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Collecting: The Quest for Rightness

Posted By Tom Turner On October 1, 2008 @ 4:15 pm In Ceramics Monthly,Ceramics Monthly Master Class,Criticism and Aesthetics,Daily,Features | No Comments


 

From top to bottom: Asian spouted vessel, turned wooden lid, woven handle, 17 in. (43 cm) in height. Wood fired and lightly salt glazed jug, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, ca.
1790–1820. Stoneware butter churn that collapsed in the firing from too much heat and weight on top; it was fired lip to lip in a wood-burning ground hog kiln. The amazing thing is that someone still used this piece (there is wear inside on the bottom). Also, from the form, glaze and handle attachment, other pots by this maker have been identified. This could be northern S.C., or southern N.C., 20 in. (51 cm) in height, 5–6 gallon
capacity, ca. 1890–1930.

 

A collection of pots in the author’s
home. Clockwise from the slab plate
on the wall: David Shaner’s slab
plate, ca. 1975. Thomas Chandler’s
8-gallon stoneware cooler with
Celadon glaze, ca. 1850. Chinese
Qing Dynasty, Shanxi Province,
high fired and red lacquer painted
pot with green lip, 20 in. (51 cm) in
height, coil thrown and rope
impressed, ca. 1880. Chinese Sung
Dynasty Tzu-chou jar, 28 in. (71 cm)
in height, white glaze and iron brush
work, ca. 10th century. Bert Sharpe’s
unglazed jar, ca. 1977. Ch’ing
dynasty Teadust glazed porcelain
Chinese jar, one of a pair, ca. 1880.
Chinese Teadust glazed coil thrown
and paddled wine jar from Yi-hsing,
about 80-gallon capacity, ca. 1850.

 

A cabinet filled to capacity with pots
in Turner’s collection. Top shelf:
Stoneware sake bottles from Tamba,
Japan, Umanome plates, horse eye
plates from Seto, Japan, 18th–19th
centuries, and crawled glaze sake
and teapots from Shigaraki, Japan,
Meiji period, ca. 1900. Second shelf: Sharkskin glazed teapots from
Shigaraki, Japan, Japanese Banko
ware, ca. 1900. Third shelf: More
Sharkskin glazed Shigaraki ware,
blue and white and sharkskin.
Bottom shelf: Chrome glazed
teapots, enameled Oribe plates.

The question of why a collector collects probably has as many answers as there are collectors. I fell in love with pottery in high school and bought my first antique on Rt. 66 while driving to Illinois State University from my hometown of Morris, Illinois. From 1961 until now, I have been intrigued by how things were made, and when they were priced where I could afford them, I have collected examples of intriguing objects, mostly pots. Some of my pots tell a story about forming, whether they were thrown, jiggered, cast or handbuilt. I have seen 600 gallon salt glazed jars that were made in Akron, Ohio, that look very symmetrical, as if they were turned. Up north they say thrown, down here in North Carolina we say turned. Other pots in my collection may indicate if they were fired right side up or upside down, whether they were glazed, and how they were fired: salt fired, wood fired, high fired or low fired. I must admit though that my collection is 99.9% high fired.

I have never had the money to pay full retail prices and have depended upon my knowledge about pots at yard sales, flea markets and auctions to find my wonderful pots. I call them “sleepers,” pots people are getting rid of but have no clue as to what they are. Today, I might buy a boxed lot of five pots at an auction just so I can get one or two pieces from it and then I sell the others, or give them away. I have found Shimaoka tea cups for $7 and have bought a Ralph Bacerra on eBay. I have a Korean Silla dynasty piece that I bought at an Akron, Ohio, flea market for $.50 that was advertised as North Carolina Native American. At that same flea market, I bought a piece by Paul Soldner for $3.50 and had it verified by Paul. These stories go on and on.

I have also compared antiquing to hunting because you get up in the dark, drive to a flea market or antique sale to try to get the first shot at something when it comes out of the box and hits the table. Most antique shows are thoroughly picked over by the time the public comes in. So part of what I do is utilize the knowledge I have accumulated over 47 years of ceramic study to identify and occasionally purchase pots that I encounter at auctions, flea markets, estate sales and yard sales. You’ve seen the bumper sticker, “I brake at yard sales.”


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I think there are three reasons why I do this. The first is that I LOVE POTS and the art of craft. Next, they speak some foreign language to me that I understand deep within that says, “I am right.” Potters understand this unspoken language and many of us have this same response to a great pot. It may be made by an “unknown craftsman,” as Soetsu Yanagi would say, or it may be documented with names and dates, but what is important is this non-verbal communication between object and observer. They say to me, “Take me home.” Finally, I see collecting as preserving great pots for one more generation and then hopefully someone else with the same passion will preserve them for another generation. I have bought cracked and broken pots that antique collectors wouldn’t look twice at, took them home, glued them and preserved them for future generations. So what if a 150 year old pot has a chip or hairline, it’s still a gorgeous pot that can provide visual and tactile pleasure while in my possession. I study these pots and, although I never try to copy any of them, I am sure that parts of them somehow get into my pots. I have always said that my pots are bits and pieces of every pot and every potter that I have ever encountered.

As a North Carolina singer I know says: It was never about the money, it was always about the soul. Some pots have some monetary value, but that has always been secondary to me. Dealers buy only to resell for profit; collectors buy objects to live with forever. We start buying from a limited source of knowledge and as we study and learn, we buy “better” pieces and sometimes sell the earlier ones we bought, having replaced them with finer examples. I have said for many years that I am visually seduced by my collection daily. If I walk by a piece that makes my eye twinkle, or some sort of feeling goes through my body as I go by, that is why I collect.

My collection goes beyond pottery. I have Conestoga wagon jacks made by Pennsylvania blacksmiths, signed, decorated, numbered and dated 1805 to 1814; I have a grist mill grinding stone that a man made with a hammer and chisel; I have handmade baskets that collected vegetables in New England; and I have some handmade furniture. What is it about these objects that latches onto me? I think it is the heart and soul that the maker put into the work to satisfy themselves that communicates to me. Why would a blacksmith decorate, sign, date and number a jack that was only meant to be used to change a wheel on a wagon? For me, this is the art of craft: doing more than is necessary, putting yourself completely into the piece. It is personal expression through material, process and form. And remember, these artisans were not attempting to make art; they were doing what they did for a living, probably because that is what their father did. They were executing what Soetsu Yanagi termed “design from necessity,” but they were also putting themselves into the piece in a form of personal expression. I have unsigned 19th century food storage jars that somehow picked up a stylistic “signature” through the thousands of pieces made. We talk about the Edgefield tradition, the Catawba Valley tradition, and once we identify a potter’s work, we can identify other pots he or she made based on form, lip, handle and/or glaze. Lips and handles are great signatures for old or new pots.

So, for me, collecting is utilizing my knowledge of ceramic art to surround myself with wonderful pots that feed my soul, preserving them for future generations of people who love pots. These pots have become an incredible teaching tool for my pottery school and, generally, I can answer questions using a pot as an example, using them to instruct others who are learning to make pots. I am an object maker who loves objects made right, with attention to material, process and form.

the author Tom Turner is an artist, potter, educator, historian and collector who lives near Mars Hill, N.C. For more information, visit www.tomturnerporcelain.com. Pottery lovers are welcome to visit his collection. Please e-mail or call ahead for an appointment.

 




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