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The Organic Porcelain of
Kaete Brittin Shawby Ross Rice

"Would you like some tea?"

Having fortunately timed my arrival to Kaete Brittin Shaw’s High Falls gallery/studio between June thunderstorms, I realize now I should have said yes to the soft-spoken artist, if not for the tea, then for the teapot. After all, not many artisans have their designed teapots in the Smithsonian Collection.

The modest gallery shows the wide possibilities of the medium of porcelain: tea and sake sets, uniquely shaped and colored vases, bowls, cups, and of course, the teapots. There is a playfully creative spirit applied to the functional works of Kaete Brittin Shaw, realized with top-notch skill.

A quick peek into the adjacent open studio reveals a well-organized mind, with an appropriate amount of creative clutter. A pair of kilns dominate the room’s center, surrounded with cabinets full of glazes and pigments, a variety of plaster molds for bowls and cups, works in various modes of completion, an almost shrine-lit pottery wheel in the corner, a clay press doubling as a telephone stand. Classical music flls the remaining space…the amplifer’s volume knob is centrally located.

And then you look over at Kaete’s so-called “non-functional” work, and you can’t help but wonder two things. One: Are these somehow natural occurences? Did these wood and porcelain shapes—with organic curves, colors, and textures—simply grow into these settings? Or Two: Are these possible artifacts from some unknown culture or civilization, conveying some preternatural information? Questions to ask…but first, maybe some tea after all.

“My one of a kind hand built vessels and wall pieces have been widely shown and published since graduate school. The teapots in particular received early recognition and have become my signature pieces. The technique used for this body of work is slab construction with inlaid colored clay surfaces. Over the years my palette has expanded to include over 100 colored clays. The color choices for each piece are generally infuenced by the seasonal changes in nature and the environment of this area. Occasionally the colors refec the inspiration of my travels to places like Mexico and the Soviet Union.”

It took awhile for Kaete to get to High Falls. Boston-born, she grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, majoring in languages, mostly French. She first handled clay there in an extra-curricular ceramics class, kindling an interest that blossomed into a full-fedged hobby. So much so that after an unsuccessful teaching job in Switzerland, and three years of film editing back in Princeton, she decided to go with the “hobby,” and took some classes at North Carolina’s Penland School of Crafts before arriving at SUNY New Paltz, receiving her MFA in ceramics in 1977.


So, why porcelain? Kaete gives me an “isn’t it obvious?” look, saying “because of the way it takes color. It’s like the difference between working with white paper and with brown paper, and it’s the strongest ceramic material.” Kaete gets her particular finely-tuned blend of clay from a supplier in the U.K., and has at her disposal over 100 different clay colors, and even more glaze pigments, giving her an extraordinary palette of color possibilities she admits she’s only scratched the surface of.

After graduation, Kaete immediately got into the world of trade shows, starting out mostly with her signature one-of-a-kind porcelain teapots, doing the grueling circuit with up to eight shows per year, primarily in the Northeast. The word started getting out, and soon her work was in demand in New York City, in galleries on Madison Avenue, and an exhibition at the American Craft Museum. Her growing reputation led to the Smithsonian honor, which allowed her to get off the trade show circuit and focus on her new home studio upstate, in High Falls.

“Combining other materials with porcelain has been a significant aspect of my work for years. Feathers, fiber, fabric, beads, mirrors, metal, fiberglass and rope have all been incorporated with porcelain, my primary medium. The addition of other media is a way to extend the boundaries of porcelain and to transcend its limitations. Working with new ideas has frequently necessitated using another material to complete the concept.”

Kaete’s “non-functional” art seems to have sprung from an interesting porcelain “cell”: a series of small porcelain disks, subtly warped into shapes that take on a seemingly organic form. She designed boxes with clusters of these disks on horizontal wires, like an abacus, that made tones when spun, as well as larger porcelain rattles not unlike large seed pods, full of porcelain beads. The disks—and other organic forms—were also featured in a collaboration with photographer Hardie Truesdale, where Hardie would place Kaete’s objects in a sympathetic natural environment and photograph it, then print the photo on a canvas, superimposing Kaete’s object over the top. Both photograph and canvas are shown side by side, creating an almost stereoscopic 3-D illusion.

Kaete’s more recent experiments with outdoor sculpture continue the cellular disk motif. Her location-based “Aerial Tendril” works feature series of colored disks “strung” like a necklace on airplane cabling, and wrapped around portions of living trees, resembling vines or large sleeping snakes. Lately, she’s been walking around near the banks of Rondout Creek finding interesting pieces of river wood, which she combines with her porcelain shapes to create her “Riverbones” series, her tip of the hat to this year’s Quadricentennial

Another variation is her “Riverthorn” works, with the porcelain disks refashioned to resemble thorns—or for that matter, teeth, or even shells. All the works suggest a collaboration with nature, a harmonization of human and organic forms. “Often the shape and surface of the wood suggest new forms which need to be created to complement it. The anticipation of a new find has become a deeply imbedded part of my creative cycle.”

It’s been a tenuous balance for Kaete, with the functional art paying for the non-functional…just barely. Lower-cost porcelain items from the East mean less orders for her teapots and bowls these days, but interest in the new works is picking up, with showings at Garrison Art Center and Chesterwood (Stockbridge MA), and most recently in Palenville and at Unison Arts in New Paltz. Kaete still maintains a very curious and inspired frame of mind, and staying busy definitely imparts to her a youthful vigor. That, and living in the Hudson Valley—her home for over thirty years. “After living in Europe, the west coast, Michigan, North Carolina, New York City…the moment I got here, I knew I was in the right place.”

Visit for more about Kaete’s “functional” art. Other than her works on display this month at Unison Arts in New Paltz, she will be showing 7/18 through 8/8 in “River Journey Through Space and Time,” at Donahue Memorial Park, Shore Rd., Cornwall-on-Hudson, opening reception Sa 7/18, 4-7 PM. Also showing through 10/31 at Chesterwood, 4 Williamsville Rd., Stockbridge MA,, 413.298.3579

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