01 Mar Crocks
The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.
— William Faulkner
I love to paint stoneware crocks.
Their chunky, chilly corporality reminds me of granite markers and monuments, the steadfast avatars of past lives. And their rootedness in the earth—crocks being made of dirt, a literal rootedness—lend them a permanence and august presence most other household objects lack.
I like, too, the fact that stoneware crocks and oil paints are both made of dirt, allowing the subject and its representation in paint to unite.
Stoneware crocks also captivate me because they are—or were—strictly utilitarian. They existed to serve, and in the most pedestrian of ways. Until glass bottles and tin cans came along to replace them, throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries stoneware crocks were used by farmers, grocers, and household cooks to pickle vegetables and package booze.
The hick cousin of porcelain, stoneware is a ceramic that was imported to America from England and Germany until the Revolutionary War, when the interruption in foreign trade pushed entrepreneurs in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Ohio to set up potteries.
Made from clay, stoneware crocks varied in color, density and texture. By firing each piece at 1,200 degrees, the potter would melt the minerals in the clay to create a non-porous ceramic. Its non-porous surface made the crock microbe-resistant.
To increase a stoneware crock’s utility as a food storage container, before firing a crock the potter would glaze it by putting gray or brown salt in the kiln. The heat would vaporize the salt, leaving a glassy layer of sodium silicate on the inside and outside of the crock.
Before firing it, the potter would also often pour a blue liquid, known as “slip,” over the outside of the piece, to create a design (like a flower or bird) or an advertising legend (like a grocer’s or distiller’s name). These slip decorations allow today’s collectors of stoneware crocks to identify which potter made a particular piece.