American Pottery in the British Studio Tradition, an exhibition at The Culinary Institute of America


Warren Mackenzie, an American potter [], studied in Great Britain in the years after World War II with Bernard Howell Leach, the father of the British studio tradition of handmade pottery, at the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall [].  Until 2006, Mr. Mackenzie maintained a small showroom for his pottery, which he operated on the honor system on his property in Stillwater, Minnesota.  Pottery prices were indicated with stickers and customers deposited payment in a basket.  Sold pieces of his pottery, reflecting a standard of “quiet simplicity and uncomplicated function,” were appropriately wrapped in old newspapers and carried off in paper bags.  This sales model was striking given Mr. Mackenzie’s status as an internationally renowned potter.  Warren Mackenzie always reasonably priced his wares, which often lacked his signature: his conscious reaction to the high prices often associated with collectible art pottery.  Mr. Mackenzie, who taught at the University of Minnesota after studying with Bernard Howell Leach, remains to date a professor emeritus at the university, and his stoneware remains an inspiration for contemporary potters.

An exhibition currently on display until May 26, 2011 (Exhibit Hours: Mon-Fri 9:00AM-5:00PM) at the Tober Exhibition Room, located in the Conrad N. Hilton Library on the Hyde Park campus of The Culinary Institute of America [], honors Mr. Mackenzie and the work of 11 other American potters who pursue their craft in “truth to material and to process,” the standard set by Bernard Howell Leach.  Inspired by the Arts and Craft Movement, Leach’s A Potter’s Book is described in the exhibition as  “a seminal document” for potters.  This small exhibition in Hyde Park, which fills a room located off the atrium entrance of the Hilton Library, is worthy of a visitor’s time and attention, and a perfect complement to the pleasure of a meal at one of the five student-staffed restaurants on The Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA’s) Hyde Park campus in New York’s Hudson Valley.  I know it will prompt me in the future to take a closer look at the tableware used to serve food.

The pottery of Simon Pearce, who maintains a workshop in Windsor, Vermont, catches the eye with its simplicity and beauty. On display are five pieces of his tableware described as “clear crackle glaze on cone 10 stoneware.”  Pearce makes use of machinery in his more industrial workshop to enable a higher production volume.  Nonetheless, his production process makes use of handmade mold prototypes and his inclusion in this exhibition makes sense.

Other potters in the exhibition clearly fall within the British studio tradition of handmade pottery.  The two plates, bowl, and cup and saucer on display from Pottery and Tile of Tiverton, Rhode Island [], the pottery workshop of Michael Roseberry and Bruce Winn, are described as “slip-cast porcelain with high fire glaze.”  The flowery design and beautiful jade-green glaze of this pottery make for functional works of art.

The exhibition also includes ceramic platters, which are not functional, but rather a canvas for artistic expression.  Chris Gustin’s []  wood-fired stoneware platter, which is nearly two feet in diameter, is an abstract expressionistic work of art with its butterfly shapes of color.  Walter Hall’s [] ceramic platter with its geometric patterns and irregular edge could be on display in a museum of modern art.

Although the nonfunctional, ceramic platters on display are worth viewing, it is the functional pottery which makes American Pottery in the British Studio Tradition an exhibition to visit: it prompts the visitor to consider the tableware used in the humdrum of daily life.  There is deep appeal to potter Todd Piker’s philosophical point that there is an authenticity to “good pots made by production potters currently unknown, sold and used by other long forgotten people.”  I know I’m inspired to upgrade my tableware to include some handcrafted pieces. Other potters whose handcrafted work is on display include: Michael Barsanti, Marc Leuthold, Bruce Ostwald, Richard Shaw, and Miranda Thomas (FWB 4/5/11).

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