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Peacemakers, 1967

Howard Kottler

Look closely at this porcelain plate from MAD’s permanent collection and think about how an artwork inspired by a historical moment can resonate across decades. Explore connections between the past and the present in this object lesson for all ages.

look

Working during a time of intense social and political upheaval in the United States, ceramic artist Howard Kottler often used his medium as a vehicle for addressing current events. Created at the height of the Vietnam war, his 1967 plate Peacemakers is a powerful yet ironic reflection on war and peace, violence and diplomacy, and the often conflicted relationship between words and deeds in national and world politics. Look closely at the decorative pattern Kottler created.

  • What is the very first thing that comes to mind when looking at this plate.  
  • Describe the images you see. What do they depict and how are they arranged?

Find the words “peace” and “peacemakers” that protrude from the barrel of each revolver:

  • Why do you think the artist chose to combine words and images in this way? What is the relationship between both?  
  • In what way is the design on the plate decorative? In what way is it a narrative?
  • What is the story it tells?
  • Do you consider this a work of art? Why or why not?
  • Would you use this plate to eat from? Why or why not?

explore

Combining narrative elements and references to popular culture. Howard Kottler added a contemporary spin to ceramics, and also showed the art form could demonstrate social responsibility and express political commentary. Kottler was part of the 1960s Funk Art movement, which explored ceramics as a tool for humorous, pointed storytelling.

  • Peacemakers was made at the height of the Vietnam War. What does this plate suggest the artist might have thought (or felt) about the war?  
  • Irony, humor, and wit play a large role in Kottler’s work. Do you see them at play in this work?

discuss

To ornament this plate, Kottler applied decals. To this day, decals are extremely popular in the souvenir industry. Printed on plates or shot glasses, images of iconic buildings or landscapes help tourists commemorate their visit to a certain place, thus forging associations between place and image. However, because of the association with inexpensive, mass-produced objects, decals have traditionally been frowned upon by the crafts community.

When first working with decals, Howard Kottler would transfer decal images onto plates that he had fabricated by hand.

  • Why do you think he abandoned this technique and used commercially produced blank porcelain plates as a print surface instead?

Like many artists of the Pop Art movement, such as Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns, Kottler is interested in the way recognizable pictures (famous paintings or buildings, the American flag, etc.) are imbued with values and meanings that go beyond what is directly visible.

  • What are some of the associations you have when looking at an image of the US Capitol or a Colt handgun.
  • How does Kottler play with these familiar meanings to further his message?

The artist based his image of a handgun on classic revolver designs like the “Colt Single Action Army,” which was adopted for use by the U.S. military in the late nineteenth century and has become a celebrated piece of Americana. One particular model was actually called “Peacemaker” by the manufacturer.

  • What is your assessment of the artist’s commentary on governmental power and violence, and gun violence in particular?
  • Do you think Kottler’s commentary resonates in contemporary political discussions? How?

make

In some ways, Kottler’s decals are similar to contemporary “memes” or the evocative stenciled images used by some street artists.

  • Come up with an image/text combination that captures an issue you are currently thinking about. 
  • Create an image that combines word and picture in digital form and share it with your friends or make a black-and-white drawing and cut around it to create a stencil you can transfer onto different surfaces.

Howard Kottler
Peacemakers, 1967
Porcelain
H. 1 in. (2.5 cm), diam. 10. in. (26 cm)
Museum of Arts and Design, Gift of Maren Monsen, 1996

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