Ceramic art is a form of art with a long history in many parts of the world. It refers to making object such as tableware, tiles and figures from clay and other raw materials through the pottery process. The products that result from this process are categorized as fine art, decorative, industrial or applied art and the archeologists refer to them simply as artifacts.
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The word ceramic is derived from a Greek word “keramos” or potter’s clay which means the objects are made from clay and burned in a kiln to get the finished product. With technological development, new processes have been adopted to make ceramic objects, and the term are now used to refer to a broad array of objects made of many materials such as glass and cements and, therefore, clay is no longer the key constituent (Byars, 2004).
Though other materials have been adopted to replace clay in making ceramics, there is no difference between pottery and ceramics as Peterson (2000) says.
They both use the basic process of forming, firing or baking in a kiln. Campbell (2006) says that fine art ceramics or pottery is different from crafts in that fine arts are artistic objects of ceramic or pottery made for their visual or aesthetic appeal while crafts, though they might be visually appealing, are functional and made primarily using a formula or a technique.
However, these definitions are not absolute as some works can be both aesthetic and functional. Applied art, on the other hand, refers to artistically designed and produced objects that have functional value for everyday use. These could be machine produced with a design, which makes it easy to use and more attractive; or they could be made individually by a skilled artist or skilled workers for aesthetics and functionality.
Pottery was the earliest form of ceramic art where ports were made by the coiling method and modeled into shapes with smooth walls. Decorating of clay work was found in archeological works of many civilizations. Ceramic art is associated with the prestigious, modern sculpture and metalwork. The early Ancient and Chinese and Roman era’s had their ceramics incorporating both ceramic-ware and pottery.
These were common in forms of containers such as vessels, tableware, and bowls, also in figurines which were extremely common. The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which is a statute of a nude female, is considered the earliest known fine art ceramic sculpture found in the Czech Republic.
The celadon glaze, which was first made during the Han Dynasty between 206 BCE and 220 CE, made Chinese ceramics highly exceptional. This technique involved creating a high-iron mixture which, during firing would produce various shades of green (Campbell 2006).
In modern ceramic art, artists such as Beatrice Wood, American artists experimented and developed a unique form of luster-glaze technique during her career spanning from 1930s to 1998 when she died at the age of 105. Another modern artist is Bernard Leach whose work emerged as the standard for gauging other works (Peterson, 2000).
She was a prominent modern artist, craftsperson and writer known for her shimmering pots and her long, remarkable life spanning the course of the 20th century with her work being inspired by the figures that shaped her life. She combined a wide range of influences in her work such as the spirit of Dadaism, modernity, Eastern philosophy, folk art and ornament of ethnic jewelry, which made her work unique.
Before she discovered her true vocation at the age of 40 years, she had engaged in painting, drawing, writing and theatre. This led her to many places where she met many people and got many experiences, things that are all reflected in her ceramic works (Naumann, 1997).
Beatrice Wood was born in San Francisco to a wealthy and aristocratic family in 1893. At the age of five years, the family moved to New York City and her family especially her mother started preparing her for her ultimate “coming out” into New York society.
For this reason, she was sent to the convent in Paris for a year beside an enrollment to a stylish finishing school and summer trips to Europe where she visited art galleries, museums and theatre.
She was widely exposed to art and yearned to run away to France which charted the direction of her life as she thwarted her mother plans for “coming out” into the society and leading a structured life of the aristocratic and proper lady as expected of her.
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In 1912, the year she was supposed to come out at the age of 16, she rejected the coming out party organized for her and announced that she wanted to be a painter. Her mother decided that if that was what she wanted, it would be done properly, so she was sent to France to study painting at the Academy Julian in Paris albeit with a chaperon.
She soon got bored with the school and moved to Giverny, the home town of Monet, and started painting on canvasses in an attic. Her mother soon arrived in France and into her attic and dragged her to Paris where her attention shifted to theatre (Naumann, 1997).
Beatrice’s mother again wanted things to be done properly. She thus enrolled her for private lessons in acting and dancing with the members of the Comedie-francaise. It was during this time that her famous appearance on stage with leading stars then, such as Sarah Bernhardt happened. Her Paris theatre career was short-lived as political turmoil’s and onset of World War I in Europe appeared, and she had to return to New York.
Despite her mother discouragement to continue a stage career in New York, Beatrice went ahead and joined the French National Repertory Theatre mainly due to her fluency in French.
She played over sixty roles in the ingénue under an assumed name, Mademoiselle Patricia, to protect her family’s name and reputation. The inspiration for this theatre career was mainly to earn money and become independent from her interfering family (Peterson, 2000).
It is during this period of her acting in New York that she met Marcel Duchamp through a friend and hit it off quickly. Marcel Duchamp was a famous painter and his work such Nude Descending a Staircase considered as the modern influence on modernization of painting.
Through Duchamp, Beatrice also met Henri-Pierre Roche who was a renowned writer, diplomat and art collector and the three of them became close friends. This friendship also inspired, influenced and encouraged her in her creative pursuits.
They also introduced her to the Bohemian lifestyle where bourgeois morality was not a topic for much thought as they were lovers and friends whose in Beatrice’s own words wanted to be as close physically as they were emotional (Naumann, 1997).
Beatrice was soon to find herself in the New York Dada group under the patronage of Walter and Louise Arensberg. The Arensberg hosted frequent high class social gatherings in their lavish art adorned home, where the three friends spent lively evenings.
This was essentially an intellectual bohemian group comprising of modern artists and art collectors such as Edgard Varese, Mina Loy, Charles Demuth and Joseph Stella among others. In this group, Beatrice was inspired to paint and started her painting career around this period. They worked together with Duchamp in his studio, and he published her work in a magazine.
She developed her lifelong unique style of spontaneous sketching and painting that marks her work (Dietz, 2003). She exhibited her work in the independence exhibition that was organized by the newly formed Society of Independent Artists in 1917.
Her work created an outrage together with that of his friend Duchamp, but in an essay to the The Blind Man journal, she defended the work which became an icon of modern art.
By this time, Beatrice had already tired of her mother’s interference on her acting, and in 1918, she ran away to Montreal, Canada and continued to act. She married a theatre manager named Paul, a marriage that lasted three years.
After losing interest in theatre, she went back to New York to find her friends had gone and the Dada group dissolved. It is during this time that she met Dr Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society and Jiddu Krishnamurti and moved to Los Angeles to start a new life close to her friends, the Arsenburgs and Krishnamurti (Naumann, 1997).
Becoming a potter
Beatrice accompanied her friend Krishnamurti to Holland where he went occasionally to speak with the Theosophical Society regularly. While there she bought a beautiful set of baroque dessert plates with an excellent luster. She wanted a tea pot to match but could not find it; it marked the most extraordinary phase of her life as she took an interest in pottery.
She was determined she would be the one to make a matching pot for her plates and enrolled into a ceramic course at Hollywood High School in 1933. She painstakingly learned the glaze chemistry and throwing pots and a short time later opened her first artisan shop on Sunset Boulevard where she made and sold her ceramics.
At first it was a way of surviving since she brought no money from home, but she also realized her avenue for artistic interests and energy. Her mastery and inspiration for pottery and the art of glazing came from her teacher Glen Lukens who was a renowned artist and teacher, and from her most influential mentors, Gertrud and Otto Natzler whom she met through Lukens.
The Natzlers were famous for their refined skills and technical knowledge in glazing which they patiently shared with Wood. Her career started to take off after some time which created a rift between her and the Natzlers as they thought she was using their forms and glazes, but critics say that her work is remarkably different from the Natzlers.
Her work is said to be loose, unconventional, experimental in form and glaze combination and coincidental as compared to the Natzlers’ based on mastery of technique. This relationship was never mended, and as Wood say she was always saddened by this (Peterson, 2000).
By 1947, Wood’s work had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art on New York. She was also selling to leading departmental stores such as Gumps, Marshal Fields and Neiman Marcus and due to this success she decided to settle permanently in Ojai, a neighborhood with many artists and actors including her friend Krishnamurti.
Her friendship with Vivika and Otto Heino also contributed to her success in pottery as they taught her mastery of throwing and shared their knowledge and skills in Glazing. While she moved to Ojai she also started teaching ceramics at Happy Valley School (Dietz, 2003).
Wood was a exceptionally fun of Krishnamurti, her friend and neighbor, and read many of his books as well as listened many of his speeches in Europe.
This influenced her outlook on life as well as other experiences of her life. All these experiences were in evidence in her ceramics that combined the positivity of the East, a strong ethical work, a Dadaist sense of romance and humor in view of life to produce stunning unique creations. This also is the reason she never retired and worked in her studio until at the age of 104 (Campbell, 2006).
In 1974 she built a house on the grounds of Happy Valley Foundation in Ojai. On this 450 acre, parcel of land, wood built not only a home but also a studio where a wide collection of her own work, a library and collection of Folk art still is on display and which was left to the Happy Valley Foundation. Her ceramics of bowls, vessels and sculpture, have a significant influence on modern art.
Critics also say that these works also drift her work from art and craft fields as much as they influenced them. As much as Wood’s works fall under craft, design and decorative arts, their figurative nature also embraced a deliberate sense of naivety that is unique to her.
They bring out her composition that is connected with her wide range of modes of self-expression from folk art to Dadaism that had gained acceptance by other ceramicists over the year. This unconventional quality in her works claiming to be deliberate, was influenced by Marcel Duchamp as she acknowledged.
This fact is demonstrated during a 1961 exhibition which was held in Japan where a Japanese commented on the use of color of their works. She told the Japanese that she was not Japanese, and she lived in a pink and blue house in bright sunlight demonstrating her artistic freedom (Naumann, 1997).
Another inspiration for her work came from Indian art, which influenced her use of surfaces textures, color, ornamentation and erotic imagery as Peterson (2000) says. Her love for India began in 1961 when she visited the country on a tour organized by the State department.
She would return a second time in 1965 to pouch for a manager named Ram Pravesh Singh who was the State Department employee and who served her for twenty five years. In 1972, she went to India on a third time and came home with a wide range of folk art collection and saris. Her love affair with India also influenced her personal style in dressing and jewelry.
In her late eighties, Wood become a writer when she published her first book, The Angel in Black Tights followed by her autobiography, I Shock Myself and then Pinching Spaniards and finally the 33rd Wife of a Maharajah: A Love Affair in India.
She also wrote other books using a pseudonym Lola Screwvinsky. Wood was encouraged by her friend, Anais Nin, in her writing who was a ardent admirer of her ceramics (Dietz, 2003).
Apart from being inspired by others in her long life art career, she has inspired many artists and writers in different fields such as cinema and writing. Henri-Pierre’s book, Jules and Jim, which was an outstanding success, is said to have been inspired by the friendship he shared with Wood and Marcel Duchamp earlier on in their lives.
This was later made into a successful film by Francois Truffaut. On her 100th birthday, a film directly referring to her by the name of Beatrice Wood: The Mama of Dada premiered. David Cameron of the film Titanic is another film director who used Wood to inspire one of his characters, Rose in the same film.
This film was shown towards the end of her life, and since she could not attend the event, Cameron and Gloria Stuart, who played Rose, brought her a video which she refused to watch saying that it was too late to change something in her life (Dietz, 2003).
What is most inspiring about Wood is that the most productive years of her life were the last 25 as she worked extremely hard to meet the demand for her ceramics, she wrote several books and attended to many people who came to see her work and learn from her at the Happy Valley Foundation.
Wood led a bohemian artist’s lifestyle but still she was a romantic who believed in “true love” as she married twice and fell in love several times. However, she would say that the only thing she could count on were the mountains near her home in Happy Valley. This extra ordinary life of art, inspiration and exploration ended in 1998 when she died at the age of 105 (Peterson 2000).
Bernard Howell Leach
Leach is modern ceramic who like Wood, discovered his vocation in ceramics and pottery later in his life after trying other forms of art or career. He is considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century with a life that is documented in a wide collection of papers, study collections of western and oriental pots and his own work on pots and models exhibited in the Crafts Study center, London.
Leach was born on January 5, 1887 in Hong Kong where his father, Andrew Leach, was a lawyer. His mother died soon after delivering him, and his grandparents took him to Kyoto, Japan where they were teaching English at the Doshista University.
He went back to Hong Kong later when his father remarried, and soon afterward the family moved to Singapore where his father had been appointed a judge. During this period, there is no record of his schooling, but he only states that he spent most of his time alone in the harbor drawing ships.
Leach was then sent to study at the age of ten years in England at the Beaumont, a Jesuit school, in Old Windsor Park which was then known as ‘Catholic Eton’. The school operated on a strict, ordered lines and any boy who step out of the line was given beatings which probably changed Leach’s destiny since he thought the beatings deterred rather than encouraged interest in education.
As a result, he was bad in academic subjects excelling only in drawing, elocution and cricket. There are letters he wrote to his father and step mother expressing frustrations in deciding what to do with his life (Campbell, 2006).
In 1903, Leache’s father returned to England and allowed his son to join the Slade School of Art which brought him a lot of joy. His training lasted for a year as his father got seriously ill and he had to stay with him. His father’s last wish was him to pursue a stable career in the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, that was something Leach felt obligated to do. He joined the bank and started working in its headquarters in London.
He was extremely unhappy working in the bank and after a year, he quit and moved to Doset, the North Wales where he hoped to draw and paint. Later, at the age of 21 he received his modest inheritance and used it to pay for his studies at the London School of Art in Kensington.
It is during this period in England that he met his love, his cousin Muriel, and later married her. While in the school he met a Japanese student, Kotaro Takamura, who told him a lot about the country and reminded him of his childhood. Thus, it was Takamura’s who inspired Leach to return to Japan, however, during this time he dedicated himself to teaching how to design, paint, curve wood and design magazines faces.
His etching lessons did not bring any success, but he became acquainted with a group of progressive scholars and writers known as Shirakaba. This group changed the course of Leache’s life and career and inspired him to start a career in ceramics (Byars, 2004).
Leach’s contact with and career in pottery
The raku is a technique which involves placing glazed and decorated pots into a glowing hot kiln, then removing them after around 30 minutes when the glaze has melted. The Shirakaba organized raku events where artists and poets took part in the raku and guests would take home the finished products.
The raku inspired Leach to learn the craft which took him two years under the instruction of Kenzan the sixth, Urano Shigkich, a Tokyo potter who worked with the old- fashioned Rimpa style. Leach learned how to throw, decorate and fire pots though, at the time, he had not considered it as a future career.
At the end of the two years, Leach and his fellow student Tomimoto were presented with a hand painted Densho recognizing them as the Seventh Kenzan. After his graduation from the Kenzan classes, he set up a pottery in his garden. In 1914, he successfully displayed his works which included his first booklet review of 1909-1914 works.
He became frustrated with Japan due to the embracement of westernization and moved to China leaving his family in Japan. While, in China, he met Dr Alfred Westharp, a Prussian writer, who influenced him profoundly. After the birth, of his third child, he took his family to China and family conflict erupted due to Westharp’s interference.
His son’s medical needs forced him and his family to return to England to seek medical attention in 1920. He returned to England with his wife and three children and a potter, Shoji Hamanda, whom he had brought from Japan.
They settled at St Ives and set up their craft by building a climbing and updraught kilns to make earthenware, and though their art was innovatory, it was impossible to sell their products here (Campbell, 2006).
In 1932, he started a project with Leornard and Dorothy Elmhirst on rural regeneration to set up a commercial pottery at Dartington. He got involved with another potter named Laurie Cooks, which ended his twenty four year marriage to Muriel. He continued to work in the project while still maintaining his establishment in St Ives.
Two years later he accepted an invitation to a fifteen month tour of Japan where he looked at traditional work, made pots and researched for a book. He also took an inspirational tour of Korea with Yanagi which filled him with ideas and enthusiasm. He was also inspired by Japan’s unspoilt, traditional craft and brought home the acclaimed Moon Jar.
It is during his tour of Japan that his son David was encouraged by the poor managerial situation at their St Ives pottery that he joined the North Staffordshire Polytechnic to study pottery management. He came back with radical plans, which were funded by the Elmhirsts, for the subsequent three years.
The onset of the World War II saw David being enlisted and Leach had no choice but to return to St Ives, and regardless of the war, they continued to produce pots with a small team under his direction. Between the two world war, Leach Pottery had struggled a lot financially, also with acceptance of his work in Europe.
He had built a Japanese kiln upon setting up in St Ives and during this time he was constantly rebuilding kilns, experimenting with different materials and travelling (Byars, 2004).
After the war, David returned and took over the mantle from his father and the Leach pottery went into full production. Leach had a lot of time to pursue his own ideas. He had earlier published a book, A Potter’s Book in 1940 which had been moderately successful, and now he had time to undertake a series of tours to lecturer and demonstrate.
He first took tours to the West in the Scandinavian and America where he was not valued. He returned to the East in 1952 and started with a long visit to Japan. He was professional and gave pieces of advice and opinions diverse fields from ceramics, design, furniture to cooking. He met and married Janet Darnell in 1956 and also returned home to England.
After Leach’s return to England from Japan, he made some of the most popular and strongest pieces as he concentrated on individual pots rather than running the Pottery which was left to Janet when David went to establish his own pottery in Devon.
Leach mainly concentrated on small pieces but also made big pieces with the help of David and later Bill Marshall though he was the one who always did the finishing and decorations. The pieces he made at that time show a deep perception of the form together with sensitivity.
He also displays confidence that is not excessive. His pottery was influenced by the East while at the same time displaying the softness of European awareness that blends the two cultures superbly (Peterson, 2000).
Leach as an inspiration
Leach was profoundly inspired by a lot of scholars, craftsmen and women whom he was always in contact with. There are lengthy letters in his archives that detail his long term contact with Yanagi on different topics including aesthetics.
Also, he maintained such contact with Henry Bergen where they discussed many subjects; one of them being about the book, they are arguing over the content of his book, A Potter’s book where an etiology of the evolution of the book and their thoughts are communicated. It is clear that they trusted each other.
He also inspired other artists such as Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie who was his first apprentice, Norah Braden and Dr Ryusaburo Shikiba whose communication with him were filed away in letter books.
It is no wonder that he was a spokesman for the craftsmen and women for all kinds of craft where he represented them in committees whether by the government, guilds or societies and in the Crafts Study Center. Apart from being a notable craftsman, he was also a respected, trusted and charming public speaker, and an intelligent writer (Byars, 2004).
One of the significant achievements of Leach pottery was training of potters from all the corners of world, who later contributed to spreading of Leach’s techniques and values. He also helped in organizing the only international conference of potters and Weavers in 1952 at Datington hall, which included exhibitions from all the participants.
It is here where the modern studio pottery movement began, and which made Leach and his associates, Hamada and Yanagi celebrities. He received many honors including an exhibition in 1961 by The Arts Council of Britain dubbed as the ‘Fifty Years a Potter’. Thus, being the master craftsman, his work was to be used as a gauge upon others works.
The following year he received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), and before his death, Japan, a country which had interested and impacted him very much, awarded him with the Champion of Honor (CH) title in 1974 which is equivalent of Nobel Prize (Dietz, 2003).
Wood and Leach as an inspiration
Unlike Wood whose work mainly displayed her personal experiences through life and were unique unconventional pieces, that set her apart, leach’s work from 1912 to the peak of his career in 1950s and 60s show his development journey as a potter and his increasing understanding of materials he worked with. However, the influence of the East to their works is clear.
Wood got a lot of inspiration from Indian art, which influenced her use of surfaces textures, color, ornamentation and erotic imagery and even her personal style of dressing and accessorizing, and also her writings as shown by her book 33rd Wife of a Maharajah: A Love Affair in India.
Leach, on the other hand, had a lot inspiration from the Far East countries like China, Japan and Korea. It is in Japan that he came into contact with the ceramics craft in raku events and later trained under Kenzan the sixth, Urano Shigkich. His long association and work in Japan and Japanese artists show his interest and experience he got in the East.
Though both Wood and leach are influenced by art from the East, their work also displays their Western influences. Wood’s works display modes of self expression that show Dadaism influence and the unconventional quality in her work that she said was influenced by Marcel Duchamp. Leach’s works, on the other hand, display a soft European awareness (Dietz, 2003).
Both Wood and Leach did their most distinguished pieces later in their lives. Wood started learning pottery at the age of 40 after trying other forms of art. She had experimented with painting when she was young in Paris and later in New York, spent a substantial part of her life acting again in Paris and New York and finally in Montreal, Canada where her interest in acting faded.
It is the visit to Holland that brought him an interest in pottery at the age of forty. Leach also did his master pots in the 1950s and 60s when he was already advanced in years. He also tried many things such as painting, designing covers for magazines, wood cutting and travelled to many places before he found his true vocation.
It is also remarkably clear from their experiences that they are liberals who loved traveling wide and trying many things until they found their true occupations by accident as both had not envisioned a career in pottery (Peterson, 2000).
Leach concentrated on making bowls, jars, platters, tableware, vases, pots and urns which are in display, in many Museums and art galleries in the world. After his death in 1979, a large amount of his works both craft, writings and collections were passed on to the Crafts Study center.
This work was also digitized so as to improve accessibility as a body of reference including his diaries and correspondences with different people. Wood on the other had done her work in both craft and fine art.
She combined wisdom, a positive thinking, a strong work ethic, a Dadaism and romantic view of life which gave her work a unique, unconventional style that she said was unschooled but deliberate.
These two artists devoted all their love and time to their work; they continued to work and learn even when things were not good. They both worked until the end of their life (Peterson, 2000).
Ceramics art has a long history in many parts of the world that can be dated back to early civilizations. The raw material that was used in early ceramics was clay, but in modern ceramics, other materials are used. Ceramics is grouped as fine art, decorative ceramics or pottery and applied art. Though these are not conclusive categories, the main issue is the use into which the art is put to.
Some are just for aesthetics while others are purely functional, or they are combined both functions. Ceramics art began with the invention of the potter wheel believed to have started in Mesopotamia in the 4th century BC and spread to other parts of the world.
Ceramic art is believed to have evolved from the wealthy Chinese Dynasties such as the Shang dynasty and also in the Ancient Roman Empire where containers such as vessel, bowls, tableware and figurines were common. In modern ceramic art, pottery studios have gained popularity where artists such as Beatrice Wood and Bernard Leach have emerged.
Beatrice Wood was exposed to art in her summer trips to Europe. She longed to go to Paris and become a painter. When she later went to Europe, it was the beginning of a rebellious life as she explored different forms of art from painting to acting. It was not until she was forty that her interest and career in pottery began in Los Angeles.
She learned pottery from renowned ceramists such as Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Glen Lukens and Vivika and Otto Heino. She established her own style that was unconventional and reflected her experiences in life combined with inspiration from Indian art. She became very successful and devoted the rest of her life to pottery, writing and teaching other artists at the Happy Valley Foundation.
Bernard Leach is similar to Wood in many ways. Born in Hong Kong, but grew up in Japan, Singapore and England, he attended school and trainings in various arts. He also explored many forms of art before he accidentally took up pottery in Japan during a raku party.
Leach learned the ceramic art in Japan and became hugely successful there, but he went to China and England where he set up the Leach Pottery. Over the years, he met famous artists from all over the world such as Urano Shigkich, Shoji Hamanda, Leornard and Dorothy Elmhirst as well as SoetsuYanagi who inspired him.
Though he still maintained the Leach Pottery with the help of his son David, Leach was an extensive traveler who liked the East. Like Wood, most of his distinguished pieces were done later in his life when he had mastered the materials he worked with.
He emphasized design, philosophy and art in his works which was utilitarian unlike Woods who did fine art and craft. He died in 1979 having earned the honor and respect due to his achievements.
Byars, M., 2004. The design encyclopedia. London: Laurence King.
Campbell, G., 2006. The grove encyclopedia of decorative arts. UK: Oxford University Press.
Dietz, U., 2003. Great pots: contemporary ceramics from functional to fantasy. USA: Guild Publishing.
Naumann, F., 1997. Beatrice wood: a centennial tribute. USA: American Craft Museum.
Peterson, S., 2000. Contemporary ceramics. USA: Watson-Guptill Publications.