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New York's Forgotten Potter

YZEPPA MACIAS, HOST: The New York Historical Society just opened an exhibition of pottery from the early days of New York. But what’s surprising about the show is the person behind the pots. The artist was long assumed to be white. But as the exhibition points out, his true racial identity was mis-represented for years. Elizabeth Erb takes us there.

ELIZABETH ERB, BYLINE: Sturdy pots the size of milk jugs, line the walls of the second floor gallery. Stark lighting highlights simple cobalt blue designs and glossy finish. Sally Resvick, a visitor to the museum, says they’re as vibrant as the day they left the kiln.

SALLY RESVICK: The world has changed so much but this object is still exactly the same.

ERB: The artist is Thomas W. Commeraw. For a century, his work has been housed in museums across the country. But Margi Hofer, New York Historical Society Museum Director, says this exhibition was especially difficult to curate.

MARGI HOFER: Finding documentation was a huge challenge, piecing together the elements of this story with so many holes, having to stop ourselves from making assumptions.

ERB: Commeraw was a free Black man living in early 19th century New York. He worked in a European style of pottery. Over time, his history was lost. Museum records listed his name as “Commereau” spelled with a French ending. He was assumed to be French based on the misspelling and style of his pots. But census records discovered in the early 2000s revealed otherwise.

MARK SHAPIRO: During his lifetime, he had to be among a handful, a dozen, couple a dozen, of the most prominent free Black New Yorkers.

ERB: That’s Mark Shapiro potter and co-curator of the exhibition.

SHAPIRO: He’s always identifying himself in everything that he writes or people talk about as either Black, colored, or of African descent. So there’s absolutely no confusion about his racial identity at the time.

ERB: The show takes us through Commeraw’s life and highlights systemic inequalities that early Black New Yorkers faced. Many of which are still relevant today.

SHAPIRO: You see voter suppression. I mean what could be a more contemporary topic with what’s going on in Georgia for example. This is not new.

ERB: This is the largest presentation of his work to date. With over 40 vessels and artifacts on display. But for Shapiro this exhibition is more than just pots.

SHAPIRO: So much of it is about expectation. And to me, I hope this exhibition makes people think more deeply about their assumptions. His identity was hidden in plain sight. Like who else is out there? Right?

ERB: Back at the museum, visitor Sally Resvick says the show challenged the way she looks at our past.

RESVICK: We’ve really been strongly encouraged to take a more thorough look at our history. And I mean it’s so exciting. I wish I was a historian. It seems like such an opportunity to explore fresh material and tell new stories.

ERB: Crafting Freedom: The Life and Legacy of Free Black Potter Thomas W. Commeraw continues at the New York Historical Society until the end of May. Elizabeth Erb, Columbia Radio News.


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