The Studio Pottery Challenge

On any given day inside the Pottery Shop in Greenfield Village you’ll find our team of potters and decorators creating a variety of different handmade items, from mugs for Eagle Tavern dining to new-baby birthday plates and even Christmas tree ornaments. But right now in the snow-covered shop our artists are taking on a new challenge that’s all about creativity and exploration instead of out-of-the-box, obvious function.

studiopottery2Senior Manager of Program Operations Tom Varitek issued a challenge to potters Melinda Mercer, Alex Pratt and John Ahearn at the beginning of the year to each create a piece of pottery that best reflected their interpretation of the studio pottery movement. It didn’t have to be functional and it didn’t have to look like something you’d see on the kitchen table inside the Ford Home. There could be revisions and further exploration along the way; it didn’t have to be perfect after the first firing. It just had to reflect who they are as potters.

Studio pottery is work created by artists that isn’t mass produced, either by a large pottery or factory. The pieces can be functional, but tend to lean more toward the artistic, individual expression side of design. Simply put, factories equal function, studios equal art.

The studio pottery movement took hold of America in the early 20th century, most notably in the 1930s and 1940s as large factories began to consistently produce pottery in masses. Artists looked for creative outlets in their work; those opportunities were often found in smaller potteries and studios across the country. Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery is one example of the transition the Arts & Crafts Movement reflected in the early 1900s. As founder Mary Stratton said:

“It is not the aim of the Pottery to become an enlarged, systematized commercial manufactor in competition with others striving in the same way. Its idea has always been to solve progressively the various ceramic problems that arise in hope of working out the results and artistic effects which may happily remain as memorials….or at least stamp this generation as one which brought about a revival of the ceramic arts and prove an inspiration to those who come after us.”

Getting a chance to see what the potters have been up to with their challenge assignments so far this winter, my visit to the pottery shop this week was met with smiling faces and enthusiastic displays of their work made so far.

For lead potter Melinda, the assignment has been a great chance to depart from the production pottery the team is responsible for throughout the year. However, its this background in producing goods visitors see across the Village and for sale in our shops that gives the team the confidence to let their creativity lead the development process this time around.

“Doing production work is invaluable,” Melinda said. “It builds your skills so that you can achieve whatever it is you want to make.”

Alex echoed similar sentiments. He feels his production work here at Greenfield Village has strengthened his own skills and gives him a greater understanding and appreciation of well-crafted work, no matter its function.

“I appreciate a really, really nice piece of pottery now,” he said.

When given such a big, open-ended assignment like this, I was curious how the team got started in the research and design process of their pieces. For John, his development process began with a lot of reflection of his craft and the work of artists before him.

“During the Industrial Revolution, things were just made so quickly. Some potters couldn’t keep up,” he said. “With studio work, they could take a step back and think, ‘What’s the purpose? Why should I make it if a machine can do it faster than I can?’ I’m using a piercing motif in my piece; I’m not worried about the function right now, I’m worried about the production. I’m literally piercing into my piece, almost into its soul, and evaluating it to determine what it should be.”

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Alex also spent time thinking about artists from the past, especially those working during the 1950s. For his collection of vessels, he’s experimenting with transferring images to them and trying new glazes. One piece could turn into a teapot, another into a coordinating sugar bowl.

“I’m taking my inspiration from the world around me. Colors and lines in the city, colors and lines in the country.”

An appreciation of nature and a longing for Spring were the source of Melinda’s inspiration.

“I looked at seeds, seedpods, nuts and vegetables to explore ways to create an interesting surface. I’m thinking about the texture of the natural world, of water and plants.”

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Her colorful sketchbook is a collection of nature-related drawings, from large bowls meant to serve big salads at a dinner party to serving platters that look like peapods for a potluck. She’s even making her own collection of stamps to add texture and pattern to her pieces.

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Next to Melinda John is creating as he goes. His tall vessel is covered with perfectly carved holes, both created by hand and, believe it or not, a Dremel rotary tool.

So far, Tom likes what he sees.

“Greenfield Village is all about telling stories with ‘stuff.’ We want to create some new ‘stuff’ to show this transition in form. I wanted to give our potters a chance to express themselves and show off.”

What will Melinda, Alex and John discover next in their work? You’ll have to check back to the blog next month to see how they’re moving along with their pieces as Greenfield Village gets ready for opening day.

Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford and a wannabe potter.