Category Archives: Ceramics

Meet our Volunteer: Michael Ruddell

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Michael Ruddell has volunteered at the Freer|Sackler since 2016 as a Visitor Information Specialist (VIS). VIS provide essential services to the Smithsonian by offering a warm welcome and useful information to our visitors about exhibitions, activities, services, and more. I recently asked him a few questions about his work at the museum.

What drew you to the Freer|Sackler?

I’ve volunteered at Freer|Sackler for a year this month. For as long as I have lived in the DC area, I have been wandering through the Smithsonian museums. This has been a great opportunity for me to get more involved and to learn about art, history, and the people who value and create it.

What’s the most satisfying experience about volunteering for the museum?

As a Volunteer Information Specialist, I get to serve as an ambassador and public face of the Smithsonian Institution, which is very exciting. I really enjoy witnessing how our visitors experience the museum. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding to hear their perspectives on the art and to learn from the many kinds of people who come to visit.

Can you share a memorable interaction with a visitor you have had?

Throughout the course of the Turquoise Mountain exhibition [on view through October 29, 2017], I [have been] lucky enough to meet some of the artisans from Afghanistan who came to demonstrate their skills in calligraphy, ceramics, and other arts for us at the museum. They were incredibly kind and extraordinarily talented. I watched them working and got to listen in on their conversations with the visitors.

I particularly remember watching Abdul Matin Malekzadah create a beautiful and intricate clay teapot in a matter of minutes (lid, handle, spout, and all) with a traditional potter’s wheel in the gallery, to the amazement of the visitors watching. When he had finished a piece, he would unceremoniously lump it all together and begin again on something different. The visitors’ reactions were priceless.

What’s your favorite artwork in the collection?

I’ve come to love the ceramics in the collection since I started volunteering, especially the Korean pieces. I like to think about the people who molded these shapes and worked so hard to produced these colors. I’m sure [museum founder Charles Lang] Freer would have loved a bottle like this one—it’s gorgeous.

Sky Blue

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Star tile; Iran, probably Takht-i Sulayman, Il-Khanid period, 1270s; stone-paste painted under and over turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze, with gold leaf; Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, S1997.114

Shades of turquoise and deep blue sing out on ceramics made in the Islamic world. Generations of potters throughout the region have shared the distinctive mineral colors of cobalt blue and copper green, using them as pigments to write and paint on clay or as colorants to saturate glazes. The vessels on view in Sky Blue: Color in Ceramics of the Islamic World, opening tomorrow, were created in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Uzbekistan, and span the ninth through the nineteenth century.

Over the centuries, potters have perfected a complex process to incorporate these colorants into their glazes. In Iran, for example, potters ground quartz pebbles into a fine powder to provide the silica (the “glass”) needed in traditional glaze-making practices. The ash of burned plants was a source of alkali fluxes that helped the silica melt. Silica and ash were usually combined and heated to produce a glass that was then shattered and ground into frit. This was mixed with water and other ingredients to make a glaze. Cobalt or copper oxide was added for color.

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Dish; Iran, possibly Tabriz; Safavid period, 17th century; stone-paste painted with black pigment under turquoise (copper-tinted) glaze; Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, S1998.221

Typically ceramic vessels were first fired without glaze to harden the body. They were then coated with glaze and fired again at a temperature high enough to melt the frit mixture into a smooth, translucent surface. Lead and tin oxides were added if an opaque glaze was desired. Sometimes vessels were fired several times, depending on the complexity of the decoration.

The cheerful, eye-catching shades of blue and green belie the effort required to bring them forth. Abdul Matin Malekzadah, a potter from Afghanistan whose work is on view in the exhibition Turquoise Mountain, describes the blue-green glaze of his bowls as “the color of peace, the color of competence.”

See more of these blue-green bowls in "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan."

See more of these blue-green bowls in “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”

A Glimpse of New Year’s Gold

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

How are you welcoming in the first day of 2016? Decorated with chrysanthemums, this bowl may have been made for a tea gathering, or chanoyu, to celebrate the New Year. Bowls newly made for New Year’s chanoyu events often were decorated with fragile gold leaf, which wore off in the course of a single use. Artist Nin’ami Dōhachi used a thick white-clay solution to model the relief decoration of chrysanthemum blossoms, a floral motif that is closely associated with autumn through winter.

Kilnsites and Campsites in Cambodia

My tent, below the kiln mound, Cambodia.

My tent, below the kiln mound, Cambodia.

Louise Cort is curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler.

Plop! … Plop! Oh dear, are those fat raindrops striking my ultralight tent? And is there a crowd of people outside the tent speaking French? Those were among the confused thoughts of my first night camping in Cambodia. I awoke to realize: No, not raindrops but large, glossy, oval leaves from the trees above our forest campsite. And, not French but Khmer, as people from the nearby village arrived before daybreak to cook breakfast for the members of our kilnsite excavation workshop.

Some twenty of us were camped at the foot of a mound concealing a kilnsite that had last been seen by the potters who operated the kiln in the twelfth or thirteenth century, using it to make large brown-glazed stoneware storage jars. (We knew that much from fragments of jars scattered over the mound.) Our job was to excavate the kiln, exposing it once again in order to understand the technology that made it work. Like a fingerprint, the kiln’s distinctive structure would offer clues to its place in the chronology of ceramics production during the centuries when the great urban complex of Angkor was capitol of much of mainland Southeast Asia.

Asleep beneath thatched roofs and mosquito nets elsewhere in the camp were seventeen young archaeologists from Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Yunnan (China), and Germany. Also out there were Australian archaeologist Don Hein and Cambodian archaeologist Ea Darith, who would share their knowledge and experience with us. A grant awarded to the Freer|Sackler by the Henry Luce Foundation made our gathering possible.

I’m writing this while temporarily back at the museum, but I’m acutely aware of activities at the campsite, twelve hours ahead around the globe. The daily schedule there: wake-up, breakfast, morning briefing, work, lunch and rest, afternoon briefing, work, bath, dinner, sleep. In a few days, I’ll return to Cambodia, and to my tent, and to the kiln. Can’t wait.

Learn more about Southeast Asian art in our collections.