Obamaware Essay

Kitchen Table Politics: ‘Obamaware’ Campaigns for Change, One Mug at a Time

by Sarah Archer / Writer/Curator / August 2008

“The moment one picks up one of these objects to read it, one is already partly enveloped in that aura of home and hearth, and so one drops one’s defenses and is perhaps more receptive to the message the object contains.” Garth Clark, The Artful Teapot, 189.

On October 15th, 27 top American ceramic artists will unveil a diverse group of cups, plates and other pots called “Obamaware” as a fundraiser for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. What a great idea! A convergence of the handmade aesthetic beloved by progressive Americans, a ‘green’ object you can use over and over, and a way to support the arts during difficult economic times. What better way to support the candidate for change? It turns out that the Obamaware artists are in good company – some of the most fascinating episodes in ceramic history testify to the subtle but enduring power of pots to convey both food and ideas. Ancient Greek potters used scenes from well-known myths to comment on Athenian politics. One 16th century German potter decorated a jar with imagery that promoted controversial new Protestant beliefs – and went to jail for it. Pots have long played an important supporting role in conversations about politics in the domestic realm, or as politicians like to say, “around the kitchen table”.

With the presidential race still close as of September 2008 and in atmosphere of urgency and hope, the Obamaware artists from across the country quickly mobilized their grassroots support for the campaign by organizing a sale of Obama-specific pots. Obamaware artists Garth Johnson and Ron Philbeck as well as ceramic artist Kristen Kieffer and have drawn attention to the event with thoughtful blog postings. Obama-related art and craft projects have popped up all over the internet: The Obama Art Report (a blog that tracks and highlights projects) and The Obama Craft Project are just two examples, both designed to raise the profile of the campaign and collect money for it. Many of the examples are prints, posters and graffiti, photographed in situ, where they can presumably be seen by hundreds of passersby, drawing attention wherever they are installed. The Obamaware pots, on the other hand, represent a different strategy – they both are and are-not-exactly public art. Notice of the pots will reach clay enthusiasts and Obama-supporters online, a place without geographical boundaries, but once purchased they will ultimately do their campaigning on a much more intimate scale, and that intimacy (a quality derived from the functional pottery format) is what gives the project its narrative power.

A key feature of Obamaware that distinguishes it from its ceramic antecedents is its reliance on a tool that potters as recently as the early 1990’s did not have: the internet. The ability to share images of Obamaware pots on websites, blogs like Design*Sponge and Daily Kos, or social networking sites like Facebook means that the project has the potential to circulate widely in the digital sphere. This visual circulation occurs in advance of an object’s journey to its new home, where it will be used, admired and shared with guests to spark conversation. Of course seeing images of a pot is not a substitute for holding it in one’s hands or viewing it in person. But the ability to view the imagery on a pot and to understand its intended function serve the purposes of a project like Obamaware. It’s a means of portraying Obama as an appealing candidate and conveying the grassroots passion of the artists involved. Viewers can choose the imagery they want on their new coffee mug, commemorative Sarah Palin beer stein or “¢hange” dish knowing that the piece will represent a way of both supporting a cause greater than themselves and displaying their own values.

Obamaware artist Donna Flanery summed it up well when she said of her pieces, echoing Garth Clark’s comment on narrative teapots: “the idea is to portray Obama as friendly and personable. Having tea with someone is an act of giving them your attention. The cups are intended to be functional and to provide the viewer with the feeling that they are attending a tea party – that they can have tea with the president.” Buy purchasing a piece of Obamaware, a person engages in this kind of metaphorical intimacy (combined, perhaps, with the feeling that the mug or bowl is akin to a piece of fantasy White House china). The buyer is figuratively opening their home to a candidate who is still relatively new to the public eye. Who is Barack Obama and what can we expect from an Obama-Biden administration? The Obamaware artists have sought to answer that question for the few remaining undecided voters (or those who can still be persuaded) by expressing in their pots the best arguments in favor of his candidacy as they see it.

Despite their diverse aesthetics and approaches to this project, the Obamaware artists all seem to have one thing in common: they wanted to do something more than just make a monetary donation to the campaign. Volunteering is usually too time-consuming for all but the most disciplined among us, and a donation that most of us can afford to make probably seems like a drop in the bucket (although Obama is known as the candidate whose rapid rise was fueled by a wave of small contributions.) A work of art, however, is literally something that only one artist can do, a unique contribution, and it fits seamlessly into the work-life of a busy professional ceramist, making the “no time to volunteer” problem moot.

All Objects Communicate Something

Signs and symbols in the decorative arts are so prevalent it is difficult to think of an era or medium that has not incorporated them. The reading and interpretation of symbols, from coats of arms, insignia and initials to specific plants or animals, is one of the most basic tools for situating decorative arts in time, place and social context. At all times, we are surrounded by objects that have been designed and crafted or manufactured, their creation informed by hundreds of decisions at every stage about form, color, texture, decoration and function. So much can be read from the objects we live with that an entire academic discipline has emerged to investigate the meanings of things: material culture studies. Decorative arts and design communicate with us even as they meet basic domestic needs like seating or coffee service. Whether the intended message is status and prominence (luxury) or humility and simplicity (austerity), it is almost impossible to view an interior with neutrality.

People buy things for their homes that communicate to visitors and reinforce a self image they hold or want to hold. In turn, designers and craftsmen attempt to tap into design zeitgeist by incorporating larger cultural trends into household objects. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly thanks to industrial designer Raymond Loewy, many household appliances appeared “streamlined” (a quality that doesn’t add much to the actual function of a refrigerator). This was a deliberate attempt to convey a desirable sense of progress because the sleek look of streamlining echoed automobile, locomotive and jet design. Today, those same appliances as well as cell phones, iPods and computers might be slim and brightly colored to convey a sense of individuality and hipness, or to make the device seem more approachable. Communication through objects works in multiple directions. Consumers choose things that send the right message about who they are or want to be. Designers try to harness that desire to sell their products. And in some cases makers (and regimes) produce objects with the hope that consumers or viewers will adopt the ideas that the objects express. It is this last type of object that sets the stage for Obamaware.1

Ceramics have an almost limitless capacity to serve as a canvas, thus they are a natural outlet for narrative. Political ceramics in the context of contemporary sculpture today is well-situated in the art world. This month the “All Fired Up” ceramic events taking place in Westchester County includes an exhibition curated by Judith Schwartz of ceramic artwork called “Confrontational Clay”, a group of ceramic sculptures that directly reference conflict and struggle. Mid-century functional ceramic masterpieces of lyric simplicity by potters such as Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Gertrude and Otto Natzler or Eva Zeisel (a ceramic designer, not a potter) are well-represented in important collections and museums. But when more recently created ceramic objects enter a contemporary museum or a gallery today, their functionality is usually symbolic. Utility is the message, rather than the actual purpose of the piece. Such works, ranging from Cindy Sherman’s “Madame de Pompadour (née Poisson)” porcelain service, to Maret Oppenheim’s “Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure)” (the famous fur-lined teacup), and Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party”, use the recognizable utilitarian forms of tableware to convey a message to the viewer, usually a commentary on themes of of domesticity and gender.2 The Yixing revival teapots of Richard Notkin address serious topics from nuclear war to homelessness. The pots are created in the hyper-real mode of traditional Yixing teapots that were carefully sculpted to resemble bamboo and other natural forms.3Functional yes, though Notkin’s pots are so highly esteemed and collectible it is doubtful that they get a great deal of everyday wear. Obamaware, conversely, is functional in a rhetorical sense: its aim is to bring a political message into the kitchen or the dining room, not a museum or a gallery.

Obamaware in Historical Context

There is nothing in ceramic history exactly like this project, but there are many examples of ceramics that bear imagery with political messages and, like Obamaware, most of that imagery comes from other media – prints, drawings, oral history or myth. The 27 artists who created work for this project are drawing from the existing repertoire of imagery and words that are understood to signify the Obama-Biden campaign: images of the candidate himself, the blue and red campaign logo, words like “hope” and “change”, and countervailing imagery from the McCain-Palin camp, which is uniformly presented in a satirical vein. Many of the historical examples discussed here are commemorative, or represent the views of artists responding to events in their own time. Obamaware, by contrast, is anticipatory: the artists involved are hopeful that the election will have a particular outcome.

Ceramics, along with metal, glass and stone, are much more likely to survive the ravages of time than organic materials like paper, wood and fabric, thus much of what we know of ancient and some medieval cultures comes from the ceramics they left behind. A long-established prejudice within Art History still exists towards ceramics and other decorative arts, thus scholars who were taught to value larger-scale works such as frescoes, painting, sculpture and architecture more highly tend to regard ceramics as a mere taste of what an ancient culture’s “real” art looked like, dismissing pottery as a derivative art form. It is certainly true that archaeological remains give us at best an incomplete picture. But this, as we ceramophiles know, misses the point entirely since the goal of narrative functional ceramics is to bring commentary into the home where ideas can be shared on the micro rather than macro level; the “major/minor” debate of art versus craft is a red herring that sheds no light on either category.

An important distinction to note about political ceramics from other time periods is that while grassroots ideas are more often expressed in the efforts of studio potters or those of small workshops, factory china is more likely to tow a ‘party line’, as it were, reinforcing ideas that support a particular ruling party. One challenge we face in interpreting politically charged narrative ceramics from the past is that we have only limited knowledge of the circumstances of their creation, patronage and contemporary reception. In addition, we are able to see only what survived – not what was deemed too offensive or controversial before it was smashed and discarded. Ceramic historian Matthias Ostermann notes that as 21st century viewers, we have a habit of reading “real events” from the artwork of previous eras, despite the fact that narratives, though perhaps politically charged and realistically rendered, may not have been as literal as they may appear.4

Among the earliest examples are the narrative ceramics of ancient Greece and they are some of the most expressive ever produced. Close reading of certain scenes from Greek mythology in concert with knowledge of actual events has led scholars to interpret some examples as political commentary. The best known proponent of these theories is the eminent British archaeologist and professor emeritus at Oxford Sir John Boardman concerning Attic black-figure pottery from 6th century BC Athens. He writes that that during violent periods, imagery of warfare would appear more frequently in ceramic decoration, with qualities like patriotism and heroism depicted in the actions of mythical characters.5 The more interesting question, he wonders, is why certain characters and not others? What significance do these choices hold? Mythological characters did not necessarily bear a one-to-one relationship with real statesmen or warriors, but they could be conflated to represent important personal qualities and cultural or geographical associations.6
Representations of Herakles (better known as Hercules, his Roman name) appeared all over Athens in the 6th century BC. The image of his head was carved on pediment statues in the Acropolis, and the prevalence of his image was much greater in Athens than anywhere else in Greece during this period (see figure 1). Boardman theorizes that the reason for this is Herakles’ association with the goddess Athena, his patron and defender. Athena is also the eponymous goddess of Athens, leading Athenians to adopt Herakles as an heroic symbol of their city-state. During much of the century, Athens was ruled by a series of tyrants. One named Peisistratos returned to power in Athens in 550 BC, arriving in a golden chariot next to a woman dressed as Athena as he rode towards the Acropolis. The black-figure amphora (wine jug) whose decoration is attributed to an artist known today as the Priam Painter depicts Athena and Herakles in a similar scene as Athena drives Herakles up to Olympus. Vase imagery like this (see figure 2), Boardman argues, was only one way in which the figure of Herakles was asserted as a particularly Athenian hero; pedimental sculptures in public areas, songs, poems and storytelling would have reinforced this idea. Thus Peisistratos’s theatrical chariot ride into Athens would have resonated with a public well-versed in the associations between their long-established myths and their contemporary political scene. They would have understood implicitly which hero he was supposed to represent. The transmission of these images probably ran in two directions – the images were influential to the people who bought the pots, but potters and painters only used them because they held significance for their clientele. It is most likely an example of ceramics as an expression of zeitgeist rather than systematic propaganda.

The Community that Drinks Together Thinks Together

Later examples that emerge from better documented periods give greater insight into the role of household objects as didactic tools. Art historian Andrew Morrall demonstrates that in Reformation-era Germany, the home was increasingly becoming the site of moral education as the authority of the Catholic Church was being challenged. This cultural shift breathed new life into the narrative power of household objects which could now be put to work as the bearers of ideas, illustrating events or concepts visually so that children could be made aware of their meaning. Morrall tells the story of a Nuremberg potter named Paul Preuning who was actually jailed in 1548 for creating a jug featuring a crucifix accompanied by a piper, a drummer and a peasants’ dance (instead of the traditional St. John and Virgin Mary). The depiction of this scene evoked the peasants’ war of 1525 – an uprising which had been sparked by economic and religious unrest during the Reformation.7 The brightly colored jug decorated with religious scenes shown here is attributed to the workshop of Paul Preuning (see figure 3) – the original vase discussed here did not survive.8

Morrall closely examines the relationship between print and ceramics – the question of whether a particular image holds special meaning when it is applied to a utilitarian object as opposed to a broadside or book, and whether the utilitarian, domestic role of the objects was the primary reason for their success as vehicles for narrative. Morrall points out that the Preuning incident occurred the same year as the controversial Augsburg Interim, a decree by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that reintroduced some (but not all) Catholic practices into the Protestant states of the Empire. The deeply unpopular Interim inspired critical and satirical printed matter as well as ceramic objects among the Protestant population. Morrall describes a tankard from the third quarter of the 16th century (ca. 1550-1580) that features a three-headed monster representing the pope, and Jesus addressing the Devil saying “depart from me Satan to the Interim!” Morrall’s interpretation of this symmetry between opinions expressed in printed broadsides and the vivid, scathing critique presented on this tankard is that the social act of drinking together reinforced the narrative content on the tankard (or any decorated vessel) as shared belief, further bonding members of the community – in this case, fellow Protestants. Likewise at the table, vessels bearing religious imagery would have dovetailed perfectly with what Morrall describes as the almost “sacramental” nature of food and drink, and the saying of grace before a meal.9 Referencing the communal world of the beer hall, John Byrd has created commemorative Sarah Palin ceramic steins (“Palinsteins”), that echo the satirical tone of the anti-Interim tankard.

The tavern-centered political culture of 17th century London, where shared drinking vessels were the norm, sustained potters who created works in the slipware tradition. Garth Clark writes that as newly fashionable delftware and stoneware became established in England, potters in the more traditional slip-decorated earthenware ramped up their creativity and produced some of the most vibrant pots of the era. The old Anglo-Saxon custom of sharing warm beverages from a single vessel continued well into the 17th century and was evidenced by the tyg, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon tiegel.10 The tyg had handles on all sides (usually at least three) to enable anyone sitting at a table to grab it. The beverage of choice was posset, a brew of curdled milk mixed with wine or beer and spices that was a mainstay of the British tavern.11 Tygs, along with the earthenware pitchers and pots, frequently bore political slogans, advice to the sinner, or simply cheerful reminders to enjoy food, drink and good company. During the Puritanical rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1653 – 1658), however, the messages grew increasingly serious. Clark points to an example from 1656 bears the message “PITTY THE POOR AMEND THY LIFE / AND SENNE NO MORE”. Eat, drink and be pious.

Tin-glazed wares (including English Delftware) are made from a sturdy stoneware clay body with an opaque white glaze allowing painters to apply decoration in a variety of pigments, opening up new avenues of expression. “Show plates” were created for special occasions and meant to be displayed, or used only on very special occasions, thus they were more likely to survive than utilitarian pots. The two show plates in figures 4 and 5 are lively examples of English Delftware designed to commemorate two figures who were key in the restoration of the English monarchy after Cromwell’s death. The plate in figure 4 depicts the King himself, Charles II, framed in a romanesque archway and posed in his coronation robes, majestic long hair (a wig) around his shoulders, and a jaunty foot tilted outward, just hinting at his famous pleasure-loving temperament. Figure 5 shows General George Monck looking stately and purposeful on horseback, a Royalist during the civil war who was instrumental in the restoration of the King in 1661. By contrast with the seriousness of the text-only admonition to repent on the previous decade’s Cromwellian slipware, the vivid illustrations on these Delftware plates with their expressive drawings and bright colors convey the spirit of celebration and relief that accompanied the Restoration. Diana Fayt’s Obamaware platter is similar in scale (17″ in diameter) and features a portrait of Obama along with the candidates names and the word “hope”, as well as a donkey symbolizing the Democratic Party.

Porcelain Party Line: Political Narratives in Factory China

One example of a ceramic object designed to communicate with both its decoration and its shape is the “Etruscan Scrolled Vase” made at the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres in 1813. The vase was designed to imitate the ancient two-handled amphorae that early 19th century archaeologists were discovering in Italy at the time. The decoration of the vase has a very specific narrative: the scene is entitled “L’Entrée à Paris des oeuvres destinées au musée Napoléon”, and it presents an idealized view of antiquities from Rome being wheeled into the Louvre (temporarily renamed “La Musée Napoleon” between 1803 and 1814). Famous works like the Medici Venus and the Laocoön are carried by soldiers in dashing costumes. The painter, Beranger, decorated the neck of the vase with cameos depicting important figures from antiquity. The medallions on the terminals of the vase’s handles feature reliefs of Napoleon, Pericles, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Augustus.12 The narrative here is clearly designed to equate Napoleon with great patrons of the arts from previous eras – even the shape of the vase, a porcelain version of a Greek amphora (see figure 6 and figure 7, detail), is part of the story. Art historian Steven Adams identifies a major shift in the nature of Sèvres decoration resulting from Napoleon’s patronage of the factory. While the monarchy was still in power, the decorations on Sèvres porcelain were generally pastoral, pleasant, ahistorical and detached from politics. After the revolution and under Napoleon, the imagery becomes a catalogue of Napoleon’s accomplishments – necessary for a new leader who needed to prove his worth, but unnecessary for an established dynasty who had perhaps assumed that the ‘divine right’ needed no explanation.13

The Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg (known during the Soviet era as the State Porcelain Factory of Petrograd) was found to be full of unfired leftover porcelain blanks when the new Soviet factory administration took over. Because the double-headed eagle of the Tsars was on the underside of the blanks, and the china painters had to blot them out (figure 8). The challenge of transforming these blanks posed design challenges for the new craftsmen both literal and figurative: how was a regime that supposedly despised luxury and class disparity make use of fine porcelain? The solution was to use the blanks and decorate their surfaces with imagery that would support the ideology of the new Soviet Union.14 The factory did not mass-produce this new china but had painters hand-decorate the blanks. Craft was viewed as a politically important symbol of peasantry rather than a quaint anachronism in the Soviet era.15

Two themes in particular survived the transition from Imperial to Soviet porcelain: the military and peasant life. Under Catherine the Great, the Imperial Porcelain Factory produced wares with decorations that alluded to the strength of Russia’s navy. Scenes of country life were, as in Marie Antoinette’s France, presented as sweet and romantic visions of simpler times. The Soviet versions of these vocabularies of images were depicted with a very different slant: low-ranking foot soldiers were held up as true heroes (to the exclusion of higher ranking officers) and peasant life (along with that of the factory worker) was celebrated for its importance to the greater good rather than as a pastoral idyll. 16The text on a plate by Mikhail Mikhailovich Adamovich from 1922 (see figure 9) reads “He who does not work does not eat”, a phrase from Saint Paul in II Thessalonians 3:10 that echoes a Soviet ideal. A rendering of Lenin smiling is accompanied by supplementary ration card and a workers ID card.17

Naturally the closest comparisons available for Obamaware are patriotic ceramics from the United States. Some of the earliest pots that bear national symbols were made abroad in England and China for the American market. The ability to transmit printed designs to Chinese or English workshops meant that almost anything could be effectively reproduced by craftsmen abroad and shipped to America. The copying was often excellent, though some of the famous icons have the tentative look of an overly-careful copy. A hard paste porcelain pitcher circa 1800-1815 (figure 10) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art features a portrait of George Washington based on an engraving by Philadelphia artist David Edwin.18 Though probably best described as a near miss in terms of actual resemblance, the depiction of Washington’s face has an undeniable charm. The existence of pieces like this remind us that the vocabulary of desirable images used for decoration developed in the course of a dialogue between ceramics and print, just as it did in Paul Preuning’s day.

Several examples of Chinese export porcelain feature an American icon, the bald eagle, which was adopted as the emblem of a patriotic fraternal organization called the Society of the Cincinnati about a year after it was used in the design of the Great Seal of the United States (figure 11 and figure 12, detail). The Society was established in 1783 in New York state by officers who fought in the American Revolution. George Washington was the Society’s President General from 1783 until his death in 1799. The Society’s name commemorates Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman hero of the fifth century BC who twice refused compensation for his services defending the Roman Republic in battle, instead returning to his farm to live as an ordinary citizen. The virtues of self-sacrifice and patriotism resonated with Society members and engendered a kind of understated pride in their accomplishments. The motto of the organization is omnia relinquit servare rempublicam – “he abandons everything to serve his country”.19 This plate in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears the ‘Angel of Fame’ displaying the blue and white ribbon and emblem of the Society. A service with similar decoration and patterns was owned by George Washington.20

Several nineteenth century examples reinforce the way in which commemorative ceramics utilized popular images and then served to circulate them further. The American Farewell Tour of the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, a figure who represented the cause of liberty both in France and in the United States, triggered a wave of patriotism and nostalgia in the 1820’s. Lafayette served as a General during the American Revolution and later as a leader of the National Guard during the French Revolution. President James Monroe invited him to tour the United States in 1824-25 in anticipation of the nation’s 50th anniversary. Commemorative objects including furniture, paintings, ceremonial weapons, drums, engravings, fans, snuffboxes, handkerchiefs, jewelry, medals, quilts and of course ceramics were produced and consumed in great quantities. The enthusiastic response was unprecedented, and indeed it sparked one of the earliest organized patriotic decorative campaigns in American history. The reverence for Lafayette was such that one earthenware pitcher (see figure 13) depicts him on one side and George Washington on the other side.

The “Century Vase” (see figure 14) is one of several large-scale works that Karl Müller designed for the Union Porcelain Works booth at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Six relief panels on the body of the vase illustrate iconic scenes from American history, including the Boston Tea Party and William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. References to the natural landscape and wildlife of the country are also referenced: bison heads serve as handles, and smaller animal heads decorate the lower third of the vase.21 Images of a steamship, a telegraph, a sewing machine and a reaper are also shown to illustrate a century of American progress. And the image that is featured most prominently of all is none other than George Washington, rendered in bisque bas-relief profile and crowned by an American eagle with gold bolts of lightning and stars.22

One of the most iconic Washington images of all is featured on the Trenton Vase which, like the Century Vase, was made for a World’s Fair (figure 15). The large porcelain urn was made for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 features a rendering of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware of 1851. The Leutze image was widely circulated in the second half of the 19th century in the form of lithographs and became an icon of patriotism that we still recognize today. All of these examples were conceived of, designed and produced to communicate something to a particular audience; the fact that they still exist and that most are in museums attests to the fact that they probably succeeded in finding favor with their intended audience (the exception being Paul Preuning’s jar, which did not survive.) In each case, the imagery chosen to decorate the ceramics came from another medium: a myth, a drawing, print or engraving. There was a connection between the imagery on the pot and another source of visual information, so that the pot reinforced or capitalized on an existing image or idea; this was the source of the decoration’s narrative power.

Likewise, Obamaware artists Jill Oberman and Ayumi Horie have both drawn inspiration from Presidential campaign buttons and posters from the mid-20th century, an era that now seems somewhat less rancorous than the present, and highlights the desire among Obama supporters to emphasize the positive. And how many people would see the various pots discussed here? We could estimate dozens or perhaps hundreds in the case of Greek and Renaissance German examples, perhaps many thousands in the later examples, particularly those that appeared at the widely attended 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. But in general, these decorated pots would never have the audience of a piece of monumental sculpture or even a widely published novel. For a field with a niche appreciation like ceramics (despite the medium’s ubiquity in daily life) broad appreciation of specific pots is exceedingly rare among the general public. Yet with enthusiasm for the campaign at an all-time high, news of Obamaware is being circulated far and wide, beyond the usual ceramic audience. Coverage on numerous blogs has increased traffic on Ayumi’s website by 1700% from its usual levels.

The Obamaware project has elicited a range of responses from the artists involved, from earnestly hopeful to cheeky and irreverent. The element of kitsch in the work of John Byrd, Peter Morgan and Garth Johnson provides comic relief, while the more straightforwardly celebratory offerings of Diana Fayt, Donna Flanery and Janice Jakielski are joyous mementoes of a campaign that has (relatively speaking) eschewed negativity and inspired so many first-time voters. Montana-based artist Beth Lo, whose pieces feature both images of children cheering for Obama (as well as satirical renderings of nude McCain and Palin with the caption “Republicans New Clothes”) hopes that the pieces will become reminders of “a time when all worked so hard and celebrated a good cause for a good man, for the good of the country.” The Obama-Biden campaign has inspired these 27 artists to produce work that expresses their hopes, and in some cases their fears, in a intimate medium that has a unique ability to commemorate events and instill values. Obamaware pots are now part of the the public sphere, where their form and content can encourage the sharing of views and ideas – that is, before they are sold and end up where they truly belong: at the kitchen table.

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Copyright Sarah Archer 2008 ©


1 Not all expressions are literal: abstraction and non-narrative can be a form of communication, too. In the 1830s, the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Art and Manufactures expressed concern that the country was falling behind competitors France, Gemany and the United States in the quality of its decorative arts exports. The familiar call for “good design” was initially an economic imperative, followed quickly by a moral backlash against the gratuitous over-decoration of objects and the use trompe-l’œil design – what we now know as the Design Reform movement in Britain.
2 Ceramics from the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, Asia and the Islamic world are more readily celebrated for their function under the aegis of archaeology. They tell us something useful about the time and place where they were made, and that, apparently, merits an unquestioned place in museum displays without the mantle of “craft”.
3Clark, Garth. The Artful Teapot. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2001, p. 30.
4Ostermann, Matthias. Narrative Ceramics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, p. 18.
5Boardman, John. “The Sixth-Century Potters and Painters of Athens and Their Public.” Looking at Greek Vases. Tom Rasmussen and Nigel Spivey, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 86.
6 Beard, Mary. “Adopting an Approach II.” Looking at Greek Vases, p. 21.
7Morrall, Andrew. “Protestant Pots: Morality and Social Ritual in the Early Modern Home.” Journal of Design History 15.4 (2002): 263.
8Coutts, Howard. The Art of Ceramics: European Ceramic Design 1500-1830. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p 51.
9Morrall, p. 268.
10 Clark, The Potters Art, p. 19.
11The posset pot, usually a stocky cylindrical form with a lid and small spout, virtually disappeared with the welcome arrival of coffee and tea in the 18th century.
12 Sèvres: Porcelain from the Sèvres Museum, 1740 to the Present Day. London: Lund Humphries, 1997, p. 56.
13 Adams, Steven. “Sèvres Porcelain and the Articulation of Imperial Identity in Napoleonic France.” Journal of Design History 20.3 (2007): 183.
14Wardropper, Ian, et al. News From a Radiant Future: Soviet Porcelain from the Collection of Craig H. and Kay A. Tuber. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 14.
15 Ibid, p. 15.
16Ibid, p. 16.
17Ibid, p. 68.
18“Jug, 1800–1815”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Oct., 2008. www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ewpor/ho_34.74a,b.htm
19 “Society of the Cincinnati China Plate and Bowl”, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Oct., 2008. www.americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/collection/object.asp?ID=142
20“Plate, ca. 1784–85”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Oct., 2008. www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ewpor/ho_17.73.htm
21Frelinghuysen, Alice Cooney. American Porcelain: 1770-1920. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989, pp. 177-179.
22Peirce, Donald C. “The Century Vase in the High Museum of Art.” Magazine Antiques, Jan., 1997.


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Header Image: Plate, Staffordshire, ca. 1815, Private Collection (Ceramics in America 2001, p. 33).
Figure 1: Attic Black-Figure Amphora, “Herakles Wrestling the Nemean Lion”, Greek, ca. 520 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek, Munich (The Ceramic Narrative, p. 13).
Figure 2: Attic Black-Figure Amphora, “Herakles and Athena in a Chariot, with Gods”, Greek, ca. 510 BC, attributed to the Priam Painter, British Museum (Looking at Greek Vases p. 88).
Figure 3: Earthenware Jug attributed to the workshop of Paul Preuning, Nuremburg, ca. 1550, Victoria and Albert Museum (The Art of Ceramics, p. 51).
Figure 4: Tin-glazed Stoneware Plate Commemorating the Restoration of Charles II, England, ca. 1661 (The Potter’s Art, p. 20).
Figure 5: Blue Dash Charger Commemorating General George Monck, London, ca. 1680-90 (The Potter’s Art, p. 21)
Figure 6: Etruscan Scrolled Vase, Hard-paste Porcelain, Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, 1813 (Sèvres: Porcelain from the Sèvres Museum, p. 57)
Figure 7: Detail: Etruscan Scroll Vase (Figure 6)
Figure 8: Porcelain plate featuring the double-headed eagle of the Tsars, probably from the Coronation Service of Alexander II, Imperial Porcelain Factory, Russia, c. 1855, The Art Institute of Chicago (News From a Radiant Future, p. 28).
Figure 9: Porcelain plate designed by Mikhail Mikhailovich Adamovich with a portrait of Lenin, Russia, 1922, Collection of Craig H. and Kay A. Tuber (News From a Radiant Future, p. 87).
Figure 10: Hard paste porcelain Jug featuring a portrait of George Washington, ca. 1800–1815, Chinese made for the American market, Metropolitan Museum, NY.
Figure 11: Hard-paste Porcelain Plate featuring the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati, ca. 1784–85, Chinese made for the American market, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
Figure 12: Detail, Hard-paste Porcelain Plate featuring the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati (Figure 11)
Figure 13: Earthenware Pitcher featuring Portraits of the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, ca. 1825, English made for the American Market, R. Hall (Hero of Two Worlds p. 186).
Figure 14: “The Century Vase”, porcelain, designed by Karl L. H. Müller, made by Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 1876. Brooklyn Museum (American Porcelain, p. 178 ).
Figure 15: “The Trenton Vase”, porcelain, designed by John Wrigly, Trenton Potteries Company, 1904. New Jersey State Museum (American Porcelain, p. 249).


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