Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.

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International Ceramics Friendship Park

An essay in support of Alex Reed’s exhibition “International Ceramics Friendship Park” at Marta Los Angeles, September 2019.

Potters really do deserve their own city, and now Alex Reed has given it to them. It’s only a model, a few inches high. But imaginatively speaking it contains a whole world, brimming with connections to our own. Think of it as a miniature monument to makers past and present, with all the aspiration and pathos the phrase “miniature monument” implies.

 Craft, in Reed’s sense of the term, is an expansive realm. He was trained at Alfred University, which is a citadel of art ceramics, but came into contact there with the historian Ezra Shales, whose work is distinguished for its focus on industrial artisans. Then Reed became one himself (an industrial artisan, that is, though he could also be mistaken for a historian on occasion). His first position upon graduation was as a mold-maker at Rookwood, the storied Arts and Crafts pottery in Cincinnati. He then went on to Los Angeles, to work for Heath Ceramics – an equally storied firm, dating back to the midcentury. These experiences plunged him into the finely balanced world of mass-manufacture by hand, which seems contradictory until you see it done: skilled workers turning out pieces by the dozen, the hundred, the thousand, each one attended to exactly as long as necessary.

Working with clay at Heath Ceramics.

Working with clay at Heath Ceramics.

One thing that struck Reed, during his time in production ceramics, was the dual identity of his occupation. On the one hand he had a 40-hour-a-week job, a working-class gig. On the other, he considered it a passion, and others seemed to concur. This was a kind of work that should be done, by someone, somewhere, if only for love. His experience had manifested, as if in microcosm, the larger conflict that exists between the idealization of craftwork, and the reality of the labour involved in actually making things. This is more than just a conceptual issue. Vernacular traditions are often celebrated just as they seem to fade out of sight, but our culture seems unable to actually provide for the sustainability of many of these practices, at least at a living wage. ‘Is it wrong,’ Reed finds himself asking, ‘to cheer and fetishize those who craft, using their image to sell things, without compensating them commensurate with the cultural capital that their craftwork holds?’ It was perhaps this tension that led him down the path to that always contradictory place, the imaginary city, whose very non-existence serves as a rebuke to the status quo.

And thus was born the International Ceramics Friendship Park. 

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It is a miniature city, but also something like a corporate campus, or a world’s fair ground – a space, that is, in which symbolic capital exists in an undefined relationship to underlying physical labor. Reed deeply considered the systems of this invented place, working with the young architect Dutra Brown to make detailed drawings. A whole municipality of independent craftspeople, he reasoned, would need a strong public pension program. So he designed one, with a tower to go with it, complete with advertising space to help underwrite the expenditures. Knowing potters, this community would be highly attuned to its own history. They would perhaps regard an obscure pantheon of past makers with something like religious awe. There is a memorial to Jules Agard, who helped Picasso make ceramics in Vallauris; a kiln-heated pool, dedicated to the avant garde Japanese movement Sodeisha (literally, “crawling through mud”); and a tomb to the Unknown Craftsperson, the anonymous figure who served as the absent but beating heart of Soetsu Yanagi’s mingei movement. A great pile of shards serves as a reminder that craft ain’t perfect, that every potter’s life will be full of wasters. 

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Alongside his little city, Reed has made a range of other items: puzzles, lights, and small sculptures. These objets d’art suggest, perhaps, what the denizens of the ICFP might create upon their aspirational retirement. And also, of course, what Reed might make himself – if he were to, you know, be just any old potter. Look back at the model, and you’ll realize that it is partly made up of the everyday detritus of the workshop, trimmings and sponges and the like. Reed is paying tribute not just to artisans themselves, but their whole way of approaching things, their investment in what he likes to call “touch work” (a category that for him includes trades like massage and typing). This is a genre of knowledge and practice that been draining out of our society for centuries. Reed is right: it’s time to put it back where it belongs, to a place of honor. Any gesture in that direction, no matter how slight, is worthwhile. Any terrain set aside for its recognition, no matter how small, is sacred ground.

WritingMarci LeBrun