The cluttered, clay-dusty halls and studios of Greenwich House Pottery (GHP) are alive with people in jeans and tee shirts, all busy handbuilding here or throwing on the wheel there, in the background music and/or talk and, usually, the roar of the 60-cubic-foot updraft gas kiln as well. In this fertile contemporary creative context, it’s hard to imagine that GHP was once a single room in which the classes were filled with boys in knickers or women in floor-length skirts and shirtwaists. GHP today is a prism in which, from certain angles, one can see back into 100 years of history.
It has been a century of change in the US experience of immigration and in the political and social history of the famed New York City neighborhood called Greenwich Village. Equally it’s a story of changes in the ceramics world and the growth of studio crafts.
The pottery’s parent institution, Greenwich House, was established in 1902 by social reformers Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, Jacob Riis, Carl Schurz, Felix Adler, and others. The concept came from the settlement house movement in late-19th-century England. At London’s Toynbee Hall, university graduates were encouraged to live (settle) among the poor workers in the city’s East End, to furnish a role model and aid in education of the lower classes. As transplanted to the US, most famously in Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, this social practice served immigrants.
In 1909, Greenwich House started pottery classes, taught at first by Leon Volkmar, as a means of acculturating foreign adults and children. Although this focus didn’t last long because new laws after World War I cut immigration quotas, GHP has its origin in that progressive social movement. Its history also reflects the noble and humanitarian ideals of the concurrent Arts and Crafts movement: the notion that work should be creative and satisfying for the worker in producing utilitarian objects for the greater public.
In the 1920s, the pottery became less a social service agency and more a community resource. The Village itself was changing from a crowded immigrant neighborhood to a “bohemian” cultural area, home to artists, playwrights, and musicians, as well as avant-garde dancers (Isadora Duncan) and radical political activists (John Reed). The pottery’s director from 1911 to 1941, fostering its change and development, was Maude Robinson, a graduate of Newcomb College. Her goals were aesthetic and professional more than sociopolitical. From the beginning there were periodic sales of ware to support the program (the practice continues today), and Robinson ambitiously sold work for public places such as a New York Public Library branch and had the pottery making large garden jars on commission for the prestigious architecture firm of Delano and Aldrich and even for financier J.P. Morgan. During the ’30s a new kind of immigrant began to arrive in New York: refugees from the Nazi threat. Some of them already had ceramic training and produced wares at home, bringing them to GHP to be fired. That introduced a new service option and another source of income. Greenwich House Potters and Sculptors developed as a support group for the pottery and an exchange for potters; members were faculty, alumni, and advanced students. Among other things, they held fund-raising events for GHP and maintained an off-site sales gallery from the ’20s until World War II.
The Jane Hartsook Era
GHP as we know it today developed after World War II, as what’s now called studio craft began to flourish. The key figure for that period was Jane Hartsook, an Alfred MFA who became director of the pottery in 1945 (retiring in 1982 but continuing to teach at the pottery for many years). The fact that GHP was located in New York meant that important visitors dropped by. For example, Bernard Leach, traveling with his friends Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, stopped in after giving a workshop at New York University in 1952. During a 1994 interview, Hartsook observed that Hamada particularly admired the bean pots GHP used to hold glazes and glaze materials.
Hartsook began to invite artists in residence, whose workshops and lectures interested GHP’s regular adult students (the pottery’s constituency is mostly adult women ranging from hobbyists to professionals, although it continues to offer classes for children and in recent decades, seniors; it has never focused on the college-age population). It has also attracted a larger audience including New York City artists. Tickets have been purchased and guest books signed by Louise Nevelson and Isamu Noguchi, to name a few.
Among the most fascinating visiting-artist stories are about the summer workshops led by Peter Voulkos in the early ’60s and Tony Hepburn a few years later. Voulkos’ presence, Hartsook was later to say (in a 1995 interview with Voulkos and Don Reitz), “put Greenwich House on the map” and in a sense “brought the west” to the East Coast. For Voulkos, it was a chance to spend time in the New York creative hothouse. He had first visited New York in 1954, when he drove up with poet M.C. Richards and musician David Tudor following his workshop at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He had by then earned an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, but he was living and working in Montana and still making the oversize resist-decorated functional ware that first brought him attention and awards. It was a thrilling and eye-opening occasion. Rudy Autio was later to recall of Voulkos’ Black Mountain/New York City summer, “He came back to Helena. But he was never the same again. It must have been about the most important thing that had happened to him up to that time.” (Rose Slivka, Peter Voulkos: A Dialogue with Clay. New York Graphic Society, 1978, p. 16)
In 1960, in a funny, voluble letter (typed in all caps, with plus signs instead of periods) thanking Hartsook for inviting him to GHP for a presentation, Voulkos wrote, “I really should never go to New York as I always hate to leave and then this horrible depressive mood stays with me like it seems forever. Anyway, I wish to thank you again for the deal and the dough, which I needed so much at that time. It did keep me in Ballantine’s for about three more days. I did have fun.”And he went on to propose that he teach a summer workshop of three or four weeks. He offered to teach “throwing with your nose” or “how to fire your kiln to cone 32” and added, “You may perceive a note of desperateness in my query which I assure you it is.” She made the arrangements and he taught at GHP the summers of 1960, ’61, ’62, and ’64; she also made connections with Teacher’s College at Columbia University so that he could teach there as well.
Tony Hepburn, who became important for his teaching at Alfred and Cranbrook, initially came to attention in the US for writing in Craft Horizons on ceramics in his native England. He first visited the US with a British Council tour in 1968, and the following year he was the subject of a Craft Horizons feature article. Hartsook saw the story and invited him to come teach a summer course. GHP, in 1970, was the first place Hepburn taught in America. Besides being his introduction to sizzling summers in the city, it was the first time he had seen electric wheels. In an interview by Victoria Thorsen, Jane Hartsook, and Liz Zawada, Hepburn recalled that, in England, “mainly influenced by Leach, the current belief was that if you plug your machine into an electrical source of some sort then you’re immediately out of control, that the only way to make pots was on a wheel that was propelled by your own body if you were to make any kind of sensitive response to the process. . . . these wheels were whizzing around. How did people even have time to think?”
His stint at GHP also gave him time to digest Voulkos’s work in the GHP collection, representative of what Hepburn calls “the gunslinger approach.” He was stunned by what he then called “lack of control, now I say the apparent lack of control. The physical engagement was unlike anything I had ever seen or done before. . . . the sequence I had been involved with was that one sorted out ideas and then made the thing. And this one was: you don’t do that at all, anything can be anything at any time.” Now he finds that wonderful, but then it was hard to understand. The GHP experience was the beginning of Hepburn’s permanent engagement with America.
Hepburn’s year, 1970, marked the establishment of a designated gallery space, in what had been the studio manager’s residence. Originally a boardroom for the school that first occupied the building, it is a beautiful formal room with fireplace, moldings, oak floor, and tall windows reaching toward 12-foot ceilings. At first, exhibiting artists had to cover exhibition costs, including the printing of announcements; they had to help with installation of the work and there was no insurance. Nevertheless, no one turned down the opportunity to show in New York City! Hartsook again had her finger on the pulse of the time, and GHP became a valuable exhibition venue as well as an education center. The gallery presented both well-known and emerging artists, faculty and student shows, and some more commercial producers such as Artes Magnus of New York, Paris, and Geneva, which published limited-edition porcelains designed by “important contemporary artists.”
A 1978 special exhibition of faculty work showed such exemplars as Vivika Heino (1946–47), James Crumrine (1948–current at the time of the show), Fong Chow (1956–57), Hui Ka Kwong (1963–69), Bruno La Verdiere (1966–69), Byron Temple (1970–72), Jim Makins (1969–71 and then current), Sylvia Netzer (then current), and Margaret Israel (then current).
Hartsook’s goal was always to expand the pottery. That was attuned to the time, when crafts were expanding everywhere. During her tenure it grew from a single room in the settlement house on Barrow Street to the present location, a three-story building a block away that it gradually fully occupied. And it grew from fewer than 50 students to about 400. When she began, the director also taught and did all the kiln firing. According to Ann Siok [1925–2010], a long-time faculty member, when she retired, GHP was “an internationally renowned institution with a gallery, a permanent collection, book and slide libraries, and a staff of well-known artists . . .” The permanent collection, now numbering 170 objects, includes pots made in workshops by the visiting artists. The gallery was named for Hartsook on her retirement.
“What we’re trying to do is re-imagine what a studio can be,” Archer
While GHP remains physically limited in size and its modest annual
the author Janet Koplos is co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2010, and is a contributing editor to Art in America magazine. She lives in New York City.