It doesn’t seem fair. It never does. The death of a family member, friend, colleague, neighbor…no matter who it is in our lives the loss is always felt hard and deep. So was the case with our dear friend, Elmer Craig, who passed away on August 31st in his sleep in Lexington, Kentucky just 12 days shy of his 85th birthday. To say his passing is sad is indeed an understatement because in Elmer’s life, he embodied the essence of what it means to be a trusted friend, colleague, neighbor, husband, father, and brother. In short, Elmer was a quality human being.
Elmer Craig in his studio at Eastern Kentucky University
Elmer Craig, originally from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, devoted his life to his family, students, colleagues, and the arts … in particular, the ceramic arts. After earning his BA from Ball State University and then an MA from Western Michigan University, Elmer began a long teaching career that started in the high school ranks and ended at Miami Dade College North Campus in Miami, Florida where he was a Professor of Art for 27 years. After retiring from a career in teaching, Elmer, together with his wife, Jane Seyler, a pediatrician, moved to Lexington, Kentucky where Jane continued her work at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine. As luck would have it, for both Elmer and me, he was invited to serve as the resident ceramic artist in the Department of Art & Design at Eastern Kentucky University. For seven years we worked together in the ceramics area, furthering our long relationship as friends and colleagues in clay.
While I had always known Elmer in south Florida as both a colleague and friend, it was this last seven years that cemented my understanding and appreciation of him not only as a person with great artistic skills, but also as a communicator. Although upon his arrival I had already been teaching for over 25 years, my last seven years in the classroom, with Elmer at my side, taught me more than I could have ever imagined. His daily interactions with students, his sensitivity to their needs, his willingness to extend himself beyond what is expected, his gentle nature and warm smile, always made everyone around him feel both comfortable and secure. He never imposed himself on others and quietly worked himself into our lives in ways that allowed us all to realize he was far more than a teacher. Elmer was not only my friend, he had become the friends of my students and colleagues. He was respected, loved, and cherished by us all, and while his passing will be felt long into the future, the memories we all share of our association with him will live longer than the pain of experiencing his loss.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Elmer’s love for ‘all things education’, which includes international travel (he was the recipient of a Fulbright teaching exchange in England and worked on projects in China and Guatemala).He also was a great devotee of expanding his knowledge through workshops and lectures, and most importantly, NCECA. He was devoted to the NCECA family and its efforts to promote educational opportunities to young students entering the field. To this end, I would like to make an appeal to anyone reading this who knew Elmer and loved him as we do by encouraging you to make a donation in honor of his memory to NCECA’s Fund for Artistic Development. NCECA has established this fund to support young talents and causes that were dear to Elmer’s heart including fellowships to support research beyond academia, international residencies, and special initiatives. I know for sure that Elmer would have embraced these causes, especially realizing how it further supports his love for education and our next generation of ceramic artists. Elmer’s legacy of helping others is something we all want to preserve, both in his name and through our love for someone who left an indelible impression on everyone he knew. Elmer Craig, our dear friend and colleague in clay, will most definitely be missed but never forgotten.
It may be that the craft arts have become so important these last several decades because we have lost our imagination for a living reciprocity with earth. We need to reimagine the reality of that connection. Putting hands-on helps.
~ Paulus Berensohn
Paulus Berensohn, 2010 film still from Fetzer Institute
From the age of about four, Paulus Berensohn knew that he wanted to dance. Initially, his parents resisted until a close friend admonished his mother, “But Edith, to dance is to spring from the hand of God!” While it may seem unlikely that Paulus himself could remember this exchange so vividly, the moment features large in his personal coming of age story. Described as the incident that led to Paulus’s first art lesson, passionate advocacy for art’s transformative power remained a central theme throughout his life’s work.
Paulus Berensohn, ca. 1954
Growing up in New York City’s East Village and Greenwich Village, Berensohn attended experimental and preparatory schools before being admitted to Yale University. He studied there only for a few days prior to withdrawing and returning to New York. On the advice of a friend in the city, he travelled to Vermont and enrolled at Goddard College where he remained about a year. Once more returning to New York, Berensohn enrolled briefly at Columbia University before auditioning for the dance department of the prestigious Julliard School. Despite his less than rigorous technical preparation and formal training as compared to other candidates, young Paulus earned a spot. Finding the conservatory model of Julliard too rigid, Berensohn subsequently transferred to Bennington College, which although a women’s school at the time, was recruiting for male dancers. At Bennington, Berensohn not only continued his work in dance, he also immersed himself in literature courses with several of the college’s leading writers including the poet Howard Nemerov. His final choreography project in school was selected for a performance at New York’s 92nd Street Y and received a positive review in the New York Times. However, a mentor whose critical recommendation on the piece Berensohn decided not to incorporate, gave him a failing mark in his final term, and he never received a degree from the college despite the support of other faculty members.
Returning once more to New York, Berensohn became immersed in the city’s burgeoning experimental dance and theater scene, while also studying and working with Merce Cunningham and members of his company. One Sunday in the company of these friends, Paulus visited the Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, New York. An intentional community and haven for artists founded in 1954 by graduates and former faculty of Black Mountain College including M.C. Richards, David Tudor, John Cage, and others, while wandering the Gate Hill grounds, Paulus came upon the workshop of Karen Karnes. Quietly observing her concentration and coordination of mind, body, and breath, the course of Berensohn’s life shifted. “I stood there and watched Karen from the back, sitting on her old Italian kick wheel where the wheel head was to her left. The first thing I saw her do was to pull up a cylinder of clay and at the same time lengthen her spine. And then—this was what got me—she reached for her sponge in the slip bucket, picked up the sponge, without taking her eyes off the cylinder, and squeezed some slip onto her work. The gesture of sightless reaching her hand made was elegant and inevitable. I thought, that’s a dance to learn.” Much later, Berensohn elaborated meta-cognitively on the memory, “What happened was a desire to de-professionalize my interest in art… As much as I admired the technical brilliance of my colleagues, I am very interested in the behavior of art rather than the achievement of art. I see all the arts as apprenticeships for the big art of our lives.”
That day was auspicious for another reason. Paulus met Karnes’s studio-mate M.C. Richards, who was also teaching clay classes at Greenwich House Pottery and City College. Richards encouraged Paulus to enroll in a workshop she was about to teach at the Haystack Mountain School in Maine. It was a pivotal time for Richards, who not long before, had left Black Mountain College to resettle at Stony Point. On her way to Haystack that summer, she had stopped in Connecticut for a lecture sponsored by the Wesleyan Potters Guild. It was this talk and the response that followed that led Richards to committing ideas on which she had been ruminating for some time into the book Centering: in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1963).
M.C. Richards, ca. 1950
The sense of connection between Berensohn and Richards developed with great and fluent immediacy. She was 17 years his senior and he likened the ease, flow, and meaningfulness of their conversations about creation to being engaged in a choreographic experience. That summer at Haystack set a path of poetic and creative inquiry through clay, writing, reading, and teaching that Berensohn would follow for the remainder of his days. At the end of the summer, rather than return to his life in New York as a dancer, Berensohn went to Pendle Hill, a Quaker adult school in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia where he began to teach crafts. Swarthmore College was nearby, and the following year, Berensohn was invited to begin teaching there. The studio at the time was an empty room, and he rallied the woodworking skills of Larry Wilson, a local teen, to help him build potters wheels from diagrams in Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. Student interest in the studio grew robust, and Berensohn began to produce, exhibit and sell his work. He purchased a farm near Scranton and after four years of teaching at Swarthmore, decided to settle in there to work as an artist. The property came to be known as The Endless Mountains Farm, and Berensohn invited several close friends to live with him there—Larry Wilson, Laurie Graham and their infant daughter Sheligh, lived there for several years and built a gas kiln. Others included the dancer and author Remy Charlip, June Ekman, and Burt Supree, who had been the dance editor of the Village Voice newspaper.
Around that time, Berensohn developed a friendship with Byron Temple and became involved with the Wallingford Potters Guild. Richards, who was living and writing in New York at the time, began to develop a series of experiential hands on workshops for the group that integrated clay, movement, and poetics. In the late 1960s Paulus was invited to Penland through his long-time friend Cynthia Bringle who had been a classmate during his first workshop at Haystack. Over the years they had continued to connect through a women-led kiln building festival that Ann Stannard and Karen Karnes had initiated. (During the early to mid-1960s, the few leaders of kiln building workshops, otherwise excluded participation by women.) Around this time, Berensohn recalls having a dream in which he stuck his hand into the earth and drew out a ball of clay. Blowing on it, it became a bowl. He was also increasingly interested in reading scientific considerations about clay and energy. The image of clay receiving energy, storing energy and transmitting energy captured his imagination. Being a body-oriented person the leap between clay and the body and energy and the body was both natural and profound. After three weeks of teaching with Cynthia at Penland, Berensohn was fully committed to a new, yet very old way of working with clay. These experiences were journaled and captured along with marvelous photographs by True Kelly to ultimately be published in Berensohn’s Finding One’s Way with Clay: Pinched Pottery and the Color of Clay (1974).
Paulus lived for nearly forty years in the Penland community, a home from which he piloted learning experiences and ultimately travelled away from to lead workshops integrating clay, journal making, poetics, and deep ecological thinking at colleges and art centers throughout the United States and abroad. His approach to and work with journal-making inspired Penland’s outreach program in the Mitchell County North Carolina public schools, which has run continuously since 1997. For several years, he also co-led similar workshops at Penland for urban teens from Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh that had cross-over with multiple studios there. Along with colleagues at Penland, during these week-long residencies, Berensohn facilitated interactions that co-mingled urban and rural teens. In a time of political, social, and environmental dissonance, Paulus remained committed to the notion that art and connection to the earth were essential to the well-being of all life, the planet, and the human spirit.
Berensohn’s work as an artist and educator focused on restoring the lost harmony between humanity and earth, while combatting alienations of race, gender, and class. He was recognized by the American Craft Council, which elected him to be an honorary fellow, and the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, which awarded him an honorary membership. He was also the recipient of the Distinguished Educator’s Award from the James Renwick Alliance in Washington DC. A film about his life and work, To Spring from the Hand: The Life and Work of Paulus Berensohn, made by Neil Lawrence, was released in 2013. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver wrote about that film, “Paulus Berensohn, whether he’s speaking slowly and thoughtfully as he does, or just smiling, is a gift. With his presence, life takes on a new radiance and energy. He teaches. He shines.”
Paulus Berensohn, photo by Naomi Boyle
Learn more about Berensohn, M.C. Richards and the Endless Mountain Farm at http://www.marywood.edu/galleries/docs/EndlessMountainsSpiritCatalog.pdf
Read the full transcript of Mark Shapiro’s 2009 interview with Paulus Berensohn at https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_296474
Watch a 10-minute film produced in 2013 by Neil Lawrence on the occasion of Paulus Berensohn’s award as NCECA Honorary Member of the Council https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92YYT9sYZi0
Donations may be made to the following organizations that provided care and support for Paulus.
- Hospice and Palliative Care of the Blue Ridge, 236 Hospital Drive, Spruce Pine NC 28777.
- Center for End of Life Transitions, 32 Mineral Dust Drive, Asheville NC 28806. www.ceolt.org.
A memorial celebration of Paulus Berensohn’s life will take place at Penland School of Crafts later this year.
This flat plate. This ladle and bowl.
Clay whirled on a wheel, raised slowly to the table.
Straight and curved, our primal gestures
take and give—speak out about
the way we stand and breathe.
Every leaf is saucer for the bread.
Every falling drop prepares its cup.
Always we are eating and drinking earth’s body,
Making her dishes.
Potters like sun and stars
perform their art—
Endowed with myth,
they make the meal holy.
My first memory of Paulus has lasted 30 years. It was at the beginning of a fall concentration, where he talked, using his body with his mindful posture, his hands gracefully moving in the air as he described the falling of red, orange and brown leaves on the grounds of Penland. He wove the metaphor of red iron oxide to the autumn leaves, tying together how it is used as an oxide in a potter’s glaze, for the passing of time, for the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.
~ Holly Hanessian
From his habit of walking barefooted to choosing not to fire some of his pinch pots, Paulus often questioned the status-quo. As a teacher, I was deeply influenced by the gentle and inquisitive manner in which he questioned the world around him. His compassion and curiosity will be greatly missed.
~ Chris Staley
Placing Paulus within the framework of the crafts pioneers in America illuminates the culture within which he helped establish the ethic of the crafts movement. Paulus was never at a loss to find the words to inspire those wishing to establish an honest dialog with primary materials. As we look back upon our long personal relationships with him, we are grateful for the way he helped us see our own paths more clearly toward an honest and fulfilling life and career. It’s not a time for sadness, as much as we’ll miss him. He lived his life the way he wanted to, and choreographed the end just the way it happened.
~ Jon Ellenbogen
The potter who finds life in his work finds it daily in small glimpses, and perhaps these are the successes as much as anything. For example, shapes evolve guided by forces apparently outside my control. This is instinct, intellect and openness to change fusing, into what I think is the most positive force behind any potter’s approach: evolution or growth. Some call it inspiration. ~ John Glick
Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1938, John Glick earned his B.F.A. from Wayne State University (1960), studying under William Pitney, and his M.F.A. from the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1962), working with Maija Grotell. A legendary and influential teacher, Grotell was noted for her deep interest in the human connection to nature’s rhythms and patterns. These ideas often grounded her dialog with her students including Glick, affecting a profound and lasting influence on his future work. Ideas contained within Glick’s thesis, which was concerned with the interaction of maker and user in functional pottery, continued to inform his studio practice over the next fifty years.
The two years following his departure from Cranbrook were spent in the U.S. Army. Stationed in West Germany near the Westerwald district, a region well-known for salt-glazed pottery, Glick often visited with and studied German potters in their studios. Upon separating from the military, Glick returned to Michigan, to establish a studio and began to work full-time as a potter. In 1965, he opened Plum Tree Pottery in Farmington, Michigan, where he ultimately built three kilns: a 60-cubic-foot catenary arch, a 27-cubic-foot catenary arch, and a 50-cubic-foot sprung-arch cross-draft. Glick began to produce dinnerware, and orders gradually became more consistent. All the while, Glick remained steadfastly committed to creative evolution, guiding his clients toward newer ideas rather than continuing the work he had done in the past.
Over time, he was able to build a substantial portion of his studio practice around the creation of one-of-a-kind settings. This approach struck a sympathetic balance that blended his urge for constant innovation within the utilitarian potter’s commitment to production. Cultivating and sustaining relationships with client-collectors was central to an approach of this nature. Glick’s settings ultimately explored a wide range of form and decoration that combined the user’s decision making with Glick’s personal vision of a set as a varied visual eco-system. In 1979, Glick was commissioned to produce a set of dinnerware for then Vice-President Mondale’s mansion. Consisting of 16 place settings with six elements to each setting, Glick also produced a technical instruction set for the team whose role would include handling the wares and setting the table.
While traditional academic structures have played an important part in the development of American studio pottery, Glick developed an alternative route to sustaining creative regeneration. All innovation entails cognitive transformations that are contingent on active communities of practice. Central to the formation of community in Glick’s life and work were the roles of assistants and his agility as a mentor. Together, they catalyzed the material productivity of the pottery and generated dialog on both creative and practical concerns of the potter’s work. As assistants became more immersed in the work cycle, they sometimes developed substantial portions of vessel production allowing Glick more time to focus on design, decoration, and innovation of processes.
Glick took influences from master potters of Japan, notably Shoji Hamada and Kanjrio Kawai, blending their gestural embellishments of simple forms with attitudes of Abstract Expressionism. He was particularly drawn to the work of Helen Frankenthaler whose soak-stain style resonated with Glick’s multi-layered glaze surfaces, which juxtaposed veils of atmospheric color with gestural marks and pattern. He spent countless hours developing and making his own tools in order to achieve previously unseen results in his work with clay and glaze. Elenor Wilson, Editor of The Studio Potter, worked with Glick in 2006. She shares, “One of the most important values I inherited from John is that of good tools. He spent a great deal of time in his ‘tool shop’ customizing this rib, that brush, fashioning a new extruder die, or adding wheels or hinges to something to improve ergonomics. John considered the knowledge, attitudes, and wisdom passed to him by his teachers to be tools. And, in fact, his pots are tools. Tools for eating, drinking, contemplating; for looking, for learning, for enjoying life.”
Glick’s work was nationally and internationally exhibited. Notable exhibitions include Craft in America: Expanding Traditions, a national invitational touring exhibition that visited eight cities in two years. A retrospective exhibition opened at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Spring 2016. His work is held in numerous collections, both public and private, including The Mint Museum, The American Craft Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Renwick Gallery, and the Museum of Art in Yixing, P.R. China. He was also the recipient of several prestigious awards, among them two individual artist fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and election as an American Craft Council Fellow.
You could say I am hopelessly in love with bits and pieces of the making of pots…
Robin Hopper Remembered (1939-2017)
Internationally accomplished potter, teacher, author, garden designer, and arts activist, Robin Hopper passed away on April 6, 2017. The potter’s art is one of the few in which the connection between creator and appreciator is so intimate and integral. The process of creation, the resulting object, and its use by others represent a unique interrelationship, too seldom explored. If not for multi-faceted, generous, and curious imaginations, like Mr. Hopper’s, the potter’s work would be a lonelier and more narrow calling than it is today.
Robin’s personality and style were larger than life, and his heart was soft and sweet. He was passionate about his art, his garden, and sharing his experience and knowledge. Robin could be gruff and rude. He was impatient with carelessness and negligence. His style could be curt and abrupt but this was his way of cutting to the chase and getting to the point. “Why beat around the bush?” was one of his mantras. In the midst of Robin’s apparently unforgiving demeanor was a deep understanding of the human spirit. He knew how to bring out the best in everyone who would interact with him. Robin’s engine was a heart of gold, a kindness of unsurpassed wealth and empathy beyond appreciation. ~ Steven Branfman
Born in England in 1939, Hopper’s childhood memories of the bombing of London were vividly recounted in a 2011 NCECA closing lecture in Tampa, Florida. He studied at Croydon College of Art (1956-1961) and later developed studios in both England and Canada, where he immigrated in 1968. After teaching for two years at Central Technical School in Toronto, he established and headed the Ceramics and Glass Department at Georgian College, Barrie, Ontario. In 1972 he resigned from teaching to devote full energies to his work in ceramics.
In 1977, he moved to Victoria, British Columbia where he established and ran the ’Chosin Pottery Gallery with his wife, Judi Dyelle. That same year, he was honored as the first recipient of the Bronfman Award, Canada’s most prestigious annual award in the crafts. Surrounding his studio and home, Hopper and his wife also dedicated themselves to horticulture and garden design. Their Anglojapanadian Garden at ’Chosin Pottery has been featured in books, several television programs, and many magazines. His dedication to craftsmanship extended far beyond the walls of his studio, gallery, and beloved flora. A prolific author, Hopper’s books include The Ceramic Spectrum (2008), Functional Pottery (2000), Staying Alive (2003), Making Marks (2008), a revised edition of Daniel Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter (2000), and his autobiography, Robin Hopper Ceramics: A Lifetime of Works, Ideas and Teaching (2007). His eBook, A Potter’s Garden – An Artist’s Approach to Creative Garden-Making (2014) illustrates his award-winning garden and discusses the influences and inspiration that it has had on his pottery.
Hopper taught throughout Canada, the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand, China, Korea, Japan, and Israel. His work is in public, corporate, and private collections throughout the world. He is an Honorary Member of NCECA and is also the Founding President Emeritus of the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts (1984).
Deeply and expansively engaged as a maker, researcher, writer, and mentor, Hopper’s creative, and intellectual rigor helped impact thousands learning a complex art form in a meaningful way, on a global basis. He was also committed to the message that the craftsman and artist can make a good living in a chosen field. As an artist, he remained committed to understanding the nature and limitations of materials and process through painstaking and innovative methods. After receiving a diagnosis of terminal liver cancer in 2015, he wrote to a friend, “Right now I’m about halfway through compiling a 3000 name Botanical Latin inventory of plants that are in my 2.5 acre garden! I have a whole list of other things to get done before I croak, hopefully concluding with a tongue in cheek obituary to keep people smiling as they set my cold, dead toes on fire! WARM FEET AT LAST!” In response to his diagnosis, Robin set about to produce Swansong, a video including stories, music, and images whose proceeds are being used to benefit research and treatment of pediatric cancer and arts programming for school-aged youth. On November 18, 2016, in a ceremony at Government House in Victoria, British Columbia, Hopper was invested into the Royal Order of Canada.
Mr. Hopper’s imagination and gifts as a communicator have made him a global, creative citizen. As a child of London bombings during World War II, his own life journey and story of resilience have served to inspire others. Alongside the undeniable beauty of his work, Mr. Hopper’s humanity, humility, and generosity have been a gift to the world.
Karen Karnes passed peacefully at home on July 12th, 2016. She was a towering figure of the postwar studio pottery movement, pioneering salt-glazing in the 1960s and wood-firing in the 1980s. Her work opened undreamed of possibilities of expression for the handmade pot. For the many potters who knew her, she was a mentor whose work embodied the creative power and singular voice to which we all aspire—her life in complete harmony with her creative vision. Karen Karnes was our artist. Her outspoken honesty, wit, and physical grace were unique and irresistible. The solidarity and love for her colleagues and nurturing support for younger potters changed careers and lives. She participated in many of the significant cultural moments of her generation, placing handmade pottery squarely in the midst of more than one avant-garde setting. Karnes was wont to speak her mind and lived by her own rules. In fact, early in her career, a customer who owned a gallery came in and asked the cost of a casserole that caught his eye at her Stony Point showroom. Hearing her response, he asked what the cost would be for a dozen. She told him that she would have to charge more for each one because she would not enjoy them as well, making so many. Her answer was like so much of how Karnes moved through the world: unforeseen.
Born in New York in 1925 to Jewish socialist activist parents, Karnes grew up in the Bronx Coops, the first worker-owned housing project in the United States, and attended the High School of Music and Art, where she began to make art. At Brooklyn College, she met a mentor, Serge Chermayeff, a European architect and designer from whom she imbibed a modernist approach, and also her future husband, David Weinrib, a ceramic sculptor at the time. Chermayeff led her to a Black Mountain College summer session with Bauhaus luminary Joseph Albers; with Weinrib she went to Strasburg, Pennsylvania, where she fell in love with clay as they lived in a tent while working at Design Technics, a firm that made architectural tile and lamps. After a year, the young couple left for Italy, where they lived in Sesto Fiorentino, a pottery town in Tuscany then known for its leftist political climate. Karnes transported her greenware to local kilns on her Vespa, and the locals were only too glad to accommodate this beautiful young American woman.
The precocious excellence of Karnes’s work was recognized early on, both by Chermayeff, who recommended her to Charles Harder at Alfred University, and in Italy by Gio Ponti, who published her work in his influential Domus magazine. When she returned to the U.S. in 1950 to attend Alfred as a special MFA student, her Double Vessel was selected for the Everson National Exhibition, where it won the prestigious Lord & Taylor Award.
Karen Karnes’s wheel built, built in Italy in 1950, photographed by Robert George in 1977. Photo appears in Christopher Benfey’s wonderful essay on Karen Karnes within “A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes”, 2010, edited by Mark Shapiro.
At Alfred under Harder, Karnes was fully funded and had few responsibilities, yet with her master’s degree only a year away, she and Weinrib decamped to Black Mountain College, where they accepted positions as potters-in-residence among the heady avant-garde literary and artistic firmament of that place. (The list of significant artists at or passing through the college in those years goes on and on and includes: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, MC Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, Jack Tworkov, Franz Kline, Charles Olson.) While there, Karnes sold the pots she made through Southern Highland Craft Guild outlets and in New York at America House, the American Craft Council gallery across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. She and Weinrib were hosts at the 1952 pottery seminar featuring Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Soetsu Yanagi, and Marguerite Wildenhain. Karnes describes watching Hamada serenely throwing, deeply in the work while Leach pedantically held forth, disparaging the quality of American clays and American pottery’s lack of “tap-roots.” Meanwhile, she said that she “breathed in Hamada’s spirit,” and while her pots never looked anything like his, they synthesize his Japanese attitude toward materiality and spontaneity with her European modernist training in a uniquely elegant way. The following year, Karnes and Weinrib organized their own summer institute featuring Peter Voulkos, Warren Mackenzie, Daniel Rhodes.
In spite of the now acknowledged historic stature of creative and intellectual foment taking place at Black Mountain College, things were falling apart there in the 1950s, with serious financial troubles, low enrollments, and factional strife. In 1954 Karnes and Weinrib left with writer/artist M.C. Richards, pianist David Tudor, composer John Cage, and architect and patron Paul Williams and his wife, writer Vera Williams to found the Gate Hill Cooperative outside of New York City. This “Black Mountain for adults” became Karnes’s home for the next 25 years. Williams had acquired 100 acres in Stony Point in New York’s Rockland County and set out to build a creative living community. Karnes’s was the first house and studio to be built on the site, and she got right to work. There she made her sturdy functional pots, selling them out of her studio, as well as at America House and at Bonnier’s, a Scandinavian home furnishings store. She did some teaching, but mostly made her work, jealously protecting her time in the studio, where she was producing oil-fired reduction tableware. While Karnes’s utilitarian work of this period did well, the unique creative vision we have come to associate with her subsequent work was not yet apparent. Karnes gave voice to her originality in a series of press-molded and coiled architecturally-scaled planters, birdbaths, fireplaces, and chairs that she made while pregnant with her son Abel. These are some of her lesser-known works, but comparable work existed neither then nor even now. One of her stools from this period is the only work in the Noguchi Museum in New York that is not by the artist himself and was selected by Noguchi on a visit to her Gate Hill Studio.
In the early 1960s, Karnes, along with her student Mikhail Zakin and M.C. Richards, developed a flameware clay body that could go directly on the stove top and she began producing the casseroles that she would make alongside almost all the bodies of work that followed. This model of studio production, in which a popular, iconic, and useful pot undergirds and supports more experimental and evolving bodies of work is one that many studio potters have employed successfully since.
From there, Karnes moved toward new ways of firing and new bodies of work. In 1967 she led a workshop at Penland School, where a salt-kiln had recently been built. She was smitten and returned to build one of her own. Salt-firing is common now, but it was a novelty at the time. Her work took off and she began to make some of the most iconic studio ceramics of the era: cut-lidded jars, large scale vases, bowls, moving away from more modest tableware. She said, “[Salt-glazing] … forced me into another place, and once the leap was made, I kept growing.” Her well-known salt-glazed jars with their straight-forward rising forms and striated facets of wire cuts on the top of the lids are among the most enduring and personal explorations of a single form in the field—recalling for me the serial bodies of work in the so called “mature styles” of modernist painters such as Rothko, Newman, etc.
Karnes first met British educator and artist Ann Stannard when the latter was leading a kiln-building workshop in 1969. Stannard became Karnes’s life partner, moving to Gate Hill the following year. (Karnes and Weinrib had divorced in the late 1950s, a few years after the birth of their son Abel.) Karnes lived openly with Ann and single-handedly raised her son on the income from her pottery sales, (as she had from the late 1950s); a show of grit, independence, and self-assurance that foreshadowed and paralleled second-wave feminist aspirations. With Ann’s appearance on the scene, Karnes’s work expanded significantly in scale and range. In the decade that followed she regularly showed with the 57th Street gallery of Hadler-Rodriguez and was recognized as one of the premier potters in the United States, pushing the context in which this genre of work was seen.
In 1974, Karnes began curating the Pottery Show and Sale to benefit the Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey, founded by Mikhail Zakin. The show was truly potter-centric: it brought together two dozen potters from around the country for a weekend of selling, visiting, and eating. Karnes insisted that the potters be well taken care of: housed by local volunteers, well-fed, and promptly paid. Many young potters got a career-changing boost when Karnes gave us her blessing by inviting us into this company of respected and established peers. I was among this fortunate cohort; it was a milestone for me that led to a deep connection to Karen and many of my dearest colleagues. Over the years, the celebration of community and delight in the camaraderie of new and old colleagues and seeing their ever-evolving work never waned. Now in its 42nd year, the show (co-curated since 2014, by Chris Gustin and Bruce Dehnert) is a model for similar events across the country. Demarest-inspired benefit sales now take place in Washington, D.C. (Pots on the Hill) and Rochester, New York (Flower City Pottery Invitational), among others.
In the late 1970s, Karnes and Stannard left the communitarian bustle of Gate Hill for Danville, Vermont, and settled a few years later in the isolated township of Morgan in the Northeast Kingdom, some twenty miles south of the Canadian border. Karnes has called this her “time of retreat.” Not content to rest on the considerable acclaim of her salt-fired work, she built a large Bourry-box wood kiln more than twice the size of her Stony Point salt kiln and began making some of her most ambitious work: larger thrown vessels and asymmetrical forms that were coil-built over thrown bases. The pots often embraced color: blues, greens and yellows, subtly modified by the wood flame and ash. These works showed a new complexity, moving between commonplace polarities of pot/sculpture, landscape/body, male/female, spiritual/physical, and inside/outside. Several bodies of work followed: massive cut-lidded jars, pots with slits extending up the height of added hollow bases that might be taller than the body of the vessel itself, and forms with reaching “wings,” also divided by slits. Additionally, she produced forms with added necks, tulipieres, and boulder-like shapes with craters, some open to the inside, some not. Many of these works were massive, some up to three feet across.
During this period, Karnes showed at the Garth Clark Gallery on 57th Street, the most prestigious venue of the day (she had seven solo exhibitions between 1987 and 2000 and a retrospective in 2003), as well as other leading galleries such as Joanne Rapp, Habitat/Shaw, Esther Saks, Leedy-Voulkos, among others. She received multiple awards and honors over these years: A National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist fellowship, The Society of Arts and Crafts (Boston) Medal of Excellence, Vermont Arts Council Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, The American Crafts Council’s Gold Medal, and the Watershed Legends Award. She was a Northern Clay Center Regis Master. She was made an Honorary Member of NCECA in 1980.
Karnes and Stannard suffered a kiln fire that burned their home and studio to the ground in 1998. She lost all her archives, notebooks and personal possessions, but they rebuilt on the site. Her resilience was a facilitated by her discovery of the love that the clay community held for her, as potters offered time, support, and pots for her new home as she rebuilt her life. She began a group of more modestly scaled works, often groupings of two or three joined or freestanding vessels that expressed a lightness and relational intimacy that was new, and fired them in a rebuilt small salt kiln. As she moved into her eighties, her work with groupings became more complex, involving multiple and joined altered thrown volumes, agglomerated into biomorphic masses. Many of these works from the mid-2000s onward were fired in Joy Brown’s anagama kiln in Kent, Connecticut, and in my salt-wood kiln in Massachusetts. She showed during these years with the Ferrin Gallery and more recently with the Lacoste Gallery. She stopped working in clay a few years before her passing as she became less able to physically work with the material.
A film by Lucy Phenix, Don’t Know, We’ll See: The Work of Karen Karnes, was released in 2005, and Karnes was celebrated by a traveling retrospective exhibition curated by Peter Held in 2010–2012 with an accompanying book A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) that I had the honor of editing. The show originated at the Arizona State University Museum Ceramic Research Center, and travelled to the Asheville Art Museum (North Carolina), Currier Museum of Art (New Hampshire), the Racine Art Museum (Wisconsin), and the Crocker Art Museum (California).
Karnes never was institutionally affiliated. She lived her communitarian politics while fiercely protecting her creative privacy. Blazing her own trail, she willfully dreamed into being the very landscape through which she moved, refusing fixed identities, rigid categories, and conventional expectations. She was making it all up and living it in ways that many could hardly imagine, much less embody; her creative power and courage inspired nearly universal admiration and wonderment. What Mikhail Zakin said of her friend speaks for many: she lived “with total integrity to her value system. That has been a great lesson for me—that it can be done, that you can live that way.”
While she didn’t often speak about her motivation or creative process, they served Karen as inexorable forces deep within her being, dictating the logic of her life. “The pots kind of grow from themselves,” she said. “It’s a feeling. The forms will extend themselves—or contract. I feel my forms live in my body, on my breath.” Karnes indeed felt herself a vessel, a vehicle for the creative voice within her. On another occasion she described it slightly differently, “It’s as if I am moving at the bottom of the ocean…in a big slow current that keeps going—that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change … but I’m just moving along.”
Karen Karnes now has moved along to another place. She did so as she always did, in her serene and purposeful way. She remains with us in her work, whose power and beauty is hard-fired for as long as anything else is on this earth. She remains with us in her legacy of love, justice, and of support for our enduring community. She remains with the many of us whom she illuminated with her fierce, bright light.
Having now spent several days in Gary Erickson’s studio and apartment as I help the family in closing out Gary’s professional life I find myself immersed not only in his work, but also in my memories of his life.
I met Gary in 1992 when my new school, Concordia University, St. Paul, hosted an exhibition of his work after he had served as a sabbatical replacement for a term the year before I arrived. His work was impressive and a challenge to our students, but his persona was even more notable. He was instantly engaging, warm, accepting, gentle and fun. His impish humor bubbled forth without being forced or trying to impress. I knew in those first moments that this would be a man with whom I would wish to spend time in my new city. Our quickly discovered mutual love of golf would cement the friendship into place that next summer.
Gary’s sculptural forms back then were mostly inspired by biomorphic growth patterns in plants. But as the years passed I watched him fold his many varied interests and experiences into innovations in his work. His love of gardening mixed with a love of salsa dancing and those rhythmic patterns began to inform his pieces. His travels to Cuba changed his knowledge of dance patterns and his work responded as well. His love of Minnesota and our glacier deposited stones and rocks became clay pebble wall installations that supplemented his tile explorations. When he ceased his Cuba travels and started his ongoing travels to China, the new materials, techniques and imagery responded again. His teapots from those experiences explored a range of imagery from ancient Chinese traditions to tongue in cheek Communist kitsch. His spiral forms were still connected to his early sculptural directions, but gained an elegant specificity that crossed cultural ties and became universal. Of course, all the while, he never stopped creating unique vessel forms that were very different than the ‘Mingeisota’ style so frequently found in the upper Midwest. His openness to innovation and prolific exploration transcended the current expectation of artists to only explore their one singular ‘look’.
Gary loved NCECA and attended conferences as he could. Like all of us he found the conference as one way to connect with individual friends and also with his tribe. We roomed together now and then and I met many new people through Gary, who are now my friends, (and fellow mourners). Gary had at least one direct effect on the course of NCECA’s history when in 2003 he and I began golf course talks about my love of NCECA. He encouraged me to run for the Director at Large position. My colleague, Marko Fields nominated me in Indianapolis and my election led to my subsequent 8 years of service to NCECA.
Gary was my good friend and a friend to many people in many circles. He was both professor and friend to his Macalester students who were often invited to his studio/apartment for dinners and dances; eating from Gary’s bowls and plates. He was well known in the Twin Cities dance community and even befriended members of his favorite local bands. He supported the Northern Clay Center, shopped at Continental Clay and initiated Empty Bowls events at Macalester creating friendships at every stop. His gatherings were fun, quirky and varied. They comfortably mixed friend circles one with another. Once my wife and I were invited for an evening of root beer taste-testing with another couple. Just for fun!
I looked up to Gary, (yes, he was 6’ 5”), because he easily maintained long lasting connections. Love interests from 40 year ago remained his friends and even became friends with each other through Gary. He was more intentional about nurturing friendship than anyone I know, particularly in this era of disposable friendships. He was unique, accepting, mirthful all while living a deeply artistic life. I am blessed to have had a 23 year long friendship with him. I will miss him, as will many others.
Keith Williams has been working in ceramics since 1973 and has been teaching ceramics, drawing and art history at the university level since 1989. His passion for art and for quality teaching has led him to do workshops across the United States, to jury ceramic exhibition and to exhibit his own work.
Williams has been an NCECA member and conference attendee since 1988. He served on the Board as a Director-at-Large in the mid-2000s. In 2008 he became President-Elect, beginning his 6 year term on the board within the presidential cycle. He continues to volunteer his time to the organization serving on committees and advising on issues as they arise. Williams enthusiastically volunteers in the student critique room. He was inducted as a Fellow of NCECA in 2015.
He also maintains interests in current political affairs, science, drawing, singing, playing jazz clarinet and saxophone. He also golfs.
Currently, Williams is curating a comprehensive retrospective of Erickson’s work in Concordia College’s galleries. 100% of the work remaining in his studio will be shown and for sale. The opening is 1PM on June 19th and the show will run for a month. Over 100 sculptural pieces and several hundred vessels and tiles will be shown.