Since reading snippets about Cleveland ceramic and glass sculptor Edris Eckhardt in Makers and Craft in America, I have been curious to learn more. I recently found two books about the artist in the Cleveland Library system: Edris Eckhardt: Cleveland Sculptor and Edris Eckhardt Visionary and Innovator in American Studio Ceramics and Glass.
One of the first things to surprise me when I initially learned about Eckhardt was that she was a woman and one of the early pioneers of studio glass work. The modern history of studio glass has been so dominated by seemingly strong male artists that to hear of a woman artist in Cleveland Heights, OH working in her residential studio basement was both startling and exciting.
To be honest, I wasn't sure she was a woman the first time I read about her. In the book Edris Eckhardt: Cleveland Sculptor I learned the origins and meaning of the name she chose for herself in 1931:
"This has nothing to do with my work, but I do believe it is interesting. The name was found in a book which was originally intended for the Old Testament but later omitted. Two warring tribes threatened to annihilate each other and eventually carried out that threat. The earth became scorched and the sea dried up -- not a living thing remained. Then, after a time, God sent an angel to the scorched Earth. The angel was neither male nor female. Wherever the angel walked flowers began to appear until after some time the Earth revived. The angel's name was 'Edris'."
She then said, "My name by itself gives no clue as to whether or not I am a woman; so that in the early years when my signed pieces were entered into competition the work could not be prejudged on the basis of sex. It's been a lucky name to have."
When I asked here whether she considered herself a feminist she replied that she did not consider herself militant in that regard, but "I do like to 'square the account', and so I have always been sympathetic to the needs of women artists." pg. 13
I was particularly taken by a reprinted lecture by Eckhardt in the same book (Edris Eckhardt: Cleveland Sculptor pg. 197-202). Here is an except of that lecture:
Title: "Finding a Future in the Past"
By: Edris Eckhardt
Lecture Presented to the American Craftsmen Council's National Conference of Artists and Craftsmen, Summer 1959, Seattle, Washington
cult of the big, empty and sometimes ugly struck ceramic sculpture in the early fifties, I was dismayed by the effect that size and color
(or the lack of it) had on juries of that time. I realized how cults, fashions and brain washing prevailed in the art field. One could lead or follow, there was very little middle road.
Every artist must occasionally take stock of himself, his time, his relation to it. He must constantly change, enlarge, diversify or be left stranded on an island of his own making while the stream of life flows by.
In such a frame of mind, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1953. I quite accidentally saw a case of Byzantine Gold Glass that held my attention with potent hypnotic force. It occurred to me that here was an art long dormant, that glass making as a one man operation of art belonged to the past. I recalled that some of the most exciting glass came from periods when glass was hand-made by the artist. I felt this field was wide open -- no standards, no rules, no fashions, no cults. It seemed made for the individualist and offered wide fields to explore unhampered and uncontrolled by fashions of the day.
I tried using commercial glass first and soon found it fractured, cracked and was unpredictable and incompatible in expansion and contractions to other sheets of glass. I then started with three basic formulas using raw material -- sands, oxides, etc. -- and finally evolved my own glass in cullet or sheet. I learned to roll glass of various thicknesses on a hot marble top table with wet rolling pins. The glass varied greatly in thickness. Bubbles were in it but this added to its charm (modern glass is too clear and perfect for refraction). I could find not books on glass written for the artist in non-technical language so building on my knowledge of making enamels and glazes, I soon learned the reward of working out problems for myself -- sometimes treating glass as if no prior knowledge existed and I was exploring the medium for the first time. This gave me such a leeway to try anything that came in mind but made mandatory a detailed journal of all experiments and ideas indexed for ready reference.
I learned to convert my ceramic furnaces for glass working, melting glass batches from crude materials, laminating, fusing, and annealing, using the same furnace for all operations. I have an electric furnace. I was easy to control heat, oxygen, rise and fall or holding heat indefinitely, a perfect setup the Egyptians never had. It took time and work -- a thousand failures -- but I was growing, understanding and having such an exciting time that twenty hours of solid work at a time was as an hour.
... (see book for rest of lecture)