Katherine Choy: Radical Potter in 1950s New Orleans at NOMA, New Orleans

By November 16, 2022
A woman sits center of the black and white photograph, with an apron on and uses both hands to mold a piece of clay on a pottery wheel.
Jack Robinson, photographer (American, 1928-1997), “Katherine Choy in New Orleans,” 1952-1955. Photo courtesy of Robinson Archive and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) exhibition “Katherine Choy: Radical Potter in 1950s New Orleans” emphasizes Choy’s formal innovation in ceramics as the work of a skilled artist experimenting with expression in clay. The pieces are evidence of a curious practice, of Choy’s belief that clay could be a twentieth-century artist’s modern medium, pushing at the limits of pottery as functional, decorative art. Hand-built or wheel-thrown, the works have a vitality to them. Choy pulls slabs from the body and rearranges the clay, leaving breathing room. Heavy gourds with proliferating spouts—smooth surfaces are cross-hatched, roughened—the classic shapes treated with gestural swathes of glaze–traces of movement, living hands. More than anything, the artist’s works are marked by her presence.

A yearbook clipping showing a woman teaching three students a lesson on pottery.
The Jambalaya 1953, pg.11. Scan and photographs courtesy of Tulane University, New Orleans.

I am scrolling, searching for her face or her hands. Katherine Po-yu Choy, potter, Chinese American, born in Shanghai, 1929. Director of ceramics at Tulane University’s women’s college, Newcomb College, from 1952 to 1957 and subject of a new exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art on the second floor, west wing. Rummaging through the digital archive of the Tulane University yearbook, The Jambalaya, I thought maybe there would be a faculty group photo or some headshot, some evidence of Choy’s years there. I had scanned through some of these pages previously while researching the university’s desegregation in 1963. The yearbook congratulates the all white male Board of Administrators for their “bold and courageous action…” pages away from the small and unremarked images of Barbara Guillory Thompson and Pearlie Elloie, two of the first Black students at Tulane. Odd fragments, the yearbook a time capsule of self-fashioning. Yet, these traces of aliveness are exactly what I am trying to find.

Installation view of Katherine Choy exhibiting feature ceramic pieces at a lower eye level, with a couple resting on a table and others on the direct stage of the exhibit.
Installation view of “Katherine Choy: Radical Potter in 1950s New Orleans” at NOMA, New Orleans. Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

In referring to Choy’s calligraphic glazes, instead of regurgitating the one-liner “drawing from East and West,” or lazily invoking Choy’s Chinese heritage, NOMA acknowledges how East Asian ceramics already had been and continued to be hugely influential to American potters in the mid-twentieth century. Earning her BFA and MFA at Mills College, Choy studied closely with ceramicists F. Carlton Ball and Antonio Prieto. She was particularly influenced by a workshop with Bernard Leach and famed mingei potter Shōji Hamada,who espoused the traditional materials and techniques ofJapanese and Korean folk art.

As a postgraduate student at the Cranbrook Academy, Choy studied on the prestigious Ellen S. Booth fellowship with the ceramicist Maija Grotell, a renowned experimenter with glaze formulas. Choy herself had also grown up in a wealthy family that had collected Chinese art and encouraged her artistic inclinations, even shipping specialty pigments overseas to her for glaze concoctions. All of it could be referenced, everything is material, selves can be blurry.

Three sculptures of varying heights and colors, some are curvier while another is rounder in shape. Each vessel has a curved entry point at the top.
Katherine Choy, Group of Three Vases, c. 1952–1957. Glazed stoneware; Tallest height 31 inches. Photo courtesy of Clay Art Center Collection and New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of Evelyn Witherspoon.

The NOMA show’s argument is that Choy was radical—and she was—though it glazes over the context of her practice during this period: the “1950s New Orleans” the exhibition title even refers to. What was she doing at Newcomb? In New Orleans? Teaching at a segregated university in the South? More specifically, teaching ceramics at a college internationally renowned for its sixty-plus years of branded production of Arts and Crafts-style Newcomb Pottery?

Horst P. Horst: Essence of the times on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through April 16

Situated in the Decorative Arts gallery, barely ten feet away from the Choy exhibition, is a display case dedicated to Newcomb College arts, including three Newcomb Pottery vases with repeating floral designs. An adjacent oil painting of a lush, blue-green Louisiana landscape by Ellsworth Woodward, a founding faculty member, alludes to the enterprise’s recognizable aesthetic standard.

The contrast between Choy’s work and Newcomb Pottery is stark, mainly in that the latter works are distinctly “decorated” : the acts of creating form and glazing the form are separate endeavors carried out by separate artists. The label for Chinaberries (1903) lists Harriet Joor, decorator, and Joseph Fortune Meyer, form thrower. From 1895 to 1940, Newcomb Pottery employed at least thirteen male potters to carry out the “half mechanical, half artistic” work of throwing, firing, and glazing.[1] How Choy wields clay thus feels rebellious; more than production and not very ladylike. Before Choy though, in the early 1930s, “decorators” Juanita Gonzalez and Sadie Irvine began designing and executing their own ceramics featuring abstracted Art Nouveau Louisiana scenes—which were hugely commercially successful.[2] The two lead the way toward modern studio practices and art market inclusion at Newcomb; Irvine was Choy’s direct predecessor as director of ceramics and her retirement marks the end of the Newcomb Pottery era. 

A black and white photograph of a woman with an apron on stands against a kiln looking to the side. The kiln is filled from top to bottom with ceramic pieces.
Jack Robinson, photographer (American, 1928–1997), “Katherine Choy at a Kiln in New Orleans,” 1952–1955. Photo courtesy of Robinson Archive and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

I want to know what curriculum Choy had planned, where she ate her lunch and with whom, how much time she had for her own projects and whether she liked her students. I am curious what her experience was in this odd middle area that allowed her onto Tulane’s campus before Guillory v. Administrator of Tulane (1962): Choy Po-Yu is instructor in ceramics at Newcomb. Po-Yu, which means “precious jade,” is a native of tradition minded China. But as Miss Katherine Choy, Po-Yu doesn’t follow tradition. “I don’t put fiery dragons on my ceramics just because Chinese tradition would dictate that sort of decoration,” she says. And she doesn’t wear silk sheath dresses. “Denim is more comfortable.”  (New Orleans Item, April 19, 1953)

I don’t put fiery dragons on my ceramics just because Chinese tradition would dictate that sort of decoration.

A yearbook clipping showing a black and white installation view of a memorial in honor of late artist Katherine Choy.
Katherine Choy Memorial Show, Orleans Gallery, New Orleans, Sept 13 – Oct 3, 1959. Scan courtesy of Tulane University, New Orlean and photography by Stuart Lynn.

In 1957, Choy left Newcomb College to establish the Clay Arts Center in Port Chester, New York, in partnership with artist Henry Okamoto. The pair envisioned the CAC as a cooperative, experimental studio space for both beginning and practicing potters. A space that could be both independent and communal, blending arts practice and education—a dream shaped by her time as a teaching artist?

A black and white photograph shows four ceramic works poised on a table.

In 1958, Katherine Choy died at age 30. “Her untimely death,” “life cut short,” “died suddenly,” “unexpected death,” “at the peak of her creative output:” Choy’s death is invoked in every article, wall label, even here in this essay! The exhibition presents twenty-eight pieces by the artist, highlighting six that were included in the Katherine Choy Memorial Show staged at the Orleans Gallery in 1959. The shadowed gallery acted as a shrine, lit low. Images of that original retrospective inform present placements, complete with a replication of the wooden benches as make-shift plinths. Never before had I understood when jaded artists described museums as graveyards. Choy’s memorial had been an art show and now this art show melted into a memorial, laden with stoneware headstones.

The feeling expanded to every object in the room, as the space presents a lineage. Newcomb’s Woodward, Joor, and Meyer rest in their case, vases turned to urns. Maija Grotell is two cases over, Shoji Hamada is upstairs. Peter Voulkos is a few decades away in Newcomb College’s future in the corner. On the Clay Art Center website, Okamoto is said to have “dedicated the rest of his life to realizing her (Choy’s) dream.” Choy’s death frames every perspective; her ceramics seem to be the only reliable bits of life.

A yearbook clipping shows various scenes of college life, with party and dancing scenes and Katherine Choy by herself, holding a ceramic piece smiling down.
The Jambalaya 1954, p. 298. Scan and photographs courtesy of Tulane University, New Orleans.

The 1954 Jamabalaya, page 298—in between snapshots of raucous college students drinking and dancing as a brass band blares, Choy sits quietly with four pots. The spread is entitled “Friends…” and Choy is the only person pictured alone, aside from a llama-like vessel facing the camera. Choy looks down at the oblong pot in her hands. Smiling, she is singularly focused.

Never before had I understood when jaded artists described museums as graveyards. Choy’s memorial had been an art show and now this art show melted into a memorial, laden with stoneware headstones.

[1] Jessie Poesch, “The Experiment Begins – Formative Years, 1894-1902,” Newcomb Pottery: An Enterprise for Southern Women, 1895-1940 (Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 1984) 17.

Horst P. Horst: Essence of the times on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through April 16

[2]  Poesch, 83.

Katherine Choy: Radical Potter in 1950s New Orleans is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans through April 23, 2023.

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