Work of the Week – March 17, 2014
by Adrian Etheridge
Cynthia Bringle (1939 – ) is one of the nation’s leading potters who forged a path for female ceramicists in a time when working in clay was not yet a career for many. As a young artist born and raised in Memphis, Bringle grew up painting and even went to Memphis Academy of Art to study the medium. However, midway through her studies she fell in love with pottery and finished her undergraduate degree elbows-deep in clay. She continued on to earn a master’s degree from Alfred University in New York, a school known for its excellence in ceramics. Bringle settled into the Mitchell County art community of Penland and has since worked, taught and inspired many young artists through ceramics, leaving her own handprint on the local and national craft movement.
The ceramicist became a trail blazer early in her career, encouraging female artists of any medium to make a career out of their passion. According to her Mudfire Clay biography, in her 20s Bringle “ignored stereotypes and charged white-gloved women’s social groups $100 a day to talk about clay, recognizing that she had to place a value on her time before anyone would take her work seriously.” Bringle continued her influential career at the Penland School of Crafts, where she taught countless young artists, many of whom are now notable potters themselves. As an influential teacher and skillful artist, Bringle earned many accolades including Lifetime Membership in the Southern Highland Craft Guild and pieces in the Ceramic National 2000 Tour. She continues to teach and create at Penland, where she also shares a gallery with her twin sister, Edwina, who is a weaver.
Bringle’s career spans more than 40 years, so her forms and techniques have evolved. However, her motto of creating functional work has not changed since she first threw on the wheel: “What is a pot/a pot is not/just any gray bowl/a pot is a mood/of many hues/but most of all/a pot is to use.” Her nationally-viewed stoneware includes all shapes and sizes of thrown tableware, pots, vases and more, all beautifully shaped and decorate, but most importantly, all functional.
Interestingly, though Bringle works under this motto of functionality, she also uses raku firing — a Japanese firing technique known for its beautiful “crazed” or fractured and cracked glazes, but not for its water-tightness. In this process, meaning “happiness” in Japanese, the artist first dips the work into mineral glazes, lets them fully dry, and then heats them in a 1800 degrees F kiln. The ceramist then removes the molten-hot pots and places them into a container of sawdust, which produces black smoke as the carbon wicks into the porous clay body blackening the clay and highlighting the crackled glaze pattern. The cooled pots are then sprayed with water, cleaning off the soot, so that a beautifully crazed pot emerges.
However, beauty serves as a function, and raku-fired ceramics are certainly beautiful. Bringle’s Raku Pot demonstrates this principle of usefulness in physical appeal. The shape of the pot itself is beautiful in its soft roundness. And although the smooth curved shape is not perfectly symmetrical, the slight unevenness actually creates more appeal because it implies the delicately handmade nature of the work, bringing to mind the image of the artist’s hands shaping the piece. The natural color of the pot illustrates its earthiness, pairing well with the medium. And the beautiful design — both in the unplanned crackle pattern and the intentional painted lines on the body of the pot — works to show the appeal of raku firing and its partial uncontrollable nature. Finally, the ashes and burnt places at the bottom and opening of the pot create the allusion of a pot that could have been created centuries earlier and found in the ruins of an old city. This opens the work up for possibilities of an incredibly alluring fictional past, sparking conversation. This piece may or may not be able to hold water effectively, but it certainly makes up for this in its appeal to the senses; beauty in the eyes and imagination of the viewer.
Artwork above: Cynthia Bringle, Raku Pot, 1976 ca, Raku, 10.00 x 11.5 x 12 inches. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the N.E.A.. Permanent Collection. 1976.38.82.