Robert Winokur Ceramics

Having been a potter for a long time it occurred to me that a house is a unique kind of container. I think the thought grew out of a fantasy I had once in which I made vessels so large that I had to lower myself down over the side on a scaffold, from the top, in order to decorate it. A pot that size would be as big as a house.

A house is a unique kind of container; One that is imbued with a deep set of profound and multi-layered psychic associations. To a child a house represents warmth, family, love, security and identity. In the process of my doing houses, they became, for me, a symbol of choice and I have been working with the form for more than ten years.

I don’t know when it was that I became fascinated and enthralled by artwork done by children and in particular with the drawings and paintings done by them of houses. What I find truly compelling about theses works was their innocence, exuberance and spontaneity

Those qualities and elements of children’s art that inspired me to work with the house surface every now and then but the sense of joy, euphoria, playfulness and spontaneity has been replaced by a kind of somber introspection. Perhaps it is the color of the clay coupled with the construction process I use to make the houses that moves me in this direction this.

Like sculptures of Equestrian Horsemen or Madonna’s with Child the houses have become, a form, a kind of abstraction that expresses, on one level, a formal study of variations on the theme and, on another, an exploration of the possibilities that can be wrung from the symbol. The ladders and the asparagus are recent elements that I have taken to. They do all sorts of neat things to modify and alter the way in which the houses are seen

For me what looks right determines whether a piece “works” or not. There is no conscious intellectual mechanism and certainly no pre-existing manifesto at play here. As the little girl told the psychologist who asked her to tell him about her drawing said. “This is not a story this is a picture to be looked at”

The pragmatic description of what it is I do is that I use Pennsylvania brick clay mixed with fire clay to construct the houses out of slabs of clay. I fire the houses to c/9 / 10 in a salt kiln.

How Salt Glazing Came To Be. By Robert Winokur

“Salt is a basic component of all life on earth, most certainly human life, both physical and metaphysical.” The Jungian Psychologist Ernest Jones, in 1912, published an essay about the human obsession with salt in which he stated, “In all ages salt has been invested with a significance that far exceeds what is inherent in its natural properties” Homer called it a divine substance. Plato describes it as especially dear to the gods. An Abyssinian would present a piece of salt to a guest who would be expected to lick it. The importance attached to it, in religious ceremonies, covenants and magical charms is universal and that this is so in all parts of the world and in all times and shows that we are dealing with a general human tendency rather than a bit of local custom or notion. Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned to a column of salt.

In ceramics as in other artistic forms of expression we tend to look at a style of work and know that it was made by people A. We couple that with the knowledge that people A traded or studied with people B and do not question that one influenced the work of the other. The people of China, via the Silk Road, traded with the people of the people of the Middle East around the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and that is a commonly accepted set of influence. When it comes to Salt Glazed Stoneware in Northern Europe (England, The Low Countries, France, Germany and Poland) there is nothing to indicate an influence or contact with another culture or trading partner and so we are left to believe that it just happened. That Salt Glazed pottery just sprang, full blown, as Venus from the mind of Neptune.

What I suggest here may be a more likely explanation. First, it seems important that we consider “magic” and that we accept the fact that superstition is an extremely important aspect in daily life in many cultures in the past and even today. That aspect. rituals. and what have you are considered so important that life and death depended on whether they were employed or not. Consider these: Salt is often associated with fertility. Ships carrying salt used to report being over run by mice. The Romans called a man in love Salix i.e. in a salted state…salacious. In the Pyrenees bridal couples went to church with salt in their pockets. In France only the groom carries salt. In Germany the bride’s shoes were sprinkled with salt.

Jones refers to Freud, who said that superstitions were often the result of giving great significance to an insignificant object or phenomena because it was unconsciously associated with something else of great importance…semen, urine, blood, tears, sweat and that every part of the human body that contains salt. Without water and salt cells would die of dehydration. An adult human being contains about 250 grams of salt. Salt preserves. Until modern times it provided the primary means by which food was preserved. Egyptians used salt to make mummies. It was, there-by, given metaphysical importance too and we have come to associate it with longevity and permanence. In Islam and Judaism salt seals a bargain. Indian troops pledged their loyalty to the British with it. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans included salt in their sacrifices and offerings. The Catholic Church dispenses not only holy water (brine?) but also holy salt. Sal Sapient as the salt of wisdom. Bringing bread and salt to a new home is a Jewish tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Evil spirits detest salt. In traditional Japanese theater and Sumo wrestling the theater or ring is sprinkled with salt before each performance or match. In Haiti the only way to break the spell and bring a Zombie back to life is with salt. The books of Ezekiel suggest rubbing a newborn infant with salt until it can be baptized.

Today, because salt is so easily accessible these superstitions seem quaint, romantic, and foolish…and certainly not “Scientific”. Salt glazed pottery appears in the 9th or 10th Century (perhaps earlier). Its origins seem vague and for the most part anecdotal but this is the fascinating part. Sauerkraut (German for pickled grass) and Chourcroute (in French) is cabbage preserved with salt. In temperate climates with cold winters cabbage is late, one of the last crops of the year. If preserved it will provide a major food source that is inexpensive and will feed large populations. Sauerkraut, or pickled cabbage was (is) prepared by putting down a layer of cabbage into a huge wooden vat. Then, over that layer a layer of salt. Then, layer by alternating layer, salt and cabbage fill the vat. When the vat is filled wooden covers go over the top and they are weighted down, usually with rocks. As the cabbage ferments the covers with the weights on top of them sink down. To feed the entire peasant populations of The Lowlands, France, Germany, and Poland would have necessitated tens of thousands of these wooden vats being worked year after year. Every few years large numbers of these vats would have been in need of repair. Weak and leaking boards would need to be replaced with new boards and the old one discarded.

All ceramic kilns in the world at that time were fired with wood. Discarded wood from fermenting vats would have been an ideal and an inexpensive source of wood. It mattered not that the wood was impregnated with brine. Salt was looked on as a magic substance. The means by which one could avoid bad luck and insure a good firing. If a baby were protected from evil by salt surely scattering salt into a kiln prior to firing would insure similar benefits. The introduction of salt prior to firing via a couple of handfuls of the crystal (as an offering or and appeasement coupled with the salt from the impregnated wooden boards being burnt for fuel means that slat glazing in affect was not an accident but the result of a coming together of a set of fortunate circumstances. Salt glazing then is no accident. Take it from me. It is pure magic.

*SALT: A World History by Mark Kurlanski. Published by Penguin Books
The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions. By Opie and Tatem. Published by Oxford Paperbacks Ref.