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.
Lots of folks have been asking me about this ride, and I am thrilled to be able to say that Women’s Free State Racing, which was the team Glenda raced with, will be hosting the ride. (If you missed the initial post about this ride, you can check that out here) Many cyclists who rode and raced with Glenda from this area are excited to participate and meet their “counterparts” in Glenda’s clay family. I can’t help but imagine how happy Glenda would be about bringing together all the people she loved. I am absolutely certain that the huge smile that always lit up her face will be beaming down on us from above.
Please keep in mind that in Kansas City, it might be 60 or 16 on March 15th…probably somewhere in the middle of that, I am going to guess 45ºF…(we can maybe start a pool on the temp separately….) But I’m a firm believer in the quote “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” 🙂
We are currently working on planning the routes & figuring out what support we need for the ride right now. Please help us out by filling out the form below.
Please note – information regarding this ride appears on the NCECA blog as a means to get the word out to NCECA membership who want to stay informed about all opportunities surrounding the conference. This ride is not an official NCECA event, rather it is being planned by the local community.
As the 2014 NCECA conference started in Milwaukee, the news of Don Reitz’s passing on March 19 at his home in Clarkdale, Arizona, sent rippling shock waves throughout the audience and beyond. He was 84 and throughout his six-decade career, he continued to push his artistic vision, inspiring generations of ceramic practitioners. Don was a modern day folk legend and larger-than-life. As a master ceramist, Don Reitz produced new and exciting work with his innovative and adaptable practice.
-Peter Held, from the 2015 NCECA Journal, page 12.
At the 2015 conference, Don was honored as one of our “Past Masters” Peter Held spoke beautifully about Don’s life, art, & philosophy. Below, you can view a video of the presentation.
Life is not a dress rehearsal; you only have one shot at it.
-Don Reitz, August 20, 2011
I met the iconic Phillip Cornelius in the 80’s during my graduate studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio while I was an intern resident artist at the former Southwest Craft Center. Phil came to the Center as a visiting artist for one month when he guided me in the craft but importantly the concepts of clay as a medium of abstract artistic expression. Three years later while co- director under John Wilson at the Lakeside Studios in Lakeside Michigan I invited Phil to Michigan. Youth with a degree overestimates its wisdom. He taught me as well as others without condescension or criticism the power of an artist and the purpose of its works. Lakeside Studios sent me to Latvia and Phil to Lithuania in 1989 where we met up in the former Soviet Union, and our worlds changed. Over the years we met and talked. Each time I learned. The world will miss his presence with only some clay to view. But his spirit still prevails. His greatest contribution to the world of art is not the work he left behind but the minds he expanded.
I cannot do any more justice than his obituary:
Phillip G. Cornelius (1934- 2015)
Phillip Age 80, an artist, mentor, and longtime friend, Ceramic Professor at Pasadena City College, passed away peacefully on Tuesday, May 19. Born in San Bernardino in 1934, he grew up in Ontario, CA and graduated from Chaffey High School. He led a colorful life traveling several paths as a young grocery bagger, a US Army soldier, a science major at San Jose State University, a certified pilot, and as an acclaimed artist and professor. He obtained his MFA degree in 1965 at the Claremont graduate School and has been working as an artist and ceramist ever since. While many universities have closed their ceramics programs over the years, Phillip is credited with making the Pasadena City College Ceramic Department a premier studio and envy of art programs everywhere. His science background served him well when he discovered his passion for ceramics and in the early 1970’s developed his signature “thinware”, which is ultra-thin and fired “right to the edge.” Phillip once said he was very aware of his ability to “do the wrong thing and have it come out right.” Colleagues believe he shattered the ole image of ceramics as a craft and he boldly moved this age-old skill into the world of the fine arts. His abstract expressionism, cutting edge construction and imagery are seen within his art. Phillip’s work includes his signature porcelain pieces , which resemble tanks, airplanes, and ships in the form of an abstract teapot. The teapots represent so much more than what the eye beholds. Many of his pieces can be seen in major museum collections throughout the world including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
Phil is survived by: his oldest son Charles Cornelius, his wife Tana, their three children, Ashley, Brooke, and West; his youngest son, Andrew and his wife Tara Cornelius.
Joyce Jablonski, Professor of Art, Head of Ceramics, University of Central Missouri