(February 8, 1879 – June 22, 1968)
Accomplished ceramic artist and engineer, technician, creative problem solver, Associate Professor and later Chair of the Department of Ceramic Engineering at Iowa State College (now University) from 1920 to 1939.
Paul Ernest Cox was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The son of a stoneware manufacturer in Gas City, Indiana, Cox was exposed to the technical aspects of production, as well as ceramic art history and aesthetics at an early age.
Cox attended the New York State School of Clay Working at Alfred, New York (now the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University). Established by Governor Theodore Roosevelt in 1900 under the direction of renowned artist and scholar, Charles Fergus Binns, Cox became the second graduate of the program in 1905 with a degree in Ceramic Engineering and Technology. This influential connection would prove significant throughout Cox’s teaching and professional career.
Upon graduation, Cox worked at several ceramic production plants to design kilns and other equipment and hire staff to run the facilities. Cox was married in 1907. In 1910 he became the head ceramist and first trained professional to run the Newcomb Pottery of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College at Tulane University in New Orleans. Both as a teacher and an experienced glaze technician, his presence had an immediate impact, fixing glaze defects and developing new colors and surfaces. His blue and green matte and semi-matte glazes, “moon over moss” or “moss over moon,” changed the direction for Newcomb and received the gold medal at the National Exposition in 1913. Variations of these glazes became very popular and may have contributed to the trend in color and forms employed by other American art potteries during the Arts and Crafts period.
In 1918 Cox left the Newcomb Pottery and traveled to France to work in a grinding wheel factory outside of Paris during the war. During this time he visited the Sevres porcelain factory. European production techniques would influence his own work and that of art pottery produced at Iowa State during his tenure.
Cox returned from France and became an Associate Professor at Iowa State College (now University) in 1920. In 1924 he hired Mary Yancy, a graduate from Newcomb, as an instructor at Iowa State. Together, they created a variety of art pottery with Cox responsible for making the forms and glazes, while Yancy did the decoration. The sale of their work supported the program and purchased equipment. Numerous examples of Iowa College Pottery, both by Cox and Yancey, as well as student work, exist in the Iowa State University, University Museums permanent collection (searchable online).
Cox became the head of the department in 1926. He travelled throughout Iowa doing demonstrations on the potter’s wheel and lecturing about the history of ceramics, the abundance of shale in the state, and the contribution that the natural resource of clay represented to industry in Iowa.
In “100 Years of Materials Engineering,” published by Iowa State in 2006, Cox is recognized for his contribution to the University.
“It’s no exaggeration to cast Cox’s tenure in terms of performance, for he brought to Iowa State at least as much showmanship as scholarship. In fact, Cox was not a scientist so much as a potter-engineer, known for his expertise with glazes.”
“It might not have been science as we’d recognize it, but Cox’s turn from engineering and toward the arts did help to keep ceramics afloat at Iowa State. By 1925, the department boasted thirty men formally enrolled in its program—and no fewer than fifty women from other departments working on pottery.”
During Cox’s time at Iowa State, he worked in collaboration with Christian Petersen, artist-in-residence from 1934 to 1955, on the production of the terra cotta relief mural panels for the both the Dairy Industry Building’s History of Dairying courtyard and the College of Veterinary Medicine mural, originally located in the Quadrangle Building constructed in 1912. For the Veterinary Medicine Mural 44 sections or plaques were made to fit and fired in the “Cox kiln,” located in the ceramic engineering laboratory. Cox also helped determine the unglazed surface for the work and used the commission process as part of a broader teaching experience for his students. The panels, in character with the growing Regionalist movement throughout the Midwest at the time, speak to the lasting quality and integrity of their work. Still in existence, they were relocated to the Veterinary Medicine facilities in 1976.
In 1939 Paul Cox left Iowa State to form his own pottery in Hanrahan, Louisiana, dedicated to the production of utilitarian dinnerware and other functional ceramic building materials. Few pieces of his pottery from this period survive and rare examples have become highly collectible as representative of handmade American Art Pottery. The facility closed in 1942 when Cox returned to ceramic engineering in support of the war effort during WWII.
Paul Cox was recognized as a distinguished artist and teacher by his peers. He received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Alfred University in 1935 and the Charles Fergus Binns Medal for Excellence in Ceramic Art in 1952. He was a Trustee of the American Ceramic Society and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His career took place during a time of incredible change in the world of art and specifically in the realm of ceramics. Veterans returning to colleges and universities after the war became part of a new educational direction, largely rejecting European commercial production in favor of Asian influences and abstract expressionism.
In his later years, Cox became well known for his writing and consultation in the field of ceramics, considered an expert on American Art Pottery production and specifically for his knowledge and experience working with George Ohr, the “mad potter of Biloxi,” during his early time at Newcomb.
Cox died in 1968 at the age of 89.
Sources include the Special Collections Department, Iowa State University; Newcomb Pottery Glaze Master—an unpublished autobiographical letter from Cajun Collectibles (http://www.cajunc.com/downloadables/Coxdraft02.pdf); New York State College of Ceramics Scholes Library archives at Alfred University; and Members Mini Presentations 2003 Wisconsin Pottery Association.