Edith Heath: A Life in Clay (Event Blog 2)

Oftentimes, when one visits museums, they experience art in its traditional forms. A painting here, a sculpture there. All things made from graphite and paper and pigment that fall under any possibility of abstractness or realisticness. However, it is easy to forget that art in itself is a concept of endless possibilities. This concept especially struck me earlier this quarter, when I visited the Oakland Museum in order to see a very specific exhibit on tableware. Not just any tableware, however. Tableware created by Heath Ceramics, initially started by Edith Heath. 

(image from https://sfarts.org/story/edith-heath-a-life-in-clay-5rjcZlw93ES6nRUSxWmvc4)


    The bowls and plates and teapots shown are mostly monochrom or dichrome, fitting in with a simplistic modern style that could just as easily scream elegance as it could an everyday dining set. And I suppose that this is exactly the point. Edith Heath designed her ceramics to revolutionize the modern dining experience, giving every day events a sense of sophistication and beauty. As the museum calls her, Heath was a “Trailblazer. Rebel. Revolutionary”, as it dives into the iconic style of her clay craft (Edith Heath: A Life in Clay). 

(image from https://museumca.org/exhibit/edith-heath-life-clay

One of the more interesting aspects of the museum was the science behind Heath's clay. She was dedicated to her craft, and with the assistance and partnership of her husband, her free time was often spent traveling around the states in search of natural clay deposits. Until now, porcelain was the common dish used for household meals. But porcelain is ugly in all things but its appearance. It is brittle, and fragile. In order to obtain a complete set it is expensive, and hard to replace. All of these aspects Heath took issue with, at the same time that she fell in love with the northern california landscape (SF/Arts). The mountainous clay was filled with minerals and a mix of other stones. Heath found that though mixing different aspects of clay or dried mineral dust, she was able to manipulate the strength and outcome of the clay. 

Though I was unable to obtain a picture of it, much of this section of the exhibit was scientific charts and maps, periodic tables, and other aspects that one would typically expect to see in the laboratory. But in reality, these notes were all once from her little SF kitchen, with her sewing machine-turned-turning wheel contraption and a boiling kiln in the basement. 


Processing Soil into Clay for Pottery

(image from https://practicalselfreliance.com/making-clay/

    Edith Heath found her success after showing her work at The California Legion of Honor, in which fate just so happened to invite the boss of the San Francisco retailer Gump’s (Edith Heath: Design Within Reach). It was here that Heath's ceramics were born. 

    Edith Heath once stated that “textiles and yard did not have enough structure and volume, but clay I found was and is just right” (Madrigal). The methods that were used, though modified in order to produce the ceramics en masse, still require hand carving and an artist's eye before the finished piece is complete. For example, initial molds and shaping guides for the wheel were used to create the basic shape of the ceramics. However, once this basic shape was created, it needed to be hand trimmed and have the handles attached for the desired design. Furthermore, workers at the ceramics company would hand glaze the resulting ceramics through a variety of special techniques. Even after becoming a national success and household name, Heath Ceramics still maintained the mindset that mass production does not mean lower quality. 


    Furthermore, Heath used glazing techniques and redesigns of well loved products to maintain the artistic element in her clay making techniques. Many traditional artists were disgruntled by the idea that Heath could maintain being an artist even though she was using elements of mass production. But who is to say what art is? For the amount of time, science, and conscious effort put into designing the correct base for her clay, Edith Heath was truly an artist. She saw clay as a way to encapture endless possibilities, in housing and decorative tiles, in architecture, and in daily tableware. 

    Heath Ceramics continues to manufacture and produce high quality ceramics today, now owned by the future generations of the Heath family. However, Edith Heath and her persistence of love of clay has shown that art and science can be anything. As long as one is passionate about their art, even though it may be in an untraditional manner, it is art.  An Exhibition and Book Give Different Perspectives of Potter Edith Heath -  Metropolis