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The Power of Pottery

The history of Pewabic

This is not the first pandemic that Pewabic Pottery has gone through. Founded in 1903, it has survived, among other challenges, the Bird Flu in 1918, two world wars and the Great Depression. In addition to being in operation for well over a century, the other extraordinary thing about the ceramic studio is that it’s been housed in the same building on East Jefferson Avenue since 1907. 

“It’s a Tudor-style National Historic Landmark building that was designed to resemble an old English inn, but it’s always been a working pottery studio,” says Steve McBride, executive director of Pewabic. “It was originally in a carriage house downtown in Brush Park, but it quickly outgrew that space.”

The building was designed by William Stratton, a prominent architect in his time, who married Mary Chase Perry, a painter of china and one of the founders of the pottery. Horace Caulkins, the other founder, was a kiln manufacturer and dentist, and he and Mary were co-founders of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts.

Some of the original equipment dates back to the early 1900s and is still in use today.  “Our clay mixer was installed in 1912 and is actually part of the building,” says Steve. “There’s a large vat under the floor where the clay slip is stirred in a big concrete mixer and we still use that to make all of our tile clay. It has the overhead belts and pulleys and it just breathes history when you walk back there.”

For those who would like to learn more about how pottery is made or to make it themselves, Pewabic has an onsite education studio where classes are held for teens and adults year round. Pewabic also does a lot of work with the Detroit Public Schools so they have many programs for school-age kids. 

“We offer workshops for school groups and individuals of all ages where people can come in and take a hands-on tile making workshop,” says Steve. “We make everything from scratch. We make the clay, we make the glazes, and do all the firing.”

The Pewabic Street Team offers pop-up experiences. “The Street Team is fun. We knew that not everyone was going to come to our building, so we decided to package the experience and take it on the road. We received a grant from the Knight Foundation for their Knight Arts Challenge Detroit, which allowed us to purchase a Ford transit van that we converted into a mobile museum.” 

The van includes interactive activities, and pulls a trailer with portable kilns which allow people to do Raku firing, which can be done rapidly. The van travels to the Detroit River Walk every month and to parks and schools. 

Pewabic Pottery also has galleries and museums which are open to the public free of charge. The galleries showcase ceramic art by 50 to 100 artists all across North America at all times. The museums have historic works dating from the pre-1900s and early 1900s. 

“We’re particularly well known for our iridescent pottery and tile and iridescent glaze, so you can see some iridescent pots from the early 1900s,” says Steve. “We have one pot that is covered in a bright orange uranium glaze, so you get to see some things you wouldn’t normally see.” The pottery offers docent-guided tours and behind-the-scenes tours as well.

In addition, Pewabic offers rotating exhibitions of other works. “Recently, people could see Blue Collar by Kyle and Kelly Phelps, twin artists who do sculptural vignettes of the working class life. It was incredibly powerful.”

Pewabic installations can be found all over the city and region [see sidebar]. There is a Google map on their website showing a small sampling of where some of their installations can be found.  

 “We’re part of the fabric of Detroit, so you can see Pewabic tile throughout the region. It’s part of what makes Detroit, Detroit.”

If people are interested in using Pewabic tiles in their homes, there are a lot from which to choose. “We have an architectural tile showroom where you can see a lot of shapes and patterns and glaze colors,” says Steve. “People who buy our pottery and use our architectural tile to install a fireplace surround often say that it makes them want to sit by the fire more and enjoy the experience more. 

“Or, people who have installed a Pewabic backsplash will say that it inspires them while cooking. You know that this was made by somebody and you have that feeling of connection.”

People can browse their products either in-store or online, or come in to shop for pottery and tile. “We can ship, do curbside delivery, or do a video chat in order to see what we have to purchase. Just by shopping online or in person buying art helps support the artists we represent. We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and there are lots of ways to support us, whether buying, becoming a member or making a donation.” 

Pewabic Pottery, he adds, celebrates something that’s really special about people, especially here in Detroit, because it’s the first and only U.S. city to be named a UNESCO Design City. It really celebrates that creative process. 

“Art brings joy into our lives and has the power to make us relax, and it provides comfort, which is especially needed now,” says Steve. “We’re profoundly grateful to everyone who has supported the pottery throughout the pandemic and it’s really gratifying to know that so many people love the place and want to support the arts, and want to make sure this organization is here for the next 100 years.” 

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