Andy Ward has produced an interesting documentary on the origins of Salado Polychrome pottery, originating from his research into replicating the techniques and materials used by Native American peoples to make pottery throughout what is now the American Southwest (Arizona & New Mexico, primarily).
As Andy explains in this video, the stylistic origins of Salado Polychrome came about when local peoples placed a white or buff-colored slip onto coil-and-scrape bowls and then used organic pigments from local plants to decorate the slipped pot with red and black designs. The pots were fired above ground allowing oxidation to preserve the pigments. The resulting pots have compelling 3-colored, intertwined designs: white, black and red.
As a tickler to the video, I’m including an image of one Salado Polychrome “olla” (water container) that is more fully described in the Arizona State Museum’s online exhibit:
Additional examples and information about Salado Polychrome pottery can be found in a website article prepared by the National Park Service.
Extensive additional information on many sub-classifications of Salado Polychrome pottery can be found on the American Southwest Virtual Museum (an example of which is shown below):
Redfin, the real estate company, reached out to me for tips and ideas on how to incorporate functional pottery into a home setting.
Here was my tip:
“The wonderful thing about using pottery to accent your home is your wide access to high-quality ceramic objects at affordable prices. You can incorporate some of the best, most innovative ceramics produced around the world for a fraction of the cost of other artistic media such as paintings or sculpture. Ceramics as an art form is undergoing a modern renaissance: artists are pushing boundaries in terms of shape, texture, scale, glazes and even ceramic materials. Bring all those attributes into the palm of your hand with a bowl or mug or vase – items you can use and intimately appreciate on a daily basis.”
Alejandra Almuelle’s figurative sculpture reveals the human form arising out of organic, elemental, formless shapes of matter, often infused with dark and brooding undertones. There is a consistent suggestion of organic matter, and often a sense of history as well: Andean facial features, classical Greek and Roman materials. Creation. The passage of time. Decay.
Originally from Peru, Alejandra absorbed much of the rich ceramic tradition of Andean peoples. She speaks of some of these memories as a foundation for her artistic work. Alejandra subsequently relocated to Austin, Texas in the United States where she currently resides.
JW: Will you tell me a little about your background and what first attracted you to ceramics?
AA: I grew up in Peru where I was exposed to ceramic making. Clay is widely available and each region has their own signature style. I remember in particular the clay pots made in Puno, in the southern part of the Andes. They are made to cook with fire so the bottoms are convex. There was something about the roundness of the shape, the balance of the handles on each side and the edge of the opening turning outwards that left a deep impression in me as a small child.
Later on as a teen in Lima, I was blown away by the Shipibo ceramics from the central region of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. I bought a bowl that is still with me today. In my work I can see the influence of the Pre-Columbian ceramic aesthetic overlapping with the Catholic iconography I was exposed to growing up there.
JW: One article on your website mentioned that your work used to involve a lot of Sgrafitto. That sounds different from your current work. Will you tell me how your work has evolved over time?
AA: Drawing has been a central component on treating the surface of my functional work. I apply underglaze with an airbrush, this creates a thin layer that can be marked and scratch very easily.
However I also like to try different clay bodies, from earthenware, to stoneware to porcelain. This challenges me to explore different surface treatments and apply elements from sculpture to my functional work and viceversa.
JW: Will you tell me about your creative process? Where do you look for inspiration? Do you sketch out your ideas (either on paper or in clay) before working on your large-scale pieces?
AA: The focus of my work is the human form. The body fascinates me. It not only carries our genetic memory, but it is the biological archive of experience.
We are historically shaped and conditioned by the environment and by the same socioeconomic structures we have participated in creating. I am interested in exploring, through form, the interplay between the body and the world.
Everything can be a source for inspiration; something I read or listen to will trigger a thought or an image. Then if I am curious enough I will let myself explore in that direction.
I do sketch and right ideas for future work. One thing I like to do is create projects with deadlines. This keeps me engaged and committed.
JW: You tend to work in series, exploring an idea thoroughly before moving on. Do you work on multiple pieces in the series simultaneously?
AA: I do work in series. I work 1 and 2 pieces at a time. If the pieces are of small format, let’s say,12 inches high, I do 5 to 10 at a time.
JW: Your pieces look like they take a long time to create. How do you deal with the challenge of long periods of solitary work? Has the Coronavirus pandemic affected you?
AA: When I am producing work for a solo show, I like to focus only in my studio. It could get hard sometimes but I like to listen to music, podcasts, audio books. Curating what I listen also informs the work I create at a given moment.
Even though I do work well in solitude, the pandemic has eroded the spontaneous gatherings and the general sense of just being with people. We are communal beings. As artists, there so much more than what happens in the studio that makes the work we do.
More of Alejandra’s work may be viewed on her website.
Ann Van Hoey is an accomplished artist who began her ceramic career later in life (at age 50). She has enjoyed remarkable success, and when you take a look at her work you’ll understand why. Ann has a deep respect for material. She also has a remarkable way of fusing simplicity with complexity, and extracting grace and beauty from the combination.
JW: You became a ceramic artist later in life. Can you tell me about your decision to make that “leap”?
AVH: I was a rather scientific person, interested in math and science at school. At university I studied something called economical engineering, but never used my diploma. The rest of my family were sales representatives for furniture companies, and I also started as a sales rep for furniture companies. I did that for almost 20 years, and then did some other commercial jobs. Just after university, I had taken a ceramic class in a night school. That’s where my love for ceramics started, although it was a full diploma program in ceramics and I didn’t finish the course. In my late 40s I went back to the school and completed the diploma course in ceramics. Around the age of 50, I found I wasn’t very happy with my professional life, so I decided to make my hobby my profession.
JW: Based on your experience, do you have any advice for people who may be interested in transitioning into a ceramics career later in life?
AVH: At school I focused on throwing because I said to myself, “You’re not an artist, so you better make something you can use.” So I set up a studio, bought a kiln and a throwing wheel, and began my new career trying to throw table ware. I went very enthusiastically to my studio every morning. But it was not very easy for several reasons. First, it’s difficult to distinguish yourself in this area. Second, I underestimated how difficult it would be to work alone all the time. And third, with my economics background I found myself thinking about the costs of materials and labor in making an individual object to make this a viable career. It was all very “counter-creative.” After a few months I stopped going to the studio – it almost turned into a failure. Then my husband said, “Come on, go back to the studio. Enjoy yourself making your pieces like before. Don’t count, and aim as high as possible.”
He also told me, “At 50, you’re much too old to have a little exhibition here in our town this year, and then perhaps next year in the little town next to us. You have to aim as high as possible right now because you don’t have time to build this up gradually.” Normally, I’m not like that. My training is to see if I can do something on a small scale, and if that works then try the next thing, and so on. I don’t like to show off. But I said, “Okay, I’ll try.” It was really liberating.
I left the idea of making table ware and started making larger vessels not really for use. I decided to apply to the biggest international ceramic competitions such as the World Ceramic Biennale in Icheon (South-Korea), the International Ceramics Competition in Mino (Japan) and the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale to name the Asian ones. In Europe I applied, amongst others, to the International Biennial of Contemporary Ceramics in Vallauris (France) and in Faenza (Italy). To my big surprise I was accepted at all the competitions and even won several awards. Then the galleries came. It was the start of a fantastic adventure.
JW: You must have known your work was very good to make this jump into “the big leagues.”
AVH: The moment that I began to believe in myself was a turning point. It didn’t happen immediately. I still have doubts. But at a certain moment I thought, “Gosh, I have something here. I really have something.” From that point forward, I decided to do things professionally. I use a professional photographer. I have someone help me write about my work in a professional manner. Fortunately I have a good husband for that! But before that moment I couldn’t convince him. My confidence and belief in myself convinced him to help me write about my work.
JW: Switching to your work itself, you originally created work that focused on the material of clay itself and how it can be shaped – no glazes, engobes or decoration. What was your source of inspiration for such simple forms?
AVH: When I was in ceramics school I discovered this dark earthenware clay from the south of France. I love the material itself after it’s been fired. I decided I wanted to work in that earthenware. I know in the United States when you talk about earthenware it’s a little…. I don’t know. But I truly love this clay.
JW: Do you think there are different perceptions of clay in different cultures?
AVH: I had the impression when I was in the United States when I spoke about the type of clay I used and the temperature I fire at, well, they said [dismissively], “Oh, well then it’s really low-fire.” I felt a little bit, well, I don’t know. And, for instance, in Asia I have the impression that if it’s not porcelain, well, it’s not worth anything. It has to be porcelain. But I really love this earthenware clay. You can’t fire it at higher temperatures. It has a beautiful, smoother look than stoneware.
Now I’m working with stoneware. I just had a show at Lucy Lacoste Gallery near Boston where much of my work is stoneware finished with an engobe.
JW: Do you sketch out and plan your designs before building them in clay? I see references to mathematics and geometry in your work. Or is your creative process more spontaneous?
AVH: Yes, in the first year I was measuring everything. It was purely mathematical. Now I’ve left that a little bit and my process is more intuitive. I know now when I make a certain type of cut or work on a particular shape or alteration, I know what I can achieve. I’m more working in the moment and not measuring everything anymore.
JW: Do you see your work changing in any new direction?
AVH: Well, it has changed some. My evolution is slow, but there has been an evolution in my work. I am simplifying my shapes.
I always make a basic shape in a mold (spherical or elliptical mold). For that I work with paper templates and thin clay slabs. When I have the perfect shape in clay, I cut triangles and then alter the form by folding in order to obtain a new strong shape.
Now, when I cut out the triangles, instead of folding them I leave the edges alone.
For my last solo show, all those pieces sold very well. Also, now instead folding the triangles over each other I’m starting to butt them together, as in this photograph.
JW: I also see a few pieces with texture.
AVH: The textured bowl you may be looking at on my website was part of a social project called A+A. I designed a collection of textured stoneware bowls, which were then used to make plaster molds. People who aren’t able to work in traditional job settings, such as people who have had a stroke or injury or that type of thing, use the molds to produce bowls. Since I have worked with Serax, I introduced that company to the A+A project participants. Serax packages and markets the bowls and the people making the bowls are thrilled to see their work in museums and galleries and design shops. They also make money in the venture.
I also work as an industrial designer for Serax, a major ceramics firm, designing table ware. I just finished a big project for Serax and the products will be available in 2023. Serax also operates in the United States, so hopefully my table ware will be available there.
I’m also interested in bringing texture into my personal work.
JW: Are you doing work in other media?
AVH: I’m currently testing some new work in leather for a big design company from Madrid, called Loewe. They came across my work because in 2018 I was in the selection of the Loewe Craft Prize, organized by their foundation. This craft prize is really worth applying for. The first prize is Eur 50,000 (apx $60,000) – which is much more than most prizes.
Loewe has contacted me and asked if I would be interested in creating some objects in leather. The idea is very agreeable and adventurous.
JW: I also see some bronze work. Is that a new direction you are pursuing? What does bronze offer that clay does not?
AVH: I like my work in bronze but it’s difficult to sell it in ceramics galleries. Up to now, galleries have contacted me. I haven’t searched for gallery representation. Perhaps I should for the bronze work.
This past summer something interesting happened. I was in 2 group shows. I sold a lot of these bronze sculptures. A company contacted me and told me they absolutely want some of my bronze sculptures for the new Henge showroom in Milan. I didn’t know the company but they are a large Italian furniture firm. So I’m excited to explore this area.
Throughout the past century, Mimbres pottery has been looted from burial sites across southern New Mexico, given the intense interest in the markings and decoration frequently found on pots. The plunder of Mimbres burial sites by pot hunters gave rise to various laws designed to protect sites for archaeological research. Oftentimes, archaeologists got to sites only after pot hunters had dug up or even bulldozed the location.
On Feb 5, 2022, the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society will offer a virtual tour of one Mimbres archaeological site called the “Mattocks Site”. The Mattocks Site was first excavated in 1929-30, and then again in the 1970s. Two two people involved with the second excavation and remaining site preservation will discuss Mimbres culture and history, the site excavation itself, and subsequent efforts to preserve the site.
The virtual tour is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required. The virtual tour will take place from 11:30AM – 12:45PM MST. Click here for more registration information.
The Design Museum of Barcelona has created three stories on Google Arts and Culture relating to a set of tin-glazed earthenware tiles in their collection.
The architectural tiles in the museum’s collection once decorated a pavilion in the palace of the Count of Castellar. Scenes depicted on the tiles represent pastimes of the nobility around the time of their creation in 1710.
One painted tile scene is “The Chocolate Party.” The museum has created two explanatory stories about this tile scene: “The Chocolate Party” and “A Portrait of Society From The 18th Century.” Both stories highlight some of the fashions and customs of the time, and walk the viewer into details depicted in the panel.
I recently discovered that the Cleveland Museum of Art is a participant in the Open Access Initiative through which they, along with other major art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum, allow free, unrestricted use of images of many (but not all, particularly more modern pieces) of their collection items. That prompted me to poke around the Cleveland Museum of Art’s online collection of ceramics. It was well worth the effort.
Because I was writing an article on early luster ware bowls, I first searched for ceramics from the Islamic art collection and hit 64 results. I clicked on the first item (a Mihrab from Iran), shown below, and then explored the accompanying material.
Because I know very little about mihrabs, I was pleased to see a lengthy text description of the object, which I’ve displayed to the right.
From the description I learned that mihrabs are prayer niches found inside mosques, located on the wall that faces Mecca.
The description goes on to explain elements of this particular mihrab such as a translation of the text found on tiles.
The image quality of the photography is impressive. The site allows you to zoom into objects.
For this particular item, I found several videos, one describing the function of a mihrab, a second describing the design and decoration of this mihrab (see below), a third discussing Arabic calligraphy, and the fourth discussing Islam in Cleveland.
There is extensive information on inscriptions, provenance, citations, exhibition history, etc. You are able to view and download images of the objects. In this case there weren’t different views, but I did find that when viewing other objects (for example, a view of a bowl from above, the side, and bottom).
I’m just beginning to explore the full scope of the museum’s collection, but I quickly see a variety of work from different ages and regions. I’ll highlight a few below – but I suggest you go online and explore the Cleveland Museum of Art’s online collection yourself.
Kim Murton became a professional ceramic artist after working in New York as an animation artist, and her work reflects her earlier career as well as her history of exploring different artistic media – both physical and digital. Along with her ceramic work, Kim continues to draw, illustrate and produce textile designs. In our interview, Kim told me her artistic inclinations have spanned different media for different reasons, which I found very interesting.
JW: You started doing ceramics, but then moved into different creative fields such as animation, illustration, and textile design. You’ve published a drawing a day since 2009. You’ve settled in on ceramics but you still explore other media. What is driving all this?
KM: I’ve always been back and forth between mediums and there’s always been a connection. In school I started as a ceramics major. Right down the hall was the animation department. I decided to try a Claymation project. I was lazy and didn’t research it and it was a disaster. There are techniques to do Claymation correctly and I just started putting things together my own way. Under the lights everything melted and turned to goo. It was a mess.
But I’ve always been able to draw, so I started scratching on film – drawing on that medium – and found that I loved it.
I switched majors and started doing film. I transferred to NYC in the 1980s and after graduation I got a job in animation. I worked for 7 years at what turned out to be an amazing animation studio (Ink Tank Studio), starting as a foot messenger and working my way up to assistant animator. Along the way I did a lot of cel painting (we still used cels at that time). The animated spots were designed by RO Blechman as well as other popular established illustrators. I was too intimidated at the time to try to do illustration, but I always wanted to.
Later, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, and worked with a stonemason, doing bricklaying and stonework. I found a local ceramics studio and started teaching ceramics to kids and basically got back into clay again. I was pretty off the grid back then, I would go back and forth between Boulder and New York, picking up some free lance animation work since it’s a pretty tight artistic community. Eventually, I moved to Portland where I briefly worked in animation. I missed clay and discovered the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, where I found a community and started painting on plates, selling my work in the school gallery and working at the cafe connected with the school.
That was about 25 years ago. I felt at that point my drawings didn’t have enough legitimacy unless they were drawn on a plate and had some utility value. I didn’t have confidence. That ended up being a money-maker. People liked buying them and I started putting work in galleries. Coincidentally, it was the exact same skills as cel painting because underglaze is very similar to cell paint, and the black line inking around colored areas that I do is exactly what you do in cell animation. So that was an easy transition.
Later, when my husband and I had a child, I found that I couldn’t maintain my focus while drawing on ceramics. I’m not even sure why. When you have a baby you’re constantly interrupted, and it turns out that I could make these little clay heads while being interrupted. So that’s a lot of what I do now.
[Although this Oregon Public Broadcasting video is 10 years old, you may find it interesting to watch Kim create some ceramic pieces and discuss her creative process. The video section on Kim runs between 4:53 and 12:25.]
JW: You still work in other mediums, right?
KM: Yes. I started doing these clay heads and then the whole computer era kicked in, starting with a site called Flickr, where artists could share their images with each other. I had this little group of friends, mostly in England, and we’d do this 5 minute drawing prompt every day, look at each other’s work, and it became a group that was very supportive. I started drawing more and gaining confidence. Around 2009, everyone was joining Facebook, and I started doing the drawing a day thing. Because I had Facebook friends back in New York, from my animation days, an art director at the New York Times saw my drawings and hired me to do a series of illustrations for editorial pieces.
That’s how I got into doing designs for fabrics. I saw this Spoonful site that prints designs onto fabric and I moved into that, along with my ceramic work.
The illustration thing is what I’d really love to do at this point. When I get an illustration project I drop everything else and focus on that. Because of my animation background I work very fast, which is good for illustration projects.
JW: So you’ve moved between media over your life. I have to say, your work lends itself to that migration. I can definitely see a consistency in your work, and that “look” seems to lend itself to working in different media like ceramics, animation, illustration and design.
KM: I know, people say that and it’s so strange. I’ll never stop doing ceramics. I would like to concentrate on making really big pieces. People buy them, but they take longer to sell. I love the rush of illustration, having like 2 days to come up with an idea and then 1 more day to finalize the drawing. And the pay is good. At this point ceramics is where I’m making most money, and illustration is more of a side thing. I’d like to flop that. I want to continue my ceramics, but do more larger work than production work.
JW: Can you tell me more about your process?
KM: I typically work about 4-6 hours per day, maybe a bit more when it’s really busy, 6 days a week. I do things in multiples. That probably comes from my animation days. The “figuring it out stage” – like figuring out a new form – is hard for me. But once I do that I’ll repeat and repeat and repeat it until I get bored with it. I like that intermediary point, where I’ve gotten over the technical issues of creating something and I can still be creative with it. Then it gets to a point where it’s no longer that creative, and it’s time to come up with something else.
See more of Kim’s work on her website (which contains links to her ceramics, illustration, drawings and textiles).
I’m not going to yak on about these items. I’ll just present them in their simple beauty, and marvel that numerous museums have made such items available for us to see and share online — as the next wave of Covid envelops the world in late 2021.
(Beginning in 2017, several major museums began sharing images and basic data of public-domain artwork in their collections under the Open Access Initiative. Participating museums include the Met, the Cooper Hewitt, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery and the Smithsonian Museum.)
This 10th century luster bowl shown above was made in Iraq, but discovered at Tepe Madrasa in Nishapur, Iran, in 1939. The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes “its true metallic sheen—derived from a technique not known to Nishapuri potters—confirms that it was made in Iraq, and its single color dates it to the tenth century. Together with other examples, this bowl is evidence of the active trade between the two regions once Nishapur was incorporated into the Abbasid empire in the eighth century.”
Apart from its historic context, I love the confident, fluid brushstrokes of this piece, combining delicate lines with broad areas of pigment on the buff surface. I also enjoy the gesture of the strokes. I can picture the artist perched on a low stool, bowl in his (or her) lap, dipping a brush into metallic pigment and quickly, deftly, sketching out this design.
Here is a second example, this item from the Cleveland Museum of Art entitled “Luster Bowl with Man Holding a Banner” and dated around the 10th century. I will include some close-ups because the images of the object are so sharp you can really drill into detail on the museum website. THANK YOU to the Cleveland Museum of Art for the high level of photography they share with all of us!
Gail Kendall is a former academic and maker of sumptuous pieces that reflect a deep interest in both form and surface. Her work also reflects a basic creative impulse to create objects of beauty and pleasure that add to our cultural tradition. I respect that impulse – deeply respect that impulse. A life spent adding beauty to the world is a life well spent.
JW: You note influence from 13th – 18th C. European pottery traditions. Where did you first encounter these ceramic traditions and how did you come to incorporate them into your work?
GK: The pots I turn to the most are historical. At one time, it was primarily surface on historical pots that I sought out and perhaps interpreted. Of late, I am looking at the simple volumetric forms that are to be found in every culture that has produced pottery. I have to admit I sometimes feel I am not stretching or challenging myself with more complex forms: particularly when I look at the work of my peers. Ultimately, I make what I am impelled to make and what gives me pleasure. If I were forced to defend my love of classic pottery form, I could say that my complex surfaces require them.
I believe that all artists, regardless of medium are made vulnerable in terms of their creative process. We pull original works from our guts and heart and put them out there, one way or another, to be judged, critiqued, talked about, cared about, or not. I think it was this stress that took me out of the studio. During the pandemic I knit four sweaters, baked sour dough bread, and cooked.
I shut down my creative work for the entire lock-downed part of the pandemic. That is 15 months or so. Why? I haven’t exactly figured that out. I can’t explain it especially when my potter pals were happy as clams and working day and night. I was not and still am not fearful or afraid of the virus. I take care but I grocery shop, visit friends who are part of my “quarantine pod” and in February ‘21 traveled to teach a workshop. On some level I must have dealt with enough stress about the lock-down (and let’s not forget the politics) that working in the studio had to take a vacation.
In August 2021 I ventured back into the studio. I had an upcoming exhibition and no inventory to look to. I gave myself permission to make whatever I wished to make and that included urns and other objects of contemplation as well as pots that would live part of their lives in the dish rack.
JW: Will you tell me a little about your creative process? Do you work out the form and decoration of a piece before working on it, or is your creative process more fluid and spontaneous, for example?
GK: I start a piece by determining whether I am making a plate, a cup, a covered form or something else. I “draw” in the air. I choose my approach: will I start with a mold, a soft slab, or coils? From there I build, examining the shape of a curve, the beginning points, the ending points, the lip edge. Eventually, things are made, bisque fired, glazed and fired, then china painted and possibly lustered and fired again.
I use red earthenware clay and paint white slip on the leather hard forms in various ways. I am interested in layered surfaces and I achieve them, in part, by applying slips, glazes and the rest in a painterly manner. The surface is unregimented.
JW: How has your ceramic work evolved over time? What have you struggled with?
GK: The struggle I have dealt with in my career was finding my lifework within the medium. I believe it would have happened much sooner had I lived in Minnesota as an art student. There, functional pottery was what was happening. Before I took the plunge into functionality, I was making what I call “hand-built contemporary vessels”. I believe they were successful, but my problem, which I shall express simplistically, was that I became bored “by number seven in a series”. What was I bored with? Sticking with the content.
The magical joy of pottery is that the content is profound and is embedded in the forms. I, as an artist, do not have to explore and investigate any issue. I am a designer. The content is either metaphorical or quotidian depending on what I am making. An urn, a covered form, or the kind of vessel that in the past would have served in a meaningful, often religious ritual, is metaphorical. If I am making a plate, bowl, cup, then I am celebrating the quotidian: those essential needs of people for sustenance and community. I love that.
JW: What would you like people to know about you and your work?
GK: I have been the recipient of generosity from certain individuals in the field at seminal times in my career. I love teaching and mentoring and ended up with a fabulous academic job here in Nebraska. A job is fabulous if the boss is fabulous and my department chair was behind me all the way. I had two great colleagues, and we found in our separate ways, satisfaction and gratification in building program, facility, and in sharing times of frustration and times of joy.
I am an elder. My energy level is decreasing. My focus has moved from career to a larger canvas: family, pets, friends. I love the clay. I am proud of my work and excited by new developments. I don’t see that ending any time soon. I still have a difficult time taking no for an answer.