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Artisans of Michigan: Pewabic Pottery since 1903

Credit Courtesy: Pewabic
Mary Chase Perry Stratton working during the early days of Pewabic.

The famous pottery, Pewabic, has been doing much the same thing it has done since the very early part of the 20th century, and using some of the same equipment and molds for its tiles and pottery.

"Pewabic was founded in 1903 by Mary Chase Perry (later named Mary Chase Perry Stratton) who was an artist and became really well known as a China painter. She would paint, overglaze enamels on French China and would teach about it and write about it," explained Steve McBride, Executive Director of Pewabic.

The person who later became her partner, was at first her neighbor. Horace Calkins was a dentist who developed kilns to fire porcelain teeth for dentures.

As McBride tells the story, Calkins learned that his neighbor was using one of his kilns to fire her China painting. Calkins thought there was a business opportunity there, so he hired Mary Chase Perry to travel and sell his kilns to other China painters and artists. 

At about the same time, she was getting kind of bored with China painting. Returning from a sales trip, she approached Calkins and  said, “Hey, Horace, do you want to go into business?” So they started a pottery.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Pewabic's 1907 building is a National Historic Landmark.

They started Pewabic in 1903 in Calkin’s basement at his house in Brush Park.

They quickly outgrew that space and had a new place built. The current building at 10125 E. Jefferson Avenue on Detroit's east side was completed in 1907. It’s changed and expanded from there as my guide, Cara Catallo showed me.

One expansion of the current building is still being used exactly as it was in 1909. It houses a line-shaft driven clay mixer managed by Kevin Kwiatkowski. He let me peek in to see the swirling liquified clay.

"We put in, to mix clay, put around 255 gallons of water and 2,300 pounds of dry material into this mixer," Kwiatkowski said loudly to be heard above the machinery.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Kevin Kwiatkowski with the line shaft-driven clay mixer.

That will make two big batches a day. When he’s not filling the mixer or squeezing the excess water out of the clay, he’s in the newest addition to the building where the clay is pressed or pounded into molds.

There are dozens and dozens of molds on the shelves. The Master Mold Maker, Sherlyn Hunter, says there are others that are much older.

"The originals are in the basement locked away. The way we achieve the most that you see here is to go down and get the original mold, press one, bring back its original detail, make new masters of that and then multiples from there," Hunter said. 


LG: "So if I own one of these really beautiful houses from the 1920s in Detroit and they've got Pewabic tile everywhere, you probably could duplicate what they bought from the original mold."

SH: "Yeah, sometimes we can. We don't have all of the original models because that's just probably a massive amount. But, we have reproduced designs from finished installations to do it right."

LG: "I guess you just need one tile and you can start."

SH: "Yeah. I mean you get an image and then, yeah, it's drawn on, it's sculpted. It's made from scratch and sometimes, believe or not, I do find the original mold in the basement and bring that up and start the process again."

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Sherlyn Hunter is Pewabic's master mold maker.

The trick of making a mold is making sure the clay can be removed freely without tearing or damaging the image. That means something the designers make might not quite work when clay hits the mold. It's Hunter’s job to make the mold work, but keep it as close to the original design as possible.

"I don't claim to be an artist but I like to do things with my hands. So this is the way to do it. And it's something different every time we get original designs. We’re problem solving constantly and trying to figure out how to create something. So, it's fun. It's frustrating when you're trying to figure it out, but once it's all finished and you see the finished product, it's really a cool thing to see," Hunter said.

After drying on a rack, the clay is then taken to the next step. If it’s more intricate and needs lots of color it might be taken to Leo Kopack.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Leo Kopack glazing a tile of a peacock, an early Pewabic design still in production.

"Today I'm hand painting this historic tile that Mary Chase Perry Stratton designed, so it's one of the few older ones that we carry on and keep doing. And this is a peacock. And what I'm doing is using this bulb glazing technique where we fill this little bottle up with glaze and there's a needle at the end of it. You can kind of pinpoint where you're trying to get the glaze to go," Kopack said as he worked. 

He said it doesn't really take that long to learn how to do it, but it takes longer to do it efficiently.

"When I first started doing this it would take me hours and hours to do these. But now, I can kind of run through a bunch of them a lot faster. Still takes quite a while and it's a lot more tedious of a glazing technique but I've gotten better and better at it with time for sure," Kopack said.

It still takes a full day to do the glaze work on six of these peacock tiles which are 6 inches by ten inches.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Jose Arenivar-Gomez dips the rims of mugs into glaze. After drying, they'll be dipped in a different glaze to coat the rest of the outside of the mug.

If the dried clay is a vessel of some kind, such as a vase or a mug, it might be simply dipped in a glazing material.

Jose Arenivar-Gomez finished grad school and has been working at Pewabic for about a month and he's working on mugs.

"I'm lining the inside. What we do is pour glaze inside. Just dipping a couple of times so we get an even coat inside. And then just pour out the excess. And then for these mugs, we dip the top part. And then we just go and let them dry for a few hours and then we're going to go back and glaze dip them, which means like I was going to hold them and then dip them into a different glaze," Arenivar-Gomez said as he did the work.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Early glazes contained toxic elements such as lead. New recipes work to capture the warmth of the original Pewabic tiles.

The glazes are different than the ones used in 1907. Alex Thullen is in charge of developing today’s glazes to match the colors associated with Pewabic products. Why not use the original formulas?

"Everything at that period of time was lead based as was every ceramic manufacturer. It was a really common, cheap, effective material to use," said Alex Thullen, Pewabic's glaze development specialist, adding, "Times change and our understanding of health and safety changes, so all of the glazes that we use are new recipes and they've been reformulated over the years so that we can achieve kind of the look and the feel and the warmth of those historic glazes but using materials that are safe to work with by today's standards."

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Tiles ready for glazing and then the kiln.

After glazing, the Pewabic tiles or vessels are sent to the kilns. The kilns used to be brick-lined, labor intensive, and didn’t hold the heat in all that well, which was fine in the winter, but during the summer the temperature would get up to 120 degrees. Chris Mayse says today, efficient kilns are a lot easier to deal with.

CM: "Once that program is saved in there, we really don't have to do much else other than kind of set it and forget it. They are all connected to the Internet. So if anything goes wrong we can monitor them from home."

LG: "So there is an app for that."

CM: "There is an app for that. That's for sure."

LG: "Let me ask you about how hot these get. I assume there are different peaks for different glazes. What's the hottest?"

CM: "Well, the hottest that we go to is about 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. And so for any ceramics that you do, you're generally not going to go much hotter than that when it comes to tiles, pottery, things like that." 

Even with several additions to the 1907 building, Pewabic still needs space. Across Jefferson Avenue, we visit a building on City of Detroit Water Park property to watch Nicole Marocco at a potter’s wheel.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Nicole Marocco forming one half of a large vase.

"This is the Pewabic vessel making and I just finished making one of our large harvest bowls. It’s about seven pounds of clay and it ends up being about 14 inches wide. I think," Marocco said as she pulled out a ruler. "Fifteen inces wide," she laughed, "is what they end up being."

This building was built to be a fire station for horsedrawn fire engines. By the time it was built, fire trucks were in use and the station was too small. It was used for storage for years. Then in the 1960s it was rented and used as an arts and craft school for kids. Pewabic started renting it in recent years.

On the second floor of the fire station, Pewabic employees are given space for a personal studio. Each staff member receives a certain amount of clay to pursue their own work. They hold a contest with outside potters each year. There’s an exhibit of the annual winners and other entries in the main building.

Pewabic also offers classes and even have a couple of portable kilns to do demonstrations for the public. Steve McBride, the executive officer, says people in Michigan are fascinated with Pewabic.

"People, I think, just respond to the maker aspect of it. You know—Pewabic was founded the same year as Ford Motor Company. So when Ford was inventing the assembly line and everything was speeding up and the Arts and Crafts movement was reaching its peak in America at the time. It was all about the hand of the maker and kind of rediscovering the joy of handcrafted (material) and I think that's always been the thing that people responded to. And I think today it's as strong as ever," McBride said.

Credit Courtesy: Pewabic
Pewabic tile on Comerica Park.

And Pewabic has become a part of Michigan’s legacy, especially in Detroit.

"I love the fact that now you can go down Woodward Avenue and you can see tile work expanding over a hundred years from the Guardian building, to the DIA and the public library. But then, going up into the 80s you have the people mover stations and 2000 as Comerica Park and just a couple of years ago we did the little Caesars Arena, and all the Q Line stations. So it's like this sense of, it is a piece-- we like to say it's part of the fabric of the city," McBride concluded.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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