Conference Papers & Reports
  Cardew In America
Garth Clark


Cardew in America is a somewhat more ephemeral concept than Cardew in England, Africa or even Australia. He did not make pots in America (aside from workshop demonstrations). He did not teach the Native Americans how to make stoneware (Fig.1). He did not set up schools, nor did he search the American wilderness for raw materials. However, he did have six North American apprentices who now run active potteries and a grandson potting in Vermont. They are the most tangible aspect of the Cardew legacy in America. By virtue of the fact that they have run country potteries in Cardew’s spirit, focusing on making functional work rather than teaching and exhibiting in art galleries, they have not played an influential role in the power structures in American ceramics.

Nonetheless, Cardew in America, the patchwork of visits and contacts, represents a very special part of his life. His frequent appearances as featured or keynote speaker at American conferences encouraged him to write and much of his thoughtful analysis on the role of the functional potter in the twentieth century was initiated by his trips across the Atlantic.

Unlike Leach, who made his first visit to this continent in 1949, Cardew arrived much later in 1967, nearly two decades after Leach. However, he was known and his work had been already seen in America from time to time. His first exhibition was a four-person show (Bernard Leach, Cardew, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie and Shoji Hamada) at the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, Boston in 1927, curated by Lincoln Kirstein. His work appeared on various survey exhibitions over the following years, but he did not have any solo shows of his ceramics in America until the 1980s.

Cardew’s first visit lasted from June to October. He worked with Kent Benson in Hollywood on a film that was never completed and taught summer school at University of Wisconsin. He went to America because:

I had a burning desire to visit that country. Why? I wanted to be stimulated. I was finding the close society of British potters just a little suffocating. And stimulated I was. America is a country that contradicts any and everything that one has heard about it. It is so diverse it defies generalization.

He was somewhat over-stimulated and returned a physical wreck, postponing a planned trip to New Zealand.

Cardew returned in 1971, to teach at the Arrowmont School of Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, but by then he was an anointed celebrity. His book, Pioneer Pottery, published in 1967, was a hit amongst the USA’s workshop potters. As one reviewer summarized its impact:

For some years potters have felt the need for a book that could act as a sequel to Leach’s book both freeing them from perhaps too great a dependence upon Japanese techniques and usage and at the same time enabling them to progress further in the development of pottery that lives and grows out of its own environment. This is such a book.

American potters found its technical approach more practical, more productive and reliable than Leach’s A Potter’s Book. Also they admired his pots much more than they did those of Bernard Leach because Michael’s were more from the clay and less from the mind. Moreover, Cardew was a true believer in the workshop concept, unlike Leach who paid lip service but was really more of an artist-potter at heart.

Cardew loved being in America. He felt free and celebrated. His ‘infectious humanity’ as Charles Counts described his big and extrovert personality, meshed perfectly with the American sensibility. He never felt defensive on American soil as he did in England, where he was always defending his decision to leave the Isle of Britain for Africa. ‘The British pottery community never accepted that,’ Cardew told me, ‘not even Bernard [Leach]’. Nor did he have to correct the constant challenges over his misunderstood role in Africa. American potters also loved and identified with his pioneer spirit. Here was a man who became an amateur geologist to find the materials he needed, who defied civil war and malaria to make his pots and make them true. Americans, despite their usually determined anti-intellectualism (and potters are even more so) appreciated his wide, sharp intellect because he wrapped it around concerns that were practical and real.

In 1971, before returning to England, he presented a lecture ‘Potters and Amateur Potters’ at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., his most succinct and impassioned credo to date. Those who came to the Smithsonian expected a talk about making a living from pottery and instead were drawn into the deeper implications of making pots by hand. An article by Thelma McComrick of York University, Toronto entitled, ‘Folk Culture and the Mass Media’ sparked the lecture’s theme. She proposed that ‘folk’ in its pre-Modern sense had ceased to exist, and that this role had been taken over by a new category that she called ‘amateur culture’ declaring hand-made ceramics as one of its products. Cardew responded angrily:

Amateur, Professional - how I hate these rigid categories. Amateur just means that you love it; professional merely means you are good enough at it to earn your living that way. But a good professional, if he stays alive, will never lose the spark and the freshness, even some of the clumsiness, coming from his probably amateur beginnings. And the amateur is always being drawn on by glimpses of things that at the beginning he never thought would be within his range.

He also used the occasion to warn against ‘art’ pots, a genre he particularly disliked. He felt that these pots were rendered eccentric by ‘deliberately willed injections of personality’. At a time when the tide was just beginning to turn against traditional craft values, Cardew argued that learning craft was the access point to true character in pottery:

Learning to make pots is like learning to write. When as children we were being taught to write they didn’t tell us the great thing to aim at was to make writing ‘express our personality’; personality is something too big and too mysterious to be treated that way. They taught us skill, or craftsmanship, that is, to make our writing legible. But while you are learning to write legibly, your handwriting becomes yours and yours only. Legibility is not going to rob it of its personality; on the contrary, it makes it possible for your personality to flower and be seen; your handwriting is you and nobody else can imitate it exactly.

Cardew was back the next year for what I have dubbed the 1972 Cardew-Kwali Road Show, accompanied by his African companion, Kofi Attey, and the Nigerian diva, Ladi Kwali. This trio stormed through the United States and Canada on staggering two and a half month whistle stop tour in which they presented forty-five sold-out official workshops and several others that were not scheduled. Those who attended these workshops speak of them today with the same reverence that is usually reserved with sightings of the Virgin Mary. It was quite an act with the regal Ladi Kwali in her brightly colored, African print fabric and Michael alongside in his bush uniform of khaki shorts and shirt. This was Cardew at his most selfless, proudly showing off his most talented African student before large audiences who were mesmerized by this handsome threesome, Ladi Kwali effortlessly coiled elegant large water pots while Kofi quietly lent support and Michael contributed a witty running commentary that often had his audience convulsed with laughter.

In 1976, Kodansha and Faber and Faber published my modest biography, Michael Cardew a Portrait, and in that year I also moved from London to Los Angeles. The book was a great success in America where Cardew was now established as the grand old man of functional pottery, a reputation based more on his writings than first hand access to his pots. The book partially bridged this gap but I felt that it was important for America to see his art in the flesh to speak and so began to make plans for a retrospective of his work.

We managed to pull this off in 1981 in conjunction with the NCECA conference in Wichita, Kansas, a rather barren mid-Western city in the heart of the Bible-belt (Fig.2). Through a small organization I had formed, the Institute for Ceramic History, we gathered just enough money to assemble a mini-retrospective for this meeting that drew a national audience of two thousand potters, teachers and students. Most of the work came from lenders in Britain as little existed in American collections at that time.

Cardew’s celebrity had now reached the ceramic equivalent of a rock star. The combination of Alistair Hallum’s film ‘Mud and Water Man’, his tours, the biography, and other exposure had made him widely known and admired. Droves of young potters saw the show, responded warmly to his honest, direct pottery, followed him around and hung on his every word. Cardew was never happier than when surrounded by adoring, handsome young potters and so Wichita was a kind of nirvana for him. For most, this was their first opportunity to see Cardew’s work. They were not disappointed, admiring both the élan of his fluid slip decoration and the vigor and vibrancy of glazed African stonewares.

Cardew spoke at various venues, satisfying his audiences every Anglophilic fantasy, appearing as the arrogant aristocrat of clay and dispensing one-liners with his perfect diction and rich, resonant and cultured voice. ‘Ah yes, my very good friend Hamada who makes such horrrrible pots’ or ‘Whose work do I admire? Quite frankly, only my own’.

Michael returned to London and for a while I was his golden boy. He even gave me the first and only praise for my book. Looking puzzled he said, ‘I really do owe much of my current popularity to your book. It’s had a remarkable effect, thank you’. Which in Cardew-speak can be reinterpreted into, ‘Isn’t it amazing that your little book could have such an impact’. But the honeymoon did not last. The venerable British firm of H. Lock was responsible for returning the pots to their various owners in Britain. We sent them off, beautifully packed, and wired the money for this service. Unfortunately the money was accidentally credited to another account by Lock. The firm then told the lenders that we had defaulted on payment and they could only have their pots back if they paid their share of the delinquent shipping costs.

Then came the missive from Michael. He ignored Katherine ‘Beano’ Pleydell-Bouverie’s warning not to fly off the handle. She instinctively believed that it was Lock and not myself who had made the error (God bless her ash-glazed soul). ‘I consider it infamous that they wrote to you and received no reply’ his letter began, the ominous drum roll of anger beginning to be heard in the background. One could see his face reddening and foot beating that telltale tattoo that presaged rage. (We never received any communication from the company.) Speaking of the lenders as ‘victims’ he thundered on: ‘It is an intolerable thing you have allowed to happen and will effectively strangle any future enterprises your “Institute”’ [the word always in jagged, skeptical quotation marks] ‘may embark on once the facts are made public property; viz. that collectors were conned into sending some of their treasures, and were blackmailed into paying considerable fines to ensure the return of their own property’.

This was property, he added, that had been left ‘to the tender mercies of your tissue paper “Institute”’. The letter went on in this vein for four pages with Michael’s distinctive chicken-scratch handwriting showing more agitation than usual. I contacted the firm and the error was discovered. They promised to refund all the monies and write sincere letters of apology to all the lenders. I replied with remarkable calm to Michael because the game had begun: Michael was going to have to do that thing he most hated, admit he was wrong and apologize.

The first letter was hardly an apology. It began:

Since reading your professions of injured innocence, I can see that there MAY have been some substance in Beano’s first assumption that the real villains are H. Lock Limited. IF that is so, then I do owe you an apology.

I had explained to Michael that the person who was out of pocket was myself. There was a shortfall in revenues for the exhibition that I had to make up personally, which he dismissed blithely as ‘the price you paid for fun and games’. Then the letter of apology from Lock arrived at Wenford Bridge.

I read quickly through three pages of general chatter in Michael’s next without a word about our recent disturbances until the last paragraph in which in what must have been a Herculean grasp for humility he wrote: ‘And my dear, beloved, devoted, slow-to-anger long suffering, overflowing with loving kindness GARTH, I live in the hope being forgiven’. I was rather chuffed until I realized that even at that point he did not apologize but adroitly transferred to me the responsibility for forgiveness and restoring the relationship to its previous warm status quo. Former apprentice, Mark Hewitt, claims that I did better than most. He never received an apology from Cardew no matter how unfairly he behaved. But occasionally, when Michael obviously felt some guilt, Hewitt would find a bag of greengages on his wheel in lieu of apology. And just for the record the tissue paper Institute, now renamed the Ceramic Arts Foundation, recently held its eighth International conference on ceramic scholarship, a massive $1 million event in 1999 in Amsterdam, attended by three thousand delegates from sixty three countries.

Cardew and my exchange is not reported out of any meanness or buried resentment, for I feel none. It is shared as a picture of double-edged sword that friendship with this volatile, complex, contradictory, often misanthropic man, involved. Michael could be generous and supportive to a fault. He certainly was when I worked on his book taking a young, callow, inexperienced yet stubbornly opinionated man into his life, and frequently, his home. He put up with my visits, my disruption of his life and my challenging of his principles with an almost saint-like reserve and patience. These letters are interesting for two reasons. One shows his growing anger that I had had the effrontery to actually found an Institute! The extent to which this offended his respect for institutional protocols, revealed a surprising conventionality and respect for authority buried deep within what I had always considered to be a thoroughly unrepentant anti-establishment figure. The other touches on Cardew’s vulnerability. When I read the letter through more carefully I realized that, touchingly, it was the anger of one who felt betrayed and, as he wrote, I had hurt ‘one who has always called himself your friend’.

His apology-resistant letters compared interestingly to another note that arrived later from the kind and generous collector, Bill Ismay, who had lent pots to the exhibition and received the same letters from Lock. After all the dust had settled and refund checks had arrived, a letter was delivered from Ismay. It was short and to the point: ‘I am writing to you dear Garth,’ Ismay wrote in measured terms, ‘to apologize most sincerely for the fact that for a few months I did not have very nice thoughts about you. Please forgive me, Bill Ismay’.

Cardew was soon back in America and our friendship returned to its mixture of affection and spirited, sometimes testy, debate. His trips were not just to speak at pottery gatherings. On one of his visits he had a Quixotic mission. He had read Bill Perzig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and had decided that Alastair Hallum should make a film of this moving and singular book. So he set off to try and meet with Perzig and obtain the film rights. He came back empty handed but his interest reveals something else about Michael. For all his railing against industry and his sternly traditional view of pottery he was a surprisingly modern man, another reason he meshed so well with the American culture.

I remember his speaking at another NCECA gathering at the University of Michigan, elegantly and unhesitatingly without notes to an entranced, overflow audience in the Great Hall. In his final summing up of his discourse on the mystery of creativity he cited the difficult and opaque films of Pier Paulo Pasolini as demonstrating the ultimate expression of this elusive act:

Pasolini was trying to give back to reality its original, sacred significance. He was concerned with the magic of a moment, the sanctity of a moment. The real holiness in life is when you walk out in the month of February and the sun is shining and suddenly you look around and, for a second, it is all there.

We saw Michael several times in Los Angeles in his last years. He would stay with Isakae Meksin, in one of her cluster of cottage like apartments that ascended a steep hill in the Silver Lake district. Several of the residents of this enclave were Mexican transvestites and Isakae’s home was their community center. They were actively involved in creating weekly drag shows for the local gay bar and it was charming to see the Mud and Water Man, a glass of red wine in his hand, presiding over a court of queens who paraded immense quantities of tulle and lace through Isakae’s living room, dropping sequins at every step while the hum of busy sewing machines could be heard throughout the complex. I had never seen him happier or more at ease, laughing and trading witticisms with these creative and vital young men who had no concept that he was one of the great potters of the twentieth century. It would probably not have mattered much to them anyway and Michael found a certain sanctuary in this anonymity.

During the last L.A. visit I remember one evening, when over the traditional glass of red wine, he railed against those who kept pushing him to make pots and how unpleasant the process had become for him, how he hated and resisted his infrequent returns to the wheel. It made me a little guilty that I had earlier put pressure on him to make me a Gwari casserole. He made two, one for me and one for the Smithsonian Institution. Mine is better. But then I remembered those letters about the shipping mishap and the guilt melted away thinking, ‘fine, that is the price you pay for fun and games’.

A few days later while en route to visit Susan Peterson he said much the same thing but this time, more chillingly because it was about life itself. ‘I am very tired’, he complained, ‘this body has become a surly, miserable servant’ [he suffered from acute, painful sciatica amongst other ailments] ‘and I have reached a time where I have really done everything I want except for completing my autobiography. I want rest’. So when the news came through eighteen months later that he had died from a stroke, the sorrow was softened by a sense of relief that he had been allowed an exit, more or less on his terms.

So what does his American legacy add up to? In Mark Hewitt’s opinion, as one of his most active former apprentices, not very much, having little to point to that is concrete and perhaps, in his admiration of Michael, hoping for more. But influence, even profound influence, is not always visible. Sometimes it is at its most effective when it is woven almost invisibly into the cultural fabric. Certainly, Hewitt has a point in that Cardew is less of a presence than Bernard Leach. Cardew never had his disciples placed in the university art schools. Warren McKenzie, for decades a professor at the University of Minnesota, the home of the so-called ‘Mingei-sota’ potters, and Leach’s first American apprentice, has proselytized the Leach viewpoint for nearly forty years. McKenzie’s ceramic department produced many excellent potters, most of whom in turn became teachers and to varying degrees furthered the Leach mystique.

Cardew has only four apprentices working in the United States: Hewitt (Fig.3), Todd Piker (Fig.4), Jane Herold (Fig.5), and Miranda Thomas (Figs.6 and 7). There is even the beginning of an American dynasty with a grandson, Ara Cardew (Fig.8) who works with Thomas in Maine. Ara’s sister while not a potter herself is married to one, Mark Skudlarek from Cambridge, Wisconsin. There are two more ex-apprentices in Canada: Sam Uhlick in Edmonton and Tom Roberts in Winnipeg.

In saying this I do not want to in any way diminish the considerable achievement of Cardew’s apprentices. They just took a different path from most of mainstream American ceramists. Each of the USA potters works in the Cardew tradition of the country potter, making useful wares and selling them primarily in their local market: Mark Hewitt’s studio is in Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the heart of traditional American folk pottery country; Jane Herold’s is in Palisades, New York; Todd Piker’s in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut; and Miranda Thomas in Bridgewater, Vermont. Only Herold’s work is in the style of Michael Cardew, the rest have evolved their own aesthetic with traces of Michael’s influence in handles, spouts or other distinctive touches from his work but influences from Shigaraki, Sung, provincial French stoneware and other styles have transformed the aesthetic they inherited in Wenford Bridge.

All are commercially self-supporting. Hewitt and Herold sell most of their ware at studio sales held three to four times a year after firings. Thomas and Piker both employ a number of potters in their pottery and have their own retail outlets, sophisticated shops that sell other pottery and crafts besides. Piker’s store is in historic West Cornwall whereas Thomas has two shops, one attached to the workshop in Bridgewater and another in Woodstock, also in Vermont. This gives them a strong regional presence, but except for Hewitt, little by way of a national profile. However Thomas and Piker have ambitious, handsome websites where their pots are also sold and this will expand their reach.

If this thing called ‘the Cardew influence’ has failed in any sense, it is that it has not become institutionalized in the same way that Leach’s influence has, something that I believe would have made Michael quite happy. He never liked art schools saying that they were the equivalent of hospitals for art and the more schools that existed, the sicker the arts must be. But Hewitt’s skepticism still rang in my ears, much as I doubted it, and so I decided to test my belief that Cardew had actually left a legacy behind, albeit ephemeral. A few days ago I was in Helena, Montana taking part in the fiftieth anniversary festivities of a ceramics workshop, The Archie Bray Foundation, attended by six hundred ceramists, mostly potters.

I deliberately and frequently turned the conversations to this up-coming conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Michael’s birth. Almost every potter I spoke to responded with surprising knowledge and enthusiasm about Cardew. Some of the older ceramists spoke of attending Cardew’s NCECA keynote addresses, or even the Cardew-Kwali Road Show of 1972. Others spoke enthusiastically of his book Pioneer Pottery or of meeting him at various workshops. Others owned pieces of his work that they treasured.

Many had made the pilgrimage to see an exhibition ‘Cardew in Africa’ that I had organized in my New York gallery in May. Even twenty year-olds knew who he was and they surprised me with their knowledge and respect. Admittedly, those who made sculpture rather than pots often received the name with a blank stare, but that is a different world. One of the most enthusiastic endorsements of Cardew’s impact came from John Ballestreri, a brilliant young ceramic sculptor who now throws the pots for Peter Voulkos.

This informal survey amongst a few score of makers from three generations and across the length and breadth of the United States is hardly a scientific sampling but it was more positive than I had expected. It was clear that Cardew’s contribution is indeed woven into the identity, self-respect, ethical standards and imagination of the American potter. So I left the Rockies for the Welsh shores of Aberystwyth warmed by the knowledge that to one degree or another, the intelligence, passion and principles of this grey-haired eagle of a man had left an indelible mark in American ceramics and with the republication of Cardew’s Pioneer Pottery in the United States, after having been out of print for over a decade, his legacy is set to be revived and renewed.


Todd Piker:
Mark Hewitt:
Miranda Thomas:
Jane Herold:

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Michael O’Brien interviewed by Jeffrey Jones

New material added January 2004

The Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium
University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK

27 - 28 June 2001

Cardew in America
Garth Clark

Michael Cardew - His Influences in Australia
Penelope J.Collett

Leach and Cardew - The Early Years
Emmanuel Cooper

Recollections of Abuja 1961 - 1962
Peter Dick

Michael Cardew in Nigeria:
Can we Complete his Autobiography from his Diaries?

Liz Moloney

Some Reflections on Michael Cardew (1901-1983)
from the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts (NEVAC)
Matthew Partington

Michael Cardew Remembered
Peter Stichbury

The Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium
University of Wales Aberystwyth

27 - 28 June 2001

Report by Jo Dahn




Click on the images below to look at a larger view. Use your browser's back button to get back to this page.

Fig.1, Michael Cardew and Maria Martinez on the cover of Ceramics Monthly, May 1979.
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Fig.2, Garth Clark and Michael Cardew, NCECA conference, Wichita, Texas, 1981.
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Fig.3, W. Mark Hewitt. Two gallon Picher. 2001. Wood fired stoneware, 16" height.
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Fig.4, Todd Piker. Monumental Jar, 2001. Wood fired stoneware, 30" height.
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Fig.5, Jane Herold. Casserole, 2000. Stoneware. 8" height.
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Fig.6, Miranda Thomas. Peace Bowl, 1998. Carved Porcelain. 16" diameter.
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Fig.7, President Clinton giving the Peace Bowl to the Pope, February 1999.
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Fig.8, Ara Cardew. Black-slipped Jug, 2000. Stoneware 13.5 inches height.
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Cardew in America • Issue 3