The legacy of Pewabic Pottery is inextricably linked to the long, prolific life and career of Mary Chase Perry (1867 - 1961, pictured). In 1887, Perry began her studies at the Cincinnati Art Academy. Like many young women of the era, she took classes in painting, sculpture, drawing and china painting. In her two years there, she met others who would go on to create their own legacies as American ceramicists, including Mary Louise McLaughlin, Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, and Kataro Shirayamadani. Returning home, Perry went on to study china painting under Austrian artist Franz Bishoff. In 1893, she created a studio, the Keramic Art Colony, along with four other women, and they exhibited their work with Susan Frackelton’s recently established National League of Mineral Painters.
Perry and her neighbor, Horace J. Caulkins (1850 – 1923) founded Pewabic Pottery in 1903 in Detroit, Michigan. The two had met in the late 1890s, and started out by producing and selling a kiln named Revelation that Caulkins, a dentist, had originally developed to fire dental inlays. It was during this time when Perry began traveling around the country as a saleswomen, meeting several influential potters of her day, including Adelaide Robineau, as well as the makers at Merrimac and Grueby potteries. These visits were instrumental in ingniting Perry’s interest in creating pottery. She began to experiment with designing and firing clay bodies and creating glazes—making art pottery rather than simply china painting.
Perry named the pottery Pewabic after a copper mine in the Michigan Upper Pennisula where she grew up. Her father had been a physician to the copper miners in the region and Perry later learned that Pewabic translates to “clay with copper color” in the native Chippewa language. In 1907, Perry and Caulkins hired prominent Detroit architects Frank D. Baldwin and William B. Stratton, whom she married in 1917, to build them a permanent studio. Baldwin and Stratton designed Pewabic Pottery in the style of an English Arts and Crafts inn, which spoke to the handmade nature of Perry’s work.
In her first few years as a ceramist, Perry, inspired by Grueby, produced pieces with matte glazes and simple carved designs. She exhibited these pieces for the first time at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In 1909, Perry made the discovery of her career: the lustrous, colorful, iridescent glazes for which Pewabic Pottery became famous. Perry was inspired by Syrian pottery in the collection of her friend, the railroad magnate and famed collector of Asian works, Charles Lang Freer. Freer donated some Pewabic examples to the Detroit Art Institute, and the remainder of his Pewabic collection would eventually be placed at the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
Perry also created tiles for prestigious commissions, some of which can be found in the Guardian Building in Detroit and at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.. She taught and wrote widely about ceramics, and was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. She died in 1961 at age ninety-four, having contributed greatly to the field of American art pottery. Pewabic Pottery is still in operation, with more than sixty employees producing several lines of pottery and providing classes to the public. The original building remains standing and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
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