Heart Burial Urns. from Sojourn, at the Andrews Gallery, Feb 2018.
Porcelain, cone 11; soda fired in reduction. Wheel thrown with slip trailing, water etching and pulled handles. Heart burial is the process of interring the heart (and sometimes other viscera) separately from the body. This ritual was popular in medieval and early post-medieval Central Europe, but it is a tradition that continues today (Otto von Habsburg requested a heart burial in 2011). Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein' reportedly also kept her husbands heart in a silk bag on her desk. Heart burial is practiced for variety of reasons, including practicality — when one dies on their travels and the whole corpse would be difficult to transport — as well as as a symbol of affections, courage, and for other metaphorical reasons. Frederic Chopin’s heart burial monument has the inscription: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Other notable heart burial monuments are the Monument of Rene de Chalon and the heart burial of Louis XVII.
I designed these urns for the purpose of heart burial, so they are just a bit smaller than urns for cremains. The form is loosely inspired by the anatomical shape of a human heart. I have given an urn to my wife to wait for my own heart.
In the 18th century, the miasma theory of disease was widely accepted. The theory (replaced with germ theory in the 1880s) held that epidemics and disease were spread by poisonous smells and “bad air”, often called night air. Pierced urns were commonly filled with aromatic mixtures of potpourri or flowers to guard against the smell of decaying bodies, rotting food and other noxious smells. A pretty futile gesture, ultimately these urns provided some peace of mind more than any protection against rampant disease.
Lost Age Tableware
Cone 10 Reduction
SOJOURN, Statement. Andrews Gallery, Williamsburg, Va. Feb 2018
It has been a fantastic experience to travel across the United States to continue developing the quality of my work and teaching. My time in Williamsburg will be short, as my Visiting Professor in Ceramics position is due to end after the semester. I have attempted to take inspiration from my peers, students and experiences while I live and work here. It is particularly clear to me that there is a tangible dialogue between the past and present in Williamsburg. I see the tired “ghosts” of dead colonists picking up a six pack of Miller and smokes after Colonial Williamsburg closing hours as they transition back to modern life. Certainly, I have become acutely aware during my research that my sojourn — my temporary stay — applies not only to my position at William and Mary, but also to the temporary nature of my status as an alive person that is able to do things and experience stuff.
I have been interested for the last few years in 18th and 19th century European production porcelain from factories like Staffordshire Wedgwood, Meissen and Sevres. These historical pieces, with their intricately flourished handles, dramatically elevated bases, and optimistic precious metal gilding ultimately represent a criterion for perfection (and associated values) that seem a bit empty in contemporary society. In my research for Sojourn, I was inspired by the story of the “Poor Potter” of Yorktown and by the work of the late Willam and Mary professor of anthropology and archaeologist Dr. Norman F. Barka who (with the help of staff and students) pieced together the story of the ”Poor Potter” William Rogers together from shard pile “waster pits” and written records in the 1960s and 1970s.
Probably one of the largest and earliest producers of stoneware in the colonies, William Rogers’ work would have possibly been traded as far as the West Indies. He is celebrated today as a sort of mysterious outlaw potter that subverted British laws governing colonial industrial development, helping to lead the path to an economically independent Virginia. He was dubbed the “Poor Potter” in a 1732 report sent by Virginia's Lieutenant Governor in an effort to downplay the scale and success of his operation so that it could continue unimpeded. The stoneware had a beautiful salt glazed “orange peel” quality, was fundamentally utilitarian in nature, and would have been found in the same estates that displayed ornate European imported work.
In our contemporary understanding of what it means to be a potter in America, with the value of the work tied to the labor and practice of making the objects—Rogers was not a potter. The majority of works from this period were made by slaves and indentured servants, and the vast majority of pieces sold by Rogers and others were unsigned as a result of literacy being forbidden for this class of makers. I feel a profound nagging discomfort thinking about these artists, whose exceptional work was appreciated at the time in much the way we regard ceramic objects from Ikea, and whose identities will forever remain unknown (with the exception of those with extensive arrest records). I empathize with the frustrations expressed by Dr. Barka regarding lost records and information and the apparent futility of piecing together a tradition that has vanished orally, was primarily unattributed, and was seldom as well documented as Rogers’ operation was.
The centerpiece of this exhibition, Garniture for Lost American Labors was designed with analogous materials and methods to these 18th century American stoneware pieces, though elevated in status and decoration as a tribute to American futility, labor and beauty.
By referencing these historical pieces, I desire to emphasize change; the fickle nature of established meaning as it is inevitably lost or retooled to maintain relevance. In this way, Sojourn speaks to the ebb and flow of cultures and ideas, the labors of humans realized and subsequently lost as has demonstrably happened innumerable times in the course of human history. These works are, in essence, a call to bear witness to the failures, destructive forces, and distasteful origins that are integral to the endeavors of creating pots and investigating meaning as a human today.
As Above So Below
Excerpt from “Oblivion”.
As Above So Below, is one of the more impactful of the works in Oblivion (Figure 14. As Above, So Below). For this sculpture, I endeavored to create a certain gravity to the contemplation of death that I felt would not be effective with ceramic symbolism and representation alone. The work is a ziggurat-like formation that, on a glass cabinet, displays a historically inspired five piece garniture set featuring three urns and two vases with the “victory of death” and “empty set in laurel” motifs. Below the garniture sits — enclosed in glass — a research specimen of a preserved dog surrounded by flowers and remnants of broken pottery on black sand. When I was a biology student, I had the opportunity to work for the biology department in their preparations lab as a taxidermist. This experience, although initially revolting, provided me with an extreme appreciation for the role the animals unwittingly play in facilitating the goals of people. More importantly though, a familiarity with death and viscera made me acutely aware of my own biological composition. Bearing witness to death in a tangible way affected me profoundly as I realized that the nature of humans and animals is more alike than different. I wanted to also provide a moment of reverence to the plight of those research animals that are normally given an unsanctimonious ending. “As above so below” is a popularized phrase based on an esoteric religious text that asserts a similarity between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Particularly, it suggests that any part of the universe (the microcosm) reflects the whole (the macrocosm). My work, As Above, So Below, seeks to point out the similarities between the broken pots, and the intact; the research animal that is a proxy for humans; and the similarities between a thriving, idealistic existence and a desolate graveyard.
Just as humans attempt to dominate and shape the natural world that they have the ability to control (the microcosm above), so does the natural world render human labors futile with the passage of time and oblivion from death (the macrocosm below). However, it is perhaps less meaningful to be be confronted with death unexpectedly than it is to make the calculated choice to consider it. In this work, one must crane their body over the glass table, to break through the barrier from above in order to glimpse a visage of the animal’s sardonic grin (Figure 15. As Above So Below detail). When I prepared the specimen for exhibition, I felt loss and empathy: I saw myself.
Threadbare with Jeremy Brooks
Threadbare, a duo exhibition with Jeremy Brooks and Mike Stumbras at the Eutectic Gallery investigates the ways that meaning is worn down, obscured, or augmented as historical ceramic tropes are woven into contemporary life. Brooks and Stumbras present a series of functional and ornamental ceramic pieces with a diverse range of materials as well as manual and digital processes.
Through juxtapositions of material and image, the past and the present, and the mundane and the absurd, Brooks and Stumbras interrogate modern day notions of masculinity, existence, and the commercialization of ceramic art. To explore friction between tradition and value; to wear meanings down to their nubs; and to probe around under the hood of the human ceramic machine — is to welcome the uncanniest of guests.
The cover image of this album is “Vanity” A piece about the ends of things. A wedding dress from a divorce, a taxidermy rabbit, a vessel, and and studio hammer with gold leaf. I like the formal similarities between rabbit and vessel.