Pots with a Past

Pots with a Past

Part of Ep. 1202 The Goodness of Gardening

Visit a modern-day pottery studio in Rockdale where pots from the past are still being made.

Premiere date: Apr 21, 2004

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

We're in the pottery studio of Peter Wakefield Jackson in Cambridge, Wisconsin. And we're going to talk about something gardeners are very familiar with, garden pots. Peter, thank you for letting us join you. What are you making? This is really cool.

Peter Wakefield:
Well, I'm going to make a reproduction or adaptation of a show pot that was made in about 1850 probably in the Mineral Point or Belmont area. And by "show pot" I mean one that would have been a little bit more ornamental which is different than what you're holding.

Ryan:
What am I holding?

Wakefield:
That would have been called a work pot which would have been more for the greenhouse or for growing plants from seedlings up to where they could either be planted outside or held in flower pots in the house.

Ryan:
So, being the 19th century, these were the cheap ones those were the fancy ones?

Wakefield:
That's right. These were actually made, probably by the ton and maybe even sold by the ton to greenhouses, or botanists or growers.

Ryan:
It's our plastic.

Wakefield:
Yeah.

Ryan:
Or, they're plastic, I guess.

Wakefield:
Very similar to that.

Ryan:
I hate to ask, though if this is an original work pot it's probably an antique now.

Wakefield:
Yeah, it is. That, actually, was made in England. But, the pots that were made in Wisconsin probably didn't look much different from that because a lot of the potters were English immigrants.

Ryan:
You say, "a lot of the potters." Wisconsin has a strong history of garden pottery?

Wakefield:
Of course. All the potters in the 19th century probably made garden pottery at one time or another. Their main thing might have been utilitarian pottery for the kitchen. In the Milwaukee area, there were potters who specialized just in making beer bottles for the breweries.

Ryan:
That's right. Well, then, why are you doing it?

Wakefield:
I've been interested in making early-American style pottery for quite a long time. And I met up with Guy Wolff in the mid-'80s when we were both doing salt glaze stoneware. Guy has really become one of the foremost makers of garden pottery in the United States. And for him, that sort of goes back to his apprenticeship in England and Wales and getting to know the strong history of garden pottery in Britain. And he's become very familiar with that whole market especially on the east coast, where people seem to be more-- have been traditionally more interested in making an English garden.

Ryan:
So, people are still using them the same way today as they were 100 years ago?

Wakefield:
Right, a show pot like this, you find today, maybe at something like the very prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show. And it might be holding somebody's prize geranium or some other exotic plant, more exotic than a geranium. We're kind of in touch with our own history that way.

Ryan:
Except with the availability of plastic, why use clay? Why not just make pretty plastic?

Wakefield:
Clay has some advantages over plastic in that it is porous. So, it allows some air to get to the roots. And also, there are some mineral compounds within clay that can help root development. Our clay has sulfur in it which really helps roots to grow strong.

Ryan:
Just having something that's handmade would be precious to me so I can see that side of it, too.

Wakefield:
I think people are looking for that these days. There's something sort of cold and impersonal about industrially made goods. People want a connection to something that's real and handmade.

Ryan:
And there's the line, "form follows function." A lot of these old reproductions had different uses. What is this one, for instance?

Wakefield:
That's an orchid pot.

Ryan:
The holes are on purpose?

Wakefield:
Yes, the holes are to get air to the roots of the orchid because orchids like that. A lot of times a pot would be taller for a long root base or wider. This one comes from Thomas Jefferson's garden at Monticello. We have re-created Thomas Jefferson's signature there. He was, of course, a very well-known botanist and probably traded exotic plant species back and forth with botanists in pots very much like this.

Ryan:
The grace of it is still there. It's gorgeous. Now, you've expanded your future, I guess and your operation.

Wakefield:
There's been such a demand for the garden pottery we make that we've had to develop guilds of other garden potters in other places.

Ryan:
Like the 19th century?

Wakefield:
Mm-hmm, right. And so, we work now with potters in Portugal, Honduras. We're just starting to work with some potters in Vietnam. We're always looking for places where they have a strong tradition of handmade pottery where we can sort of get across our aesthetic of doing the traditional-style garden pottery that we do. And in doing so, hopefully improve the standard of living for the potters there.

Ryan:
So, it's for mutual benefit.

Wakefield:
That's right.

Ryan:
With all the pots that you must make on a daily basis do you have a favorite?

Wakefield:
I do. I brought one out here. This one was made in about 1790 in the Boston area by a potter named Frederick Carpenter. It was a storage jar that would've been used in the pantry. What really excites me about this pot is that you can actually see the handprints where the potter picked the pot off the wheel, like this. That's one of the things, I think that excites potters about historic pottery of the connection with the past. And certainly, it's what excites people who admire pottery these days. They like to have that connection with the handmade thing and the maker.

Ryan:
You're touching history when you touch that pot. That's right. Thank you, Peter.

Wakefield:
You're welcome.

Ryan:
And I can see a few of these gracing my garden, too.

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