Part One of “Listening to Pots Speak”
From the desk of Vonda Givens, Executive Director of the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms…
In the fall the museum’s annual Craftsman Gala, on Saturday, October 13, at the Mountain Lakes Club in Mountain Lakes, NJ (visit StickleyMuseum.org for tickets and information) will pay tribute to Robert A. Ellison Jr. In preparation for this evening, I asked Bob for an interview and sent him written questions, encouraging him to answer the ones that interested him most. Instead of doing that, he wrote an essay. I had read Bob’s interview with The New York Times and to avoid insulting him, I purposely avoided asking questions that he had clearly answered many times. In his essay to follow, Bob graciously answered the questions I did ask and those I was afraid to ask. The essay demonstrates Bob’s affable generosity and his enduring desire to share his knowledge of art pottery.
Listening to Pots Speak
By Robert A. Ellison Jr.
I moved to New York City in 1962 after living my first thirty years in Texas. My move was to escape the family business (retail furniture) and to try to make a career in art as a painter. In college I was a mediocre student but in trying to find myself I came away with a degree in philosophy. By 1964, I had established a painting studio in a loft at Grand and Allen Streets in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
As a break from my studio routine, I would prowl flea markets and shops seeking out ceramic objects. I have been often asked, why ceramics? My answer is that I don’t know. I didn’t have any training in painting or in ceramic history, so I was figuring things out as I went along. In the mid-1960s there weren’t many books on ceramics, so I would buy pieces to see what had been made. I hoped details would come later to fill in the blanks (they did). At first, I liked to accumulate many pieces, and I liked to buy cheaply, but as the years passed, I began to pay more for more interesting works since I was becoming more aware of what was interesting.
Early on, I began as a collector of Dedham Pottery dinnerware, yes, the ones with rabbit borders, but what made it interesting was all the other flora and fauna that was also used for decorations on the borders. After a few years, I graduated to the vases of Dedham’s Hugh C. Robertson (HCR) with their thick and complex Volcanic glazes. I think that was my introduction to Arts and Crafts pottery, sometime in the mid- 1960s. At that moment, I was not aware of Arts and Crafts and what it meant. Then, my friend Paul Evans introduced me to Chelsea Keramic Art Works (CKAW) which was the Robertson’s family forerunner to Dedham Pottery. It was one of the earliest art potteries in the United States and created a vast array of works. In 1884-89, HCR was caught up in trying to discover how to make the lost copper red glaze from the Ming Dynasty in China. Ernest Chaplet in France and Seeger in Germany were also on the same hunt. I was totally taken in by the stories of their quests and formed a collection of vases with copper red glazes from all three makers.
In the late 1960s, I encountered a Fulper Pottery lamp with leaded glass inserts and bought it, thinking that for, my taste, it was more interesting than Tiffany lamps. Other lamps and Fulper vases followed. I became enamored with Charles Volkmar’s landscape plaques painted with the barbotine process that gave the plaques a resemblance to oil paintings.
We will feature part two of Robert Ellison’s essay “Listening to Pots Speak” in next week’s articles, which will also feature the final update for the Gala, including what items will be up for bid and for more information on guest of honor Ellison.
In the meantime, to find out information about tickets for the Craftsman Gala, please visit the Craftsman Gala page on the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms website.