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Commentary: The ancient art of ceramics is alive and well in St. Louis


I recently interviewed young Vincent Stemmler on his work in the arts. He calls himself a multi-media artist and he uses many non-traditional materials. When he started talking about ceramics, he said that he pushes ceramics past the traditional limits of what the medium is thought to be.

Then I thought of my friend and long term gallerist Duane Reed who specializes in contemporary ceramics and he talked about his latest exhibitions. One exhibition featured Matt Mitros who adds plastics and found objects to his ceramic works and he calls these works compositions. Reed then went on to talk about another exhibition, "Radical Pots," which features works that are extreme in the handling of clay.

I looked up books on the history of ceramics and found such titles as "Southwestern Pottery: Anasazi to Zuni" by Allan Hayes and John Blom, "Origin and Development of Form and Ornament in Ceramic Art" by William Henry Holmes, "Gifts From the Fire: American Ceramics, 1880-1950: From the Collection of Martin Eidelberg," "Ceramic Art and Civilization" by Paul Greenhalgh, and "Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind's Relationship with the Earth's Most Primal Element" by Suzanne Staubach.

Where to start with the topic of ceramics? Well, I found that ceramics is one of the most ancient industries on the planet. Once humans discovered that clay could be dug up and formed into objects by first mixing with water and then firing, the industry was born. As early as 24,000 B.C., animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials, then fired in kilns partially dug into the ground.

About 5,000 years ago the pottery wheel was invented. There have been many versions of the pottery wheel over the centuries. Regardless of the type of wheel used, it is still done today and is possibly the oldest documented art form in the world. The history of pottery dates back 10,000 years and is still thriving and evolving.

A walk through the Victoria and Albert Museum in England or our own St. Louis Art Museum will show fine examples of ceramic art from nearly every place on the globe.

I decided to stay in the modern times and found some books on ceramics in our own collection of art books here at home. Garth Clark wrote a book in the 1980s titled "American Potters, The Work of Twenty Modern Masters." Clark was the founder and director of the Institute for Ceramic History, Los Angeles and was a well-known lecturer on ceramics and lectured at over 80 universities, art museums and art schools in the United States and England.

The appearance of this book is therefore especially meaningful. It was the first critical study of the American potter's role in modern art, the first attempt to understand one of art's most misunderstood mediums. Some of the featured artists were Rudy Autio, Richard DeVore, Betty Woodman, Karen Karnes and Peter Voulkes.

Barbara Okun and Cissy Thomas of the one-time very well-known Okun-Thomas Gallery turned St. Louisans on to understanding and collecting contemporary ceramics. The Okuns moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and the gallery closed here. At this time contemporary ceramic art was finally being featured at major art museums around the country.

And looking back in time, right here in St. Louis, The University City Pottery was founded by visionary Edward Gardner Lewis. He sought to experiment with a new approach to women's education which included publishing a journal and offering mail order classes. He lured Taxile Doat, the eminent French ceramist from Sevres, Adelaide Alsop Robineau, master porcelain artist from Syracuse, New York and others to work in porcelain. Unfortunately, University City's Utopian ideals proved to be impossible to sustain, but works from University City Pottery are part of the St. Louis Art Museum's collection as well as other major art museum's throughout the United States.

The New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University has been a unique public/private partnership in higher education for more than 100 years.Since its inception in 1900, the College of Ceramics has attracted renowned artists and scientists as faculty in ceramics, glass and other materials. And right across the river here in St. Louis at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is a great ceramics program committed to fostering the evolution of ideas and techniques while broadening the scope of possibilities within contemporary ceramics. Students receive engagement from peers and faculty across disciplines in the Department of Art and Design. The ceramics faculty members acknowledge their roots in ancient history while striving for new interpretations, a high standard of craftsmanship, challenging the "physicality" of the medium, and creating art that speaks of our time and place.

Just thinking of the wealth of ceramic art around the world, past, present and the possibilities for the future make my head spin much faster than any potter's wheel.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.