DETROIT — Not everyone can afford to outfit an entire kitchen, bathroom or fireplace with tile from Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery, but at this time of year, many homes are at least sporting an ornament or two from the iconic institution.
But even those who love the signature look of ceramics from Pewabic might not know a lot about the history of the pottery, which played an important role in the growth of ceramics and the American Arts & Crafts movement, as well as the city of Detroit’s history. It’s a story that comes to life in “Made By Hand: Detroit’s Ceramic Legacy,” on display through Jan. 12, 2014, in the Community Arts Gallery of the Detroit Historical Museum. Visitors will be able to see examples of Pewabic Pottery pieces from throughout its history, as well as learn more about the 110-year-old pottery and its founder, Mary Chase Perry Stratton.
Stratton — then still Mary Chase Perry (she reportedly didn’t get married until she was around age 50) — launched Pewabic Pottery in 1903 with Horace J. Caulkins, who created the famed Revelation Kiln. Pewabic Pottery Director of Programs Jessica Guzman, of Grosse Pointe Park, said Stratton met Caulkins while she was taking classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which today features Pewabic Pottery in its collection.
Pewabic Pottery — which produces everything from architectural tiles to vessels, to garden décor and ornaments — started out as a business run by Stratton, who Guzman said was commissioned for tile installations and tiles for homes and businesses.
Among the many institutions that sought out the unique work was the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., she said. Pewabic Pottery works can also be found at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the New York Metro Transit Authority’s Herald Square, the Nebraska State Capitol and the Science Building at Rice University in Houston. Closer to home, Pewabic Pottery’s work can be seen at the Detroit Public Library, the Guardian Building, Detroit People Mover stations, Christ Church at Cranbrook, St. Paul Cathedral in Detroit and Comerica Park, among many other locations.
Although explanations about the meaning and origins of the name “Pewabic” vary, today it’s believed to have its roots in the Chippewa word “wabic,” which means metal, or “bewabic,” which means iron or steel. “Pewabic” was also the name of a mine close to Stratton’s birthplace in Hancock, Mich.
“Maybe it reminded her of home,” Guzman said.
Stratton was considered an independent spirit at a time when women didn’t have the options they have today.
“The work that Mary was doing was very much in a man’s field,” Guzman said of Stratton’s pieces, which included large-scale installations. “She broke away from (traditional women’s arts like) china painting.”
It was her results, not her gender, that got her recognition.
“She was kind of a pioneer in iridescent glazes,” Guzman said.
Corey Scillian, of Grosse Pointe Park, a ceramist who has studied at Pewabic Pottery and is now president-elect of the Board of Trustees, said Stratton was an important artistic figure for many reasons. A founding member of the Detroit Arts & Crafts Society, she established the University of Michigan’s ceramics department and taught at Wayne State University. Stratton was given the Charles Fergus Binns Medal — the nation’s highest award in ceramics — in 1947.
“She obviously had a lot of vision,” Scillian said. “It was prolific and constant.”
Visitors to the exhibit will see photos and examples of work done by Pewabic Pottery, including Scott Fountain at Belle Isle, which currently is being restored.
“We really tried to focus on iconic Detroit installations,” Scillian said.
More recent works include a mural at the new outpatient clinic at Children’s Hospital in Detroit that has tiles created by doctors, patients and others affiliated with the hospital, Guzman said.
“This mural was really participatory in nature,” she said.
When clay is fired, it shrinks, so even if an artist measures a tile, he or she needs to allow for that shrinkage, Scillian explained. To this day, Pewabic Pottery makes each piece of tile to fit in a specific spot in a design.
“The tiles are hand-pressed and not mass-produced,” Guzman said. And the tiles that emerge from the kiln are “not perfectly shaped (with) square, sharp edges” the way factory-made tiles are, she continued.
That’s in keeping with Stratton’s mission. Pewabic Pottery literature quotes its late founder — who died in 1961 — as saying, “It is not the aim of the pottery to become an enlarged, systemized commercial manufacture in competition with others striving in the same way. Its idea has always been to solve progressively the various ceramic problems that arise in the hope of working out the results and artistic effects which may happily remain as memorials … or at least stamp this generation as one which brought about the revival of the ceramic arts and prove an inspiration to those who come after us.”
Pewabic Pottery became a nonprofit circa 1981 and, today, not only continues to produce new works, but also educates new generations of artists in ceramic techniques. It serves about 14,000 people annually through art education and other programs, Guzman said. The facility is open seven days a week, and there are opportunities for people of all ages and skill levels to study there, she said.
“We’re very involved in the community now in a way we weren’t maybe historically,” Guzman said. Pewabic Pottery gives emerging artists from all over North America — even those who haven’t studied there — a chance to exhibit and sell their work, she said. And anyone — from serious artists to curious newcomers — can take a class or schedule a tour. Docent-led tours of Pewabic Pottery’s historical facility take place once a month and cost $5 per person, or people can schedule tours for groups of 10 or more, Guzman said. In addition, people can take their own self-guided tours. About 2,700 people visit Pewabic Pottery each year for tours and workshops, she said.
Guzman said support from Detroit and its people have been what has enabled Pewabic Pottery to enjoy such a long history. That’s especially true today.
“Community support keeps us going,” Scillian said of Pewabic Pottery, which is currently trying to raise funds for a new kiln. “We’re very grateful for any support we get.”
For shoppers hoping to go home with a piece of Pewabic pottery, select items are available in the Detroit Historical Museum gift shop. For a bigger selection — including a number of holiday items — Pewabic Pottery is hosting its annual “Earthy Treasures” show through Dec. 30. A special shopping night, with door prizes, refreshments and additional discounts for members, will take place from 6-8 p.m. Dec. 11. Pewabic Pottery is located at 10125 E. Jefferson in Detroit. Visit www.pewabic.org or call (313) 626-2000 for more information.
The Detroit Historical Museum is located at 5401 Woodward, at Kirby, in the Cultural Center. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. Admission is free. For more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit www.detroithistorical.org.