If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the art on this dish depicted nothing more than a red flower. But the illustration is an anemone, and this piece of lead-glazed earthenware was the creation of a Moravian potter – possibly Gottfried Aust, a master who worked his trade in Salem in the late 18th century – which gives it a specific religious meaning.
That’s one of the themes to “Art in Clay: Masterworks of North Carolina Earthenware.” An exhibit assembled under the auspices of Winston-Salem’s Old Salem Museum & Gardens, it shows at Raleigh’s N.C. Museum of History through Sept. 1.
“The Moravian pieces are very naturalistic in terms of decoration and often use flowers in very symbolic ways,” said Johanna Brown, Old Salem Museum director of collections and co-curator of the show. “Anemones, especially, were thought to be the flowers that sprung up from the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. They primarily grow red and white, so they can be a symbol of the blood of Christ or purity.”
“Art in Clay” has a handful of works from Quakers and other potters from around Alamance County. But most of the nearly 200 pieces on display originated from Moravian potters in Old Salem. To set the proper ambience, the museum even plays recorded Moravian religious hymns in the gallery.
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While some pieces such as fish-shaped bottles were obviously made with decorative display in mind, most of the plates, bowls and urns were made for everyday use. Potters made the intricate designs through “slip-decoration,” using liquid clay instead of paint.
“The objects are earthenware, and then they’d add water to make ‘slip,’ liquified clay,” Brown said. “Add copper, manganese or iron oxide and fire it in a kiln, and it would turn to brilliant colors. It’s centuries-old technology.”
Brown co-curated “Art in Clay” with two magazine editors, Ceramics in America’s Robert Hunter and American Furniture’s Luke Beckerdite. In the works since 2006, it’s the first traveling show the Old Salem Museum has organized. Old Salem Museum is the final destination.
“Art in Clay” also features pieces associated with some of the biggest historical names in pottery – names such as Aust and Rudolph Christ. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would one day be regarded as stars.
“But would they have considered themselves to be stars?” Brown asked. “No, they were hard-working artisans of their day, making a living. Moravians consider all work be glorification of God, so there’s also that. They’d probably be surprised at how much attention their things are still getting.”