New Orleans holds a special place in the ceramic arts, thanks to the famed Newcomb pottery created at Newcomb College in the early 20th century.
It was at Newcomb that students and graduates, inspired in their designs by the lush vegetation of Southern Louisiana, fashioned 70,000 pieces of work from local and regional clay. Nearly 100 years after its heyday of production, Newcomb pottery remains prized by private collectors and prominently displayed at such institutions as the Louisiana State Museum, the Louisiana State University Museum of Art and the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Today, not far from where Newcomb Pottery flourished, a new generation of New Orleans potters is helping drive the bustling retail scene on Magazine Street. It is here, in fact, that you’ll find not one, not two, but four pottery studios, all with resident potters working away at their wheels and kilns, displaying and selling their creations and even offering classes.
It all started back in 1988 when Charles Bohn opened Shadyside Pottery. The native New Orleanian holds degrees in ceramics from both Loyola University and the Newcomb School of Art at Tulane University and has studied with ceramic masters in Japan, as well. The results of Bohn’s training and talent engage visitors from the moment they step into his shop. Shelves and pedestals display urns, vases, bowls, lamps, serving platters and cups of every color and design. Baking pans, complete with fruit cobbler recipes, and other functional pieces beckon as perfect host
or hostess gifts. Ceramic ornaments embellished with fleurs-de-lis and other New Orleans symbols offer another inexpensive gift option. Larger decorative pieces line the floor; fanciful plaques adorn the walls.
A potter’s wheel overlooks the space, and visitors are likely to see Bohn at work there during business hours. “What makes my shop unique is that I do large quantities, 5,000 to 8,000 pieces a year,” Bohn says. “Also, I work in stoneware, porcelain and raku. A lot of potters only work in one medium.”
Perhaps most striking is the raku, a form of pottery that originated in ancient Japan but that has been adapted and popularized by Western potters in recent decades. Some of Bohn’s raku pieces are abstract in design while others pay homage to Newcomb Pottery with motifs inspired by the Louisiana landscape. Bohn fell in love with raku while doing a yearlong apprenticeship with Shoji Takahara in Japan. “I also absorbed the essence of the Japanese work ethic in art –– productivity with quality,” Bohn says. “The ability to combine simplicity with attention to detail is a staple in Oriental art and culture.”
derby pottery and tile
Although Mark Derby, potter-owner of Derby Pottery and Tile, is a native of Southern California, his creations clearly reflect his adopted city. “I actually came to New Orleans in 1995 to teach ceramics at Newcomb,” says Derby, who holds a master’s of fine arts degree from California State University at Long Beach. “I opened my shop in 2000, and this is now my full-time passion.”
That passion is expressed in pieces that use designs the artist sees around him every day, ranging from Victorian motifs taken from local architecture to such New Orleans icons as fleurs-de-lis, water meters and Mardi Gras crowns. Customers are responding to Derby’s designs more enthusiastically than ever.
“The strongest trend I’ve seen in our showroom is toward people rediscovering what a treasure New Orleans truly is,” reports Derby. “The symbols of the city are the things people are using in their décor, and I have heard from several customers who have moved away that they are creating a New Orleans room, wall or altar in their new homes.”
Perhaps the biggest hit with customers –– and with the city as it continues to rebuild –– are Derby’s blue-and-white street tiles. Because many of the existing street tiles need to be replaced due to age, damage or new construction, Derby has been contracted to provide new tiles that have the same look. “I’ve already done a lot of streets, and I just got a call to do the tiles around the French Market,” Derby says. “So I know where you got your shoes. You got them on the street –– on my tiles!”
hands in clay
Martin Lill first put his own hands in clay while recovering from a motorcycle accident in 1995 and now owns Hands in Clay Pottery and Teaching Studio. Lill, who studied at Casey Willems Pottery and with Charles Bohn at Shadyside Pottery, creates exquisite raku bowls and graceful oversize urns with pale jade glazes whose handles subtly reference bamboo. These pieces and
many others fill the front portion of the shop, and creations by his teaching associate Christine Von Richtofen and her students are displayed toward the back. Beyond that is a large room where classes are held. “Our retail business is still rebounding [from Katrina],” Lill says. “But our classes are doing better than ever.” Lill also conducts raku workshops/retreats at his country home on the False River near Baton Rouge.
Casual and fun in feel, as befits its name, Potsalot Pottery is one of the newest ceramic shops on Magazine Street. Husband-and-wife potters Alex and Cindy Williams operated at other locations in the city prior to Katrina and then opened Potsalot Pottery after the storm. The couple holds art degrees from Loyola University, and Alex also studied with Charles Bohn.
Like the Newcomb designers of 100 years ago, both potters are influenced by the natural world. “The lush foliage and broad-leafed plants, the vines and weeds that will grow around your house in a week if left alone, those show up in my work as a running dripping glaze and a twisting grabbing handle of a pasta bowl,” explains Alex. “Or the spout of a pitcher is like a broad leaf, and its handle like another leaf that droops down to touch the body of the vessel and give it balance.”
Cindy’s work, on the other hand, draws more from the architectural motifs of the city, as well as its iconic symbols. Her pieces incorporate the patterns found in the wrought iron of French Quarter balconies, the fleur-de-lis and even the pirogue. The latter is recalled in her striking miniature wall sculptures that feature female nude torsos suspended within pirogue-shaped containers.
Alex says their pieces are as functional as they are decorative: “All New Orleans residents love to entertain, so we make pottery to do just that, whether it be to serve a heaping bowl of barbecue shrimp, an entire salmon or a 2-foot-long loaf of French bread.”