Everson Museum Part II: Ceramics

The museum's collection of ceramics spans ancient sculpture and Ming dynasty porcelain to contemporary works.

One visit to a museum is rarely enough to see everything. There are changing displays or traveling exhibitions to further entertain and enlighten the public. Objects that have emerged from museum storage wait to be discovered. Recent acquisitions arrive to be admired and studied, and special programs and tours are regularly offered. In this magazine’s Fall 2006 issue, Stickley furniture at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse was the focus. Now the ceramics collection, one of the largest in the country, beckons us to return.

Before entering the Everson Museum off Harrison Street, visitors see five large ceramic works created by Arnold Zimmerman, a contemporary New York artist. Variously referred to as pots, vessels or urns, they have narrow tops making them resemble large-scale vases. These tall modern sculptures, created in 1982, are raised on cement blocks, and their round forms contrast sharply with architect I.M. Pei’s cubic museum building behind them. The unglazed, solid pot forms suggest a monumental terracotta hedge positioned between the building and the city’s busy pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Each piece is individually carved with abstract geometric shapes and encircled with deep-cut horizontal bands. These bold pots, inspired by Romanesque architecture, communicate art and appropriately suggest what awaits visitors in the Everson Museum’s ceramics collection.

The Everson Museum’s holdings total 11,000 objects, with American ceramics alone amounting to over 4,000 pieces, one of the largest collections in the nation. Examples from the ancient classical world to contemporary ceramics are displayed in open storage in 84 cases on the lower level in the Syracuse China Center for the Study of Ceramics. The pieces are arranged chronologically by culture and include works from the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

Robineau makes her stamp on ceramics

Syracuse had become the center for the Arts and Crafts Movement with the furniture designed by Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) and his publication, The Craftsman. Another artisan, Adelaide Alsop Robineau (1865-1929), moved with her family to the city in 1901 and spread the idea of handmade ceramics. In 1916, the Everson, formerly the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, purchased a small group of Robineau’s porcelains. Today the Everson owns more works by the renowned potter than any other museum.

Robineau is famous for her works in porcelain, which she explored after she had already become well-known for her china painting, a popular 19th century pastime. In 1899, she became the editor of Ceramic Studio, a pioneering American ceramics magazine. By the time of her death she was “widely recognized as the preeminent artist-potter in America and the first to produce porcelain objects that rivaled those from European porcelain factories in both design and execution,” according to the Everson.

In 1911, Robineau was awarded the grand prize for her display of 55 ceramics at an international exhibition, which included her best-known porcelain, “Scarab Vase.”

The actual title of the vase is “The Apotheosis of the Toiler,” a reference to the “unknown potter” who labors at his craft. Its main motif of the scarab beetle, an Egyptian symbol of hard work, patience, strength and immortality, accounts for its name.

It was thrown on a potter’s wheel and after it dried, Robineau slowly cut out the background of the pot to create the intricate design of the stylized beetles. The glaze is a glossy white with accents of pale turquoise and the excised background was left unglazed. An estimated 1,000 hours was spent working on the Scarab Vase. In the year 2000, it won praise as one of the “Top Treasures of the Century” by Antiques Magazine.

It was in Robineau’s memory that the Ceramic National exhibitions were established beginning in 1932 at the Everson Museum. These helped to change the public’s opinion on ceramics from craft to art form. By showcasing ceramics, this series of exhibits also led to the growth of the museum’s comprehensive ceramics collection.
Other artists to discover

The Everson’s Art Pottery collection alone, to which Robineau’s works belong, contains over 2,000 pieces. It encompasses Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles, and spans the period from the 1870s to about 1915. Rookwood, Fulper, Tiffany, George Ohr, Newcomb, and Marblehead are among the makers represented.

Native American potter Maria Martinez (1887-1980) of San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, is among those 20th century potters whose work is represented. She and her husband, Julian, created contemporary Pueblo wares, like bowls described as “black on black.” Their glazing technique is a striking contrast between matte black and more polished black surface designs.

Everson’s later 20th century ceramics are less utilitarian and more sculptural. At the entrance to the center is “The Emperor Moth” (1986) by American sculptor Michael Lucero, who works primarily in clay. At almost 6 feet high and over 8.5 feet wide, the brightly colored glazed ceramic and painted wood sculpture depicts an upright moth. Larger than life, the moth’s ceramic wings are enlivened by a variety of shapes, including fanciful cloud-like formations and other images of mountains, rivers and forests based on the New Mexico landscape of Lucero’s youth. Not surprisingly this whimsical piece is a favorite of children at the museum.

Hands-on learning
The Children’s Interactive Gallery on the lower level is located next to the contemporary ceramics and offers many hands-on activities. In its “wunderkammer,” or “cabinet of curiosities,” there are ceramic objects reproduced from the Everson’s collection. According to Sarah Tiedemann, communications associate for the Everson, there are several tools that can help the public learn more about ceramics. These include a glossary of ceramic terms, a television with a video overview of the collection, and a book that catalogues all but the newer pieces.

So head for the Everson to learn more about its vast collection of ceramics.

For more information about the Everson Museum of Art, visit www.everson.org or call 315-474-6064.


by Laurel C. Wemett