By: Joey Brackner
Reviewed by: Scott Meyer
The University of Alabama Press, 2006
As a “folk-challenged” artist, I looked to Brackner’s book to find a productive vantage point from which to view the objects and the people who made them. What I found is one of the most scholarly, rigorous treatments of a topic I have ever read. It is not only well organized and logically presented, it manifests an exhaustive research within which the author’s obvious love for his subject is both potent and contagious.
In Alabama Folk Pottery, Brackner provides insight resembling a potter’s clay or glaze formula: 3 parts sociology, 3 parts anthropology, 1 part geology, and 1 part commerce. Just as any complex interaction of physical elements, we are led to see these products as composites from which no ingredient may be subtracted without diminishing the whole.
Whatever dispute I have with the material has nothing to do with Brackner’s considerable skills as researcher and author. In fact, it may stem from my own regrettable elitism. There is a quote by potter Jerry Brown that heads the book. In it he refers to the “art” of mixing clay, screening out impurities, firing, etc. Regardless of their level of difficulty, these activities are generally regarded as skills or crafts. They may or may not be applied to the production of art.
While avoiding the fruitless debate surrounding the standing of use objects in the art world, it bears saying that these objects derive meaning and power from their historical/cultural/use origins. Often, they are removed from this context at some peril. On display in an art museum setting, to what degree are they asked to fulfill aesthetic or conceptual demands that they were never intended to address? If we see them not as art but as artifacts of a bygone era, we may enjoy their lack of pretense and imbue them with the nostalgia we feel for a time we construe as simple.
In his conclusion, Brackner expresses his hope that the current enthusiasm of collectors may encourage a renaissance for this genre. I join him in this, adding only a note of caution. The daunting burden rests on the next generation to identify the successful indigenous qualities of predecessors and apply them to an informed interpretation of relevance to contemporary issues in the field.
Dr. Scott Meyer is a ceramic artist and Professor of Art at the University of Montevallo.