Mecca for CeramicsSpring 2005
by Laurel C. Wemett
The Southern Tier village of Alfred, New York, might aptly be described as a “Mecca for Ceramics.” The village has long been the home to the internationally recognized New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, founded over 100 years ago in 1900. In the heart of the campus, the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art houses an impressive permanent collection of ceramic objects dating from the Neolithic period to the present. Annually the museum offers exhibitions based on its large holdings, loans from private collections, and notable traveling shows. Graduate thesis exhibitions that reflect the latest work in ceramics and electronic arts will be highlighted this spring.
In 1900, New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill establishing the New York State School of Clay-Working and Ceramics (now the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University). The ceramics department, like those in other universities, was established to bolster the state’s brick industry and utilization of the state’s raw materials. A prosperous Alfred business, the Celadon Terra Cotta Company, which then manufactured tiles and bricks, was partially responsible for locating the ceramics school there. Today a tour of Alfred reveals 50 houses roofed with terra cotta tiles made by the company. Its “Terra Cotta” building at the southwest corner of Pine and Main streets is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites. The tiny building, built in 1892, was once an office and display center for the company, and boasts exterior walls set with ornamental tiles.
Charles Fergus Binns (1857-1934)
The Ceramics College at Alfred is linked to Charles Fergus Binns (fig. 1), who has earned the title, “Father of American Studio Ceramics.” The English-born Binns learned about pottery at the Royal Worcester Porcelain Works where his father was comanaging director. After he moved to the U.S. in 1897, Binns began to produce his own pottery, learning the potter’s wheel, and testing glazes on his own ware. His style, characterized by simple forms and rich but subdued glazes, shows the influence of early Chinese ceramics (fig. 2).
Binns became founding director of the New York State School of Clay-Working and Ceramics at Alfred University in 1900 and held the position for over 30 years. It was he who created the curriculum at Alfred that dealt with factory, laboratory, and studio techniques, as well as some classes designed for public school teachers. His influential writings impacted the development of American ceramics. Referred to on campus as “Daddy” Binns, his students went on to become outstanding teachers and potters.
The Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art
Housed temporarily in Binns-Merrill Hall, the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art has 1,500 square feet of renovated exhibition space. It seems fitting that two chandeliers and a portrait of Binns, both evident in a 1933 photograph of the room, but later removed, have been returned.
With over 8,000 objects in the collection, the good news is that a larger museum is being planned. New additions to the collection strain the four storage areas overseen by Collections Manager Susan Kowalczyk. A commitment of $9.2 million has already been made by the State University of New York Construction Fund for a larger facility to be located within walking distance of Harder Hall, which houses the School of Art and Design. Architect Bruce Wood of Kallmann, McKinnell and Wood Architects of Boston, is responsible for the design. Kowalczyk says it may be open by 2008.
Meanwhile, changing exhibitions, some traveling and others curated by the museum’s own staff, help fulfill the educational and research mission of Alfred’s College of Ceramics. Installation 188, on view in 2004, featured glass bottles containing clay from 188 different countries (fig. 3, pg. 52). These were part of the Common Ground World Project, an international organization, established by Alfred University alumnus, Neil Tetkowski, that uses art to draw attention to global environmental concerns.
In 2001, the museum mounted an exhibition on Glidden Pottery, which featured the locally produced mold-made and hand-decorated stoneware produced in Alfred from 1940 to 1957 (fig. 4, pg. 52). Gliddenware was much admired for its design and the firm that made it was founded by a College of Ceramics’ graduate student, Glidden Parker. Perhaps due to Glidden’s popularity with today’s collectors, the museum’s catalogue of this exhibition is one of its best-selling publications.
William Parry, (don’t forget to) Wonder
The current exhibition at the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art features 12 works by William Parry (1918-2004), professor emeritus of sculpture. A 1947 graduate of Alfred’s School of Art and Design, Parry returned to teach at the school from 1963 until his retirement in 1989. Most of the sculptures are part of a recent gift to the museum from his widow, Elizabeth Parry, and span the years from 1965 to 1993.
The title of the exhibit comes from a page of Parry’s notes with an (unattributed) quote: “We will not die through lack of power but one may die through lack of wonder,” Parry said. “Don’t forget to wonder.”
Kowalczyk remembers Parry when she was an undergraduate majoring in ceramics in the 1970s. “He was very soft-spoken and generous with his time,” says the museum professional who has worked at the Alfred facility since 1996. “When he was talking to you, he made you feel like you were the most important person.”
“Bill Parry was an artist of deep intuition and surprising insights who had a special kind of imagination,” wrote Val M. Cushing, Alfred Professor Emeritus in a tribute in the June 2004 issue of The Studio Potter magazine. The variety of hand-built sculptures in the exhibit offer the viewer a chance to explore that imagination and, in Parry’s words, “to wonder.” Familiar objects like “Knife, Fork, Spoon” (fig. 5, pg. 52) take on large abstract forms in Parry’s hands. The simplicity and scale of these implements give them a somewhat prehistoric appearance. Made of white stoneware with copper oxide slip, they resemble bones or other natural forms. “Knife, Fork, Spoon” was produced as part of a series and the three examples on view offer the visitor an opportunity to compare them. Each trio is distinguished by its own unique texture, shapes, surface patterns, and variations of grays and whites.
The Parry exhibit ends April 1, after which five MFA student thesis exhibitions are scheduled through May 6, 2005.
Laurel C. Wemett is a correspondent for the Messenger-Post Newspapers in Canandaigua. Her mother and aunt both graduated with BS degrees in ceramic art and her uncle graduated with a BS in ceramic engineering from Alfred