Published: August 2, 2016
By Joy Hanes
EAST NASSAU, N.Y. — The weekend of June 24–25 marked the 20th anniversary of the phenomenon known as Dish Camp. It originated when a group of scholars, archaeologists, museum curators and collectors gathered at Eastfield Village in upstate New York to talk about pots. The idea was the brainchild of Eastfield’s founder, Don Carpentier, and ceramics scholar Jonathan Rickard. Sadly, Don passed away in 2014 after battling ALS.
This year’s camp was as much a tribute to Don as it was a gathering to exchange knowledge and ideas. Debbie Miller and Melody Basolt Howarth took the reins, and, according to Miller, “in considering the program, my primary goal was to celebrate 20 years of ceramics scholarship and pay homage to those who have led that charge. It was a fairly simple goal, but proved a paramount task, especially when reflecting on all of the talented ceramic historians, potters, archaeologists and collectors who have lent their knowledge to the program. Melody and I also wanted to pay tribute to Don Carpentier’s life and work, as well as celebrate Jonathan Rickard’s tremendous contribution to the study of ceramics. Their vision, coupled with the magical place that is Eastfield Village, created this incredibly unique platform for exchanging ideas on all things ceramics over the last two decades.”
The experience at Eastfield is unique. It is not your standard conference, but rather an opportunity, in an informal atmosphere, to talk, explore and handle all sorts of ceramics that pertain to usage and manufacture in America.
In years past the speakers did not have a time limit. Sometimes a lecture could go on for a couple of hours, but it was seldom boring. All of the speakers traditionally stay for the entire weekend and everyone, speakers and paying attendees alike, is encouraged to shout out questions, offer opinions or add to the information being presented. Another wonderful aspect is that it is truly like a camp in that many of the “campers” return year after year and many of them are people you only see there. Networking is accomplished and friendships are created that may not have ever happened otherwise.
When Don and Jonathan ran things, Dish Camp was a fairly casual affair. As mentioned, the duration of the presentations was at the speaker’s discretion. Before PowerPoint it was difficult to get the room dark enough to see old-fashioned slides. Did I mention the room? It is the interior of an early Nineteenth Century church. There are long benches and tables set up in the center of the room, with a variety of antique rocking chairs and newer folding beach chairs along the sides. People grab a chair or a bench and keep it for the weekend. Everyone brings “show and tell” and the tables are covered with all sorts of ceramics, from refined English earthenware and Chinese porcelain to redware and stoneware shards dug out of privies. The screen is set up on the altar. Now that most speakers use PowerPoint, there is no difficulty in seeing the slides.
This year, with Debbie and Melody in charge, the atmosphere was a little bit different. The first noticeable change was an emailed list of speakers with a schedule, including the times that each speaker would begin and end. Previously, there was some sort of order, but oftentimes it was not followed, which did not matter as no one had the schedule except for Don and Jonathan. Most of the speakers were allotted one hour, with a couple given a bit more.
Debbie Miller mentioned, “I had a number of requests to not be too rigid with the schedule, so I just let things flow as they always do at Eastfield.”
Lunch, previously a brown-bag affair, was delivered from a local Panera. An urn of coffee and fresh pastries were offered both mornings. After Friday afternoon’s final lecture, a reception, sponsored by Jeffrey Evans, took place with treats beautifully created and presented by Melody. This was so unlike any Dish Camp before.
Traditionally on Saturday night, there is a dinner in the Briggs Tavern, prepared and served by the Georgian Kitchen of Warwick, N.Y. Everything is made on the hearth. Tables are set using Don’s copies of creamware and tortoiseshell plates. There are tables set up for two, four and more, including one long table that seated about a dozen. After the meal, we had our traditional performance by Anthony Butera, a collector of Long Island redware and a brilliant tenor. He sang a couple of Eighteenth Century Italian songs. Then archaeologist and ceramic historian David Barker, one of the speakers from Staffordshire, England, whipped out his fiddle and entertained us with English country dancing music.
Of particular interest was the opening talk, given by archaeologist and ceramic historian Meta Janowitz. She discussed the various sources of information for research, including print sources such as the yearly journal Ceramics in America, analytical techniques using x-ray fluorescence and all of the available internet resources. She also mentioned all of the excellent information exchanged on Facebook and various blogs, and noted what the future may bring in methods of communicating and disseminating information. She finished by saying that collectors might spend their money more wisely by funding research rather than by purchasing one expensive piece.
Other lecturers included Ron Fuchs, curator of the Reeves Collection at Washington and Lee University, giving an overview of Chinese export in America. David Barker discussed Staffordshire made for America from the context of ceramics found in a dock in Liverpool, England. Archaeologists discussed digs in New Jersey and Virginia. Ceramist Greg Shooner talked about the potters of Warren County, Ohio. He went on to tell us about the importance of lead in glazes and showed slides of various experiments he had done using it on different surfaces. After that we all traipsed outside into the beautiful afternoon and watched as he demonstrated the throwing of redware, creating various forms, including a quintal vase.
“New Techniques for Identifying Historic Coarse Earthenwares” was presented by Lindsay Bloch, visiting scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her presentation was unlike anything ever seen at Dish Camp. She uses chemical analysis to identify the production origins of lead-glazed pottery from the Chesapeake area. Her lecture included images of very small chips of pottery lined up on a slide to be viewed under a microscope, as well as charts and graphs showing various relationships in the chemical makeup of the pottery samples. Some were fascinated by this scientific approach. Others were lost after the first couple of slides. Whatever the individual reaction, it was a new way of looking at pots and was therefore exciting to see.
Other speakers included Diana and Gary Stradling, who have been at Dish Camp on and off throughout the years; Brenda Hornsby-Heindl, a historic potter who demonstrated the throwing and decorating of stoneware; Brandt Zipp of Crocker Farms, who discussed the stoneware of Old Bridge, N.J.; and Jeffrey Evans, who spoke on Virginia folk pottery.
I spoke with Terry Majewski, who has attended Dish Camp most years. “The last time I saw Don alive was here,” she told me. “I was touched by the fact that he never gave up. When I said goodbye to him, we hugged each other and we both had that look that we knew it was the last time. Today I was thinking about what a Renaissance man he was. He knew about a lot of different crafts and was able to bring them all together. This is different than any other conference.”
“I’m thrilled that Dish Camp is continuing. Debbie Miller did a phenomenal job choosing the speakers. Melody worked on the local level with the board of directors, since she is right there,” Jonathan Rickard told me.
As Debbie Miller summed it up, “From a personal standpoint, Dish Camp has had a great impact on my development as a scholar. Don played a large role in that through his encouragement and never-ending enthusiasm for any topic related to ceramics history. But the program itself introduced me to broader ideas and concepts that I had really never considered before. Things connect at Dish Camp. Even though the topics can be quite disparate, I always leave knowing that everything we have studied — American, English, porcelain, earthenware, etc — is connected through global networks of cultural exchange. Dish Camp is truly special. Anyone who takes their ceramics (a bit too) seriously should experience it at least once.”
For details on Dish Camp 2017, contact Melody Howarth at firstname.lastname@example.org or Debbie Miller at email@example.com. For information on Eastfield Village, visit www.historiceastfield.com.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm