Frist Center through November 6
by Sally Main
The Newcomb Pottery enterprise, in operation from 1895 to 1940, was conceived as an artistic, social, and educational experiment that would provide the women of New Orleans a better life by developing innate skills for which they would receive financial compensation. The goal was to prepare white Southern women of “good social position” for work without “loss of dignity.” The aesthetics and philosophies of the British Arts and Crafts movement, introduced to the United States at the Philadelphia 1876 Centennial Exposition, served as a foundation on which to further these aims and to create Newcomb’s distinctive pottery and crafts.
The handmade, utilitarian objects, whose decorative inspiration came from the Deep South’s natural environs, remain unique. During its forty-five years of existence, the Pottery produced approximately 100,000 pieces and provided full- or part-time employment to approximately ninety-five women whose accomplishments are evident in the items they made.
Early designs on the Newcomb pottery were influenced by a number of sources such as British crafts societies, design manuals, and selected textbooks and were executed in an array of colored underglazes—blue, green, yellow, and black. By 1900, the art faculty and students settled upon cobalt blue and chromium green oxide washes because the minerals used as colorant were stable and therefore more reliable during a kiln firing. In addition, the program’s co-director Mary Given Sheerer wanted to create an identity for the enterprise, finding a common voice for the many artists.
Sheerer also founded the Newcomb ceramics program as part of the already conceived “model industry,” standing apart from other potteries not only because women designed the work but also because they would be formally trained in the applied arts at a Southern college where the items made were informed with Southern motifs using local supplies. Their synergistic talent was first recognized with a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris.
Success brought growth and opportunity. New crafts programs were added to the curriculum between 1901 and 1913— art needlework, metalsmithing, jewelry design, and bookbinding. With Gertrude Roberts Smith as professor, the needlework classes united the traditional woman’s skill of sewing and the enterprise’s signature naturalistic motifs. It was second only to pottery in sales.
Designs of the pottery remained unchanged until 1910 when the Newcomb Art School hired Paul E. Cox, the first academically trained ceramist. His impact was immediate, and his translucent matte glaze was used from 1911 until the Pottery’s closing in 1940. The familiar conventionalized motifs gave way to naturalistic renderings. Popular literature of the late nineteenth century painted the South as an imaginary land of sultry, moonlit nights under a spreading oak draped in moss. The public’s attraction to Newcomb’s “moon and moss” design necessitated a repetition on a similar theme. It began to wear on the decorators, but the motif remained in the Pottery’s Sales Room until the end.
In its final decade, the College began questioning whether the “model industry” belonged in an art curriculum. After the closing, three art instructors—Kenneth Smith, Francis Ford, and Sadie Irvine—formed an association they called the Newcomb Guild. Still aligned with the Pottery’s aesthetics, the ceramic glazes were named for colors familiar to the Gulf South, such as Lichenware for the algae that grows on wet bricks and Monksware for the bluish-brown robes worn by the religious of Catholic New Orleans.
Newcomb’s crafts program had endured a world war, the Great Depression, and the loss of vital personnel to retirement or death, but other changes could not be accommodated. The elements that had brought the enterprise together—the New South, women’s suffrage, the Arts and Crafts movement—belonged to a distant time. Yet whatever their circumstance, the female faculty and students of the Newcomb Art School formed a cohort of women who gained the respect of the local, national, and international community, leaving a lasting mark in American art history. The exhibition illustrates this abiding legacy.
Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise is on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through November 6. For more information, please visit www.fristcenter.org.