A few years ago, I found myself on a very long flight from Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates returning home from a project. Tired of reading I put on my headphones and proceeded to watch Mad Men. In the scene pictured I noticed the ceramic coffee cups. Having been trained as a potter from an early age, and familiar with that type of ware, I was reminded of the first time I became curious about ceramics, and design, and how these seemingly common objects connect us to a larger world, and to human history. As a boy, I would sit with my family at the kitchen table and reach out to take a sip from a brightly colored ceramic cup that I’d drank from countless times. The bottom was an earthy red/brown and the body, the surface was glazed white and decorated in yellows, ocher and a floral pattern. There was an outline scratching through the white ground to reveal the clay body below. I found myself fascinated by this seemingly banal “every day” object that I’d never given much thought to before.
Turning over the cup, I discovered it had been made in Trenton, NJ. A place not too far from where I grew up; a town whose slogan had been “Trenton Makes and the World Takes.”
Stangl famous for a type of Faience dinnerware, was America's first open stock solid-color dinnerware manufacturer. Stangl went so far as to Patent their “invention”, in spite of it being based on a tin glaze method that according to scholars like Alan Caiger-Smith, is based on innovations by 9th century Persian potters who added tin oxide to their glazes to opacify them and then paint over-glaze decorations with cobalt, iron, and copper. For over one thousand years, this technique influenced ceramic glaze methods and styles in maiolica, faience and delftware from the Islamic world and Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas.
According to the late potter and scholar Alan Caiger-Smtih, “Traditions are like rivers. The main river can be mapped and measured. Tributaries feed it… it widens and is merged with the sea. Its source is often unknown. Has the idea of a beginning any meaning except as a theoretical point on a map? So it is with the tradition of tin-glaze ware: the main tradition is clear, but the beginnings are lost to history.
The earliest archeological examples can be traced back to the middle east, Mesopotamia, about the ninth century. Tin glaze potteries are thought to have existed at or near Bagdad and on the eastern bank of the Nile River south of modern Cairo, etc., but who can say there were not many others, perhaps more will be uncovered over time. That said, from the sixth century through to today we can trace a fascinating migration and evolution of ceramic techniques across the globe from China, India, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe and the Americas.
As we trace this history we might ask some questions such as:
• How do materials, motifs, and ideas travel across the globe?
• What happens when they arrive at a destination?
• How does art from one culture change or inspire the art of another?
• By considering some of these questions, we can explore the kinds of art that may be made when cultures meet.