Introduction

From: Global Clay

colophon
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1 introduction Turn, turn, my wheel! The human race, Of every tongue, of every place, Caucasian, Coptic, or Malay, All that inhabit this great earth, Whatever be their rank or worth, Are kindred and allied by birth, And made of the same clay. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Kéramos” (1877)1 Global Clay is a book about pottery from around the world, from the earliest wares to those of today. But this is not a survey in the usual sense, as it does not approach the subject in a linear, chronological way as a historian would, or in a spatial or ethnographic way as a geographer or anthropologist would. Although it certainly benefits from those methodologies, this book first of all is driven by ideas: themes shared by clay-working societies wherever they are found.2 The approach used here is informed by my training as a folklorist, with its focus on the continuity of traditions over time and space and how they respond to change. Folk traditions connect the individual to society, providing an anchor to previous generations and, at the same time, a resource for creative behavior in the present. Like those traditions, the study of folklore is evolving, but one methodology that has remained constant is the comparative approach, a goal of which is to address the Big Question: How did certain cultural products come to be so widespread (especially in the days before print and electronic media)?3 The universality of certain pottery ideas is what Global Clay will specifically address. Walk into traditional pottery workshops anywhere in the world and you are immediately struck by their similar layouts. The similarities are due not to the 2 | global clay adoption of a common design plan, but to the demands of working with clay in a traditional way. For example, there’s a good reason why potter’s wheels are usually placed near a window: for light and air. Folklorists explain such similarities as the result of polygenesis, or the independent inventions of an idea found in unconnected places, as opposed to diffusion, or the spread of a tradition from a single source.4 You’ll be reminded of those two options, as well as their possible combination, as we explore some widespread, and intriguing, ceramic themes. So, as a folklorist whose interests began with traditional music and oral literature , how did folk pottery become my research specialty? Two brief answers: my friendship with fellow University of Pennsylvania graduate student Henry Glassie—who would become a world-class material culture scholar and influence my trajectory—and my subsequent friendship with north Georgia folk potter Lanier Meaders.5 Before meeting Lanier in 1968 I had no interest or background in ceramics; but thinking back, a much earlier experience with traditional pottery may have prepared me for expanding my later research focus beyond the American South to the rest of the world. At the age of thirteen I spent part of a summer with friends in Jalisco, Mexico (my first time outside the United States), and we visited the pottery town of Tlaquepaque. I was not attuned to carefully observing then, of course, so have only the vaguest memory of the workshop, but in that memory is the picture of an open-air courtyard with artisans at work shaping and painting earthenware. My two previous pottery books focus on the state of Georgia, but while working on the first I’d begun taking research trips to the British Isles, initially looking for (and finding) connections to American folk pottery, then falling in love with the diverse ceramic traditions of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland for their own sake. One of those adventures included a pottery-focused side trip to Rhineland Germany, and returning there several years later I was able to revisit one of a select number of German potters who still make traditional blue-and-gray saltglazed stoneware. More recent trips to China, Turkey, and Romania—all countries with rich ceramic traditions, both historical and contemporary—broadened my horizons beyond the West. Figure 0.1. Burnbrae Pottery staff, Ballynakelly, Coalisland, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, ca. 1930, with owners George and James Burns (front, center), potter David Cranston (rear, far right), and sitting before him his son Bobbie, interviewed by the author in 1986. The unfired pudding pans in foreground have interior slip decoration in a distinctly Ulster scallop pattern. Photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland: collection of Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Holywood, Northern Ireland, nmni.com/uftm. introduction | 3 A...


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