Thursday, January 5, 2017

When The Cowboy Played In Clay

What happens when you find something wonderful... that should not exist?

This is a true story of a ceramic piece by a very famous Western artist, which, as far as I've uncovered, has never been seen nor recorded working in this medium, before. He is known for his etchings, watercolors, oils, pencils, inks, and bronzes.

Mysterious, one-eyed horse.

Where had I seen this brushstroke, before? Turns out, I'd seen his art early on. My junior-high-through-college art days were heavily influenced by cowboy art and Maureen Love's works. Our junior high school library had an aged collection of (and current subscription to) Western Horseman Magazine, which was our lunchtime go-to entertainment. Paintings (including this artist's) on the covers, great old-timey stock horses, and more ink art and cartooning, inside. Of course, when you see the ads for "The Executive" desktop pen caddy, you giggle so much, the librarian barks at you, or threatens to call your mom: this was the price to be paid. 

In college, my professor for Drawing and Watercolor classes was a legit cowboy artist and poet. He was my biggest cheerleader for pursuing representational and cowboy art, in an art department that had a heavy lean towards everything else. I remember how tickled he was that I signed my art with a stylized cow skull, as my first initial. Symbols, added or dropped, are a recurring theme in cowboy artist signatures, to be discussed later. He introduced me to the art of Ed Borein, and a whole range of Western artists. At the same time, he was friends with leading illustrators, animators, etc. He passed away in 2015, and the West is poorer for it. This chance discovery of vintage, original cowboy art would have him hopping about with glee, telling all his students about it.

The Cowboy Artists of America was started by four founding artist members. One of those founding members was an apple-cheeked, smiling-eyes gentleman by the name of John Wade Hampton. 

Photo from Arizona Republic newspaper, September 5th, 1962.

Like other artists who make a living with their art, Johnnie initially worked in commercial illustration. The earliest date I found for him doing pencil work (the basic drawings the inker then traces over, before printing) was 1947. You might recognize him, drawing himself as a guest star, in the old Red Ryder newspaper comics. 

Red Ryder strip, October 10th, 1962.
Syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Before we go further, I want to point out that saying "Red Ryder" between 1938 and 1964 was like saying "Batman", today.* It was an immensely popular property, spanning newspapers, comic books, serials, feature films, novels, licensed merchandise, radio dramas, and more. The artists who worked on the original comic strip were pop culture legends, and then, they transitioned to fine art. Take a moment to digest that.

This wasn't just a desk artist, working for a print comics giant. Johnnie walked the walk, too, and tried out his hand at being an actual cowboy. He was told he was good at both, better at art. The benefits of being an artist, and the reduced physical wear and tear, are fairly obvious. I can't blame him. He still kept the cowboy lifestyle, moved from NY to NM, and settled in AZ. He passed away in 1999.

Fast forward to 2015, my random discovery of an online auction. Seller location: Casa Grande, AZ. That is less than a two-hour drive today, from the artist's last home. The auction only described it as a handmade plate, no artist named. Indeed, there were only initials for a signature. By checking the auction photos against online examples of the artist's signature and watercolor style, I identified it as a John Wade Hampton. 

How did his art end up on a ceramic plate, of all things? Was it a decal? Probably, like equine artist Paul Brown's drawings were replicated on glassware.

Not only was the description and title not very helpful, but the auction photos were out of focus. It was charming old pottery that I love, and a nice piece for the price. 

"I'll display it with my Ed Borein decal plate", I thought, expecting a similar item.

1982 Ceramic Reproduction of 1932 Ed Borein Calgary Stampede poster art.

A decal in ceramic is just like in other media: pre-existing art, mass-replicated. The artwork is reproduced with pigments on waterslide decal paper. The art is limited by those pigments which are able to tolerate firing in a kiln (temperatures for fusing decals vary by material). The decal is laid on top of the glazed item, and during the heating process, bonds to the glaze. Like the overglaze gold luster around the edge of the plate, it is bonded on, but can be rubbed and worn through, with use. The decal on the backside of this plate indicates that it is for display, not food use. This could be due to lead content, or due to the fact that some pigment from the yellow of the decal actually came off, dusting with a damp towel!

A closeup examination of the art shows the texture of the decal, visible in the shine.
The bronc's name is "I-See-U", which may be where you end up, if you try him.

The mass-produced plate also has a decal on the backside, which is smooth and evenly dipped in glaze. No stilt marks. The light patch is the edition number, PhotoShopped out. It was hand-written in gold overglaze.

When the eBay plate arrived, I was stunned. The JWH plate has none of the markers of mass production, nor even those of hobbyist decals. Homemade pottery, hand-painted, yes, indeedy!

Now that I could see, up close and in focus, that this plate was an original, my ceramic history curiosity was keeping me awake at night. I needed to know more. Was it a series, like a service set for his family? It had no stains in the crackle, so if it had ever been used, it was long before automatic dishwashers, and before age crackle set in. Maybe it was a rodeo award? Or a memento from a one-time visit to a neighbor's home pottery? Did he have his own pottery? Did any of his later bronze subjects get cast in earthenware, like the plate? Was it really a self-portrait, and if so, did he do many self-portraits, outside of the guest art for Red Ryder?

With some Googling, I contacted the gallery that handled his art estate. I received this reply after I sent photos:

Dear Kristina, I'm sorry to say we know nothing about John Hampton (d.) ceramics and also do not know where to send you for reference. We're only familiar with his oil paintings and bronzes. I wish you good luck in your search.
Clay Molinero
Big Horn Galleries

The Cowboy Artists Association does not offer resources about their past members. In fact, their FAQ directs visitors looking for information about a member to Google a gallery representing the artist. Sadly, that route had failed.

Next, I tried the Museum of Western Art. This was the former museum of the CAA, and currently has an exhibition including JWH's work. Seemed like a logical place to try...

I'm Megan from the Museum, Stephanie forwarded me your email to see if I could answer your question. I asked one of our staff members, Hans, about the piece since he knew John personally. He said that he does not recognize this plate, but does recall that at some point several of the CAs decided to do something on ceramic using their art. As far as John's ceramic practice goes, Hans could remember little beyond saying that it was not prolific. It sounds like several CAs decided to take on these experiments around the same time (like Gary Cooper doing tiles). Beyond the specific piece, is there other information you were looking for? Hans can answer some questions - and tell some good anecdotes - he's here at the Museum Tuesday thru Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm, with a lunch running from noon to 1:30 usually. If you are looking to really dig deep, his widow's name is X (and she is still alive as far as we known, although Hans is not sure how much help she could be) the number we have on file for her is xxxxxx although I'm not sure if this is still current as we have not been in touch with her for some time. I would suggest you also reach out to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum - we were the home of the Cowboy Artist of America from 1983 until the early 2000s, and then they moved over to that museum - so maybe they can provide you some answers as well since they are the current CA affiliated museum.
Just let us know if there's any other way we can help. Good luck with your research!

Hans Poppe, at the Museum of Western Art in Kerrville, TX, was very friendly, and most helpful on the phone. He informed me that several of John's contemporary Western artists had experimented with licensing their paintings for collector plates. It was not "ceramic experimentation" in the sense that we potters use: they were trying a new source of cash flow for existing art. Those mass-produced items would have all been decals on press-molded china. 

But, on this plate, the color is under the glaze, not a decal on top of it. So, maybe it is a in-glaze decal? Nope, no print dots. These brush strokes are strokes. An outline decal, hand-colored? Nope. Strokes, again. This was hand-painted with ceramics pigments, then glazed over. The glaze crackle goes over the pigments, not through them. Around the edge, two guidelines were lightly incised, then the rickrack pattern was hand-incised deeper into the ware, with a hint of the same blue pigment, tracing the cuts. Clearly not a mass-produced effect. You may have also noticed that the plate itself is not symmetrical! That is a handmade flaw.

Signature analysis, such as my amateur effort is:

Above Right: the plate

The earliest I found online for his addition of the spur to the end of his signature was 1970. This 1958 signature shows the larger W and no spur, just like the plate. 

The same "J" initial is the brand on the horse's hip!

What about the rider? He sure looks familiar.

Hans showed my plate photos to a couple other living contemporaries of Hampton. He reported that they believe the plate cowboy is supposed to be the Red Ryder character. He went on to say that the signature also indicates that this plate was painted during Hampton's assisting in drawing the strip and the comic books (1950's to 1960's). Another source cites 1947 forward as the time that Hampton was doing art (at first, ghosting) on the Red Ryder comics and comic books. Nothing wrong with that: I started out ghost-sculpting for another artist, too. It was a thing that was done in apprenticeships, since time immemorial.

This plate was certainly painted sometime between 1947 and 1965, when he co-founded the Cowboy Artists of America, and the publication cease in 1964 ended his Red Ryder cartooning days. I found evidence that after 1969, he began to add the spur symbol, and sometimes "CA" (for his Cowboy Artist Association membership), to his signatures.

If I could find evidence of the year that he began inking for Red Ryder, I could narrow this plate's origin even further. This plate painting is an excellent example of professional inking style.

I personally think the plate cowboy looks like Hampton's own character that he drew of himself, in the strip shown at the beginning of this article. It would make sense that the hip brand is the same as his own first initial signature, if it is a self-portrait. Also, the hair and costume colors are wrong for it to be the Red Ryder. I leave it to the reader to decide which fellow they think is on the plate.

That is a very stylish, colorful background for the cowboy. Here are examples of John using the background blue, on his later paintings.

While the plate was either greenware or soft-bisqued, he carved a design border. It looks like a little of the blue background paint was washed into the rickrack lines, which made it look deeper.

There is no denying this is handmade: see the misalignment of his carved guide lines, below. You would not see this on a mass-produced collector plate.

The plate has stilt marks, which are an artifact of home hobby pottery. If this was a mass market piece, these sharp defects would not be acceptable. They would be dryfooted or otherwise propped, so as not to interrupt the glaze. Stilt marks can be sharp points, left when hot glaze oozes down onto the metal prongs of support (the stilt), then cools in place. Plates like this are fired face-up, with the backside resting on the stilt. Because they fire face-up, little bits of kiln debris can land on, and fire into, the top surface. Note the hip brand detail photo above, with a chunk of kiln brick that fell in the glaze. 

Mass-produced plates are pressmolded, using machines. By contrast, the JWH plate was hand slipcast in a hobby mold designed for home use. This is easy to determine by the presence of bubbles in the slip, along the "foot" of the plate. This foot edge is the highest point of the plate during the casting stage (the pour hole would have been on the backside center). 

Joan Berkwitz used to pour similar blank plates for me to decorate, while I was at Pour Horse Pottery. I drew directly on the unglazed bisque with underglaze pencils. 

The texture of the underglaze pencil is more like a charcoal, and you can see that in the strokes.

Upon completing each drawing, I would drip and blow liquid raw glaze across the surface, to seal and prepare it for the glaze firing. The backside and edges could have glaze brushed on, which was apparently the same method used on the JWH plate. I found brushstrokes of clear glaze, on the backside. Those would not be there, if it had been dipped.

We, like most home potteries, did not have the space nor finances to commit to large equipment that would only be used for occasional, fun projects. The slipcast horse figurines were our bread and butter. The minor imperfections of the slipcast plates, such as warping, asymmetry, hard spots, and slip air bubbles, could be corrected with elbow grease. That extra effort and time would not be efficient in a large factory setting, and we didn't have a huge market for plates.

Hampton's long-lost surviving artwork was a serendipitous discovery, a one-of-a-kind event, yet it feels like so many of my adventures with vintage pottery. My investigative techniques have brought me to this place, and I do feel a bit "trained" by all the people I've met, and by the roads travelled in this blog. Branching out to raise awareness of other long-lost ceramics is a good thing. It's giving me goosebumps to wonder what other ceramics he may have painted. If you know more about John Wade Hampton's pottery, or have insight about the identity of the cowboy in the painting (and his one-eyed horse), please comment below. I would love to know more.

If a time-traveler had told seventh-grader-me that I would write about the lost ceramic venture of the painter on the covers of Western Horseman magazine, I would have laughed so loudly, the librarian would have shooed me out.

* For nearly the entire run of Red Ryder's print life, he and Batman were competing in the same print field. Batman first appears in comic form in 1939, one year after Red Ryder's debut. They made character properties to last, back then!

Gratitude to: Hans Poppe, Megan Shepherd, Teresa Rogers, and my very understanding husband, who believed in my ID skills, from the beginning.

Additional art:
This comic book seller notes that the pencils for this issue were done by John Hampton. The issue was printed in March 1950.

This source says Hampton did pencils for a 1947 Red Ryder comic book, the earliest date I found for his work on the comic.

Poppe, Hans. Personal comm. 11/15/2016 and 1/4/2017.
Shepherd, Megan. Pers. comm. 11/12/2016 and 1/4/2017.

A special "thank you" to Teresa Rogers for finding these images:

Photo from Arizona Republic newspaper, September 5th, 1962.

Red Ryder strip, October 10th, 1962. Syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association.


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