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The art of disaster

When you think of porcelain, your grandmother’s fancy dishes might come to mind. The ones that are taken out of the cabinet only for Thanksgiving and other special holidays. Or maybe you own a beautiful china vase.

There are a lot of delicate dishes and trinkets in the home of Seattle artist Charles Krafft. But his pieces go beyond pastels and pretty flowers.

Krafft has made a career out of messing with our expectations of ceramic art. Pouring tea from one of his teapots or eating from one of Krafft’s plates might make you lose your appetite.

If you have the opportunity to spend some time with Charles Krafft in his Beacon Hill bungalow in Seattle, you’ll soon realize you are with someone who has a wicked sense of humor who likes to provoke. This is also true for his art. Delicate deft china plates, the white and blue kind you see from Holland, with pictures of things like the Hindenburg blowing up.

“The Hindenburg, and of course as a result of the Hindenburg I had to go deeper into world War Two, so there’s lots of occupied Holland imagery, where everyone is being prevailed upon by conquering Nazis. And then natural catastrophies like tornadoes, floods and fires. I did lots of those. And now dictators. That’s the new thing.”

Charles Krafft calls this disasterware.

“I like dark themes in China. And the disasterware was done because all of the decor is 19th century pastoral, or it’s commemorative china, University’s, churches and heroes. But you didn’t see scenes of the kind of life you live in the 21st century. This gritty existence with all violence around us on china. I’m sort of leaning on the negative of aspects of our culture.”

Krafft's studio is filled with ceramic hand grenades and porcelain AK 47’s. He borrowed the real weapons to make the molds from soldiers fighting in the Balkans conflict in the early 1990’s. Once the pieces are finished they are fragile, milky white and ornately decorated with hand painted blue flowers and filigree.

In the basement, where they are created, Krafft proudly holds up a life size porcelain skateboard. A portrait of Martha Stewart is on the top.

“On the wheels is her motto, ‘It’s a good thing.’ I’m big on Martha Stewart. I think it’s funny that she has to go to jail for insider trading, but nobody else has to go. These guys who are pulling off the biggest scams on the planet are still walking around." Poor Martha made a couple of hundred thousand dollars on this stock deal and had to do a little time for this. I think she should have just been slapped on the wrist and let go.”

Krafft sent a ceramic Martha Stewart skateboard to Stewart’s company headquarters and didn’t get a response. Not even a thank you note.

Even though the queen of homemaking doesn’t appear to be a fan, Krafft’s ceramic work is in demand. On the day we met he was preparing some painted grenades to ship to Australia. He is one of a handful of Northwest artists who exhibit their work in galleries and museums all over the country and the world.

Several years ago Krafft decided to take his ceramic art in a new direction. He started to study the history of china making.

“And I read that Josiah Spode invented bone china and I thought oh well it’s bone china because it’s white. Well no, it has cow bone ash in it. And he used that to make it extra tough and also for translucency. I thought maybe I can substitute the cow bone ash from his old recipe from 1789 and put human crematory ash and make human bone china.”

Krafft did this and he calls the pieces “spone ware." It's a combination of Josiah Spode’s last name and the word bone. They are urns commissioned by the loved ones of someone who has  died. Mike Hickey, who lives in Seattle, commissioned an urn for his friend David McCann who died of alcoholism back in 2002.

“He liked vodka, so we thought we thought let’s do an absolute D.C. McCann bottle. We commissioned 3 of them. I approached the Seattle Art Museum and they said they wanted it but took forever, so I approached the Whatcom County Museum and they said 'yes.' David’s creamains got in a museum."

Krafft says despite landing in the pages of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for his “sponeware” his phone is not ringing off the hook for new orders. Krafft says he doesn’t do pets and he has to be inspired by the project. Meanwhile, he’s considering adding onto his line of disasterware. Given the political climate in Libya Krafft is just might make a Muammar Gaddafi teapot.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.