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Art Notes: Woodstock Native Writes About Her ‘Passion for China’

  • Molly Hatch's grandmother Camilla Churchill was a painter herself. (Courtesy image)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 07, 2017

Growing up on her parents’ dairy farm in Woodstock, the artist Molly Hatch would study the household objects around her, from the Spanish writing chest in the living room to the coffee mugs her mother, the oil painter Camilla Roberts, was always carrying around.

She also loved to visit her grandmother, the watercolor painter Camilla Churchill, at her resplendent South Pomfret home that contained even more trinkets and treasures, both collected and inherited: marble lion figurines, huge silver mirrors and — most interesting to Hatch — countless pieces of 18th-century china. To her, each one held the stories of the people whose lives it had passed through.

These experiences helped shape Hatch, now 39, into the designer and ceramicist she is today. Her new book, A Passion for China: A Little Book About the Objects We Eat From, Live With and Love, revisits some of her family’s most beloved tableware, and in doing so tells the story of how certain designs and styles came to occupy our kitchens, our cabinets and our lives.

“We eat from them, they warm our hands after a cold walk outdoors, we pull them out to celebrate the births, marriages and lives of our loved ones, we sometimes drop them carelessly or smash them in anger, and then we work to delicately glue them back together,” Hatch writes in her introduction. “Their familiarity becomes a part of our sense of ourselves, a sense of our home.”

Mentored by the noted Bridgewater potter Miranda Thomas, one half of the furniture-pottery shop ShackletonThomas, Hatch has found both commercial and cultural footing. Her three-piece installation, Repertoire, is on permanent display at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, and the High Museum in Atlanta recently commissioned her to make a large-scale, hand-painted plate installation in its lobby. She’s also designed hundreds of items for retailers such as Target, Anthropologie and Garnet Hill. Now a resident of western Massachusetts, Hatch received her B.F.A. from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston and her M.F.A. in ceramics from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thomas, who has also gotten to know Hatch’s grandmother, uncle and brother through their craft-making at ShackletonThomas, regards Hatch as part of a “lineage” of people who treasure objects not out of materialism, but its opposite.

“Her whole family loves beauty, but they also know that the background, the story in things, is paramount,” Thomas said. “Something beautifully designed is a fine thing, but if it has no story it leaves you cold.”

In the spirit of this lineage, Hatch named her daughter Camilla, now 8, after her mother and grandmother. Hatch said that she comes from a line of people who feel connected to the physicality of their work.

Her grandfather, Dr. Jim Roberts, ran a large-animal vet clinic on Route 12 in Woodstock for more than 50 years, she said with a note of pride in her voice in a phone interview last week. She thinks this is part of why her father pursued “sustenance farming” — as a kid, he’d gone on-call with his dad countless times — and passed down to her a philosophy of “if you can’t find it, make it yourself.”

But Thomas also placed Hatch among the likes of such artisans as William Morris and Michael Cardew, leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement that blossomed in Europe and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“With the Victorian age of mass-production, something was being lost, and it was an intangible thing,” Thomas said. “What it is that’s being lost has to do with the stories and the people behind the product.”

To tell this story, Hatch considered several different mediums. She played with the idea of using photographs to capture the essence of the featured items, but decided that hand-painted artwork was more thematically appropriate to a book that celebrated fine craftsmanship. Plus, using a photograph of an object, she said, would almost be too specific.

“I wanted it to be less about the object itself, and more about the iconography of that pattern or shape,” she said in a phone interview this week. “Certainly watercolor provides enough information and representation of that real-life thing that when you look at it, your eyes can fill in the things you can’t see, and you recognize it as something familiar.”

Hatch’s book is her attempt to shed light on the patterns and materials that most people have never given much thought to, but that go back to the early interactions between Europe and East Asia that helped shape the modern world. It’s no accident that so many plates, for example, feature delicate blue decorations on white porcelain.

Porcelain was coveted because “it was so insanely rare that it was pretty much only available in China,” Hatch said, and “the love of blue on white has to do with water, and our affinity for it.”

But there’s a specific shade of blue that’s common to these pieces, which also has a story behind it: Chinese traders valued the deeper, purer cobalt they’d gotten from Persia, and preferred it over their own variety, whose iron oxide content meant the color was slightly tainted by rust. They exported this less-perfect cobalt to the European markets, whose buyers either couldn’t tell or didn’t care about the difference, and adored it, Hatch said.

She realizes that most people aren’t quite so obsessed with the colors and materials of their dishes: “The days of people buying a whole set of tableware are kind of petering out. That’s just not really how people operate anymore,” she said. Most of her friends have eclectic, mismatching plates and mugs and she doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing — she enjoys a casual, low-key gathering as much as the next person — but she does feel a bit nostalgic for the formality that governed the sit-down dinners of her childhood, and takes comfort in the fact that many ceramics produced today contain echoes of history, “even if you bought it at Walmart,” she said. No matter the manufacturer, “behind every object you live with, there’s someone who designed it.”

She wants to inspire people to turn over their own tableware items, regardless of whether they’re heirloom or handmade, to find and research their designers or producers. The brands themselves can contain a surprising amount of information about where the piece came from, who made it and what it may have seen in its day — for example, there’s a North Carolina-based company called Replacements, Ltd., that specializes in replacing lost or broken china.

“So if you have a tableware set but you’re missing the gravy boat, that’s their whole job, to help you find that,” she said. You may have gotten that gravy boat from a thrift store or yard sale, but if it comes from Replacements, Ltd., it means someone cared about it so much that no other gravy boat would do. This gravy boat is not just a gravy boat, then, but also a connection to that person’s story, from the meals they cooked to the people they loved.

“I just think you feel more connected to things when you understand who made them,” Hatch said. “All these objects we have, they have stories too. And some of them are more personal than you think.”

To learn more about Molly Hatch’s work and to purchase A Passion for China, go to mollyhatch.com.

Of Note

The Aidron Duckworth Art Museum in Meriden has announced Ben Finer as its new director. Finer is a Norwich native and independent filmmaker whose work has appeared in the White River Independent Film Festival and the Vermont International Film Festival.

Openings and Receptions

Chew & Co. Design in Hanover shows work by the Windsor artist Gary Milek, whose paintings feature egg tempera with elements of gold and palladium leafing. The store will hold a reception as part of its holiday open house on Saturday afternoon from noon to 5, which Milek will attend from 1 to 3. His show is on view through February.

A retrospective exhibition by painter Nancy Taplin, of Warren, Vt., goes up Wednesday at BigTown Gallery, in Rochester, Vt. The gallery will hold an opening reception for Taplin on Dec. 16 from 5 to 7 p.m., after a holiday open house from noon to 5.

Ongoing

Center For the Arts, New London. The Juried Regional Exhibition, which features work by 20 New Hampshire artists, runs through Jan. 27.

Center for Art and Design, Colby-Sawyer College, New London. “Inner Visions: Selections from the Collection of Beverly Stearns Bernson ‘55,” an exhibition of outsider art, including works by Martin Ramirez, Bill Traylor and Nellie Mae Rowe, continues in the Davidow Gallery through Sunday.

Chelsea Public Library shows “Illustrations” by Joan Waltermire, the Vershire nature artist and former curator of exhibits at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. On view through December.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. “Landscapes: Lyme and Tuscany,” an exhibition of work by Greg Gorman in the Betty Grant Gallery, runs through Dec. 29. Gorman will donate 10 percent of his art sales to the Friends of Lyme Library.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. East Randolph artist Marcia Hammond exhibits oil portraits through Jan. 31.

Library Arts Center, Newport, N.H. The annual holiday exhibition “Gallery of Gifts: Handmade Holiday Boutique” is a good way to take in the range of beautifully crafted, handmade work by area artists and artisans. The exhibition and sale run through Dec. 23.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Hanover. “East Meets West,” a show of brush paintings on silk and etchings by, respectively, Ann and Bruce Peck, is on view through Dec. 20.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. “The Art of Place,” a show of encaustic paintings by Helen Shulman, is on display, in addition to the works of Margaret Jacobs, Rich Fedorchack and owner Stacy Hopkins.

Tunbridge Public Library. David Fisk’s show, “Challenge and Happiness in Abstract Painting,” is on view through Jan. 19.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. Small matted prints and Two Rivers gift certificates are for sale at the annual holiday show, which runs through January.

Royalton Memorial Library. Fairlee painter Robert Rae’s work is included in the exhibition “Wonderland Forever,” a show inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Through Dec. 31.

White River Gallery, South Royalton. Sculptural assemblages by John F. Parker are on view through Dec. 31.

Zollikofer Gallery, Hotel Coolidge, White River Junction. An exhibition of work by members of the Vermont Pastel Society continues through Dec. 27.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.