CRM Journal

Book Review

Pots of Promise: Mexicans and Pottery at Hull-House, 1920-40

Edited by Cheryl R. Ganz and Margaret Strobel. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004; xviii + 117 pp., photographs, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $60.00; paper $30.00.


Pots of Promise cover

Appearing at a time when Latinos are the fastest growing population in the United States, Pots of Promise sheds some welcome light on the early history of Mexican immigrants who, from 1920 to 1940, settled in Chicago's Near West Side. This story of Mexican immigration to the Windy City is told against the backdrop of Hull-House, a settlement house founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and committed to social justice. Hull-House offered civic, social, and cultural programs to surrounding working-class immigrant communities. Prefaced by an insightful essay by Latino historian Vicki Ruíz, Pots of Promise redresses misconceptions about Hull-House and brings attention to a neglected geographic region in Latino studies.

Public historian and Jane Addams Hull-House Museum assistant director Peggy Glowacki, Latino historians David A. Badillo and Rick A. López, and Progressive Era historian and curator Cheryl R. Ganz have written overlapping narratives that reinforce each other and expand upon the stories of Hull-House leaders, residents, and clients. Inspired by the exhibition "Pots of Promise: Mexicans, Reformers, and the Hull-House Kilns 1920-1940," which opened in October 2000 at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the book is a collaboration between Hull-House Museum and the university.

Like the exhibition, the focus is the ceramic pottery produced in the Hull-House arts programs for the commercial Hull-House Kilns. The editors suggest that "these artifacts not only preserve memories and experiences but also give meaning and continuity to our experiences." Through pots we can learn, in other words, about the makers and their lives. Pots also provide a window into the larger intellectual, social, and cultural milieux of the period prior to World War II. To different degrees, the essayists combine historical narratives and material culture. The more than 100 historic photographs of Hull-House and its neighborhood, the Mexican community, and the pots themselves provide a complementary visual narrative.

The role of the arts in the lives of the Mexican immigrant community in Chicago is the major theme. The essayists examine the relationship of the arts to democracy and probe the extent to which the arts help combat alienation and improve the quality of life. They explore the relationship between art and the immigrant urban experience, labor, and the commercial market, as well as the role of the arts in forging a local and national identity. In particular, they explore the construction of a national mexicanidad (modern sense of "Mexican-ness," or national identity) in Mexico and a Mexican cultural identity in Chicago.

In the first essay, "Bringing Art to Life: The Practice of Art and Hull-House," Glowacki presents the intellectual and social context of Hull-House, establishing a common setting for the stories and perspectives that follow. She offers a dynamic portrait of Hull-House and its leaders in relation to national and transnational cultural movements, other institutions, and changing populations in Chicago's Near West Side. Hull-House comes alive as a center for creativity and experimentation, attracting national and international reformers and artists with diverse interests, skills, and connections to other cultural institutions. Glowacki singles out the stories of Hull-House co-founders Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr to describe how, in this atmosphere of intellectual ferment and social engagement, their thinking on the arts and democracy evolved. She also discusses the influence of the English artists and critics John Ruskin and William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts Movement that helped expand the domain of art into the decorative arts. Rounding out the discussion is the story of Morris Topchevsky, an artist drawn to Hull-House who had links to the Art Institute of Chicago and the muralist movement in Mexico. Glowacki concludes the essay with the story of Myrtle Merrit French, founder of Hull-House Kilns.

In his essay, "Incorporating Reform and Religion: Mexican Immigrants, Hull-House, and the Church," Badillo chronicles the history of the early Mexican migrant population in Chicago and the role of Hull-House and the Catholic Church, specifically the Saint Francis of Assisi parish, in forging a community identity. He examines the different and sometimes opposing philosophies and approaches to social service and community of these two institutions. Badillo argues that the Mexicans who lived under conditions that did not encourage community networks or leadership were more pragmatically than ideologically driven and took advantage of both institutions. Although he provides a brief introduction to the history of Mexican immigrants, he does not personalize the immigrant experience with individual stories. The side bar on Mexican immigrant artist Adrian Lozano was a missed opportunity to present Lozano's perspective on the times.

In "Shaping Clay, Shaping Lives: The Hull-House Kilns," Ganz offers the most thematically coherent discussion on the arts and modernism, the Arts and Crafts Movement, fads, labor, and transnationalism. This fine essay brings to life the metaphor "pots of promise," exploring the interaction between Mexican migrant potters and resident artists at the Hull-House Kilns. She examines how they combined tradition and new skills to create new forms, and she draws a parallel between influences brought by the migrants moving north to find work and the reformers traveling south to explore the Mexican revolutionary art movement.

Ganz sets an intimate tone with the story of Jesús Torres, a Mexican immigrant and potter at Hull-House. She describes the typical immigrant journey but avoids using Torres's story to represent all Mexican potters by adding the different experiences of Miguel Juárez and José Ruíz. She parallels the Torres vignette with the story of ceramicist Myrtle Merrit French, tracing her professional development from Alfred University through the Art Institute of Chicago, to Hull-House and the establishment of the Hull-House Kilns. Countering the integrationist traditions of Hull-House, French established special classes for Mexicans, teaching a design technique based on Mexican artist and educator, Alfonso Best Maugard's study of pre-Columbian decorative motifs in Mexico.

López's closing essay, "Forging a Mexican National Identity in Chicago: Mexican Migrants and Hull-House," is perhaps the book's most rigorous at addressing the central question: "To what degree did the 'imagined Mexican community' and the kind of collective identity promoted within Mexico and embodied in Hull-House's Mexican pottery reflect or help shape the lives of migrants themselves. To what degree did the mexicanidad invoked by these arts resonate with the cultural identity of Mexican immigrants in Chicago?" López opens with a description of a 1924 patriotic celebration in the Pilsen neighborhood (to this day, one of Chicago's most important Mexican neighborhoods), setting up issues of acculturation, Americanization, nationalistic sentiments, cultural prescriptions, and experiences. He situates the lives of Mexican immigrants within the larger transnational context of mexicanidad, "an identity forged in the intellectual kilns of the Mexican Revolution," and persuasively argues that the national integration project in Mexico and the community formation project in Chicago are inseparable. Like Ganz, he believes that the process of migration shaped the lives of Mexicans more than the cultural experiences emanating from the homeland: They discovered the cultural dimension of their Mexicanness in Chicago.

Hull-House is one of the sites for the construction and enactment of this unifying mexicanidad, where teachers promoted this newly invented Mexican national culture rather than Mexican regional folk traditions. López discusses the role of the University of Chicago in the construction of this cultural identity, particularly the role of Mexican scholar Manuel Gambio, who put out a national call for celebrating the disparaged Mexican folk arts of dance, music, and crafts. The sidebars on Hull-House artist and teacher Emily Edwards and photographer Wallace Kirkland nicely illustrate Hull-House artists' travels to Mexico and their relationships with Mexican artists.

The essays and extraordinary photographs in Pots of Promise are a superb complement to the exhibition. This beautifully designed book will please collectors, museum curators, artists, art historians, public historians, scholars of Latino studies, and the Chicago Mexican community. Although some of the essays incorporate the Mexican experience in more substantive ways than others, the book is a milestone in the effort to engage new voices and perspectives and to provide new insights into Latino communities today.

Olivia Cadaval
Smithsonian Institution