The great English Arts and Crafts philosopher William Morris said, “… have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” And this became the credo for the Arts and Crafts Movement which spread to this country from England beginning roughly in 1860 and lasting until the 1920’s.
When I first began collecting green matte pottery nine years ago, I was only vaguely familiar with the Arts and Crafts Movement and knew even less about Art Pottery. I fell into it purely by accident. One summer I was languishing at home in St. Louis, with no idea whatsoever for a new book, and my daughter, Lynne, came home from Brooklyn to visit. She’d cut out an article from Martha Stewart’s Living Magazine featuring a line of mass produced pottery from the 40’s and 50’s, manufactured by McCoy, a company founded in 1899 in Zanesville Ohio. Martha was touting it; thus prices in New York City and the Hamptons were high ($100 or more for a single vase). Lynne thought it would be fun to display these colorful objects on shelves in her new kitchen. So we went scouring for McCoy on Cherokee Street, in Kirkwood, and at a few vast antique malls, mostly filled with castoff lamps, knickknacks, and clothing. By the time her husband Eric arrived for the weekend, her old bedroom was overflowing with about sixty McCoy vases in various pastel shades of blues, pinks, greens and blues. They had averaged about $10 a piece. Assigned to lug them back to Brooklyn, Eric was as enthused about this instant collection as was my husband, Ronnie, when eventually a mass of green matte pots started piling up around our house. Shall I mention that my friends rolled their eyes at my new hobby? But I needed something to scavenger with my daughter. I needed something to distract me from my writing lull. I discovered my first green matte pot on a foray to Cherokee Street, where a small green Rookwood bowl jumped out at me. The flat, smooth texture, the curvy shape, and the deep green color were soothing, so appealing on a deep and satisfying level that I had to buy it. In terms of contemporary art, I’ve always been drawn to minimalism, the sculpture of Donald Judd or the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly. These simple clay vessels in monochromatic colors, unembellished surfaces, and geometric designs fit right into my aesthetic. Later I discovered that Ellsworth Kelly and his partner, Jack Shear, also collect green matte pottery and the artist Jasper Johns has a collection of turn of the century ceramics by George Ohr, the mad potter of Biloxi.
For the next few years, whenever I went out of town to speak at libraries or Children’s Literature Festivals, I asked my hosts to take me by the nearest antique mall. From Cape Girardeau to Chicago, from junk stores to estate sales, I discovered there was a whole world of Art and Crafts enthusiasts, and that there existed a definite hierarchy in terms of art pottery. I learned to tell the difference between a Rookwood and a Grueby, a Hampshire from a Teco. I discovered that St. Louis once had a thriving art pottery company called University City, started in 1909. Searching for the rare green pot became more interesting the more I learned. Most of my finds were quite modest, and it was never my purpose to build a serious collection. All along I was just having a good time. Now as I look back on my two year obsession, I realize I was in the throes of a massive writers’ block. The passion for a subject that once had motivated my research for a book had been transferred to pots. Harmless and inexpensive, my pots were a welcome diversion during that creative dry spell. My husband suggested I write a book about it, but I wasn’t sure the subject of green pots would be of great interest to kids. An understatement!! The real subject is the Arts and Crafts Movement in America and the role of a group of creative women in Ohio. Maybe some day......
Like any infatuation, my love affair with green matte pottery was intense but short lived. Eventually I was back to writing a new book, and my assortment of pots was relegated to shelves in my study, where I still enjoy looking at them now and then when I need a break.