The Marks Project: A conversation with Donald Clark

The following is the edited version of a conversation between SP editor, Elenor Wilson, and The Marks Project manager, Donald Clark, at Donald’s home in Springfield, Massachusetts, on April 8, 2015.

Elenor Wilson: For the record, will you state who you are and a little bit about how you came to be doing what you do now?

Donald Clark at his home in Springfield, Massachusetts. Photograph by Elenor Wilson, 2015.Donald Clark: My name is Donald Clark, and my primary occupation now is project manager for The Marks Project, Inc. I got to this place after having spent twenty-five years working in a gallery with Leslie Ferrin and meeting clay people from all over the country. My background was important to the development of The Marks Project: my being able to contact people and say, “Hey, it’s Donald. Guess what we’re doing now.” My résumé was having spent all those years in the clay world as a gallery person and then as a collector of hundreds of pieces of clay.

EW: What is The Marks Project (TMP)?

DC: TMP is a searchable online database of the marks, signatures, slashes, hashes, or whatever is used by a clay worker to identify his or her work. Martha Vida, the founding director, was very clear from the outset that this would be an online venture. If you write a book, you can’t change it. We wanted the ability to add information to what already exists, as artists grow and their work changes and their marks change. We’ve already had artists come back and say, “I just got this award. Can you put it in?” or “I had a piece purchased by the Smithsonian. Here’s its image. Let’s put it in.” None of that can happen in printed material. We hope we’ll be able – and people after us will be able – to keep this growing.

EW: What was the spark for the project – the first “Aha!” moment, the idea, or the conversation that started it?

DC: That would be a conversation that Martha Vida had with herself over about ten years. Martha has been a lifelong collector. Her collection is very strong in British work, blue-and-white, transferware, and some contemporary work. Somewhere along the way, she became interested in contemporary American makers. She’s also very interested in knowing the background of something. She’s happiest when she can buy an object and its drawings and a story about it, and she’s done a lot of that. But when she went to look for information about makers, particularly those working in our period, which is 1946 to the present, there was no information. The Brits, on the other hand, are into their second edition of the contemporary ceramic marks dictionary.

EW: Printed?

DC: Printed. Actually, their procuring editor came to see us at NCECA last year, and she very much wanted us to make this into a book. By then, we decided that it would stay digital. And free! It doesn’t cost anything for people to list their marks, to update their marks, or to search. I have books in my library that say “American Ceramics…to the present” that were published 15 years ago. What’s the present? TMP will always be 1946 to the present because we’re digital.

EW: So how did you become involved in this brainchild of Martha’s?

DC: Well, I’d known Martha indirectly over the years because she was purchasing things in the gallery. And then word came through, I don’t quite remember the direct route, that this was happening. At first – ah, here we go. At first it seemed that it wasn’t going to work for me because it was very computer-heavy. Then I thought, you know what, I can learn that. So I went for lunch with Martha where she served Lobster Newburg on crepes; this was my interview. I made this point to her: I can bring to TMP my twenty-five-year background in ceramics and knowledge of people in that field, and I can learn the computer. She might be able to find a younger person who’s really computer-savvy, but that person wouldn’t know what it has taken me thirty-five years to learn.

I came to Northampton in 1981 and worked with the Thornes on [the downtown mall that is] Thorne’s Marketplace. Pinch Pottery, which became Ferrin Gallery and is now Ferrin Contemporary, was in the basement of that building. When I couldn’t handle upstairs anymore, I’d go down there and hang out and invariably buy things. There are still things in this apartment that I bought then. So anyway, I did a cram/crash course on the computer, and now I can do what we need to do.

EW: You mentioned just a moment ago the timeline that TMP is concerned with, which starts about 1946. What is important about that date?

DC: There had to be a beginning for us somewhere. The field is just too huge for us not to pick a date. Before 1946, most ceramics were made in factories, and we weren’t interested in that. The other thing that happened in 1946 was the end of World War II and the G.I. Bill, which produced hundreds, if not thousands, of artists and craftspeople in the following years. That’s when the field really began to explode.

You know, the [Adelaide Alsop] Robineau (1865-1929) time, those years are all incredibly well-documented. People really weren’t operating then the way contemporary studio potters do. One person threw the piece, another person glazed it, another person fired it. Even though they weren’t making huge numbers of pieces, it really was a sort of divided-up, piecework kind of operation – a team effort. Martha picked that date before I came along, but I totally understood and agreed with her.

The G.I. Bill, somebody should write a book about that. Maybe someone has? There is not a craft medium that was not fueled by the G.I. Bill. A whole slew of craftspeople went to school on the G.I. Bill; Harvey Littleton was one in the glass world.

EW: Is this specifically U.S. ceramics we’re talking about, or all of North America?

DC: Right now it is just the United States. The words are “working in America, 1946 to the present.” We can barely keep up with that. Our goal is to have listed 1,000 people by the end of this year. We are thirty percent of the way there. We’ve really got to crank to get through to our goal this year. But we will. Down the road could it expand to include Canada? Possibly, but first we have to document ceramists and potters in the United States, many of whom have passed away and others who are regional makers. It would depend on funding for increasing our research staff, but more importantly, how many makers submitted their own work and encouraged others in their circle to do the same. I would like it to be North America, which means tens of thousands more ceramists.

EW: How do you gather the information?

DC: In the beginning, when we were figuring out how to do what we are doing, I catalogued sixty deceased artists. I went to the Everson Museum of Art with a photographer, John Polak, and we photographed their work. Before we arrived, the Everson’s registrar and an installer pulled the objects of these sixty people from their stacks. John and I spent two-and-a-half days photographing these pieces. That was easy. Most of the people we had chosen in this first round are household names in our field, so there’s lots of material about them.

Subsequently, we’ve worked with the Springfield Museums. We’ve done some work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Now the goal is to put together a menu of sorts of remaining nationally known makers, those who have passed away, mid-career people, and emerging potters who can list a mark as it is now and, in theory, update their marks through their careers.

EW: You may have just answered my next question: Is TMP concerned with only mid-career and established artists, or is it interested in encouraging younger artists as well?                     

Potters' marks, courtesy of The Marks Project, 2015.

DC: Whatever their stage, everyone is welcome. We have said you need to be at least a graduate-student level, but other than that, no more rules. We made connections at NCECA last year and again this year with Louise Rosenfield; her collection is a massive collection of functional pots, and she has photographed the objects and the marks. She has made just under 1,000 of them on her collection’s website (therosenfieldcollection.com) available to us.

We’re particularly interested in finding regional makers, who can be hard to find. Down the road, the plan is to have regional TMP people who would work the northwest, southwest, midwest, northeast, and southeast regions to develop a list of these makers and register them with TMP. Not everyone whose mark we list will have a long biography, partly because they don’t have it yet. But they have marks, and people may be searching for them. As the potters’ careers grow, their bios can do the same.

The door is wide open, and we do not edit people’s work. We don’t make judgments. If people send us written material, we might edit that, not to change the content but to make it fit the TMP format, and we might Photoshop an image for clarity. Our role, though, is not to judge; we collect marks.

EW: You’ve said before that this was somewhat difficult to get potters or artists to come to the website, fill out the questionnaire, and upload their images.

DC: Yeah. I think that this is an issue that’s bigger than TMP. Through the years, makers have signed their work and not signed their work, and for various reasons it was okay to do it, and then it wasn’t okay to do it, and some cultures felt strongly that you didn’t do it, and others did. For instance, Maria Martinez didn’t sign her pots originally. She made pots for her neighbors, and her neighbors made cloth for her. Everybody knew who made the pot, so there didn’t need to be a signature on it. Up until probably the eighteenth century, a community supported the artisans who produced the things they needed, and the objects stayed within the community. Everyone knew who made what. So we come to today, with various approaches to marking or signing.

I have a very deep feeling that if you make something and are proud of it, you put your name on it. If you make something and you’re not proud of it, maybe you should destroy it. Maybe that rubs people the wrong way, but you know, Michael McCarthy made this cup [gestures to cup he’s holding], and I think after much,[checks underside of the cup] yeah, after much urging from me, it’s signed. It’s a beautiful cup. Why shouldn’t people know who made this? So anyway, my take on it is that artists working right now should feel good about what they make, and put their names on it.

For the future, it could benefit the community to be able to identify something as having been made by a particular artist. That would be the bigger argument for this. Someone said to me, “Why should these people bother with this? They’re working so hard to make a living.” I certainly understand that about people in the clay world. But it takes, like, a second or two to put a mark on a pot, and it might take an hour of your time to get it listed with TMP. Then, it’s always there for the museum curators, for the collectors, for your fellow makers. For example, a potter in Georgia ends up with a cup made somewhere, and he loves it, and it’s got a name on it, but he can’t find out anything about that potter because it isn’t listed anywhere.

EW: So, you say to put a listing on TMP only takes about an hour?

DC: We have really streamlined the process. No one’s done this before, so we had to figure it out, every step of the way. We worked with a really good Web designer in California to put together this questionnaire of things we thought we needed to ask. It took a long time to fill out and was very complicated. Then I said, “You know what, kids? We have to fix this.” We went back to Ruben, our designer, and to another person, Ali Baldenebro, a recent Bard graduate, to rework it. Ali said, “Let’s go, let’s get rid of all this junk.” Now the questionnaire is quite to the point. All you have to fill out is your name and a few other items at the top, then we need a good résumé, a process statement, and images. I mean, if you have to start from zero, then it’s gonna take a little longer.

EW: I remember not signing my pots, then I would sign them with my initials, and then I would sign just my first name, and then I would sign my first initial and my last name, and then around 2003 I made a stamp, which I still use now. But on sculpture, I often don’t sign it. So how is TMP dealing with that?

DC: Patiently. There are people who don’t mark. Ruth Duckworth rarely marked a piece. There is occasionally a piece with an R on it; sometimes she wrote the R, and sometimes somebody else wrote the R. We have one of the real R’s on her page. Tony Marsh never signs. We have a solution for that: you can search by object.

The best-case scenario would be, using your example, that you submit a piece with each of those signatures. At the top of your page, everyone’s page, it says “Typical Mark” and there’s a little image of each mark or whatever you’ve used, and ideally dates are listed as well. Some people don’t have examples. Maybe they needed to sell everything just didn’t keep track of stuff, or moved and dispersed the things. In those cases, we go with what we can get. The fantasy is that things will turn up, and we’ll be able to fill in the blanks.

Michael Simon apparently kept the best piece from every firing, something every clay worker should do. Now he has this incredible collection of his work. I think that’s a very smart thing, on more than one level. It gives you a dictionary of things to refer to as you go along. Plus, in theory it gives you, an annuity, because these things will have accrued in value.

EW: Your website clearly states that TMP is not a valuation tool. Do you have anything to say about that?

DC: Well, we worked with an attorney to put that language together. TMP’s function is to assist in attribution. To do this we show the mark or signature, the foot, and the full view of an object, we then provide a biography, links to the artist’s website, bibliography, and links to objects in public collections. If you go to TMP and identify your object as being made by Beatrice Wood or Karen Karnes or whomever, we’re not telling you it’s worth anything. But if you end up with something and it’s got this mark on it, and you’re curious on any number of levels, the first step is attribution, which we can help with. Then you take the next step somewhere else, which is valuation.

EW: You shared with me some letters of support from various museum curators who endorsed TMP. One of them was supportive of TMP as an independent organization. Can you talk about that?

DC: One of our commitments has been to working with museums who don’t have the funding to digitize their collections and to do that with them. That’s what happened at the Everson. Some of its collection was photographed for a book published in the nineties, but the majority of pieces have not been professionally photographed, and the marks have never been photographed. So the Everson Museum gets unrestricted use and TMP gets noncommercial use of those images. We went to the Springfield Museum with the same terms. We’ve been offered the opportunity to go to two major collections of ceramics. The Ceramics Research Center [at the Arizona State University Museum of Art] has recently photographed or digitized photographs of their collection, and we’ve had conversations with Garth Johnson, the curator, about going there to photograph just the marks of objects that are important to what we’re doing. Those marks would then go into their data bank and they would provide the already-taken images to us.

We had a consultant in L.A. who had worked on the Elaine Levin archives at the University of Southern California. So we now have, with Elaine’s blessing, information from that archive, which has been important to us because it’s been a source of some elusive images. When we get a little older and a little more adept, we’ll be very eager to make our backlist – the stuff in the database that’s not online – available to researchers. So if you were doing a research project about Rudy Autio and came to TMP and found what’s there about Rudy Autio, then you contacted us because somehow the word is out that we’ve got more, we would say, “Okay, do this, and you’ll find it.”

We now have all the images that exist from the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York. They’re all being entered into the database by an intern. In this case, we can record not only the artist’s name and the object’s name but also the show it was in at the Clay Art Center and the date. Now, all of that may not end up online. But it’s in the database.

EW: It’s starting to sound a lot like a library.

The Marks Project LogoDC: Another place we’re getting a lot of images – I just worked on this – is from Jayson Laufer and the Nevica Project in Chicago. He has given us access to all his imagery, which is pretty great. This all happens courtesy of these places; they realize the importance of this kind of tool.

We started out with the mission of providing attribution information about makers starting from the mid-twentieth century. Getting those people signed up and having that information available remains of the primary importance. The other task is to create a research tool, because the information is falling at us. Not to record it in a form that can be used by someone in the future seems a mistake.

EW: So, in theory, I could come to TMP and research information from any of these organizations because it would all be in one place?

DC: With the organizations’ permission, absolutely. I’m not sure you can do that tomorrow, but that is the intent.

EW: I’m going to play devil’s advocate a little bit here. The Internet is already a huge database. How is what you’re providing different from what I’d get if I was Googling?

DC: One difference is that this could be a one-stop shop. Yes, you could go on Google, and I’ve done it in doing research for us. But you’ve got to go here and here and here and here and here. What we’re trying to do is provide, in an easily usable way, what we feel is most important to know about a particular artist. It certainly is not the final research stop; we have a bibliography of places you can go and read more about these people. That would be for the research-level person. The casual user, who maybe bought something at an auction and wants to find out who made it, may or may not care about that part of it. They might just want to see that the KK on their  object matches the KK in the book, and they’re gone.

EW: You launched the website in January 2015. Have there been any exciting discoveries?

DC: Actually our test launch was in January 2015, the announced launch was at NCECA 2015. What has been exciting since the site went up is that more people are coming to us to register on the site. Just last week, a man told us, “I’ve been collecting Northwestern ceramics my whole life. I’ve photographed everything, including the marks, because I was going to write a book, but I never did. I’d like you to have it all.”

We have a Facebook page, where we might post a mark asking, “Do you know  who . . .?” or “Anybody know anything about this?” I started doing our Facebook posts, but I’m not the right person to do that. We need to engage someone who will do not just Facebook, but . . .

EW: Instagram . . . Pinterest . . .

DC: Yes, Leslie Ferrin said to me, recently when we were talking about Candice Groot – did you ever know Candice Groot?

EW: I didn’t know her, but I know that she passed away recently. I was just at Leslie’s, and we had a couple of gin-and-tonics in her honor. And the foundation is an amazing thing.

DC: Amazing. I was just – my parents are gone, and you know they’re leaving, but when it happens, it’s different. I was just so saddened [to lose Candice]. You and I probably will get to know one another eventually better than I knew Candice, but I’ve been to her house a number of times, I’ve drunk plenty of gin-and-tonics with her in various places. One of my best Candice memories is when we were in Philadelphia. I’ve been with her in several places, at NCECAs, and she always rents a car. For some reason, in Philadelphia – no, Pittsburgh – she didn’t. It poured the whole time, and we’re on these buses, getting off, standing on the sidewalk, dripping wet, waiting for a bus to pick us up. And I said, “Candice, let’s just get the bus back to the hotel.” And she said, “No! We have to see what else is here!” So we’re standing in the rain, we’re getting off the buses, we’re sloshing through the galleries, we’re standing in the rain. But that was Candice. She just needed to see and do it all. She sort of left a big hole in our field, but she’s also left a beautiful mountain.

Her collection has to be seen somewhere now and written about. I think all of that was beginning to happen just at the end of her life. But, I mean, you’d go to her house and you’re wiggling your way around, and what you’re wiggling around is one artisan work after another, and Viola Freys and just huge pieces and little – those little Arnesons? She had them everywhere, just lined up. An incredible collection. Deep, deep, deep, and always true to her rather quirky vision. It’s just great. And the Foundation will go on, no doubt, and Candice will be remembered.  

EW: I would imagine her collection will be documented . . .

DC: But she wasn’t very interested in doing that. You know, there’s the plates I eat off of and the cups I drink out of, but then there’s all this other stuff that falls in another category. Most of what’s in my apartment now is on Collectify. I used Collectify to catalog it with my children in mind; at some point they’re gonna have to deal with this if I haven’t already. There’s 120 soy bottles up there [motions to a high shelf on the wall], and there are another fifty or sixty of them packed in the basement. There are four or five big boxes of pots in my basement. Behind this wall is a closet that’s full of pots. My bedroom has pots everywhere. And so, I felt I should pass this on documented. What you see in front of you is important as a group, because it presents a pretty in-depth look at what was happening in the last thirty years around here. That’s not what Candice has collected. Candice owned major, extremely important pieces by big players. But my sense is that that she just wanted to live with all these things . . . Why did I talk about her? What were we talking about?

EW: I think we got talking about this because of exciting discoveries.

DC: Maybe you can send us exciting discoveries.

EW: [laughs] Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you would like to talk about, in terms of TMP and your involvement with that?

DC: I think that in your periodical, that’s the market. I mean, the readership for SP is potters, and they’re the people we want. So, I’d like to just sort of drive home that “we want you” and that it’s important to do this little project. There are now five people involved in working on TMP: Martha, Ali, Caroline and me. In addition Caitlin Brown, formerly with the Clay Art Center, is our first volunteer.

EW: And then your web guy?

DC: And then Ruben. But Ruben is now in semi-retirement. I mean, we used to see him all the time, but now the only time we see him is if we’re stuck. And we haven’t been stuck much. After Demarest, I’d had a conversation with Tyler Gulden, whom I’m very fond of. He said, “I’ll go right home and do it.” I’d heard that before from any number of people. I have a Tyler. That tall tumbler in the corner is his. I was moving it around or something, and I thought, “That Tyler, he never did it.” So we go to NCECA, and he said, “You didn’t put my page up yet. Is there something else I need to give you?” I go, “You did it? Oh.”

So two things happen in the process. We get an email that says a questionnaire has been submitted. But it also gets into the database in alphabetical order among all the other ones, right. And then they’re under construction, second review, third review, penultimate, published. Well, it didn’t get to the database, now we have to look more carefully. I had deleted him among hundreds of spam questionnaires that were submitted.

EW: The email, you mean?

DC: The email. So there was no cue. I just deleted the email that said he’d done it. So embarrassing. He’s up now. Poor Tyler. So we needed Ruben to rescue us from that. And he’s on a retainer; there for us when we need him. Ali is very facile with this, so she can do a lot of stuff, too.

EW: Well, I thank you so much for sitting down with me today and inviting me into your home.

DC: You’re welcome.

EW: And I could probably stay here for four or five more hours looking at pots, but maybe some other time.

DC: Well, you’re welcome to come back.