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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Digging Into Ohio’s Art Pottery History

Susan Byrnes
Large local clay deposits fueled the Ohio's pottery industry.

If you’re a gardener, you might be cursing your heavy clay soil right about now. But clay is an important part of our region’s artistic legacy. Join Culture Couch producer Susan Byrnes as she unearths some history about pottery made in Zanesville and Cincinnati.

My friend in Washington, DC told me about a beautiful old vase she found that she thought might be rare. It has a flower on it with a robin’ s egg blue glaze. It’s stamped Samuel Weller, which she traced to an Ohio pottery company in Zanesville.

As it turns out, a lot of antique decorative pottery comes from Ohio. The industry developed here in the 1800’s and by 1905 Samuel Weller was the country’s largest pottery producer. But his company was just one of many others in the state, like McCoy, Roseville and Rookwood. They all produced what’s called Art Pottery, collectible vases with delicate paintings and expert glaze techniques. Art Pottery became a movement, and Ohio was its center. To find out why, I did some digging with ceramic artist Geno Luketic. We met in his backyard, which is a five acre field just outside of Waynesville.

“So Initially when I started this I just dug holes randomly spaced. I would hike in the field and say that seems like a spot, I’m in a slightly different topography or different edge of the field, or maybe the water moves differently, and so I’d start to dig down, and I’m finding there are different layers of topsoil that lay on top of the clay but underneath almost this entire property there is clay.”

Like early Ohio pottery companies, Geno mines clay from the ground to make his own ceramic vessels. Their earthy yellow and reddish colors reflect iron and other minerals in the clay that he finds.

“When I started thinking about sustainability in my practice, the big thing for me was the clay that I was using, giving to my students, and not being able to say where it came from, because it was all commercially mined and processed, and the history of that material had been lost."

Susan Byrnes
Rookwood Ceramic Engineer James Manning has the formula for Kaolinite, what most people know as the smooth, sticky clay from art class, tattooed on his arm.

Large local clay deposits fueled the pottery industry. The Rookwood Pottery Company was founded in Cincinnati in 1880 and is still in operation today. It quickly became one of the world’s foremost art potteries by hiring exceptional artists and making technical innovations. Rookwood Ceramic Engineer James Manning is really into clay.

“In its most pure form, clay is basically AL2O3 2SIO2 2H2O, just like that…” He shows me his forearm tattooed with the formula for the mineral Kaolinite, what most people know as the smooth, sticky clay from art class. But the clay in your backyard is different.

“A lot of the clays we have here are considered to be surface level clays, meaning that they’ve transported significantly from where they were originally developed. And the closer you mine them to where they were originally formed, the cleaner they are, and then the less impurities and grain structure. There are certainly places in the US that have much better clay deposits, and that’s where we mine most of the clay nowadays.”

George Hibben, Rookwood Pottery resident historian, said the combination of clay and artistic resources is only part of the picture.

“You have the geology with the clay sources, you also need a whole lot of water with ceramics, you need good transportation to get your wares to market. We had the Ohio River, Zanesville has a good water source, but Ohio as a state was also pretty much one of the last states before you got into the Wild West. As the perfect mixture of clay source, artistry, but also transportation, it all came together at the right moment in time.”

That time ended with the Great Depression, when people stopped buying art pottery in favor of more practical or less expensive items, and many companies folded. But we still have clay beneath our feet, and Ohio’s pottery tradition still lives on in the region’s artisan factories and individual studios.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Susan works as visual artist, arts writer, teaching artist, and audio producer. She lives in Cincinnati now but loves, misses, and often visits the Miami Valley. You can find her visual and audio works on her website www.susanbstudio.com.