BMC Women on Clay, Craft and Nature: Marguerite Wildenhain, Mary Caroline “M.C.” Richards, and Karen Karnes
by Courtney Lee Weida
In considering craft education from a holistic perspective, a central voice is renowned poet and potter, Mary Caroline (M. C.) Richards, who once noted that one “cannot talk about the crafts without appealing to the evolving spirit of man” (1989, p. 27). Richards taught in a variety of educational settings, including K-12 education, universities, and community workshops for learners across the lifespan. She discovered pottery when she came to Black Mountain College to teach writing and literature from 1945 to 1951. She became a pottery student at Black Mountain College, and later went on to teach both poetry and pottery for special needs populations, through an integrated life philosophy of craft. Richards (1973) described the educational philosophy derived from her rich experiences as an “interdisciplinary study” and “search for wholeness . . . through the ordeals of life” (p. 157). Her renaissance approach to teaching was a quest “to integrate poetry, pottery, inner development, community, and education” (p. 3). Richards’ classic book, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1989), provides a framework for exploring many aspects of life through pottery. Richards’ work continuously acknowledges and celebrates the self, the mind, the hands, the clay, and the community.
Marguerite Wildenhain provides an historical accompaniment to Richards’ poetry on pottery. Her immigration to the United States from Holland enabled her some experience with college art teaching (in place of her husband) before she studied at Black Mountain College. She later joined the ceramics community called Pond Farm, the site of her well-known summer workshops in ceramics. Wildenhain (1973) also summarized the role of hand-crafted objects in the past, suggesting that craft was irreversibly changed by the Industrial Revolution, but can subsequently exist as
An artistic endeavor for those who have the deep urge to make personal things of beauty with their hands, or they have become the therapeutic need, and relief, for all those who are not satisfied with our mechanized and mechanistic way of life. (p. 13)
A common thread of holism emerges here too. Wildenhain’s emphasis on individual needs, economic autonomy, and personal aesthetics is also clear, suggesting that craft can be both communal and personal.
Wildenhain (2004) expands on the work of the craftsperson as a combination of carefully selected materials, visualization, and beautiful objects in her diary, “Expressive of what the craftsman feels, thinks, knows, sees, expressive thus of his total personality and, because he cannot escape it, expressive also of his time and his country” (p. 39). This personal vision is a recurring theme in Wildenhain’s writing. The perception and invention of the maker is held up as central and foremost in her visions of craft.
We may trace an overlap of crafts ethics and community building between Wildenhain and Richards. Richards expands upon the communal groundwork for such interrelations between objects, people, and communities in craft; stating in her 1973 address to artists and craftspeople: “there’s a connection we ought to make between what we ‘profess’ as creatures sensitive to form, and what we practice in community” (p. 9). The creation of craft and the construction of communities can be compared in this way.
Karen Karnes, an admirer of Hamada, is perhaps the least prolific in professing the meaning and function of craft. Her life and work, however, provides craftspeople with several cues to focus on the work itself and avoid too much defining and philosophizing. She grew up in New York City, then studied at Alfred University and Black Mountain College before creating her own private studios. In an oral history interview with Mark Shapiro (2005), Karnes contrasts her memories of ceramics figures Leach with Hamada. She recalls Leach as frequently “talking, philosophizing and everything,” while Hamada “just sat there and worked . . . He was wonderful.” Like Hamada, Karnes’ models focus on form, leading to refinement. She explains:
The way I think about my forms is I sort of get an idea, and I begin making them. And then I make them, and make them with all these variations-bigger and wider and narrower-until I’m tired of that form. Then I stop it-but by the time I’m tired, I’ve already had ideas for the next series of forms, so I would just start doing the next. And I never go back to a form that I’d made before.
The evolution of form and practice is inseparable, an excellent example of Karnes’ meaning of craft. She describes an experiential process of form.
Within my research of craft and these craft figures over the years, I have discovered a wonderfully mystical sense of phraseology concerning the “craft” of teaching and learning, which often had relevant considerations in terms of researching these three figures. A library search of the keyword “craft” reveals myriad publications emphasizing the craft of research, the craft of writing, crafting one’s voice, and numerous examples of craftsmanship across many human endeavors. This universality of the quality of craft emphasizes the importance of skill, practice, and personal connection that originates in the craft media but extends to other areas. I sensed a delightful, interdisciplinary resonance between this work and others, akin to what Richards (1973) called “a hidden or occult resonance in all things” (p. 150).
Mystic, potter, poet, and Black Mountain College Professor Mary Caroline Richards (1989) once asked about what happens to the artist who lives naturally in a childlike responsiveness to rhythm, tone, color and story. Although any reflection on poetry places bias on Richards (onetime English professor and perpetual poet), Wildenhain offers rich stories in her writings, with her work and tales sometimes taking on historic elements of the mythic and legend. So too, Karnes lived several important and rare life stories worthy of pottery histories. Richards even wrote an elemental ode dedicated to none other than Karen Karnes, entitled For Karen Karnes, on her 37th birthday (From The Crossing Point p. 221). This poem includes several telling passages:
I say, clay
has a way of being plastic
and without residue, we sing
to the one who works it so.
We sing: soul, and shaper
. . .
This is Karen, devoted to the plainspeaking of clay and its parables.
This poem offers a rich sense of the expressive, wordless silence of Karnes’ pottery and practice. So too it illuminates Richards’ contrasting need for parables in the listening to/looking at clay and its archetypal (both geological and biblical) earthiness as dust. Black Mountain College and the studio-communities of Richards, Wildenhain, and Karnes that followed are rare renaissances of poetry with craft and fine art from BMC that allowed such nuance and juxtaposition to flourish without either being extinguished.
During my own time in graduate school, I needed this duality of poetry and history to sustain me in the studio (not so much as an artist, but as a technical assistant loading kilns, plugging clay, and moving endless bags of chemicals). But several of my fellow female potters and I were also hungry, literally and metaphorically for the writing of women who were wild, creative, and free like the Beat writers and artists. Wildenhain’s journals of her travels offer us perhaps unexpected Kerouacian descriptions of food, social sustenance, pottery, and nourishing revelations during her traveling, of delighting in tableaus “like one of those Dutch pictures with the food piled up on it: butter and rolls in huge quantities, milk in jugs, cheese, and then soup, two sorts of meat in large dishes, different vegetables, potatoes, beans, salad, fruit, and pie. And that too was only 50 cents” (p. 86).
I could not help but recollect Kerouac’s apple pie-laden adventures in On the Road (1956). So too Wildenhain offers us a sort of guided visualization or meditation on art and solitude, one I’ve even used with my own students to think of how they might craft their studios and teaching spaces:
Suppose you were told that you would have to stay in your house for six months, your material needs all looked after, but without being able to get out. Your first reaction would naturally be to resent this imprisonment deeply, and to resist it strongly. . . But, let us suppose that you had another point of view. You could accept the situation as inexorable, start thinking and looking around you to find out what was available – what you could see, what you could do, what you could make. Here were your books on art, literature, religion, and philosophy, and in different languages; each of them could give you enough to think about, to learn, to work with, for months if not years. There were also the windows like so many openings on Life. You could see the sky, some trees or a house, people, or a street with passing traffic. You might discover that you wished to observe closely so as to draw, or paint, or sculpt, or you might wish to write, prose or poetry, or even whole stories as you watched the daily movement of certain persons passing again and again in front of your windows. Your imagination would fill in what you could not see or know. A plant in a flowerpot might occupy you for weeks, drawing it, watching the leaves uncurl, unfold, and grow, and die off again in the regular cycle of the plant. (p. 101)
Wildenhain’s sense of crafting one’s own life and studio is deeply poetic and, I find, quite resonant with craftspeople today. She gives us a certain everyday aesthetics. Wildenhain also offers an imaginative conversation with a special muse, her cat:
One spring morning, Poesje strolled through my open front door into my house, walked around the room, and settled on my couch. When I asked her what she was doing, she looked at me with her beautiful golden eyes, set like precious stones in her black face, and said ‘This is going to be my house, but I like you, and you can live in it too. You will feed me and take good care of me, and I will always be quiet, independent, and beautiful. Is that not a fair exchange?’ ‘Of course,’ I answered, ‘As long as you are quiet and go your own ways, as I do too, we will get along fine.’ (p. 118)
For me, this quote resonates as a metaphor, both for the lone artist as a sort of solitary creature (not unlike the cat) and for the “crazy cat lady” still acknowledged in contemporary times. But Wildenhain and her cat take on a more mythic maiden and muse role. As Henke (2003) evocatively observes,
The spinster is there, always, as society’s well-kept secret resource — a woman whose life is devoted to the spinning of cloth or the spinning of tales. . . often alone and sometimes defenseless, she continues to spin wheels and words, webs and visions, fantasies and frustrations — all collected in the marginal spaces. (p. 23)
We may consider how these three unconventional women defy the roles of the mother and muse so commonly associated with wives of artists through their unique travels, relationships, and writings.
In addition, like Richards who sought out themes of mythic, beautiful, powerful moments, Wildenhain paints with words her experience of divine beauty and harmony in Peru. She describes her travels through the mountains, and witnessing young women carrying bouquets of flowers, woven with grasses, weeds, and leaves:
Some were mostly white, very subtle in their relations, blueish or pale yellow or sophisticated light pinks and greys. Others were flashing with large red flowers, others had a lively combination of red, yellows, whites with lush green leaves . . . all were beautiful as angels from Heaven, and it was like a vision from another sphere. I cannot explain in so many cold words what went through my heart at that moment. I felt: These girls were much more than Indian girls trying to sell the only product of their valley to the tourists. They were both Diane the Chaste, and Ceres the Fruitful, in one. They were the eternal young girls, a woman of all times, and of any country. (p. 124)
It is perhaps the mythic and storied aspects of potters’ biography that both fascinate and inform contemporary craft. Further, there is relevance in a female potter acknowledging another crafts person, telling stories of art, travel, and culture on a mythic level.
While Richards offers poetry and Wildenhain gives us a sort of philosophy and prose, Karnes leaves us with paradox. As Jody Clowes (2010) notes: “She resists too much verbal interpretation of what’s going in in these wood-fired pots, with their heightened blue and orange glazes, their multiple slits and mouths, their bulges and collapses” (p. 24). Although many of us can only imagine Karnes particular experiences with pottery, single motherhood, and non-heteronormativity, her spare descriptions of these unique joys and challenges offer other sorts of inspirations. Clowes also observes that “Karen Karnes doesn’t talk much about her life. She prefers to look forward rather than back. She has also drawn strong boundaries around her studio, shielding her practice from intrusion, distraction, and external critique” (p. 27). This silence offers a strong voice for potters as well. In my 2008 research of several contemporary women potters, I found several points at which provocative questions would be met with silences not unlike some of Karnes’ responses to interviews and prompts. Stone (2002) has theorized on the ecology of women’s voices and silences, drawing inspiration from Audre Lorde’s notion of feminine silence as both site of resistance and place of transformation for creative women. In this way, silence is a space and has a message; it has a kind of voice.
Perhaps because gender is so often assumed irrelevant in the arts and dismissed or neglected, it remains important to discuss in areas like the crafts, where sensibilities and particularities of our bodies and lives can be more carefully considered. Gender is a unifying factor in consideration of the careers of Wildenhain, Richards, and Karnes, if for no other reason than their rare, recognized success as female potters of their times. Each dealt with issues of gender in different, and unique ways. Wildenhain (2004) noted in her journal that she was worried about eating with a room of all male loggers in her travels, but was ultimately more concerned about being caught out beyond the curfew allowed her per restrictions of her international status. This bravery and risk-taking is to be admired. She also describes her caring mentorship of several women visitors to Pond Farm.
So too, Richards and Karnes are known for mentoring of young men and women. When I met Karen Karnes briefly at one of the well-known Old Church annual exhibitions in New Jersey about a decade ago, it surprised (and pained) me that she did not want to discuss her experiences in terms of gender, and then turned away from me. Staring at her back, I felt irreparably lost as a young feminist researcher and artist. But as I read more interviews from those who did speak with Karnes, it was clear that this would be an invariably taboo topic of public discussion for her. Writers like Clowes (2010) contextualize this resistance appreciatively:
Karnes did not believe that sexism has been an issue in her life: ‘I’ve never had any feeling that . . . .anything was not going as well for me because I’m a woman. I’m lucky – I haven’t had any of this.’ This belief, while plainly sincere, must be understood in the context of her era. It reflects an active, willed decision to ignore the repressive climate for women at midcentury. (p. 28)
This resistance can be a revelation, for it underscores the variety of experiences and responses various women may have to their lives as women. Similarly, we should perhaps not assume nor insist the woman commonly referred to as “the grandmother of ceramics” should be bound to a role of grandmother of ceramicists, whether female, feminist or otherwise.
Instead, it may be noted that “Karnes’ persona has offered younger potters, especially women, a viable alternative to the flamboyant machismo adopted by influential male potters like Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner, and Ken Ferguson” (Clowes, 2010; p. 28). We should also observe how discussing gender can be a way to accept some of its problems for artists. In this case, “Karnes herself wrote in 1989 ‘no matter what kinds of forms I make, they appear to be women’s work’” (p. 44). So too, she mentions in an interview about visiting Hamada:
I meant to go to Japan and see him at his place, but I never did. That’s part of it. I didn’t go to Peru when the Crafts Council went. I never thought I could do anything, because I didn’t have the money. And when they said, you’re just a potter, and everything you make goes into your life and your child and everything.
Afterthoughts like this illuminate why women artists may resist and protest against conversations that center on their roles as women artists, particularly as they aim to persist as both potters and parents.
Teaching and Nature
Another major consideration in addressing craft education in terms of these three figures is perhaps more geographically located than gender-based. We have already observed that what once was necessary and central for daily life (like making quilts), and a viable means for earning a livelihood (such as production pottery), have been reduced to hobbies (or at best art forms) by the proliferation of mass-produced goods. Nonetheless, the very notions of crafting and craftsmanship retain an aura of timelessness and nature nostalgia, particularly in the case of earthy clay. As I have noted in my recent research (2009, 2012), emerging digital craft communities not only look forward to celebrate new ways of making, but simultaneously reflect upon traditions, providing spaces for historical inquiry among craftspeople. One area of the past’s persistence in the crafts can be located in the renewed relevance of Richards’ interest in the environment and deep ecology. Disenfranchised by colleges and universities, Richards sought to incorporate her passions for philosophy, ecology, ceramics, and poetics into a specialized curriculum honoring the student as a whole person.
So too, Wildenhain (1973) related nature to the very core of the craftsperson: “Nature will help him unite inside of himself different and separate tends of knowledge and personal emotional experiences” (p. 52). Wildenhain also acknowledged a nostalgic sense of nature that may still resonate with young craftspeople:
Early in my childhood, Mother had developed in me a love and understanding for all that went on in the outdoors. Later, as I started my training as a sculptor and as a potter, I soon found out how little I actually did know about nature and how superficially I had looked at her. (p. 38)
Wildenhain’s sense of nature becomes richer and deeper as she develops in her craft, observing that nature provides inspiration for form, refines observation and aids in solving problems ingeniously.
While Richards is best known for her philosophizing on centering, these theories can be related to Wildenhain’s sense of the inner core of the potter. Wildenhain even notes: “The center of a craftsman will have developed as he studies nature, for nature will help him unite inside of himself different and separate tends of knowledge and personal emotional experiences” (p. 52). She also describes her own summer workshops where she and participants draw rocks, trees, textures, and people from life.
Karen Karnes’ studio also reveals inspirations from nature. Mark Shapiro observed (during an interview with Karnes) that her studio contained imagery of landscapes and stones. Clay itself is part of the natural processes of erosion. Karnes speaks of the balance in her work of natural influences without overt or derivative elements:
MS. KARNES: I don’t really have a brain that tells me change to this or change to that. Life does it, so I just do it. I don’t have any thoughts about why I change it.
MR. SHAPIRO: I notice there are a lot of images of rocks and landscape.
MS. KARNES: On my wall.
MR. SHAPIRO: Right.
MS. KARNES: Oh, yeah, I love those. I think all potters love those-I think there’s a good story that I tell in the film about when we went-and all those pieces I started making with the openings. And then I went to Hawaii and went up on top of the crater and looked down into the volcano, and they were just like that. And in the interior of the volcano they had these beautiful mounds with openings that were like that. I just said to Ann, “It’s lucky I hadn’t seen it before, because I couldn’t have done the piece.” I mean, it’s very clear to me not to ever imitate anything or copy anything; if there is too strong an influence, then it stops that kind of form.
These observations relate the farm communities of these three women to the kind of elegant forms they create.
Another aspect of the crafts’ enduring values can be seen when craft is considered as a framework for natural human growth and development. In the words of M. C. Richards (1989) “the experiences of centering, . . . through the crafts, the arts, educated perception – may foster a healing of those inner divisions which set man at war with himself and therefore with others” (p. 61). A poet by training, she (1980) further related pottery and education to poetry via metaphor, proposing “we must carry in our soul a picture of creating little by little the vessel of our humanity” (p. 26). Richards also noted that each person may be viewed as a sort of “living vessel” (p. 7). Going deeper, she pointed out the underlying linguistic link between vessels and cells, as the Greek word for cell translates into “hollow vessel” (1973, p. 56). In this way, Richards leads us to envision and embody our visions of craft and wholeness within micro and macro levels.
Concluding Reflections on Craft and Ceramics:
Artistic identities of major figures like Karnes, Wildenhain, and Richards can help us understand ourselves and futures of craft. M.C. Richards (1989) once mused, “it is not the pots we are forming, but ourselves” (p. 13). Richards (1980) further explains that “to enter into the world of forming . . . we wish to be fully ourselves and at the same time, as a part of a self-realization, to offer and share with others” (p. 77). Marguerite Wildenhain (1973) has similarly written that the potter “creates pots after [his/her] own image” (p. 140). Although Karnes may not have made an outright statement regarding her pots and herself, it is clear that she embodies her philosophies and practices in her pottery.
Wildenhain also compared her writings to the forming of a great pot, looking at philosophizing and potting in a similar light. Richards (1973) wrote that, “the intersection between writing and handcraft seems to me really to lie . . . in the quality of caring . . . an ability to respond humanly” (p. 22). These cultivations of humanity and caring can be central to craft and can also become a rigorous and academic process.
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