Beauty Blog: Part Four

Historic Arkansas Museum - Thursday, April 23, 2020

By Carey Voss, Curator of Exhibits, and Victoria Chandler, Arkansas Made Researcher

The Beauty of SIMPLICITY

We often think bigger is better, and items that are bedazzled, bedecked, and highly adorned are automatically beautiful. However, simple items can also convey sophistication, high quality, and elegance. Simple forms can command just as much attention as glitter and rhinestones. After World War II, the minimalist art movement spread across the country and eventually world-wide. Often viewed as a reaction against abstract expressionism in fine art, minimalism influenced interior design and still reigns as a desirable aesthetic viewpoint that devotees apply to all aspects of their lives. To these purists, to live simply through minimal design is to live a beautiful life. While contemporary American culture favors maximalism, there is inherent beauty in extremely simple objects. Subtlety can be deceptive, and simple objects are frequently misinterpreted as easy to make. They may prompt dismissive comments like, “Anyone could do that!” Paradoxically, the more effortless an object appears, the harder it can be to create. When an object is very plain, every flaw is visible. Makers who embrace minimalist designs often do so to demonstrate mastery of their craft. The hallmark of mass-production is uniformity – a student or apprentice may get everything right occasionally, but only a master craftsperson can produce technically perfect objects time after time.

Jug, attributed to William Bird, Dallas County, circa 1845, wheel-turned salt-glazed stoneware, 12 x 7 ½ in., Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council Grant Purchase, 2016.23.6

HAM’s Director, Swannee Bennett, often remarks that this is “a jug George Washington would recognize.” This elegant ovoid jug is stylistically similar to pottery produced on the east coast in the late 18th century, but this particular piece was probably created in Arkansas during the 1840s. A family of potters, the Birds, were part of a wave of migrants who moved west from North Carolina. They settled in Dallas County in southern Arkansas and erected one of the earliest kilns there in 1843. The Bird brothers Joseph, Nathaniel, and William Lafayette established the ceramic trade in Arkansas. Working in the European tradition, the Bird family’s background in North Carolina pottery is obvious in their surviving body of work. William Lafayette Bird was the primary potter in the family business. Toiling day after day at the potter’s wheel, the repetitive nature of the craft coupled with the basic designs of their utilitarian vessels led to a high level of uniformity. While this simple object might look easy to create, the jug’s effortless appearance is evidence of William Lafayette’s skill as a master potter. Based on this jug’s unusual ovoid form, it was most likely created early during the Bird family’s Arkansas pottery production, prior to their partnership with apprentice John Welch. I imagine the Bird family, having recently arrived in southern Arkansas and perhaps intending replicate traditional forms in their new home state. However, different materials, customers, and a change in popular trends caused the Bird brothers to abandon this ovoid form and take on the strong shoulders and straight sides we now associate with the iconic “little brown jug.”

Ladle, Maria Regnier, possibly Camden (Ouachita County), circa 1950, sterling silver, 5 7/8 x 1 ¾ in., Gala Fund Purchase, 2018.2

Born in Hungary in 1901, Maria Regnier immigrated to America in the 1920s. She studied at Washington University in St. Louis and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence before settling in St. Louis. In a news article, Regnier expressed her thoughts on form and material, saying, “My work is simple. To me what is important is that something be whole, beautiful, and give you pleasure.” Her surviving work reflects her embrace of bare, unembellished silver, and her geometric styling resonated with Machine Age modernist works of the early and mid-20th century.

Regnier received national acclaim as a silversmith during her lifetime. This recognition, while positive, often qualified her work because of her gender, with patronizing headlines like “rare woman silversmith” and “Skilled in an Art Few Women Have Ever Mastered.” Meanwhile, her work was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in Chicago and New York.

In 1961, Maria Regnier moved to Camden, Arkansas, where she taught local silversmithing classes. She described teaching as a gratifying experience: “[M]an has always wanted to possess beautiful things and man wants to do things. In a class . . . the two are combined and the result is satisfying.” Regnier’s desire for beautiful things and her need to create resulted in exquisite objects like this ladle. True to her desire to create simple objects that radiate beauty, Regnier’s ladle is a testament to her skill as an artisan. Unlike the convenience of stamping and molding, Regnier sought to master her materials by hand. Maria Regnier’s ability to manipulate silver tricks the viewer into thinking this hand-wrought ladle could have been machine made. By stripping away superfluous decorative elements, the refined simplicity of this ladle is a testament to her exceptional design sense and attention to detail. Rengier’s simple, unembellished designs focus attention on the natural beauty of silver as a material. While Regnier created functional tableware, her primary intention was to create a beautiful work of art.