Historical Pot

by Emily Schroeder Willis

There are many historical ceramic pieces influential to my studio practice.  Nearly every piece I craft has some underpinning from something seen along the journey: a handle from a English teacup, the raw surface from a Neolithic Chinese jar, a line drawn on a Mimbres bowl, a gentle ruffling of a coil from a Jomon pot. It is unbelievably difficult to pick a single piece to write about, which is why I am not going to write about only one. 

During the time I was a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation, the nearby Holter Museum of Art held an exhibition of Ancient Iranian Art titled “Wit and Wine: Ancient Iranian Ceramics from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection”, which had a profound impact on me. I had never seen nor known much about work done from that region. Being from Mingei-sota most of my influence and education up was based on East Asian ceramics and I was pleasantly surprised by this historical work.  Up to this point when I thought of Iranian ceramics, I mostly drew upon memories of highly decorated ware from the 11th - 15th century. I was completely unaware of these simpler predecessors made during the Iron Age (1000 - 800 BCE).  The minimal forms and surfaces were intriguing.  Pitchers intentionally lacking a spout or a handle held only the essence of their intended purpose, and that was moving to me.  They didn’t need the flourishes and decoration to make them extraordinary pots.  But it was in their “basic-ness” that they had a profound punctuation of form. 

Around this same time I took my first trip to Europe.  I was traveling around for several weeks and wanted to spend some time in Germany, so I could get my fix for brats, beer, and gummi bears.  Maybe a little art too. Being of nearly 100% German descent I think there are several Germanic character traits imparted at birth. The first is the gift of curt language, which I can excel in.  Many find it off-putting, but I think of it as tapping into my inner German’s “directness of speech”.  Why say 100 words when only 10 are needed? Why not get right to the point of what I am thinking rather than dance around a topic or a question for an entire conversation?  Needless to say, not everyone considers this a gift.

Earthenware Jar (1000 BCE) from the Freer Sackler Museum in Washington, DC

Earthenware Jar (1000 BCE) from the Freer Sackler Museum in Washington, DC

The second inborn trait is an economy of style. I find many Germans tend to like things simple, or as others may state, “plain and boring”.  Much of this could be based on their prudency of spending money, but I believe it comes from the same vein of their economy of language. Why put 20 ruffles on something when you can achieve the same effect with one? Or none?  There is a beauty in the simple.  

Bauhaus Museum in Berlin

Bauhaus Museum in Berlin

I bopped around Germany for several weeks, eventually landing in Berlin.  There, I visited several museums including the Bauhaus Museum. I have since made subsequent stops, but my initial visit was quite moving.  During my first trip to the Bauhaus Museum, I felt like Eve walking for the first time into Eden. All of these delicious cups, chairs, teapots, lamps, tapestries, pitchers, and jars, none of which I could touch.  All things were broken down to simplistic forms, allowing you to really see them.  The simple curves, lines and designs from the Bauhaus struck a chord in me I hadn’t really plucked before.  I had been caught up in the more is more is more and never really thought about the commonly riffed “Less is More” mantra of Mies.  At this point I really began reflecting on what could I remove. What was too much?  What was noise and what was excess in my work?

At the museum, I reflected a lot on myself and who I was as a maker.  I sensed a falseness in the work I was making.  I was creating work that wasn’t beautiful or moving to me. Why was I making objects that weren’t who I was?  Before leaving the Bauhaus Museum I stepped inside the gift shop and purchased a postcard with an image of 3 Otto Lindig pieces on it.  Those three vessels signify everything I want my work to be.  Simple. Direct. Profound. 

Three Otto Lindig Vessels from the Bauhaus Museum, Berlin

Three Otto Lindig Vessels from the Bauhaus Museum, Berlin

That Lindig postcard has had some good airtime on my studio walls over the years. From time to time an image of a new fad or a new hot little “Miss” or “Mister” ceramicist of the year has replaced it.  But it has had a stronghold in my way of thinking for over 16 years.  There are pots you fall passionately in love with for a season; your love fades or perhaps you change as a person and your taste for that work subsides. And then there are objects, objects like this simple Iranian jug or an Otto Lindig pitcher, that stick with you for the duration of your practice.  These minimal objects, twins in their own right, are some of the most profound pots I have come across.  They carry obvious parallels in their directness of form, simplistic surface and spare shapes from which I never tire.   These pieces hold in their objectness all I desire my work to become.