American Studio Ceramics

A short history of the clay revolution from the New Orleans Museum of Art collection

By New Orleans Museum of Art

Mel Buchanan, RosaMary Curator of Decorative Arts & Design, NOMA

Untitled Vase (1981) by Louis Comfort Tiffany, designer and Rick DillinghamNew Orleans Museum of Art

American Studio Ceramics

Through the magic of heat and skill, a chunk of clay can become a glorious work of art. In the years after World War II, American potters exploded traditional ideas about how to create with the ancient medium of clay. These "Studio ceramics" are most simply defined as handcrafted ceramics made by individuals with artistic intent, as opposed to a factory production. Studio ceramics looked many ways aesthetically, and meant different things theoretically, but the American Studio Ceramics movement was united in celebrating the individual potter's artistic vision expressed through clay.

In the mid-twentieth century American studio potters invented new ceramic making techniques and reinvigorated nearly-gone traditional ones, sharing what they found in workshops and magazines.

These potters introduced ceramics into collegiate education, advancing clay theory and moving the modest material from a tool in the production of art to being accepted as a critical fine art form in its own right.

Ceramics moved from a history generally in the factory manufacture of functional items (dishes, teapots, vases) to becoming a platform for vivacious self-expression, with function becoming optional.

Vase (circa 1888-1894) by Biloxi Art Pottery, George Edgar OhrLos Angeles County Museum of Art

The Movement's Wild Grandfather

While many factors coalesced in post-War America to encourage the broadening of ceramics, the soul of the American studio ceramics movement can be found more than fifty years earlier with one unparalleled clay artist, the self-proclaimed "Mad Potter of Biloxi." George E. Ohr was a radical Victorian who made pottery like no other.

"Ventricle" Vase (1897-1900) by George E. OhrNew Orleans Museum of Art

George Ohr was the quintessential Arts & Crafts Movement potter, because he alone made his pot from clay to glaze. However, the flamboyant artist was not typical in any other way.

Ohr was known for a wild personality and unique mustache that were matched only by the eccentric pottery he produced in his Mississippi Gulf Coast studio.

Ohr's exquisitely thin pots with playful ruffles and colorful speckled glazes were a wild departure from the formal Victorian aesthetic of his era.

The serpentine ribbon handles on this 1897 vase show off his deftness with clay, and are applied in an unprecedented way that make this pot immediately recognizable as Ohr’s, even 125 years later.

George Ohr was an American Studio Potter before there was such a concept as purposeful expressiveness in clay.

"Chinaberries" Vase (1902-1903) by Newcomb College Pottery; Harriet Joor; Joseph Fortune MeyerNew Orleans Museum of Art

Arts & Crafts Origins

More broadly, Studio Ceramics has roots in the 19th-century Arts & Crafts Movement. Artists had been calling for a return to handcraft since the industrial revolution, when factories were perceived as dehumanizing the making process. Led by the philosophies of British theorist John Ruskin and designer William Morris, Arts & Crafts designers encouraged local materials, a reverence for nature, simplicity in design, and handcraft as a way to lead a more meaningful life. In American ceramics, these ideas were encapsulated by Boston's training program for immigrant girls at the Paul Revere Pottery, potteries like Rookwood and Grueby that produced harmonious handcrafted interpretations of natural motifs, and New Orleans' vocational training for young women at the Newcomb College Pottery

From 1895 to 1940 Newcomb College Pottery gave young New Orleans women the skills they needed to reputably support themselves as artists. The results are celebrated works of hand crafted art.

Newcomb was an early occurrence of an American “art pottery,” a pottery that emphasized the spirit and action of an individual maker’s handcraft.

Newcomb’s instructor for design Mary Sheerer declared that the pottery would make “a southern product, made of southern clay, by southern artists, decorated with southern subjects!”

Looking to New Orleans for inspiration, the women developed a stylized design of plants. Here, a 1902 Chinaberries vase shows abstracted flora that pays homage to current styles with roots in Japanese graphics.

Vase, Artus Van Briggle, 1896, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Examples of other iconic Art Potteries of the American Arts & Crafts Movement.

Vase with decoration of irises and "Black Iris" glaze, Rookwood Pottery, 1909/1909, From the collection of: The Newark Museum of Art
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Vase Vase, Grueby Faience Company|Ruth Erikson (working 1899 - 1910), 1899–1910, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Double Spout Vase (1952-1957) by Katherine Poyu ChoyNew Orleans Museum of Art

Studio Pottery Coalesces

In post World War II America rose a new chapter in ceramics. A broadened definition of "art" included abstraction and the use of collage, moving the dial towards accepting clay as a critical fine art medium. The 1944 G.I. Bill supported schooling for returning servicemen, and collegiate ceramics became a tool for both therapeutic engagement and creative expression. Late 1940s philanthropic support tied to Aileen Osborn Webb elevated the awareness and quality of handmade art items for the American public, through her founding of the American Crafts Council, School of American Craftsmen, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York's America House retail outlet, and "Craft Horizons" magazine. To fully spread ideas across the country, clay became integrated within American higher education, when new ceramic programs served to educate potters in techniques, theory, and history. These early programs were populated by educators that saw clay's potential for experimentation and expression.

Katherine Choy was head of ceramics at Newcomb College (Tulane University) from 1952 to 1957, and was an early advocate for clay’s potential as an expressionistic art medium. She invited visiting artists like Mark Rothko to expand the student's view of how ceramics fit into fine art.

Choy’s work fused Eastern and Western aesthetics, showing the broad reach of Shoji Hamada, a traditional potter that brought the Mingei revival of Japanese folk ceramics into the West.

Hamada and Bernard Leach together founded the St. Ives Pottery (England). Their workshops and 1940 treatise “A Potter's Book” were enormously influential to young American potters. When Choy was at Mills College she attended one of Leach’s workshops.

Choy also studied at Cranbrook with Maija Grotell, an influential Finnish-American artist and educator often described as the "Mother of American Ceramics."

Choy’s too-short time in the clay community shows its fervent network of influence. She left New Orleans in 1957 to found The Clay Art Center in Port Chester, NY, setting up a cooperative studio that to this day encourages the advancement of ceramic art.

Large dish with griffon design in trailed slip, galena glaze, Bernard LEACH, 1952/1952, From the collection of: Shimane Art Museum
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Vase with trailed dark green glaze design, Hamada Shoji, 1925 - 1950 AD, From the collection of: Royal Ontario Museum
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In 1920 British potter Bernard Leach and Japanese Shoji Hamada together founded an influential pottery in St. Ives, England that brought the Japanese "Mingei" revival of traditional ceramics into the West. The Leach Pottery elevated the idea of the individual artist-potter as an integrated philosophy of arts and life.

Vase, Warren MacKenzie, 1979, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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The Leach Pottery offered immersion into their ideals through apprenticeships. Minnesota pottery Warren Mackenzie spent a three year residency with Leach, and then a lifetime of teaching a method that was nicknamed “Mingei-sota” (Japanese style pots made near Minneapolis).

Big Ed (1994) by Nambé Studio, manufacturer and Peter VoulkosNew Orleans Museum of Art

A Jolt to the Revolution

Beginning in the late 1950s the charismatic, radical and deeply skilled Peter Voulkos jolted the ceramics scene.  Voulkos is easily one of the most significant ceramic artists in the 20th century, credited with destroying conventions in both clay-working techniques and the expressive potential of the ancient medium. The grandiose showman ushered in a wave of non-utilitarian "expressionistic" ceramic forms with his controversial large-scale work and his unglazed, broken clay surfaces. He founded the ceramics programs at Otis College of Art and Design in 1954 and at University of California, Berkeley in 1958. Peter Voulkos's work as an innovator and teacher inspired generations of ceramists to find liberation and their own voice in the clay medium.

Voulkos vessels, like NOMA’s “Big Ed,” were non-functional ceramics. Literally subverting the traditions of pottery, the work is a stack of pots turned on their head and smashed.

Voulkos’s early work show admiration for Leach and Hamada, with reverent execution of elegant useful forms. But in the period between 1954 and 1959 Voulkos initiated a pivotal shift toward physical expressiveness in American ceramics.

The artist led the erosion of hierarchies between fine art and craft. New York Times critic Roberta Smith described the magnitude of his impact: “few artists have changed a medium as markedly or as single-handedly as Mr. Voulkos.”

The rough surface of Voulkos’s clay shows alternately the softness and violence of of human touch. His unglazed clay shows ash and scars from its wood firing in the kiln. The clay expresses the actions that made it.

Voulkos brought an intentional rawness to ceramics, making the body of the clay literally show the artist's expressive action with gashes and punches, which he sometimes performed in front of an audience.

Jackson Pollock, Martha Holmes, 1949-04, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Voulkos moved pottery toward fine art practices. His was clay's iteration of the mid-century Abstract Expressionist movement in painting, like the famous drip paintings by Jackson Pollock that relayed the movement and psyche of the artist.

Untitled Stack, Peter Voulkos, 1999, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Untitled Vase/Stack, Peter Voulkos, 1969 - 1971, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Covered Jar from the "Sara Series" (c. 1985) by Kaj Franck, designer and Don ReitzNew Orleans Museum of Art

Voulkos’s energy in California ushered in an era of individual expression in clay. Potters like Don Reitz further experimented with materials, and found ways to make clay tell their own individual artist’s story.

Reitz was recognized for inspiring a reemergence of salt glaze pottery in United States. In his oral histories he remembers falling for the "snap, crackle, pop" of salt in the hot kiln.

At a time when few Americans worked in salt glaze, Reitz said "the sodium revealed all [the pot's] scars, and I began to love my scars . . . That's what makes us unique, our scars."

This large covered jar from Reitz's "Sara Series" represents the artist’s personal story. In 1982 Reitz suffered a car accident that took the use of his left arm and leg.

During his recovery, Reitz exchanged letters with his niece Sara who was battling cancer. He used her artwork in his pottery, crediting his niece's optimism for his survival.

Envelope Vessel: Spring (1988) by Akio TakamoriNew Orleans Museum of Art

Akio Takamori's vases brought a figurative element back to clay. His signature coil-built envelope vessels are said to be the most important development in the vessel tradition during the 1980s, a time of fervent creativity in clay.

He used the fronts and backs and interiors of the form in a way that charged the inner void with tension and meaning.

In the artist's words, his vessels are oddly "two-dimensionally oriented . . . but it's still a three-dimensional object . . . a cut-out drawing."

He began working with these figurative drawings/vessels, incorporating memories of people from Japan and images from art history, often with a sensual theme as shown in NOMA’s 1988 envelope vessel, Spring.

Maxwell House Man (2005) by Richard ShawNew Orleans Museum of Art

Richard Shaw perfected a unique statement in studio clay—masterful trompe l'oeil sculptures that stretch ceramics to faithfully mimic everything from photorealistic fruit and open library books to mayonnaise jars.

Shaw first engaged with found objects in the early 1970s, collecting things and casting them in plaster to form slip molds.

He perfected complex techniques for surface treatments that used glaze and transfer decals to mimic the texture of original objects. This continued on for decades as he assembled precise, witty sculpture like this 2005 "Maxwell House Man".

Shaw's bold work is part of an imaginative group of ceramic peers who began working in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Their attitude and style became known as “California funk,” marked by an embrace of expressiveness (like Voulkos), but usually with an added anti-establishment rhetoric with overt politics, bawdy humor, and sometimes complete irreverence.

Credits: Story

This presentation draws from the New Orleans Museum of Art permanent collection and research compiled for Personalities in Clay: American Studio Ceramics from the E. John Bullard Collection. That 2017 exhibition and catalog showcased the collection of NOMA's director emeritus, a promised gift to the museum. Bullard’s growing ceramics collection charts the major figures in handmade, studio pottery from 1940 to the end of the 20th century.

This presentation includes:

Rick Dillingham (American, 1952–1993), Untitled vase, 1981. Earthenware, glazed. New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds donated by E. John Bullard in memory of Robert H. Cousins, 2016.56

George E. Ohr (American, Biloxi, Mississippi, 1857–1918), Two-handled "Ventricle" Vase, 1897-1900. Earthenware with speckled glaze. New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum purchase, William McDonald Boles and Eva Carol Boles Fund, 2015.49

Newcomb College Pottery (New Orleans, 1895–1940), Decorated by Harriet Joor (American, 1875–1965), Form thrown by Joseph Fortune Meyer (American, 1848–1931), “Chinaberries” Vase, 1902 – 03. Earthenware. New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of Newcomb College through Dean Pierce Butler, 38.29

Katherine Choy (American, born Hong Kong, 1925–1958), Double Spout Vase, 1952–1957. Earthenware. New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of Evelyn Witherspoon, 87.153

Peter Voulkos (American, 1924–2002), Big Ed, 1994. Stoneware. New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds donated by E. John Bullard in memory of Robert H. Cousins, 2016.59, © Voulkos Family Trust

Don Reitz (American, 1929–2014), Covered Jar from the "Sara Series," circa 1985. Stoneware. New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds donated by E. John Bullard in memory of Robert H. Cousins, 2016.57, © Reitz Family Trust

Akio Takamori (American, b. Japan, 1950–2017), Envelope Vessel: Spring, 1988. Porcelain. New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds donated by E. John Bullard in memory of Robert H. Cousins, 2016.58, © Akio Takamori

Richard Shaw (American, b. 1941), Maxwell House Man, 2005. Porcelain. New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds donated by E. John Bullard in memory of Robert H. Cousins, 2016.60, © Richard Shaw

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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