To hold one of Sarah Jaeger’s pieces is to have a nearly perfect experience, where the interface between body, mind, and object is completely in balance. Jaeger was recently recognized as the 2019 Montana Potter Laureate by Montana Clay, a grassroots organization devoted to furthering the ceramic arts in its namesake state. 1 This role was created in 2016 to recognize an artist working in and supporting the ceramic arts in Montana, and to honor excellence and dedication to the ceramic arts. This recognition of Jaeger followed other notable distinctions, such as being the only ceramic artist to receive a Target Fellowship Grant from United States Artists in 2006 and being profiled in the PBS documentary Craft in America in 2007. If the US emulated Japan’s tradition of honoring master craftspeople as Living National Treasures, Jaeger would be among those selected.
A Part of Everyday Life
Jaeger wants users to relate to her pots bodily and has spent 50 years figuring out how best to let her pots touch us. They are, in a sense, an extension of helping people with the activities of daily living—eating, drinking, bonding together over tea or coffee. Jaeger’s pots do exactly this, insinuating themselves into everyday use unexpectedly. She says, “Functional pots cohabit our intimate domestic spaces. We experience them with our bodies.” 2 She expects that her pieces will become a beloved part of everyday life. She argues that when you use something, you have intimate, direct contact with it, and tactility is fundamental to the experience of the piece. Indeed, tactility is one of the qualities that drew her to ceramics in the first place. Her pieces are the cup you reach for in a cupboard full of beautiful pieces, the plate you’re thankful that you have managed not to drop or chip for the past fifteen years, the teapot in which you, daily, make tea after the kids have gone to bed.
When asked if handmade things have a different relationship to the body than mass produced, machine-made objects, she shares a story that she has recounted in the past as a way of making her point. Jaeger says, “I don’t know whether handmade objects necessarily interact differently with the body than machine-made objects. It may have more to do with how sensitively they’re designed and made. I trace my love for handmade utilitarian objects to the furniture I grew up with. My father had a passion for early New England furniture, handmade with hand tools, mostly in the early 19th century, and our house was full of it. It’s unmistakably made by hand—my set of dining chairs clearly match, they were made as a set, but differ slightly from one another, just as the sets of cups or plates I used to make. From my childhood, I have been fascinated by these variations.” 3
A Relationship to Clay
Though she has taught at prestigious institutions such as Pomona College, in Claremont, California, the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, in Alfred, New York, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in Lincoln, Nebraska, Jaeger is a studio potter. The longevity of her relationship with clay is in part due to the fact that it has been a lifelong endeavor, arrived at during her senior year of undergraduate school. Jaeger was studying English literature at Harvard University and surprised herself by signing up for a local ceramics class. She says, “For reasons that remain a mystery to me, I decided to take a pottery class at a local art center.” 4
Determined to receive credit for long hours in the studio, Jaeger entered into an independent study focused on the ceramics of the Japanese tea ceremony. This had the wondrous effect of introducing her not only to ceramic art history, but also—by way of Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and Soetsu Yanagi—to the beginnings of the 20th-century studio pottery movement in the West that coincides with the history of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, as well. Following this experience, Jaeger took classes in classical Greek while working at the University of Chicago Press, before finally enrolling at the Kansas City Art Institute to pursue a BFA in 1983. There, she studied with luminaries Ken Ferguson, Victor Babu, and George Timock. Upon graduating, she was accepted for a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation during the time Kurt Weiser was resident director. Her residency spanned from 1985 to 1987, and Jaeger recalls being excited by the energy and ideas that came from working alongside other artists such as Liz Quackenbush and Akio Takamori. Afterward, Jaeger remained in Helena and established a pottery studio.
Developing a New Approach
Jaeger’s aesthetic has recently undergone a renaissance. In 2013, she noticed that her motor skills were degrading. After years of investigating and meeting with specialists, Jaeger discovered that her condition is neurological, but unspecified, and falls into the same category of motor neuron disease that famously affected Stephen Hawking. As a maker, she was brought to a stop for the first time in decades, no longer able to express the things she wanted in clay. As she understood more about her condition and how to accommodate it, she returned to creating. However, she found that she couldn’t construct her trademark thrown porcelain forms. Instead, she turned to earthenware. Jaeger says, “I went to a different clay and a different way of making pots and to a different firing temperature. It’s very, very low tech . . . I became a beginner all over again.” 5
The new work is primarily handbuilt. Jaeger describes her process, “I mostly make plates, using a slab-and-coil technique that I learned from Gail Kendall. I make a paper or tar-paper template for the shape of the plate rim, use that to cut the slab and scribe where the foot goes, and add a coil for the foot. I finish the form by hand.” 6
Jaeger’s strong love of the handmade is evident throughout her work, which takes full advantage of colorful pattern and robust volume. Volume—voluptuous, full forms, in particular—has come to define Jaeger’s work. In the past, Jaeger has explained her fascination, “I am obsessed with making pots that convey a sense of volume, that speak of the capacity to contain and also offer their contents, that express their potential to be useful, generous, and in a way, luxurious . . . I want the pots to be both elegant and easy, beautiful and friendly, capable of providing nourishment to our daily lives.” 7 Jaeger, as a sensualist, i.e. one who wants to engage the senses, also wants to take care of people and to nourish them, not physically, but emotionally.
Volume as a concept innately conveys beauty and bounteousness. Synonyms include voluptuous, ample, opulent, well formed, shapely, luxurious, sensuous, indulgent, and decadent. While some of these terms relate specifically to bodies, they also point to an engagement of the senses, an appreciation of pleasure. However, the plates that define her most recent body of work aren’t so much about volume, per se, but rather accentuate Jaeger’s interest in the asymmetry of the surface decoration. Still, she is drawn to generosity as a guiding principle in her design. Jaeger explains, “In a thrown vessel, volume speaks about the interior space of the pot, and to me it suggests an expression of generosity. I hope I achieve a comparable feeling of generosity in my earthenware plates by using plenty of clay, and with the roundness of the rims, the fatness of the glaze, and exuberant decoration.” 8
Jaeger’s love of pattern is evident in her many varied surface decorations that, while different, always manage to be identifiably hers. Jaeger says, “I’ll always be in love with pattern and volume. When I started this [newest] body of work, I began decorating where I had left off with thrown porcelain—concentrically symmetrical designs using repeating elements. That soon felt too static to me. Without the fluidity of a thrown form or the movement and depth possible in high-fire glazes, the pots needed something else. That led me to abandon strict symmetry and to strive for fluidity in the brushwork and a sense of depth in the layering of colors. I’m still using pattern in the sense that I employ certain motifs (leaf and flower forms) and keep varying how I combine them.” 9 Jaeger’s current approach to glazing is looser and more spontaneous, though she still prefers the floral and garden motifs that she admired in medieval Persian pottery, especially 10th-century buffware that emphasized allover surface decoration. Other historical precedents, such as Xichou pots from the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE) influence and inspire her.
Community and Wellbeing
When asked about how pots communicate, Jaeger recalls an unforgettable day spent in collections storage at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution with her lifelong friend Louise Cort. When Jaeger first met her, Cort had just finished graduate school at Oxford and settled into her first job at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, after returning from two years in Japan spent writing her dissertation on the ceramics and kilns at Shigaraki. Cort served as the teacher for Jaeger’s independent study in 1970. Years later, Jaeger visited Cort where she worked at the Sackler. During the day studying pots in the collections storage, Jaeger says, “One pot especially stole my heart, a 10th-century Persian bowl—reddish earthenware, white slip, sgraffito, with three colors of luscious lead glaze. When I held that bowl in my hands, I imagined the person who had made it, and thought that if we could meet, we would be able to talk shop, that we could connect over the span of 1000 years. I would hope that if someone, not necessarily a potter, should come across one of my pots 1000 years from now, they would have some sense of common humanity with the by then unknown person who had made that pot.” 10 Indeed these experiences, and Cort’s enduring friendship, are so important that Jaeger reflects, “She deserves the credit for my lifetime as a potter.” 11
The generosity that Jaeger tries to impart into her vessels extends to support of and participation in her community. The concept of community is central to her sense of an overall wellbeing. Essentially, she is a potter who has nurtured a community by staying in one place making pots since she settled in Helena in 1985. In this sense, Jaeger is similar to another Montana ceramic artist, Frances Senska (1914–2009), whose roles in creating and encouraging community in Bozeman and at Montana State College (now Montana State University), where she taught Rudy Autio (1926–2007) and Peter Voulkos (1924–2002), as well as her later involvement in the Archie Bray Foundation’s community are legendary. In fact, Jaeger’s idea of a strong ceramic community centers on the Archie Bray Foundation, whose importance has been paramount to Jaeger, and vice versa. Almost every artist who visits, whether as a long-term or summer resident, or as a workshop teacher or attendee, encounters Jaeger in some capacity. Many visit her studio as a sort of pilgrimage. In addition, Jaeger served on the Archie Bray Foundation’s board of directors for a decade from 1992 to 2003.
Jaeger has been instrumental in helping Helena develop a ceramics identity, hosting annual studio sales and participating in collectors’ tours and art walks. Jaeger also supports community organizations she believes in by donating her pots for auctions, sales, and fundraisers throughout Helena, including the Humane Society; the Holter Museum of Art; and the Prickly Pear Land Trust, an organization that preserves open spaces and provides recreational opportunities, and with whom Jaeger has served as a board member since 2005, and more recently has worked to advocate for improved accessible design for trails.
Jaeger readily identifies with the Helena community as a place she can call home, where she could make a life as a potter, “Friends jokingly called me the village potter, and this village supported my work. In recent years since my disease has impacted my strength and mobility, I have been overwhelmed by the support and kindness I have received from my community, from friends as well as from people I scarcely knew. I hope that I can return the kindness, to some small extent. . . . I’m fortunate that at this point in my life I can afford not to sell my pots, and I can use them to try to do some good for the community. I’m also trying, to the extent that I can, to advocate for people with disabilities. My new life, with disabilities, has been an eye opener for the kinds of difficulties so many people face, and I’m trying to use my voice to bring about some changes. . . . I think a lot about how I can contribute to the health of my community. Anyway, it all comes down to people, meaningful connections to people I love.” 12
the author Brandon Reintjes is senior curator at the Missoula Art Museum. He writes about contemporary ceramics for Ceramics Monthly and Ceramics Art and Perception, and recently wrote about the Postwar Craft Movement in Montana for The Journal of Modern Craft.