Consider the earthenware vessel. Crafted by human hands from humble earth and born of fire, a cup or bowl or pitcher made of clay can be as workaday as a terra cotta flower pot or as exalted as a bone china cup of porcelain so thin as to be translucent. It is one of our oldest human building materials: fashioned into vessels as early as 20,000 years ago by means that remain essentially the same, though today’s clay artists are constantly innovating with new techniques and expressions.
Crystal Bridges’ Great Hall Corridor currently hosts a year-long exhibition that explores some of the many incarnations of ceramic fabrication, from highly decorated seventeenth-century Japanese vessels made for European export to delicate stylized contemporary works that explore the limits of the medium. Born of Fire features works on loan from three of Crystal Bridges’ sister institutions in our region: The Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock; the Springfield Art Museum, Springfield, MO; and the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. These works will be on display through February, 2014.
Native American Pottery of Today
The works on view from the Sequoyah National Research Center were selected from the Dr. J. W. Wiggins Native American Art Collection, part of the Center’s permanent holdings. This collection of more than 2,400 works represents the life work and passion of J.W. Wiggins, and is among the finest private collections of contemporary and modern Native American Art in the world. The vessels included in Crystal Bridges exhibition were chosen for their blending of the traditional and the contemporary, drawing upon cherished traditions and design in Native American ceramics. These works offer a graceful perspective on what it means to be a Native American artist today. Most of the works represent Cherokee traditions, reflecting our region’s history as a part of the Cherokee Trail of Tears and today’s nearby political seat of the tribe in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. But other tribes are represented as well, including Muscogee Creek, Kiowa, and Osage.
Springfield Art Museum’s Imari Pottery The vessels from the Springfield Art Museum are literally and figuratively a world away from the Native American works. These objects were selected from the Museum’s collection of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Japanese pottery. Several of these pieces are beautiful examples of colorful “Imari” porcelain from the village of Arita on the island of Kyushu, Japan, where the highly valued kaolin clay is quarried. The Arita region was, and continues today to be a community of potters and ceramicists. The art of Japanese porcelain is said to have begun there, and during the late seventeenth century, the region’s feudal lords so jealously guarded their porcelain secrets that villages were gated and guarded, and the processes divided among families so no one group would hold the secrets. Though the ceramicists in Arita and neighboring villages on the island continue to make porcelain pottery, what collectors think of as Imari—named after the port from which it was exported—is pottery that was created during the period from 1650 to about 1750, specifically for export by the Dutch East India Company.
Imari pottery is highly ornamented, and is characterized by a deep cobalt-blue underglaze with red and gold overglazes and gilding. Today Imari porcelain is highly prized by collectors. This collection was gifted to the Springfield Art Museum by Dr. Raymond and Georgia Christy.
Contemporary Ceramics of the Arkansas Art Center
Ceramics from the Arkansas Arts Center, compared to the two previous types of pottery, show the contemporary and organic potential of the medium. These are works created in a variety of styles by American, Canadian, and European artists who are forging their own paths in the art form. Like the artists, the works are quite diverse. The malleability and versatility of the medium is very much on view in this grouping. Several of these works incorporate delicate forms and translucent glazes that make them appear organic: like sea creatures or fungi with their exquisitely fragile lamella. Others are rough in texture and robust in form, and might from a distance be mistaken for iron or steel. The clay can take on the hard edges of geometrical forms or the rounded shapes of sea urchins. They may be glazed, highly colored, iridescent and glossy, or matte and muted in hue—or unglazed, offering up the unadorned flat cream color of the natural porcelain.
You can get a glimpse behind the scenes into the installation of this exhibition here.