Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise

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The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise began as a grand experiment in late-19th century New Orleans. It effected social change in an unexpected part of the country, the Deep South, in a city eager to show the world that it was once again a viable place for commerce.
Through March 9, 2014, the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University is presenting the exhibition, Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise. The 147 objects on display may be appreciated for the beauty of craft alone, but there is much more. The story of this creative endeavor both enriches the viewing experience and integrates time and the social issues of the day into the history of the enterprise.
The exhibition is a partnership between the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. The 2013-2016 tour features a comprehensive selection of the arts and crafts collection designed and produced between the years 1895 and 1940, the lifespan of the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise. According to Sally Main, curator of the exhibition, “This is the finest examples of the pottery art form displayed alongside pieces that will come as a revelation to many, not only a rich variety of crafts, but also photos and artifacts that breathe life into the Newcomb legacy. Samples of ceramics from the Newcomb Guild (1942-1952) will also be on view.”
In 2014, Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise travels to the Georgia Museum of Art. In anticipation of the exhibition, Dale Couch, curator of decorative arts and director of the Henry D. Green Center for the Study of the Decorative Arts at the University of Georgia, says, “The thing about the Tulane/Newcomb material is its sense of place. As the studios and programs developed there, they were tapping international styles and movements in a very progressive way. At the same time, they were tweaking the material with a Southern accent, displaying the flora and fauna of the region with a statement that basically translates to ‘place matters in art.’ The sense of place that is so centrally Southern emerges in spite of the fact that there is an implicit attempt to connect to the world by adopting an aesthetic that was both national and international.”

The Legacy of Newcomb Pottery
All great legacies evolve from a particular set of circumstances. An international fair, the 1884 World Cotton Centennial Exposition, provided an opportunity to draw worldwide attention to New Orleans. The importance of the location as a suitable environment for commercial enterprise was paramount as people gathered in Audubon Park for the festivities. Cultural arts and education were both part of an agenda to garner favor for what the city had to offer. Rebuilding after the Civil War had taken years of effort by Southerners combined with an influx of forward-thinking people who came to New Orleans for a variety of reasons. Those newcomers who stayed made some of the most notable contributions, injecting new ideas and fresh perspectives into an already rich, diverse culture. (This part of the story resonated in the years after 2005 when New Orleans, once again, showed the world her capacity for renewal following Hurricane Katrina.) The 1884 exposition signaled change was on the way. No one was certain when or where, but a need existed that had not yet been addressed, and it involved women, art and education.
Established gender roles were entrenched in the way people saw the world in the 19th century. Women were expected to learn domestic skills for running the household. Regardless of social class, most were acquainted with some or all of the tasks of the home and garden. They learned needlework for knitting, tatting, embroidery or forms of decorative detailing. Those with more leisure practiced drawing as a pastime.
By the second half of the century, the Arts and Crafts Movement emerged first in England, spread to France and made its way to America. The movement advocated a number of aesthetic preferences, which included simplicity of design and fine craftsmanship. It gained popularity as a reaction against industrial mass production and conditions in the workplace. By 1877, several potteries were located within the United States, notably in New York, and then in Cincinnati by 1880 and Massachusetts by 1891.
The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise officially started in 1894. According to the writings of Dr. Jessie Poesch, professor emerita of art history at Tulane University, “The approach of Newcomb Pottery Enterprise and the wares it produced are correctly seen as most directly rooted in the aesthetic and philosophic concepts of the Arts and Crafts Movement.” It was a unique endeavor, for both its location in the South and its connections to an institution of higher learning.
The emergence of Newcomb pottery began in 1887, when Newcomb College was established within Tulane University, which had been founded in 1834. The official title was H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, after the daughter of a wealthy widow and benefactor, Josephine Louise Newcomb. Early efforts in art programming had been initiated at Tulane University in the form of gender-segregated classes conducted two nights a week. The model for the free classes came from practices of newly hired professors from the Northeast. Four profoundly influenced the philosophy of the pottery enterprise: William and Ellsworth Woodward from the Rhode Island School of Design, Gertrude Roberts from Massachusetts Normal School and later, Mary Given Sheerer, also a product of Massachusetts education, who attended the Art Students League in New York. All were aware of or had visited European potteries and absorbed ideas initiated in England.
Upon arriving in the South, the first three soon recognized the necessity of a program of art education for women who possessed an array of domestic skills but no means to contribute to their own livelihood through purposeful work. The Civil War had taken the lives of young men who left their once-well-provided-for families without resources. It was a need that lasted for many years after the war, and it was obvious to the newcomers that it had not been addressed.
William Woodward was listed as professor of art for Tulane, though there was some shifting between Tulane and the earliest efforts at Newcomb. His brother, Ellsworth, became the official head of the Newcomb College Art Department. Gertrude Roberts taught drawing, painting and sculpture.
When Mary Given Sheerer arrived in 1894, she was the first person hired by Ellsworth Woodward to teach art in the Newcomb program. Sheerer was an intelligent and experienced traveler and educator who was well acquainted with existing potteries in America and abroad. Values of the Victorian Era meant rules were in place even within the most progressive plans. Pottery involved heavy work, and it was a common belief that women could only handle lighter duties. Sheerer may have understood the fallacy of this theory, but it was decided, nonetheless, that the structure of production would involve the mechanical process requiring a male potter for working the clay, throwing pots, firing the kiln and handling the glazing. Women would participate in the aesthetic process: decoration, including drawing, painting and design.

The female students were already receiving training in drawing, painting and sculpture, so they drew their own shapes to deliver to the potter. They were encouraged to take an original approach to their designs within the tradition of good craftsmanship; the result was that their motifs were different from those produced by other potteries of the day. Couch notes, “Newcomb pottery and related arts demonstrate the complexity and richness of Southern history in a period which is often reduced to war and simplistic political analysis. True enough, ours is a troubled history that is rife with injustices. Even these young artists, themselves, de facto elites, met with constrictive mores for their gender. At the same time, they embraced a modern aesthetic and hands-on craft that challenged their prescribed roles.”

Over the lifespan of the Pottery Enterprise, Dr. Poesch records that 13 men were employed. Curator Sally Main describes the standards of quality that early male potters brought to the enterprise. “Jules Gabry was the first potter. He learned his technical skills first hand in a famous French pottery. His particular expertise was in iridescent glazing. He stayed for only one year, but left a body of first-hand knowledge for the students. Another potter whose family came from France, Joseph Meyer, was the official Newcomb potter until 1927. His father, who had produced milk bottles for distribution during the occupation of New Orleans, passed the craft on to his son. The elder Meyer also tutored the Biloxi potter, George Ohr, whose eccentricities are notorious and possibly contributed to his short stay at Newcomb Pottery.”

High standards were maintained in the selection of materials. When William Woodward came to Louisiana, he already possessed a great deal of experience with clay. His philosophy was that high-quality materials found in the South would distinguish the decorative arts created in the pottery. Both William and Ellsworth traveled to the northshore to draw and paint. William found the clay along the Bogue Falaya River to be of superior quality. This became the raw material for many of the finest pieces of Newcomb pottery.

In many ways, Newcomb Pottery was not only a women’s enterprise but also a Southern one. The distinctive decorative imagery is clearly that of the South. Here, an abundance of options was discovered in the variety of plants, both native and tropical, and a great deal of diverse habitat. Dr. Poesch writes of marshes, swamps, coastal areas and pine forests as rich in source material. Some of the many features of the early years were strong graphic qualities in the use of firm lines, larger shapes and designs that wrapped around the vase or vessel, a feature markedly different from what other potteries produced in the United States.

The functionality of Newcomb pottery contributed to its popularity. The pottery hosted annual sales and also exhibited and sold works in other venues. Meanwhile, it garnered prestigious awards and critical acclaim in the United States and Europe. Many of the women were singled out for publicity, such as Marie de Hoa LeBlanc and her sister, Emelie. Sally Main provides an anecdote, “The sisters traveled by foot and streetcar from the French Quarter each day to attend classes. They were the first young Catholic women admitted to the art program at Newcomb from a population that was largely Catholic in New Orleans at the time. It was a daring break with tradition in their community. They were devoted to advancing their education.” Rosalie Urquhart and Leona Nicholson also appeared in the press. By 1901, the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise was a success, and prices paid for the pottery steadily increased. Women making pottery in the enterprise included alumnae as well as students. Until this time, the women were expected to pay for the expenses of producing their work. Changes to the policy for payment provided a stipend, which increased the profit for the artists as the enterprise became financially stable.

Experiments in other mediums were already in progress by 1901, such as silver and other metals, as well as textiles and embroidery using the finest linen and silk threads. Jewelry garnered a great deal of attention. Some of the most unusual combinations involved silver and pottery in designs by artists such as Katherine Severance Wraight, Effie Shepard and Henrietta Bailey. In 1917, sales for jewelry and metalwork soared. Other crafts became part of the offerings, including book binding, printed illustrations, drawings on paper and wood block book plates and other decorative wood objects.

In 1940, Newcomb pottery ceased production after Arts and Crafts-style pottery declined in popularity. Its replacement, the Newcomb Guild, turned out pottery that was more functional than decorative.

In the 45 years of its existence, the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise initiated an enduring legacy by increasing possibilities for women in the arts. The education provided by women as teachers and mentors and the students who studied with them were committed to the viability of their work. Their interaction succeeded in creating an active group of artists, some who continued working throughout their lifetime. Newcomb education in the arts encouraged women to be involved in philanthropy and in so doing, advanced the arts of the South by making them accessible to everyone. This is the legacy that continues today, evidenced by the collection of individually designed, handmade objects on display in the exhibition, Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise.

Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise may be viewed until March 9, 2014, in the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University. The exhibition is supported by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts Art Works, which is matched by supporters of Newcomb Art Gallery. From New Orleans, the exhibition will travel to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Ga., before continuing on an eight-city tour through 2016.

For additional information, contact Sally Main, senior curator, Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University at smain@tulane.edu or (504) 314-2206.

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