In 1986, Mark Shapiro moved from New York City to rural Western Massachusetts to make pots and build a wood kiln. He was able to buy a shipwreck of an old place that has an unusual feature from which Mark took the name for his pottery—a stone pool that Russell Conwell, turn-of-the-century preacher and educator and founder of Temple University in Philadelphia had built in 1893. The farmhouse, where Conwell was born, is rich in history—it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad during Conwell’s childhood, and he remembered John Brown and Frederick Douglass staying at the house.
While working on the place, Mark dug up a shard of a gray salt-glazed four-gallon crock that happened to have the makers’ stamp on it. “Hastings and Belding, Ashfield Mass.” It turned out to have been made only about 15 miles from Mark's home and studio, at the middle of the last century. It got him thinking about pots that were made, bought, used, broken and disposed of within a specific region and the connection this implies between the community of users and makers. It led to his decision to move and restore the old shed (the one where fugitive slaves had slept) for use as a gallery to welcome local people at the pottery. It also prompted a deeper interest in early New England potters and their wares. In particular, the pots made from 1790–1830, wonderful swelling volumes of ovoid forms with their firing scars and flashing, spoke to Mark as powerful vernacular objects.
Before moving to Western Massachusetts, Mark had been living in New York and making sculpture while supporting himself as a carpenter. The turn to pottery answered the vexing problem that he had been unable to resolve with his sculpture: Where does the stuff go? On a pedestal in patron’s living room? In front of a building? In a museum storage vault? As a potter, on the other hand, Mark knew his work would be held and used; it would stay in the main places of people’s lives. And, he could control most aspects of creative production—the concept, making, finishing, marketing and selling of the work, in a process and within a scale that preserves and enhances the humanity of the creative experience. As Mark's work has evolved he continues to be compelled by the challenges of domestic pottery, but he has also recently become interested in making larger work that is more appropriate to the scale and abstractness of a gallery space than the kitchen.
The town is sacked. Silver and gold, even bronze, are beaten into crude billets to be hauled off and melted. Houses burned; prisoners taken, or not. And in the wreckage: bones, stones, and potsherds.
Clay’s low material intrinsic value and fragility, ironically, make it endure as one of the most compelling records of the human touch on the earth. The bottom of the ovoid jug is marked by the potter’s 200-year-old fingerprints, just as the earth’s strata are uniquely marked in clay fragments by all the peoples who struggled here to endure.
Where will my pots end up? In the landfills with the lawnmowers and TVs and silicon chips—the giant middens of our insatiable desires? No matter. I am glad just to leave a record of my own touch in this most receptive fragile and enduring material.