Most potters stick with a formula: They choose a clay type, a firing technique and a vessel shape, and crank out production pieces to sell in the craft market.
To describe the late Vermont artist Charlotte Potok as merely a potter is to sell her short. Yet that’s how she saw herself.
Potok tried uniform production, but she never managed to stick with those efforts for long, according to her friends and family. Maybe boredom would set in, or a stray idea would pique her fancy. For whatever reason, Potok had a tough time repeating herself — she loved to experiment with new and old ceramic forms.
Potok, who died just over a year ago at age 77, left a rich and diverse legacy in clay. A retrospective of her work, which includes representative samples from her 40-year career, is currently on exhibit at Plainfield’s Blinking Light Gallery, an artists’ co-op she founded 10 years ago.
Potok’s range as a ceramic artist was incredible. She reproduced quilted boxes in porcelain, churned out a series of abstract raku, copied Grecian wine bowls and pitchers, created porcelain replicas of the Citicorp and AT&T buildings in Manhattan, started a line of heart-shaped dayware, and collaborated with Brookfield-based New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren on pieces that featured his drawings.
But Potok is perhaps best known for her 1970s-era “paperware,” a line of white porcelain dishes designed to look like paper cups and plates that the New York Times dubbed “Pop Art in Porcelain.” The Museum of Modern Art bought a set, and Potok hoped to mass-produce the design in China or Korea, but a manufacturer copied her work and beat her to the punch.
Potok’s son, Jed Clifford, says his mom didn’t have a knack for business, and though she sold a great deal of her work, she also supported herself in part by teaching pottery at her alma mater, Goddard College. In fact, Potok talked the administration into letting her start the program in the 1960s, and she taught there on and off into the mid-1990s.
Except for an apprenticeship stint with David Gil at Bennington Potters, Potok was largely self-taught. She made a personal study of historical ceramic works, including Grecian pottery, which she often replicated, and she participated in several archaeological digs in Belize. She had a lifelong love affair with pre-Colombian Mayan pottery.
Potok’s final project was a series of 10 “goddesses,” modeled on ancient fertility sculptures. Mounted together on a section of gallery wall, they’re like a small army of female power figures in the buff. Breasts bared, standing at attention, the goddesses evoke Barbie dolls, ready to embody whatever viewers project on them. They could symbolize love, passion and motherhood, or, more likely, they could serve as vehicles for female frustration. They certainly appear ready to unleash a stream of unmitigated bile, or at least throw a thunderbolt or two.
These exquisite figurines perhaps best communicate Potok’s keen interests in art, ceramics, history and, presumably, femininity. She was a potter who made a wide array of wonderful dishes, and her artistry emerges in the most quotidian household items. Her real triumphs as an artist, however, were sculptural.