During the American Revolution, patriots used a variety of methods to encourage people to support their cause -- pamphlets, newsprint, cartoons, and engravings. Messages supporting independence even made it onto ceramics during the colonial era, which is what artist Michelle Erickson studies and specializes in.
Erickson has created ceramic pieces for The Patriot, HBO’s John Adams, and even for Queen Elizabeth II. She’s also created politically charged pieces criticizing the Trump administration and mass incarceration.
One of her works is a colonial-inspired pickle stand -- a tiered dish that in its day would have held nuts and pickled fruits during the dessert course -- with delicate porcelain miniatures of seashells and “Made in China" emblazoned in red, currently in the collection of Washington and Lee University.
Erickson modeled it after a pickle stand made by Bonnin & Morris of Philadelphia, the first American porcelain factory. The original piece, which is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is politically significant because colonists were supposed to be buying only china made in England at the time. Patrons of Bonnin & Morris were patriots.
The Museum of the American Revolution also has several politically charged porcelain objects in its collection, including a punch bowl wishing “Success to the Triphena,” a merchant ship that carried a 1765 Stamp Act protest letter from Philadelphia to London, and a mug from the 1770s inscribed with “Success to ye city of Boston, Liberty For Ever."
On Thursday evening, Erickson will give a talk at the Museum of the American Revolution about the role ceramics played in the revolutionary cause. On Saturday afternoon, she’ll demonstrate how to make a pickle stand. The Thursday talk is a ticketed event; the weekend demonstration is included with general admission.
We talked with Erickson about how she became interested in the ceramics of the colonial era, the challenges of working in such a traditional medium, and what it was like to make a leech bowl for John Adams.
Ceramics have been used historically to communicate social and political ideas, especially after the invention of print transfer. A lot of published material was able to be translated directly onto ceramic items.
It was a huge global industry in the 18th century, which made ceramics a very democratic medium that reached a lot of people. People would have household items that communicated their stances on social and political change that they could display and use during dining rituals.
A lot of these ceramic items were for the socially elite, who were drafting American ideology and even potentially funding these kinds of enterprises.
I went to the College of William and Mary and majored in fine and performing arts. Eventually, I started ceramics classes because I became disillusioned with painting.
When I was working in the ceramics department, I took some undergraduates to Colonial Williamsburg to see their collection of ceramics. They had an incredible range of wares stacked floor to ceiling, and I had never seen that breadth and variety before.
A lot of studio ceramics at the time revolved around an Asian aesthetic, so we really didn’t get much on the whole Western world of ceramics, but I became fascinated with that.
I draw upon different genres. And I try to match the social or political issue I’m commenting on to that genre.
For example, if I’m making a piece that comments on mass incarceration today, I’ll draw from the genre of ceramics used by abolitionists. I was particularly struck when Colin Kaepernick took a knee a couple years ago, because the posture he took was so similar to the kneeling slave on the medallion circulated by abolitionists during the 18th and 19th centuries.
I wanted to make that connection visually.
From the 16th to mid-18th centuries, there was nothing written down about how the ceramics were made. I have to make all my glazes and slips.
The producers usually come to me as a consultant. The movie industry is a little bit different because, while they want to be historically accurate, aesthetic is really important to them. I generally work with the prop manager and the set decorator.
When I was working on HBO’s John Adams, they asked me to make a leech bowl. I made one using the techniques that they would have used back then, but it was a little too big for them to use. So they sent it back.
Movie and television people want historical accuracy, but if they’re picking between that and aesthetic, they’ll usually go with the latter.