For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading a book called Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay. Part-family memoir, part history of America’s art and craft traditions, Christopher Benfey’s book about art, family and memory is a very gentle, meandering book that explores the authors’ personal connections to the many interwoven strands of history. My friend and ceramics teacher Julie recently gave me the book, knowing that I would find the stories relating to Asian art, especially ceramics, of interest. Particularly fascinating to me was the story of the celebrated English potter Josiah Wedgwood, whose quest for a pure white clay that could rival Chinese porcelain led him to dispatch men to the United States to find the famed white clay of the Cherokees and bring it back to him. I would have preferred to be reading the book at a healthier moment in my life, as my recent sleep deprivation and drugged state made the author’s meanderings a little hard to follow, and on several occasions, I wandered off his paths and became lost somewhere in the hills of North Carolina. However, I enjoyed the book enough to want to share it with a friend who has a very special and unique relationship with the history of ceramics in the US.
Mary is an associate professor and director of the Williamson Gallery at Scripps College in Claremont, where I was fortunate to teach for a semester this time last year. An art historian specializing in 20th century European and American art, Mary has been a dedicated teacher and mentor to students of art, art history and art conservation for many years now. In addition, she runs the Williamson Gallery, which holds regular exhibitions of students’ works and art works from the Scripps collection, but is probably best known for the Scripps College Ceramic Annual, the longest continuous exhibition of contemporary ceramics in the United States (now 71 years). The country’s most celebrated American ceramic artists have been featured in this space, and Mary has known many of them personally, both as a professor and galley director, but also as a fellow ceramicist. Last year, as I chatted with Mary over lunches together at Scripps, I already admired her intelligence, professional achievements and her commitment to her students. When I later discovered that the elegant mug I had been drinking my tea from was one of her creations, I was blown away.
One of the points that Christopher Benfey raises in his book is that our potters were our first artists, creating functional vessels that were often beautiful too. Potters are often some of our humblest artists too, working with the most basic of all materials to create exquisite objects with which we often form a very intimate relationship. Despite her enormous creativity, Mary too has the humble sensibility of many ceramic artists. Today, I sent her the book I’d been reading, so that she too can spend some evening hours wandering through the history of arts and crafts in the United States and hopefully recognize her own importance place in it.