics at UC Berkeley – or – SOFT BRICK at the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles. She described wrapping felt around bricks from a kiln built by Peter Voulkos, an artist known for a culture of machismo in the classroom who after benefitting from the GI Bill, went on to teach in academia.4 Brick is also used as a term for a trans woman who doesn’t pass. As a trans woman herself, Green considers an alternative to the dominant studio ceramic history. She asks the bricks, “You were created to absorb all the heat and violence necessary to cultivate those artworks into permanence. You were just doing your job, but were you complicit in his legacy?”5 She stacks these dismantled bricks inside a wooden box, open on one side, a reference to the kiln they once built in SOFT BRICK. Resting on top is a vessel split in half to display the cast-off shards from Green’s own practice, piled together when wet to create a mass of folded forms, the soft bends in stark contrast to the edges of the bricks below. 

Issac Logsdon’s installation critiques material histories of the American Southwest by placing objects atop stacks of adobe bricks, sun-dried blocks made of earth native to the region. By stacking adobe bricks at varying heights, Logsdon creates a visual nod to the Pueblo architecture of his ancestors. A mestizo artist, his research into the pre-colonial trade routes of the Southwest inform the selection of objects displayed. These routes carried heavy consequences for the peoples living on those lands during colonization, as do the continued environmental effect of various extractive industries such as mining. Adobe history is clay history is social history. By situating these objects on adobe, he posits them as artifacts to consider outside of a Eurocentric focus. 

Artists working in ceramics understand the varied characteristics of each clay body. Porcelain, a type of clay that dates back to at least the 10th century in China, was revered for its translucency, pure white color, and rarity. Jennifer Ling Datchuk uses porcelain as a metaphor for Western standards of beauty based on whiteness. Patricia Williams, co-author of White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art explains that, “Whiteness is the site of privileged imagining, the invisible standard. It is whatever it wants to be.”6 Datchuk explores the pervasive effects of white privilege—societal, economic, and political advantages enjoyed by whites not afforded to people of color—through her use of porcelain as a metaphor by embedding her personal story in her art as an alternative to the dominant white narrative. Datchuk interviewed women in her home state of Texas and learned that many use bricks as protection, hiding them in purses in place of a gun as a form of concealed carry when walking alone at night. The porcelain bricks used in her work measure 3.5 x 2.25 x 7.625 inches, a slender version dubbed Queen. She makes these porcelain bricks by coating handkerchiefs, doilies —even t-shirts from old boyfriends—in clay that is fired to form each object. “Bricks are Queens,” she says. “Porcelain is powerful and women are resilient.”7 

Much like the work of others included in the invitational exhibition, Elizabeth M. Webb ties a material history of clay to that of personal narratives. Cameo Ground (Children of Paradise) is a series of thirteen porcelain sheets of text displayed in velvet light boxes. Drawn from an interview Webb conducted with her great-aunt Jane, the text describes the skin tone of each of Jane’s twelve siblings and categorizes each person based on his or her shade in relation to Jane’s own hue, the implication being that some could “pass” for white while others could not. Jane and her siblings were all children of Paradise, Webb’s great-grandmother who was known for her beauty but never allowed her picture to be taken. Encased in velvet, the material’s preciousness mimics early forms of photography (daguerrotypes or tintypes), refused by Paradise. The title references the cameo, a style of object that was typically carved to create a raised image in contrasting color to the background. In order to depict a person or scene, a cameo relies on contrasting colors, dark and light. Cameos often depicted portraits but in Cameo Ground (Children of Paradise) there is no image of the individuals mentioned; it is up to the viewer to shape these words into imagery.

Raven Halfmoon’s larger-than-life female busts and torsos confront the viewer with knowing stares and surfaces often covered in large, dripping, text. Family Names to Last through Generations has “Halfmoon” and “McCarty” on each side of the face, referencing the history of family names and how individuals carry multiple ancestors forward. A citizen of the matrilineal Caddo Nation, Halfmoon creates these works to represent both her Caddo people and her role as a woman in today’s society. Her figures, all women, are not portraits but rather a composite of many aspects of the figure. Through scale, presence, and bold imagery, Halfmoon’s unapologetic sculptures demand recognition and occupy the space that is so frequently denied women and people of color.

Woody De Othello is a graduate of California College of Arts in San Francisco and is based in the Bay Area, the fertile ground for the origins of the funk art movement. When the exhibition Funk was mounted in 1967 at the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley by Peter Selz, he defined it as an art form that “when you see it, you know it.” The term “funk” was borrowed from the musical style of the same name, a mixture of soul, jazz, and blues. Selz describes how the art drew on the “unsophisticated deep-down New Orleans blues played by the marching bands, the blues which give you that happy/sad feeling.”8 With origins drawn from a musical tradition based in African American roots, “funk music emerged out of a desire for a more confrontational approach to protest music.”9 De Othello channels the history of funk through his anthropomorphic domestic items, often combining human characteristics with inanimate objects, such as a hand acting as a hook for a melting wristwatch in To Give Time. While humor is often the first response to De Othello’s work, much like funk there are undercurrents of uneasiness or tension at play.

Like bricks, these works are strong. And they demonstrate the collective strength of the ceramic field, a field that is expansive enough to hold multiple interpretations and mature enough to open the canon to reinterpretation, to build in new directions. To reorient its foundation. Individually and collectively, these works—and the artists who made them—offer new possibilities for the past and the future.

1 Herbold, Hilary. “Never a Level Playing Field; Blacks and the GI Bill.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 6 (Winter, 1994-1995). pp. 104-108.

2 Slivka, Rose. “The New Ceramic Presence.” Craft Horizons, vol. 21, no. 4, July/August 1961, pp. 31.

3 Ibid.,pp. 32.

4 Sorkin, Jenni, et al. Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years. Edited by Glenn Adamson et al., Black Dog Publishing Limited, 2016.

5 Green, Nicki. “Dismantling the Patriarchy One Brick at a Time: Voulkos and the Changing landscape of Ceramics at UC Berkeley – OR – SOFT BRICK.” Voice of the Object – CAA Critical Craft Forum, 24 February 2018, LA Convention Center, Los Angeles, CA.

6 Berger, Maurice, Wendy Ewald, David R. Roediger, and Patricia J. Williams. White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art. (Baltimore: Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, UMBC,2004), 19.

7Datchuk, Jennifer Ling. “Object Story.” Present Tense: 2019 Conference, 12 October 2019, Loews Philadelphia Hotel, Philadelphia, PA.

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