The mesmerizing creations of Michigan’s Pewabic Pottery

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Michigan is known for its iconic brands: Vernors, Sanders, Better Made, Stroh’s, Faygo and you can add Pewabic Pottery to that list. Long known for its gorgeous tiles and decorative pottery, Pewabic Pottery is rarely recognized outside of Michigan. I asked Susan Bandes, former director of Michigan State University’s Kresge Art Museum and an expert on local Pewabic installations, why that was the case.

“Pewabic came on my radar when I first moved to East Lansing in 1986. It was a hidden jewel, and it is still odd that outside of Michigan it is not well known,” she said.

Detroit residents Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Horace Caulkins founded the Revelation pottery studio in 1903 and renamed it Pewabic Pottery in 1904. Bandes attributes part of Pewabic Pottery’s obscurity due to its crafts never becoming commercial or retail products that were sold in Department stores. 

Pewabic Pottery’s long journey is detailed in the new book “Pewabic Pottery: The American Arts and Crafts Movement Expressed in Clay,” by the foremost expert on Pewabic, Thomas W. Brunk. Brunk, who died in 2018, was an art historian and archivist who wrote his seven-volume dissertation on Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit art collector and railroad car manufacturer. Brunk was an important chronicler of Detroit’s architectural and cultural history. 

Brunk had a catbird’s seat for observing the Pewabic Pottery operation, serving as the curator and archivist of MSU’s Pewabic Pottery collection from 1974 to 1981 and was co-founder of the Pewabic Society, a nonprofit organization founded to ensure Pewabic survived.

“The reality is MSU saved Pewabic Pottery during hard times,” she said.

Pewabic Pottery was donated to MSU in 1965 during a time when the operation was at one of its low ebbs. MSU managed Pewabic Pottery and maintained and upgraded its building on East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. Stratton had died in 1961 and the operation was somewhat rudderless. Although MSU helped it get back on track, when MSU faced a budget crisis of its own in the ’70s, Pewabic Pottery was jettisoned to the Pewabic Society in 1979.

MSU had seemed a great fit, since eight campus buildings built between 1926 and 1952 have Pewabic installations. The first installation took place in 1926 in the Chemistry Building, now Kedzie Hall, and is the most impressive installation, which includes nine heraldic shields with 26 tiles on the exterior, along with 16 book shields of Pewabic tile. “The tiles are used like gemstones to dramatically reflect sunlight as it varies throughout the day,” Brunk writes in “Pewabic Pottery.”

Bandes compiled a walking guide to Pewabic installations on MSU’s campus, and curated a 2005 exhibit at MSU showcasing the vast array of decorative pottery created by Pewabic Pottery.

Some of the mystique associated with Pewabic Pottery is directly traceable to the iridescent glazes created by Stratton, the formulas for which she kept secret. Bandes said some of the glazes used lead and uranium and were reformulated with safer compositions.

Bandes said the book will surprise some people who are not familiar with the variety of shapes and pieces created at Pewabic Pottery. “The numerous color plates are important to understand Pewabic Pottery,” she said.

During its heyday, Pewabic Pottery did scores of installations in the homes of Detroit bluebloods — including installations at the homes of the Dodge Brothers and Edsel Ford. The book also details the large number of installations at churches throughout the Detroit area. Other more public and recent installations can be seen at Comerica Park, Belle Isle and in Lansing at the Sparrow Cancer Center, which has a large installation of tile at the top of staircase. The tile is installed in a circular swirling pattern using a variety of colored tiles. 

Bandes said Brunk’s book has become the definitive history of Pewabic Pottery.

“In the future, anyone writing about Pewabic will begin there,” she said.

Brunk was the first researcher who had unlimited access to Pewabic records, and by using documents such as Pewabic Pottery’s “day books,” which places specific dates, times and places regarding Pewabic Pottery’s huge body of work. The book details Pewabic Pottery’s history from its inception in 1903, the construction of its studio in 1906 and its turnover to the Pewabic Society in 1979.

The book’s research is well documented and also contains chapters on the founder’s homes. It also collects the numerous marks and labels the studio used over the years, which will be a boon for collectors.

MSU’s relationship with Pewabic Pottery came full circle in 2020, when the Cowles House underwent a restoration and a Pewabic Pottery mural was installed in the President of Michigan State University on-campus home.

Now that Brunk’s book has laid the groundwork, there is an opening for an art historian to write a history of Pewabic Pottery’s last 42 years. If there is need for inspiration, spend a few quiet moments in the MSU Chapel with its floor of Pewabic Pottery. It is still mesmerizing after nearly 70 years.

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