[Clayart] karen karnes

mel jacobson melpots2 at visi.com
Fri Jul 15 21:34:13 EDT 2016

*Karen Karnes, Remembered by Mark Shapiro*

Karen Karnes, Remembered 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 known 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 Co-ops, 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.

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 of 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 Denhert) 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 that ran up added hollow bases that might be 
larger 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.

Karen Karnes's wheel, built in Italy

from: minnetonka, mn
website: www.melpots.com
clayart:  www.melpots.com/clayart.html
melpots2 at visi.com

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