1 “Good Earth” exhibition view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Wallpaper made from a drawing by Aiden Gillis of Ostrom’s early Indian Harbour residence. Photo: RAW Photography.

Walter Ostrom, American born and Canadian bred, ceramics master and historian, teacher, scientist, and gardener extraordinaire, is 78 years young. A retrospective of his career, instigated by the late Sandra Alfoldy,1 opened at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in October 2020 and traveled to the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery in Waterloo, Ontario, in 2021; accompanying the exhibition, Good Earth: The Pots and Passion of Walter Ostrom contains essays and a catalog of the objects on display. 

The essays, beginning with one by Paul Greenhalgh, cover aspects of Ostrom’s career: his against-the-grain ceramics; passion about and teaching of Asian ceramic history; studio pedagogy; and prolific gardening. An edited version of his 2014 Regis Masters Series Lecture is also printed therein. Ceramics Monthly’s archives contain articles (December 1983; April 2003) summarizing Ostrom’s considerable achievements, not to mention online postings from varied sources. So what new perspective could an author bring to the ceramics community? 

2 Dessert plates, Good Earth exhibition view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: RAW Photography.

Starting with the epithet, write what you know, my publication about craft and politics provides an answer. Synchronistically, this aligns with Ostrom’s early activism, teaching, portfolio, and world view. The overtly political components of his life have been touched on by authors, but an exposé through a political lens covers new territory. Carol Hanisch’s assertion in 1969 that “personal problems are political problems”—famously shortened to “the personal is political”—helps define what I mean by political. The political consists of human activities, undertaken in relation to each other, animals, and the Earth, that require the enacting of laws and establishment of customs to ensure convivial cohabitation. The political is the everyday and constitutes a lifestyle. Political scientists Love and Mattern assert that the arts play essential roles that go beyond their beauty, including, as they describe it: 

. . . catalyzing the imagination, expressing creativity, integrating aspects of the self, providing meaningful symbols, sustaining a sense of beauty and harmony, and, most important here, resisting conformity and even subverting the status quo. In these ways, especially the last one, the popular quality of the art forms included here potentially increases their importance for democratic and undemocratic politics.2

Walter Ostrom and his ceramics exemplify the arts as politics.

3 Spirit Pot/Fen Ping, 4 ft. 9 in. (1.5 m) in height, wheel-thrown earthenware, constructed and press molded, slip and colored glazes, 1996. Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: RAW Photography.

Political Persuasion

Ostrom was attracted to ceramics because “it’s the art of the proletariat.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes the proletariat as wage earners, particularly those whose financial resources come from daily labor, and this circumstance conditioned Ostrom’s world view. He grew up in Binghamton, New York, where his parents were employed in factories; his father mortgaged their home to pay for his son’s education, the first family member to cross a tertiary threshold. While attending the University of Buffalo to study chemistry, Ostrom adopted the views of the New Left embodied in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) that proliferated in American universities in the 1960s. SDS advocated participatory democracy, whereby citizens contribute to governmental and bureaucratic decisions that have consequences in their lives. 

When Ostrom traveled to Scotland to further his biochemistry studies at the University of St Andrews, he aligned himself with students with like-minded political views there and at the nearby Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. The “physiologically mesmerizing” material and process of pottery induced him to spend more time at the latter than the former; Ostrom admits to flunking out of St Andrews. But he won a scholarship to “a fabulous little school” on Öland, an island off the southeast coast of Sweden. Stiftelsen Capellagården, founded by Swedish designer Carl Malmsten, was, decades ago, a summer school for ceramics, textiles, and woodworking. Here Ostrom absorbed Scandinavian aesthetics and social outlook and was encouraged to stay during the winter of 1965–66. But he received a letter from the Selective Service Agency stating that it did not recognize European schools as a means for deferment of military service. To legally avoid the draft, Ostrom returned to the US and applied to Wilmington College, a small liberal arts college founded by the Quakers in Wilmington, Ohio. A friend in Scotland recommended Wilmington, knowing that Ostrom’s interests and persuasions were in political alignment with Quaker pacifism.

4 Jealous Potter, 9½ in. (24 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and constructed, additional pots: Cizhou, Greek, Chinese vase in the shape of a basket, 1991.

Ostrom says, “I went there and finished off my degree in biochemistry. At the same time, every single elective I took was in art, and I continued my ceramics. The teacher was a new MFA from Ohio [Gerald Ferguson] who was a real evangelist for art, and he saved my soul.” When it came to choosing a graduate school, Ostrom applied for two programs in ceramics and one in biochemistry because, “I really didn’t think I could get accepted in a ceramics program.” He was given the nod by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and graduated with an MFA in 1969.

The ceramics courses and accumulating shelves of pots were kept secret from the folks in Binghamton. Ostrom’s parents believed he was a pre-med student and, although they would not have said so, they were disappointed when he revealed that his vocation would be with clay. Their aspiration of a professional career for their offspring did not reckon on the arts as a possibility for a secure future. Fortunately, shortly after graduation Ostrom was offered a full-time position at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax to teach ceramics and Asian art history. He bought a one-room house in Indian Harbour, Nova Scotia, whose improvement and expansion, more than the title of assistant professor, fostered a reconciliation with his parents. Walter reminisced: “What saved my life and our relationship was moving to Nova Scotia, where my father had always wanted to go for fishing, and living in this fabulous little village where the local people were very much like my parents. They made quilts, so there were always quilts in my little house; they went to church; and my father loved working on my house. He built the stone foundation. He never wanted to work in a factory.” I would speculate that the homesteading decision was as much political—self-sufficiency, slowness (although it wasn’t called such back then), anti-consumerism—as economic. 

5 Jealous Potter II, 11½ in. (29 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, altered, and press-molded earthenware, terra sigillata, majolica with stain, 2000. Private collection.

Political Pedagogy

As mentioned earlier, SDS avowed political democracy, which Ostrom invoked by his methods of teaching. When he arrived at NSCAD, conceptual art, whereby ideas and concepts outshone the finished object, was de rigueur. Initially he removed the potter’s wheels from the ceramics classroom in order that students think about craft and art rather than immediately address form. Later, he reinstated the wheels because he realized the value of knowing traditional techniques. 

Ceramic history in Nova Scotia relied on local clay both for Indigenous makers and later, utilitarian vessels for colonists’ own use. Ostrom experimented with red Lantz clay in his own studio and found he liked it. He justified bringing it to NSCAD in this way: “working in ceramics history, one of the things I realized is that Faenza looks the way it does because of the clay that was there. In Jingdezhen, even the garbage cans are made of porcelain clay because that’s what’s there. In other words, what you inherit geologically establishes the parameter that you work within, and you’re always pushing against the edges.” It made sense to work with local brick clay, which provided another teaching opportunity.

 6 Jealous Potter III, 35½ in. (88 cm) in height, molded Jingdezhen stoneware, PRC laser-cut cardboard, 2013–2018.

“Once I started to do earthenware within the school, we had to find earthenware glazes that gave us great color without lead. And you have no idea how hard that is! Instead of a class in glaze chemistry we were like a research unit. All shared results and discussed them. The savior for this parameter of lead-less high color was the glazes from the Middle East: the soda glaze. We had ones called John’s Blue or Wayne’s Water Blue. That was a great turquoise and then there was a great brown we called G76. These gave us a version of the basic glazes of the Tang dynasty: iron and green.” This participatory education resulted in abundant experimentation in forms and finishes and attracted students to NSCAD who were denied use of bottom-of-the-ceramics-hierarchy earthenware—stoneware was predominant—in other institutions. 

Suzann Greenaway, the owner of Toronto’s Prime Canadian Crafts that changed location as Prime Gallery (1979–2004) where Ostrom exhibited, adds to the teaching narrative: “Walter and [his wife] Elaine are well known for their generous hospitality, and over the years several of his former students told me of having attended their wonderful dinner parties. It must have been ‘awesome’ for those young people to see pots being put to use serving interesting and exquisite food in such a carefully constructed, deeply personal environment. The Ostroms’ collection of pottery would have been a real eye opener for most visitors but especially so for young potters.”3 This munificent example is not only about cordiality and warmth: the dinners and home décor subtly taught lifestyle possibilities and values that clearly resonated long afterwards with those fortunate enough to attend. 

 6 Jealous Potter III, 35½ in. (88 cm) in height, molded Jingdezhen stoneware, PRC laser-cut cardboard, 2013–2018. 

Bruce Cochrane states that Ostrom’s commitment wasn’t 9 to 5. “He was always thinking and planning what might be best for each student and would often come to the studio in his off hours to further the discussion. Because of this commitment, you always wanted to work harder to impress him. If you weren’t working to your potential, he would not hold back on his opinion; his praise was honest and from the heart and always inspiring. Needless to say, with this method of teaching, the studio was buzzing with activity and excitement.”4 Bruce followed through in his own practice: “Thanks to Walter, my ceramic work has always had influence from historical models, and it’s something I passed on to the students I taught for 30 years at Sheridan College—I attempted to adopt from Walter that genuine concern for the individual student.”5

Political Pots

When asked what he’d like his legacy to be, Ostrom modestly declares: “I guess I’d like to know that I did contribute something to the field.” He thinks that good teachers are a dime a dozen and that he is just another “Mr Chips,” teaching ceramics because of his devotion to students. Those students laud his educational legacy. Yet, as the timeline shows, the Ostrom oeuvre is also rife with contributions to the field.

9 Heaven and Earth Vase, earthenware, porcelain, and majolica. Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery Permanent Collection.

Ray Cronin’s essay in Good Earth describes Ostrom’s installation Pot de Fleurs (1976), as demonstrating truth to earthenware as material. Appropriately, the pots contained plants. Cronin says that the history of ceramics justifies it as a serious conceptual art form whereby references to its past, function, and context give it meaning. Whereas Modernism saw ceramics as a craft tradition redolent with nostalgia, Postmodernism focused on “politics and context, on appropriation and self-reflection.”6 The flower pots, as part of a portfolio of dishes that were created to be used, are, politically and contextually, art of the proletariat. Ostrom contends that people are not afraid of clay, whereas oil on canvas can be mystifying.

An inventory of Ostrom’s useful dishes is astonishing: bakeware, condiment dishes, dessert plates, cruets, mugs, serving platters, tureens, terrines, cups, bowls, bottles, jars, cocktail mixers, teapots, jardinières, tulipieres, flower bricks, baskets and vases, soap dishes. Despite this utilitarian list, Ostrom is not a production potter. He admires that ability and says, “To me it was always, what does it mean? What if I changed that? Opening the kiln was like developing film and it was hard for me to maintain any discipline. I just couldn’t make things over and over again.” Belying this avowal of limited concentration has been his dogged dedication to Asian and European art: “China, Japan, Burma, Korea, [as well as] Italian, and Spanish earthenware—all that stuff, is just so important to ceramics.” His encyclopedic knowledge is embedded in his making at the same time as serving his making: “clay is a great opportunity to subvert the status quo.” 

10 Blue and White Tulipiere, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, altered, and constructed earthenware, majolica, on-glaze, colored glaze decoration, 1983.

The Lady Macbeth Commemorative Soap Dish Series, inspired by the American/British invasion of Iraq in 2003, refers directly to politics. Ostrom describes the soap dishes as a combination of form and content. “It’s a soap dish . . . it’s about washing the blood of these travesties off your hands. There’s an appropriateness to the utilitarian reality.” The soap dishes are everyday things and even the subject matter has become part of the everyday. The Lady Macbeth Series continues with Occupied (Belong Anywhere) referring to Palestine, and Occupied (Apartheid). Elaine collaborates by applying the motifs that are the message on both sides of the medium.

I close with one of Ostrom’s seminal pieces that I hope illustrates the theme I have chosen. Heaven and Earth Vase is dedicated to the ceramic traditions of earthenware and porcelain. Ming dynasty emperors believed that the delicacy of porcelain indicated its transcendency over other ceramic materials. Earthenware was held in low esteem, redolent of the common and mundane. Heaven and Earth Vase represents a bridge in the hierarchy, with pristine ancient Chinese characters in porcelain on its top meaning “heaven” and rough characters for “earth” rendered in red clay. The implication is that porcelain transcends earthly endeavors. The vase’s white tin-glaze fuses the disparate materials, representing the humanizing of ceramics. The glaze also hides its true composition and, in my mind, represents the white-washing of the reality of world-wide and timeless inequality. Walter Ostrom’s ceramics and life have paid attention to the commons and to what matters in the everyday. For Walter and Elaine, his partner of 48 years, the personal has always been political. 

the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications. She is the editor of and contributor to Craft is Political (Bloomsbury, 2021). 

1 Dr. Sandra Alfoldy, Professor of Craft History at NSCAD and Associate Curator of Fine Craft at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, died of cancer in 2019 at the age of 49.
2 Nancy S. Love & Mark Mattern, eds. Doing Democracy: Activist Art and Cultural Politics (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013), p. 5-6.
3 Email to the author, September 27, 2021.
4, 5 Email to the author, September 28, 2021.
6 Ray Cronin, “History as Content/Tradition as Idea: The Art of Walter Ostrom,” Good Earth: The Pots and Passion of Walter Ostrom (Halifax, NS: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2021), p. 23-32.

Topics: Ceramic Artists