by Henry Crissman
Built in 1892, the Terra Cotta Building was constructed as an innovative business model, to serve as both the office and the showroom of the Celadon Terra Cotta Company; the showroom being the exterior of the building itself. Its form was an advertisement for its service, and that idea was considered so brilliant that a second terracotta building was built for the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago, IL and it received the top price in its category. After only 18 years of operation, the celadon terracotta factory burned down in 1908 leaving only the Terra Cotta Building, and it has since lived a peculiar life: as a pottery, a jewelry store, and a meeting house for a secret society among others. In the early 1970’s Alfred University acquired the building and the land on which it sat and planed to demolish it. The Alfred Historical Society formed in the an effort to save the building from demolition, and in 1972 it was registered as a national historic place and moved on a truck and placed on a new foundation one block south on Main Street from its previous location. It was open on select Saturdays for many years as a museum to the local terra cotta industry, but the Historical Society was having to pay for insurance to keep the building open and when the Village of Alfred failed to pass a mileage to fund the building’s insurance in the early 1990’s it was closed, and had sat closed ever since…
Henry James Haver Crissman designed and built The Mobile Anagama wood fired ceramics kiln on a trailer in the summer of 2014 with support from a NCECA Graduate Student Fellowship, a successful Kickstarter.com campaign and the assistance of the New York State College of Ceramics. The project goal was to design, construct, tour and make plans available for the most highly efficient, safe and smokeless mobile wood fueled kiln possible. In an effort to maximize the visibility and accessibility of ceramics, the design was meant to promote the participatory and site specific opportunities of its peculiar form and process, and the tour was to prove the kiln’s functionality by traveling to and firing at the most credible ceramic art centers. Despite the intent of the design being specifically to enable site specific projects engaging the histories, individuals and materials of a given place, this potential of the kiln’s design had not yet been fully exorcized…
THE MOBILE ANAGAMA COMPANY
Occupying the grounds and interior of Alfred’s historic Terra Cotta Building, my MFA Exhibition, “The Mobile Anagama Company”, occurred as a week long participatory art project from May 4th – 9th, 2015.
The exhibition celebrated, provided access to and raised funds to support maintenance of the Terra Cotta Building while distributing information regarding The Mobile Anagama and exhibiting ceramic objects created with it. The exhibition accomplished this by engaging the public with a diverse program of events and opportunities, including: a 4 day public wood firing workshop with The Mobile Anagama, a fundraiser silent auction, a historical address regarding the building, and with re-installments of the “Terra Cotta: Through the Lens of the Camera Photo Contest” and the “Annual Alfred Terra Cotta Picnic”.
Working with the Laurie McFadden, the Alfred University Archivist and one of the last remaining members of the Alfred Historical Society, I gained access to the building, cleaned it thoroughly and dug through the archives of its history. During the exhibition, the building was kept open for one week with regular business hours and inside of it along with information about the Mobile Anagama, several small books and post cards were available regarding the building and its history. “The Mobile Anagama Tour Commemorative Platter Series” was on display touting the achievements of the Mobile Anagama, and a selection of pots titled “The Mobile Anagama Company Limited Edition Alfred Terracotta Historic Tile Pressed Functional Wares” were produced using a collection of historic roof tiles as molds and served as elaborate souvenirs to the project as well as testaments to the kiln’s abilities. Mobile Anagama T-shirts, “Mobile Wood-Kiln Enthusiast” hats and copies of The Mobile Anagama Tour photo book were available as well.
On the lawn outside the building on Main Street right next to the only intersection with a stop light in the village, a free four-day public workshop with The Mobile Anagama was held that invited non-student regional residents ceramicists participate in filling and firing the kiln. Participants were asked to bring bisqued and glazed wares to be fired in the kiln, on the condition that they donate one of their finished pieces from the workshop to the fundraiser silent auction that was to be held during the exhibition reception. On the morning of the reception the kiln was unloaded, participants selected and donated their pieces, the open reception began, a large cake replicating a cake in an image in the archives with a gingerbread replica of the Terra Cotta Building on top of it was eaten, and the fundraiser silent auction raised over $600 to benefit the care of the terracotta building. On the day following the reception “The Terra Cotta Picnic” took place on the lawn in front of the building and the kiln, reviving an old tradition of annual terra cotta picnics that celebrated the town’s terracotta history with live music and food and that last took place in 1995. The live music was performed on “The Mobile Anagama Small Stage” which is also the lid to The Mobile Anagama when it is being transported as well as two skateboard ‘fun-boxes’. Following the live music, Laurie McFadden gave a historical address about The Terra Cotta Building and the Alfred Historical Society was presented with a big check for the funds raised with the silent auction and donation collected during the duration of The Mobile Anagama Company’s occupancy of the building.
The Terra Cotta: Through the Lens of a Camera Photo Contest brought to life a beautifully hand drawn and unfinished poster from the Alfred Historical Society archives which was advertising “The Terra Cotta: Through the Lens of a Camera Photo Contest.” The contest ran for the duration of the project offering a grand prize platter for the best submitted photograph of The Mobile Anagama Company. The contest assisted in documenting the project additional perspectives and provided an opportunity for individuals to acquire a ceramic piece who might not be able to afford to purchase one.
In looking back at The Mobile Anagama Company it is clear to me that the project existed as a multifaceted site specific collaboration which enacted a public service while occurring with a specific exaggerated and gestural quality; weaving an aesthetic blanket between the project’s many dispirit elements; moving the actions of caring for the space, utilizing the available materials and engaging the public from an act of community organizing to a display of this avant-garde organization as a powerful and malleable material.
However, as I click through the selection of images above, I’m not always sure if the emphasized experience of being there – in that space – with those people – as part of that system – in that moment – comes through as well as I wish it could. For example, the individual pieces of ceramics that I created for this project could be used as appropriate analogies for the tedious details and complicated protocols that were covered to coordinate such an amalgamation of objects and actions, but the object in this case as was made to be a representative souvenir of this experience, so when experiencing an image of it you may see it without the context of that experience where as if you would have see in it within the experience of the Mobile Anagama Company, looking at it would be much more like looking in a mirror, a reflection of that time and place.
This is the issue of this kind of work when so much of how we tell our stories and make ourselves known as artists is dependent on a captivating image that most successfully conveys the work – this work is explicitly about playing with the space between things and paradoxical necessity of things to manipulate that space – a space that is predicated on being there and extraordinarily difficult to photograph.
Perhaps you had to be there. My goal in writing this is to make you feel like maybe you didn’t…