The present learns from the past

Michelle Erickson

A ceramist in Yorktown, Virginia, Michelle Erickson is probably the most familiar of the artists to readers of Antiques, for her work is often shown at the annual New York Ceramics Fair in January, and it has been written about extensively in Ceramics in America. She has mastered innumerable techniques of the potter's art, and her works range from exact reproductions made for museum shops to wonderfully bizarre and amusing sculptural pieces.

In her final year as a studio ceramics major at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Erickson was introduced to the vast collection of historical ceramics, mostly English pottery and porcelain, at Colonial Williamsburg, and was flabbergasted. "I could not believe that during my three years of studio ceramics I had never been exposed to anything I was seeing. These things were incredible and I wanted to know what they all were." In the years since she has relentlessly pursued an understanding and mastery of a wide range of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century ceramic bodies and decorative techniques. Often working in collaboration with her partner, the ceramics scholar Robert Hunter, she has frequently had to rediscover these methods, for "very little was known about how these things were made—so I learned to read the artifacts and began to decipher the clues they contained...to develop a direct physical ‘dialogue' with each object, whether a rare museum piece of delft or a fragment of the earliest colonial American earthenware chamber pot." What she has managed to achieve in this respect is perhaps best revealed in her live demonstrations. Last year, at a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the eighteenth-century porcelain makers Bonnin and Morris, in front of some "three hundred captivated ceramics connoisseurs," says Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, who organized the symposium, Erickson re-created the two-tiered pickle stand that was "the most ambitious form made by Bonnin and Morris's American China Manufactory." Overall, the tiny stand includes more than seventy individual pieces, and when Erickson finally removed her steady hand, "to put it mildly—the crowd went wild. In 2001 we could only speculate on how the pickle stand had been manufactured. Michelle...reformed several assumptions about the amazing process of making it," says Kirtley.

Erickson's own path to rediscovering exactly how the largely anonymous potters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created their wares may well explain her reaction to the collections at Shelburne. She had never been there before, and the sheer number of everyday objects collected by Electra Webb, and the ways she massed and displayed them to accentuate their decorative appeal, made Erickson realize that "much of what we have come to treasure in these institutions is accompanied by very little discussion of the people who created them." A great contribution that contemporary craftsmen and artisans can bring to the conversation is through their "language of making,...which gives voice to...the relationship between objects and self-expression."

Erickson is not shy about self-expression herself. Her works invariably reflect a social or political point of view. The jug shown here, for instance, on first glance could be mistaken for a reproduction of a Staffordshire transfer-printed example, but a second look makes clear that its decoration juxtaposes the horrifying conditions of child soldiers with such extravagant luxuries as Rolex watches. Although she has not had an opportunity yet to develop a piece related to her Shelburne experience, she feels that it will probably reflect concerns about global warming or animal rights: one thing that stopped her on the museum tour were the carved floats holding caged polar bears and sea lions in the Roy Arnold carved circus parade; another was the display of scrimshaw. "I am haunted," she says, "by the intimate relationship between these large animals that were hunted for profit and the men who hunted them—who, after slaying and butchering these majestic mammals, spent hours virtually caressing their bones as they carved them."

Next: Andrew Raftery

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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