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Iconic Ceramic Artist Karen Karnes Passes Away

Posted by Mark Shapiro

Karen Karnes passed peacefully at home on July 12th, 2016. She was a towering figure of the postwar studio pottery movement, pioneering salt-glazing in the 1960s and wood-firing in the 1980s. Her work opened undreamed of possibilities of expression for the handmade pot. For the many potters who knew her, she was a mentor whose work embodied the creative power and singular voice to which we all aspire—her life in complete harmony with her creative vision. Karen Karnes was our artist. Her outspoken honesty, wit, and physical grace were unique and irresistible. The solidarity and love for her colleagues and nurturing support for younger potters changed careers and lives. She participated in many of the significant cultural moments of her generation, placing handmade pottery squarely in the midst of more than one avant-garde setting. Karnes was wont to speak her mind and lived by her own rules. In fact, early in her career, a customer who owned a gallery came in and asked the cost of a casserole that caught his eye at her Stony Point showroom. Hearing her response, he asked what the cost would be for a dozen. She told him that she would have to charge more for each one because she would not enjoy them as well, making so many. Her answer was like so much of how Karnes moved through the world: unforeseen.

Born in New York in 1925 to Jewish socialist activist parents, Karnes grew up in the Bronx Coops, the first worker-owned housing project in the United States, and attended the High School of Music and Art, where she began to make art. At Brooklyn College, she met a mentor, Serge Chermayeff, a European architect and designer from whom she imbibed a modernist approach, and also her future husband, David Weinrib, a ceramic sculptor at the time. Chermayeff led her to a Black Mountain College summer session with Bauhaus luminary Joseph Albers; with Weinrib she went to Strasburg, Pennsylvania, where she fell in love with clay as they lived in a tent while working at Design Technics, a firm that made architectural tile and lamps. After a year, the young couple left for Italy, where they lived in Sesto Fiorentino, a pottery town in Tuscany then known for its leftist political climate. Karnes transported her greenware to local kilns on her Vespa, and the locals were only too glad to accommodate this beautiful young American woman.

The precocious excellence of Karnes’s work was recognized early on, both by Chermayeff, who recommended her to Charles Harder at Alfred University, and in Italy by Gio Ponti, who published her work in his influential Domus magazine. When she returned to the U.S. in 1950 to attend Alfred as a special MFA student, her Double Vessel was selected for the Everson National Exhibition, where it won the prestigious Lord & Taylor Award.

Karen Karnes’s wheel built, built in Italy in 1950, photographed by Robert George in 1977. Photo appears in Christopher Benfey’s wonderful essay on Karen Karnes within “A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes”, 2010, edited by Mark Shapiro.

At Alfred under Harder, Karnes was fully funded and had few responsibilities, yet with her master’s degree only a year away, she and Weinrib decamped to Black Mountain College, where they accepted positions as potters-in-residence among the heady avant-garde literary and artistic firmament of that place. (The list of significant artists at or passing through the college in those years goes on and on and includes: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, MC Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, Jack Tworkov, Franz Kline, Charles Olson.) While there, Karnes sold the pots she made through Southern Highland Craft Guild outlets and in New York at America House, the American Craft Council gallery across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. She and Weinrib were hosts at the 1952 pottery seminar featuring Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Soetsu Yanagi, and Marguerite Wildenhain. Karnes describes watching Hamada serenely throwing, deeply in the work while Leach pedantically held forth, disparaging the quality of American clays and American pottery’s lack of “tap-roots.” Meanwhile, she said that she “breathed in Hamada’s spirit,” and while her pots never looked anything like his, they synthesize his Japanese attitude toward materiality and spontaneity with her European modernist training in a uniquely elegant way. The following year, Karnes and Weinrib organized their own summer institute featuring Peter Voulkos, Warren Mackenzie, Daniel Rhodes.

In spite of the now acknowledged historic stature of creative and intellectual foment taking place at Black Mountain College, things were falling apart there in the 1950s, with serious financial troubles, low enrollments, and factional strife. In 1954 Karnes and Weinrib left with writer/artist M.C. Richards, pianist David Tudor, composer John Cage, and architect and patron Paul Williams and his wife, writer Vera Williams to found the Gate Hill Cooperative outside of New York City. This “Black Mountain for adults” became Karnes’s home for the next 25 years. Williams had acquired 100 acres in Stony Point in New York’s Rockland County and set out to build a creative living community. Karnes’s was the first house and studio to be built on the site, and she got right to work. There she made her sturdy functional pots, selling them out of her studio, as well as at America House and at Bonnier’s, a Scandinavian home furnishings store. She did some teaching, but mostly made her work, jealously protecting her time in the studio, where she was producing oil-fired reduction tableware. While Karnes’s utilitarian work of this period did well, the unique creative vision we have come to associate with her subsequent work was not yet apparent. Karnes gave voice to her originality in a series of press-molded and coiled architecturally-scaled planters, birdbaths, fireplaces, and chairs that she made while pregnant with her son Abel. These are some of her lesser-known works, but comparable work existed neither then nor even now. One of her stools from this period is the only work in the Noguchi Museum in New York that is not by the artist himself and was selected by Noguchi on a visit to her Gate Hill Studio.

In the early 1960s, Karnes, along with her student Mikhail Zakin and M.C. Richards, developed a flameware clay body that could go directly on the stove top and she began producing the casseroles that she would make alongside almost all the bodies of work that followed. This model of studio production, in which a popular, iconic, and useful pot undergirds and supports more experimental and evolving bodies of work is one that many studio potters have employed successfully since.

From there, Karnes moved toward new ways of firing and new bodies of work. In 1967 she led a workshop at Penland School, where a salt-kiln had recently been built. She was smitten and returned to build one of her own. Salt-firing is common now, but it was a novelty at the time. Her work took off and she began to make some of the most iconic studio ceramics of the era: cut-lidded jars, large scale vases, bowls, moving away from more modest tableware. She said, “[Salt-glazing] … forced me into another place, and once the leap was made, I kept growing.” Her well-known salt-glazed jars with their straight-forward rising forms and striated facets of wire cuts on the top of the lids are among the most enduring and personal explorations of a single form in the field—recalling for me the serial bodies of work in the so called “mature styles” of modernist painters such as Rothko, Newman, etc.

Karnes first met British educator and artist Ann Stannard when the latter was leading a kiln-building workshop in 1969. Stannard became Karnes’s life partner, moving to Gate Hill the following year. (Karnes and Weinrib had divorced in the late 1950s, a few years after the birth of their son Abel.) Karnes lived openly with Ann and single-handedly raised her son on the income from her pottery sales, (as she had from the late 1950s); a show of grit, independence, and self-assurance that foreshadowed and paralleled second-wave feminist aspirations. With Ann’s appearance on the scene, Karnes’s work expanded significantly in scale and range. In the decade that followed she regularly showed with the 57th Street gallery of Hadler-Rodriguez and was recognized as one of the premier potters in the United States, pushing the context in which this genre of work was seen.

In 1974, Karnes began curating the Pottery Show and Sale to benefit the Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey, founded by Mikhail Zakin. The show was truly potter-centric: it brought together two dozen potters from around the country for a weekend of selling, visiting, and eating. Karnes insisted that the potters be well taken care of: housed by local volunteers, well-fed, and promptly paid. Many young potters got a career-changing boost when Karnes gave us her blessing by inviting us into this company of respected and established peers. I was among this fortunate cohort; it was a milestone for me that led to a deep connection to Karen and many of my dearest colleagues. Over the years, the celebration of community and delight in the camaraderie of new and old colleagues and seeing their ever-evolving work never waned. Now in its 42nd year, the show (co-curated since 2014, by Chris Gustin and Bruce Dehnert) is a model for similar events across the country. Demarest-inspired benefit sales now take place in Washington, D.C. (Pots on the Hill) and Rochester, New York (Flower City Pottery Invitational), among others.

In the late 1970s, Karnes and Stannard left the communitarian bustle of Gate Hill for Danville, Vermont, and settled a few years later in the isolated township of Morgan in the Northeast Kingdom, some twenty miles south of the Canadian border. Karnes has called this her “time of retreat.” Not content to rest on the considerable acclaim of her salt-fired work, she built a large Bourry-box wood kiln more than twice the size of her Stony Point salt kiln and began making some of her most ambitious work: larger thrown vessels and asymmetrical forms that were coil-built over thrown bases. The pots often embraced color: blues, greens and yellows, subtly modified by the wood flame and ash. These works showed a new complexity, moving between commonplace polarities of pot/sculpture, landscape/body, male/female, spiritual/physical, and inside/outside. Several bodies of work followed: massive cut-lidded jars, pots with slits extending up the height of added hollow bases that might be taller than the body of the vessel itself, and forms with reaching “wings,” also divided by slits. Additionally, she produced forms with added necks, tulipieres, and boulder-like shapes with craters, some open to the inside, some not. Many of these works were massive, some up to three feet across.

During this period, Karnes showed at the Garth Clark Gallery on 57th Street, the most prestigious venue of the day (she had seven solo exhibitions between 1987 and 2000 and a retrospective in 2003), as well as other leading galleries such as Joanne Rapp, Habitat/Shaw, Esther Saks, Leedy-Voulkos, among others. She received multiple awards and honors over these years: A National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist fellowship, The Society of Arts and Crafts (Boston) Medal of Excellence, Vermont Arts Council Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, The American Crafts Council’s Gold Medal, and the Watershed Legends Award. She was a Northern Clay Center Regis Master. She was made an Honorary Member of NCECA in 1980.

Karnes and Stannard suffered a kiln fire that burned their home and studio to the ground in 1998. She lost all her archives, notebooks and personal possessions, but they rebuilt on the site. Her resilience was a facilitated by her discovery of the love that the clay community held for her, as potters offered time, support, and pots for her new home as she rebuilt her life. She began a group of more modestly scaled works, often groupings of two or three joined or freestanding vessels that expressed a lightness and relational intimacy that was new, and fired them in a rebuilt small salt kiln. As she moved into her eighties, her work with groupings became more complex, involving multiple and joined altered thrown volumes, agglomerated into biomorphic masses. Many of these works from the mid-2000s onward were fired in Joy Brown’s anagama kiln in Kent, Connecticut, and in my salt-wood kiln in Massachusetts. She showed during these years with the Ferrin Gallery and more recently with the Lacoste Gallery. She stopped working in clay a few years before her passing as she became less able to physically work with the material.

A film by Lucy Phenix, Don’t Know, We’ll See: The Work of Karen Karnes, was released in 2005, and Karnes was celebrated by a traveling retrospective exhibition curated by Peter Held in 2010–2012 with an accompanying book A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) that I had the honor of editing. The show originated at the Arizona State University Museum Ceramic Research Center, and travelled to the Asheville Art Museum (North Carolina), Currier Museum of Art (New Hampshire), the Racine Art Museum (Wisconsin), and the Crocker Art Museum (California).

Karnes never was institutionally affiliated. She lived her communitarian politics while fiercely protecting her creative privacy. Blazing her own trail, she willfully dreamed into being the very landscape through which she moved, refusing fixed identities, rigid categories, and conventional expectations. She was making it all up and living it in ways that many could hardly imagine, much less embody; her creative power and courage inspired nearly universal admiration and wonderment. What Mikhail Zakin said of her friend speaks for many: she lived “with total integrity to her value system. That has been a great lesson for me—that it can be done, that you can live that way.”

While she didn’t often speak about her motivation or creative process, they served Karen as inexorable forces deep within her being, dictating the logic of her life. “The pots kind of grow from themselves,” she said. “It’s a feeling. The forms will extend themselves—or contract. I feel my forms live in my body, on my breath.” Karnes indeed felt herself a vessel, a vehicle for the creative voice within her. On another occasion she described it slightly differently, “It’s as if I am moving at the bottom of the ocean…in a big slow current that keeps going—that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change … but I’m just moving along.”

Karen Karnes now has moved along to another place. She did so as she always did, in her serene and purposeful way. She remains with us in her work, whose power and beauty is hard-fired for as long as anything else is on this earth. She remains with us in her legacy of love, justice, and of support for our enduring community. She remains with the many of us whom she illuminated with her fierce, bright light.

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