RALEIGH — If you didnt know any better, youd think the art on this dish depicted nothing more than a red flower. But the illustration is an anemone, and this piece of lead-glazed earthenware was the creation of a Moravian potter possibly Gottfried Aust, a master who worked his trade in Salem in the late 18th century which gives it a specific religious meaning.
Thats one of the themes to Art in Clay: Masterworks of North Carolina Earthenware. An exhibit assembled under the auspices of Winston-Salems Old Salem Museum & Gardens, it shows at Raleighs N.C. Museum of History through Sept. 1.
The Moravian pieces are very naturalistic in terms of decoration and often use flowers in very symbolic ways, said Johanna M. Brown, the Old Salem Museums director of collections and co-curator of the show. Anemones, especially, were thought to be the flowers that sprung up from the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. They primarily grow red and white, so they can be a symbol of the blood of Christ or purity.
Art in Clay has a handful of works from Quakers and other potters from around Alamance County. But most of the nearly 200 pieces on display originated from Moravian potters in Old Salem. To set the proper ambience, the museum even plays recorded Moravian religious hymns in the gallery.
While some pieces such as fish-shaped bottles were obviously made with decorative display in mind, most of the plates, bowls and urns were made for everyday use. Potters made the intricate designs through slip-decoration, using liquid clay instead of paint.
The objects are earthenware, and then theyd add water to make slip, liquified clay, Brown said. Add copper, manganese or iron oxide and fire it in a kiln, and it would turn to brilliant colors. Its centuries-old technology.
Brown co-curated Art in Clay with two magazine editors, Ceramics in Americas Robert Hunter and American Furnitures Luke Beckerdite. In the works since 2006, its the first traveling show that the Old Salem Museum has organized. It debuted at the Milwaukee Art Museum in fall 2010, going on to show at museums in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and Huntsville, Ala. Raleigh is the penultimate stop, with Old Salem Museum the final destination.
Its been a great process with a lot of new information coming out, Brown said. We continue to learn about potters and their wares, others working in North Carolina. Once you bring something like this to life, it grows in different directions and continues to flourish.
Art in Clay also features pieces associated with some of the biggest historical names in pottery names such as Aust and Rudolph Christ. They didnt know it at the time, but they would one day be regarded as stars.
But would they have considered themselves to be stars? Brown asked. No, they were hard-working artisans of their day, making a living. Moravians consider all work be glorification of God, so theres also that. Theyd probably be surprised at how much attention their things are still getting.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat