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Hand Making Ceramics in the USA, The Medium is still the Message

This post is republished from my blog, Preserving the American Political Philosophy.



Mug by Weston, Face by Brenda (c) andersendesign 1955"This, is not a soup!" by Lou Ect is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0  "Smiley" by mag3737 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 


I was raised in a ceramic business in the home, which was different from its surroundings, making myself and my siblings, outsiders inside the classroom environment. When school closed and summer commenced, an alternate reality emerged, a world in which my family's art was sought after by a wide range of humanity. I felt welcomed by the foreigners and an outsider among local peers. Later when I left home for  NYC, circa 1966, I found myself surrounded by welcoming peers, a difference between night and day. It was New York City at the pinnacle of the flower power era when Greenwich Village was wall-to wall youth culture


As you can imagine this formulated a peculiar psychology, so strange, that even I didn't recognize it!
From Levittown
To Maine in 1952
Page from Jim Harnedy's book on the Boothbay Region. The 200 year old barn which was the first home of Andersen Design was torn down after we moved to East Boothbay

A while ago a high school acquaintance told me that what our family did was thought so unusual, when we moved into the neighborhood and put out a sign and ran a business from our home. It was my job to watch for customers, while walking the beams of the 200 year old barn where the swallows flew through an open space in the roof. When visitors arrived, I jumped from the beams and ran down the hill to alert my parents. I remember it as an era of personal freedom, but that personal freedom was a choice made by my parents when they moved from a Levittown styled community in Ohio to Maine. They chose the path less travelled in their time, which in those days was something that could be done in Maine. Then they carved a path against the medium of plastics to design and produce hand-made ceramics.

That was in 1952. when Andersen Design was born out of a unique philosophy, focused on creating a hand made product affordable to the middle class. The hand made making process was the ground out of which our art grew, literally the ground where the raw materials of the ceramist are are found.

By the time I arrived in NYC in 1966. Marshall McCluhan was as popular as the happy face, which came later.  McCluhan's time was the age of electricity. McCluhan held that most people perceive the content and not the medium. He identified those who can see the medium as artists, in whatever their chosen field of practice. Today they are called visionaries. In The Medium Is The Message, McCluhan wrote:"The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures."

Today we live in the digital age with an ever accelerating rate of change. Entrepreneurs become multi-billionaires when they perceive the medium and how it will change the world. The medium is the messenger of change, and today part of the change the new medium has brought about is the billionaire syndrome, accompanied by the widening divide between classes, which is not only the content of the digital medium, but a new political medium as well, producing its own content. written in the statutes instituting sequential order in conformity with the will of global masters.

Every new medium, be it electricity or data, produces new processes and replaces old ones. Ceramic making is a process, rooted in antiquity, enduring through ever new mediums without changing its essence. One could be tempted to say that my parents resisted change when they chose the hand crafted ceramic process, but there was no change to resist in the making of ceramics. It is an art and a  technology which has existed since the dawn of civilization.
"Percussed victims of the new technology have invariably muttered clich├ęs about the impracticality of artists and their fanciful preferences. But in the past century it has come to be generally acknowledged that, in the words of Wyndham Lewis, “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.” Knowledge of this simple fact is now needed for human survival. The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. Equally age-old is the inability of the percussed victims, who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist. To reward and to make celebrities of artists can, also, be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing its timely use for survival. The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness" Marshal McCluhan, The Medium is the Message, 1964 

McCluhan defines medium as extensions of our bodies and our senses, be it an iphone or a brush. The hand made process removes layers of extensions and connects to the continuity of human experience through time. All great civilizations have been great periods of art and culture which has included ceramics. The making of ceramics engages the maker in a meaningful medium, not merely the content emerging from the medium in the form of objects, but the making process itself, which is at once the medium and its content.

One of a Kind Happy Face Mug, Form by Weston , Face by Brenda in the 1950's
In 1966 Andy Warhol was doing production as an art form and becoming the darling of the New York art world. Warhol's studio, known as the Factory, was a den of iniquity, where silk screened art of soup cans and portraits of celebrities were produced. The Factory was both a culture and a hand made work process. It was in a sense an urban business in a home away from home for its inner core and circle of followers.

In the same extended period, that Warhol painted soup cans, images emergent from the medium of commercialism, my father designed simple functional forms like the hand crafted chowder bowl. The reader can have both worlds by filling the hand crafted chowder bowl with some yummy Campbell's soup!

The classic chowder bowl pre-dates the iconic Campbell's soup can by Warhol
While commercialism reflects collectivism, the hand made forms produced by Andersen Design called out to the individual. Collectors collected Andersen as an expression of their personal taste, not as a trend, borne out by the fact the market appeal has attained classic status, enduring through time.

Back in the urban environs of New York, my parents peers of a former time, were designing for companies with factories which produced the designs. Later those factories would relocate to countries with low wage labor markets, while Andersen Design's production remained in America and successfully competed against foreign-made imports.

Andy Warhol's art factory was inseparable from the human culture which inhabited it.  Warhol's factory was an urban extension of a farm, the original business in a home, as much as it was a factory. and so the factory was more than a factory, it was a scene, which brings us back to McCluhan, when he associates the medium, as the background. The scene at the factory produced an abundance of creative content, not only silk screen artwork, but music and film and poetry. Warhol directed other artists to create his works but he was also involved in a hands on relationship with the creation of the art, and in that way Andersen Design and Andy Warhol's factory are similar concepts. As owners of our own "factory" we have never stopped being hands on involved in the process, but we need to work with others to produce a line of over 200 designs, and because producing a line of slip cast ceramics is a very complex process  requiring a team, working synergistically together.

Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons, carried on the Warhol art as production tradition but pride themselves on never touching the artwork produced in their factories. If there is a human culture associated with their productions, it never reached the cultural notoriety of Andy's factory. Koons and Kostabi are more like designer-CEO's than artists in the meaning embedded in that identity by McCluhan. They are the sequential followers of Warhol, but at once, as commercial as a soup can, seeing only that art can be produced in a factory, but missing the deeper cultural import of Warhol, who created a farm for a dysfunctional family in the Biggest Apple in the orchard of urbanism. The significant message of Warhol is in the cultural medium he created.

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