Equals in the Craft

Newcomb Pottery paved way for women’s education

There is a lot of talk in the news right now about feminism. But what is it really? It’s really a simple philosophy of equality of opportunity.

This equal opportunity, while exploding into the consciousness in the bra-burning ’60s, is not a new concept. In the arts, the women of the Newcomb Pottery were taking advantage of education to practice their craft in New Orleans.

Students Working in Newcomb Pottery Studio, top, on the Washington Avenue campus, c. 1905. The studio differed from the Pottery Decorating classroom on the second floor in that the studio was the area where Joseph Meye turned the pieces, glazed, and fired the work. University Scrapbook, University Archives, Tulane University.

The Stark Museum of Art in Orange is currently exhibiting the fruits of their endeavors in “Women, Art & Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise” through Jan. 4.

The exhibition features a variety of ceramic pieces designed by the women, as well as a variety of sketches, studies and drawings that highlight the educational foundations the women received.

Founded in post-Civil War New Orleans, the enterprise developed out of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, which is now associated with Tulane University. The school was funded by a gift of $10,000 by Josephine Louise Newcomb in memory of her daughter, who had died at age 15 from diphtheria. It was the first coordinate women’s college in the United States.

This Newcomb Pottery daffodil vase dates from 1897.

“The Newcomb Pottery enterprise would emerge as a quietly radical experiment — an unprecedented opportunity for Southern women to train as artists and support themselves financially, working as a collective,” the exhibition cards states. “Guided by the principles of the British Arts and Crafts movement, the young women of Newcomb developed into hardworking, skilled, independent craftswomen who bore little resemblance to the stereotype of the southern belle. The enterprise produced a rich body of work — not only pottery, but also metalwork, textiles, bookbinding, jewelry, and other handicrafts.”

The arts and crafts movement came to the forefront in America through the work of Gustav Stickley, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright. As time passed, the women adopted influences from other movements, such as Art Nouveau.

The school opened in 1886 and the pottery produced for-profit work from 1895 to 1940. It began under the supervision of art faculty members William and Ellsworth Woodward. The women strived to be innovative and bold.

“If we be discouraged let us never become dull,” Mary Sheerer, Newcomb faculty member and potter, said.

As the years went by, the work, and the world, changed.

“But the spirit of self-actualization, experimentation and exploration never left the women of Newcomb, and remains the enterprise’s legacy today,” the exhibition cards state.

The opening image that accompanies the exhibition features the women hard at work in the facility.

“The little band of stout-hearted students who worked shoulder to shoulder with Miss Sheerer in the low, gaunt, barnlike room…. the memory of those days of “fond adventure,” of sharply alternating rapture and despair, of big heartbreaks and bigger dreams is still poignantly sweet to the dauntless women who…worked together,” Harriet Joor, Newcomb artist, wrote in July 1910.

The works themselves are beautiful. The glazes are bright and gorgeously rendered, and many incorporate textures that beg to be fondled. Such are the frustrations of any 3D exhibition. One desperately wants to pick up the work — after all, the works in the show, in order to fulfill their original purpose, are more than just decorative. They also are designed to be functional.

The Stark Museum of Art’s Newcomb Pottery Enterprise exhibit. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The women were not simply craftswomen. They were given opportunities to study art history to really build a foundation for their work.

William P. Silva, in Art and Progress in 1911, writes, “It required much loving enthusiasm to keep out despair, when time after time the work of weeks was destroyed in a single bad kiln. But they wept and then smiled and tried again and so step by step they went from experiment to knowledge, from repeated failure to ultimate success, and within less than four years the product became so truly good that the little collection hastily gotten together for the Paris exposition of 1900 was awarded a bronze medal.”

The Stark Museum of Art hosts “Women, Art & Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise.” The exhibition includes drawings by Selina E. Bres which show the school’s dedication to art history and building a foundation on which the pottery designs were based.

It is interesting to see the study sketches that the women made. Selina E. Bres’ drawings show the attention to the history of the craft that the women were encouraged to pursue. The study sketches feature designs from different periods, from ancient Egypt to Byzantium, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

It is a real treat to see the preliminary sketches — drawings that are then reduced to capture the essential forms that will be the basis of the design.

Pauline Wright’s study for the red cedar tree design, 1916, hangs next to an embroidered table runner. As is the case with many of the Stark Museum exhibitions, Newcomb is a process show. It is no mere collection of pretty pots. It is a careful examination of a craft and the detail and education that goes into it.

It is also a celebration of a pioneering group of women who defied the conventions of the time to build a legacy.

It is on the shoulders of these “stout-hearted students (working) shoulder to shoulder” that today’s women artists stand — on which we all stand.

The Stark Museum of Art is located at 712 Green Ave. in Orange.

For more information, www.starkmuseum.org.

Story by Andy Coughlan, ISSUE Editor