Rookwood Pottery has a storied place in Cincinnati lore, as well as in the Cincinnati Art Museum — it owns over 400 examples of Rookwood works, with 100 of them on permanent display in the Cincinnati Wing and elsewhere.
Yet all that seemed part of history: The ceramic company, which began in 1880, had struggled after the Great Depression; it even ended production in 1967. But a revival sparked by Cincinnati owners began in 2006 and, under owner Marilyn Scripps, has now reached a milestone.
A new Rookwood fireplace, designed by local artists Terence Hammonds, Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis for a 2013 Contemporary Arts Center exhibit, has been given to the Cincinnati Art Museum by the company and artists. It was installed in the Cincinnati Wing in May, near other Rookwood architectural elements.
The fireplace boasts a mural featuring a wild menagerie, a flowery mantlepiece, screenprinted and fired-on portraits of ceramicists and two seated golden bears, made through a process that involved both 3-D technology and physical shaping from a mold. The bears are connected by long chains to ceramic wolves’ heads, which decorate the fireplace below the mantle.
The artists wanted to create an intricate fireplace, inspired by vintage Rookwood Pottery designs but with a contemporary twist. They got their idea after the revived Rookwood began again producing fireplaces for sale. Hammonds, at the time an artist-in-residence at Rookwood, scoured the archives of old ceramic molds to find forms to adorn the fireplace. While he did so, Parker — a ceramics professor at University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning — found an inspiring image of a 15th-century Indian tapestry in an old library book. Thus came the idea of something old and something new, with its parallel’s to Rookwood’s new life in Over-the-Rhine (the pottery company opened a production facility in the neighborhood in 2006).
“We wanted to play on that uneasiness: What does it mean to come into a neighborhood and start something new?” Parker says.
Working off the artful disorder in the original tapestry, the artists each drew the images for the mural before they were created from carved-linoleum blocks. The results are symbolic. They paid homage to the spirit of OTR by sneaking in some authentic symbols you might come across on a stroll through Cincinnati’s historic neighborhood, like a broken Christian Moerlein beer bottle, pit bulls, rats and pigeons. A Buckminster Fuller-like geodesic dome represents a utopia among the chaos, with various Rookwood pieces spewing from it.
Additionally, Hammonds, Parker and Davis each selected some of their “ceramic heroes” to be screenprinted onto fireplace tiles around the hearth — some of which are connected to the Queen City. Russel Wright, who attended the Art Academy, made the cut; as well as noted 19th-century Cincinnati ceramic artist Mary Louise McLaughlin and Rookwood founder Maria Longworth Storer.
“It’s a nod to the neighborhood as much as it is to the history of Rookwood and the love for arts and crafts and ceramics — and our collective love for ceramics and its possibilities,” Hammonds says.
He praises the fireplace as a “love letter to ceramics,” because the artists utilized several painstaking techniques to put together the full product.
However, what really pushes the fireplace into the 21st century is its mastery of new technology, like the 3-D techniques used by Future Retrieval — Davis’ and Parker’s studio collaboration — to form the eye-catching golden bears beside the hearth. In other words, it’s not a technique that was around when Rookwood set up shop in 1880.
Amy Dehan, the museum’s curator of decorative arts and design, says the fireplace’s nod to the OTR revival and the contrast of its contemporary design amid vintage Rookwood pieces make it an appealing, audience-attracting acquisition.
“It’s one of those pieces that has a wonderful connection to our historical collections and brings those collections to life in a way that makes them interesting for visitors of today,” she says. “Cincinnati has not stopped being an art center and a center for innovation; that really continues today. This piece is a testament to that idea.”
The Cincinnati Art Museum is located at 953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org