In September of 2011 North Carolina wood fire potter Matt Jones, as he fired up as his kiln, sent me an attack e-mail. He had just read my article “Bernard Leach’s Orphans,” then he listened to the podcast of my lecture at the Portland Museum of Craft and Design, “How Envy Killed The Crafts.” Intrigued by his passion, I dodged the musket shots and took Jones up on the suggestion that our exchange of opinion be made pubic on his blog. Let’s make it a spectator sport. The following is a quote from round one, “Critique of a Critic: Rising to Garth Clark’s Bait.”
“My beef with Garth Clark is that he is playing the intellectual provocateur who feels he has earned the right to frame the debate. He does not have that right. I also find his tone to be self-satisfied (perhaps he has earned that much) and condescending. He pretends not to live in a glass house while he criticizes and implies that hardworking and sincere craftspeople don’t know what they are about. He has fattened his bank account on Ceramic Artists (which is fully his right) and has generously turned to piss on the potters (with whom) he cannot make as good a profit. He has called us insecure, self-loathing and envious of the status and wealth that ‘art’ has afforded people like him. We ‘overdosed’ on nostalgia and communist rhetoric, therefore we are the losers in a socially Darwinian Art paradigm.”
To some extent I was bemused. I can understand ire at “Orphans,” it was a button-pusher. But “Envy” supported the identity of enclaves like the traditional potters of North Carolina. The suggestion was to take this fight on the road, face-to-face. Jones organized a one-week tour in North Carolina in the fall of 2012 with a conference, lectures and panel debates in Charlotte, Raleigh and Asheville.
I am a compulsive pot lover so unsurprisingly after Jones and I ironed out the semantic kinks in our arguments, we were more in agreement than not. But we still had some strong divides in opinion. He had some excellent points, though, and much as I professed my admiration for traditional pots, Jones got me to realize that this statement had become a slogan more than a reality. I had given little time to thinking about it. I had not written positively about the genre in some time. I lacked intimacy with the makers. It was time to renew.
The first stop, a day long conference at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, was packed to the rafters and it turned out to be one of the most exciting, productive, warming meetings I can remember in my long career. There was little anger. Most of what I think has been leeched out, (pun intended) by Jones’ blog. But there was a lot dark humor and concern. How would NC pottery survive a new era?
Mark Hewitt, the leading potter in NC, kindly referred to the tour as a “watershed moment.” If it was, then my role was certainly (sorry Matt) playing the intellectual provocateur. One earns the right by being meaningfully provocative and if you do not deliver you simply lose your audience. But the success of the event was due to every participant and to the superb opening papers by Jones and Hewitt. Issues were raised that were long overdue and our conversation traveled throughout the state.
Part of my reason for going to NC was was political. NC had just passed a state amendment that robbed the gay community of any right to become a family, including civil unions. The goal, it seems, was to make NC the new Uganda and- short of the death penalty- they are making progress.
I began my talk with Cardew (appropriate because he is the God of NC pottery and my first and most most influential mentor) and introducing them to Michael’s black lover, Koffey Atthey. I asked them to imagine living in a white picket-fenced cottage in Charlotte, sans civil rights. It did not have the impact I had hoped. Judy Garland was not burnt in effigy. The ceramic audience tended to be more liberal than most.
The other reason was to announce that Tanya Harrod’s book, after over a decade in gestation, had been born. The review (long time coming) is in this issue. It is a remarkable study of a complex man and, as Harrod’s writing often is, in a class of its own.
This year the Mint Museum invited Jones to return to present his opinion about the impact of that 2012 tour. As part of his talk (which will be published in full later) I was interviewed by Jones. That too is part of this week’s issue.
By chance an auction is coming up of an exceptional collection of British and American studio pottery in the Leach-Cardew-Hamada tradition.
Mark Hewitt has written about his 1978 visit to Abuja and the pottery school Cardew founded.
Marty Gross, who has made of a career of saving, restoring and making the films of Leach and the Mingei movement, has launched a new project.
This issue has become almost by accident a focus on modern traditional pottery and I hope this topic will fill the comment boxes with discussion. Lastly, a thought from Michael Cardew on the subject: tradition, he said, is a living thing yet most of those who practice it do not grow and change but merely imitate the past and “take measurements of the corpse.”
That leaves us wondering if traditional pottery has a life in our new century and if so, how it will need to adapt to avoid becoming a cadaver.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: A sketch by Matthew Causey of Garth Clark speaking at the Back To The Future conference in Charlotte, NC, October 16, 2012.
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Read about the auction of British and American studio pottery