Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Article by Helen Drutt

World ceramics has become a central part of the permanent collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA). Here, ceramics from 8th – 10th century Iran exist alongside antiquities from Peru and Mexico, Southwest-American Indian masters and 10th-century and contemporary African vessels and storage jars. This collection is also a repository for study, for expansion of thought; it is a history that holds pots by University of Iowa faculty artists and graduates of the program, as well as strong examples that respond to Iowa’s woodfire tradition. The collection is a reflection of the personal journey of its mentor, Gerald Eskin, and his dedicated commitment to education and the enrichment of the cultural community. Its true strength, however, is the modern and contemporary American ceramics collection which, beginning in 1979, has been served by gifts from Joan E. Mannheimer. The Mannheimer Collection has been reinforced by works of art re - flecting the global history of the field.

Bede Clarke. Oval Pitcher. 2004. 20.8 x 29 x 10 cm. Gift of the artist. Bennett Bean. Ceramic Vessel. 1982. Wheel-thrown, slipped,
glazed clay. 25.5 x 33 cm. Gift of Joan E. Mannheimer.
Nupe Nigeria. Jar. 35.5 x 36.5 cm. Gift Robert Lubetkin. Marilyn Levine. Zippered Boot Cup. 1978. Ceramic, metal,
fabric. 12 x 14 x 10 cm. Gift of Joan E. Mannheimer.

The study collection, which reveals the diversity of ceramics, ranges from a Chinese vessel of the Neolithic period to a vigorous abstract vessel by Peter Voulkos. The evolution of clay is documented with utilitarian pots, elaborate decorative objects and sculpture, as well as the late 20th century’s heightened positioning of the vessel as metaphor. Through the diverse forms of vessels and functional pots, Isaiah’s cry, “We are the clay, Oh Lord, and thou, our Potter,” is reflected while illustrating a passionate history. This initiative, the brainchild of Gerald Eskin, is evidenced in the Ceramics Gallery that opened in September 2006 at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. This gallery resides within the 300 sq m (30,000 sq ft) of the museum’s galleries, and occupies a long rectangular space, with more than 1.2 m (400 linear ft) of adjustable display shelving. In that space is an 2.4 x 3.6 m (8 x 12 ft) glassenclosed study room that embodies Gerry Eskin’s vision. It was designed by William Nowysz, a noted Iowa architect, and constructed by David Naso. Steven J. Erickson designed the lighting and Daniel Wildberger was responsible for the graphic design. It was clearly a team effort, with Gerry Eskin and Howard Collinson, director of the museum, at the helm.

China. Large Vessel with Motif. Neolithic Period. Earthenware. 45.5 x 42 cm. Gift of Sandra & Gerald Eskin. Etruscan, Italy. Oinochoe. 6th century BCE. 25.5 x 15 cm. Museum purchase.


Historically, the University of Iowa Museum of Art is an academic institution, within the university, dedicated to teaching. Major collections of art occupy the space, including American and European pieces since 1900 and acquisitions of ethnographic works. Featured among the unique entities, in addition to the galleries, collections, and changing exhibitions, is a study room dedicated to works on paper.

Gerry Eskin challenged the museum to develop a concept similar to its print study room that would permit individuals – students, teachers, and patrons – to make primary contact with clay and, in so doing, begin to understand, when directly holding an object, the differences that exist among the diverse ceramic materials – that is, earthenware, porcelain and so on. It was his hope that, in touching, one might feel the difference between kiln-fired porcelain and woodfired and raku-fired clay. Hence, the birth of a study room for ceramics.

The Ceramics Gallery at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Photograph by Gerry Eskin.

Richard Notkin. Hexagonal Curbside Teapot. 1985. Stoneware. 10 x 21.5 x 10 cm. Gift of Joan E. Mannheimer.

In the catalogue published upon the occasion of the opening exhibition, Howard Collinson writes, “The Ceramics Gallery features a glass enclosure, a study room. The works in the room are visible from the gallery. A small door will admit groups of five or six to the study room. Although only the smallest and most vulnerable pieces in the main gallery are behind glass, in the study room pieces can be removed from the shelves for physical examination by students and teachers. We have specially selected works for this room which are particularly informative to the touch. By placing this activity right in the gallery, not in a far corner of the museum, we feel we have placed the visually unifies centuries of creativity and the world of ceramic art.

In the inaugural exhibition, ceramic plates by John Glick, Jun Kaneko and Peter Voulkos are strategically hung on the walls, as well as a portrait relief by Robert Arneson. The wealth of non-Western pottery in the UIMA collection is surprising, but dealers of African art were frequent visitors to Iowa City. In addition, Mimbres bowls from New Mexico and pots from Casa Grande, Chihuahua, Mexico, as well as works by well-known American Indians, Lucy Lewis, Namypejo and Maria Martinez, are exhibited next to figurative jars from Mexico, Etruscan tomb pottery, and exquisite 9th – 12th century bowls from Iran that were gifts of the Elizabeth M. Stanley Collection housed at UIMA. From the beginning, the potter’s oven cooked the earth and gave us tools, bowls and mysterious figures modelled by humans; because of these objects, we have the history of civilisation. Can activity of teaching in its rightful place in the museum – at the centre of our galleries and the core of our endeavour.”

There is a remarkable absence of exhibition cases in the Ceramics Gallery; this allows one to view all objects without any visual barriers. The walls are lined with glass shelves, upon which pots are freely placed, indicating the potential as well as the certainty for changing exhibitions from the collections. Within the open floor space, pedestals hold works of larger magnitude – among them, during the first exhibit, a Voulkos stack pot, Snowmass, 1995; Toshiko Takaezu ceramic forms; a Jun Kaneko Dango – all juxtapositioned next to impressive storage jars from the Nuna people in Burkina Faso, West Africa, and the Chewa people in Malawi, Central Africa. The open space allows the viewer to sense the dynamic quality of these works and appreciate their scale. In addition, the open space any other material make that claim? The Ceramics Gallery reinforces this concept.

From the 1970s into the 21st century, the multicultural diversity of the craft movement has been strengthened. African-American artists, and those who emigrated from Asia, Eastern Europe and below the Southern Rim of the US, assumed a central role in our cultural forum, reinforming the traditions of ceramics. Functional pots, vessels, sculpture and architectural forms coexist while documenting the contemporary movement in ceramic arts as it has fused with mainstream art traditions and concerns. Thus, the distinction separating the arts began to dissolve.

Robert Arneson. Brick Bang. 1976. Clay, glaze. 38 x 48 x 15 cm.
Gift of Joan E. Mannheimer.

This range in form and style that exists today in America is illustrated through the works in the UIMA collection. Among those artists’ objects are functional works by Philip Cornelius, Ken Ferguson, John Gill, Viviko and Otto Heino, Mark Pharis and David Shaner, vessel forms by Richard deVore, Wayne Higby, George Timock and Betty Woodman, to sculpture by Jack Earl, Tony Hepburn and Peter VandenBerge, among others. The permanent collection is also a repository for early works by many artists who have expanded their creative aesthetic. In addition, the UIMA Ceramics Gallery has a strong component of local and woodfired works in sections devoted to students and teachers from the University of Iowa who have influenced the region’s cultural community. Clary Illian, a well-known Iowa potter, writes, in their first catalogue, about the university’s beginnings, in 1954, with Glenn Nelson as the first instructor, the expansion of the department in the 1960s by Nan and James McKinnell, the influence of Bunny McBride, and the strong woodfire focus introduced by Chuck Hindes that segued into the 21st century. The ceramics in this section complement the global history, which makes one aware of the regional strengths.

Bunny McBride. Bowl. 1979. Porcelain. 10.5 x 35.5 cm.
Gift of Joan E. Mannheimer.

Lucy M. Lewis. Water Jar. 1966. 12.5 x 17.5 cm.
Gift of Richard J. Gonzalez.

The art of ceramics has always traced the history of civilisation. Evidence of our existence has been left behind in fragments of pottery; it also appears in the great works that have survived the passage of time. The Ceramics Gallery at UIMA strives to support this thesis.

Helen W. Drutt English is a curator, author and Founder/Director: Helen Drutt: Philadelphia, US.

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