As this year’s CAS Collectors Convention celebrates the 100th anniversary of Betty Harrington’s birth, who better to feature in this issue’s “CAS Chat Room” than Betty herself? The first-person recollections that follow are taken from Betty’s handwritten autobiography, as well as a 1996 video interview conducted by the Wisconsin Pottery Association.


While many collectors are familiar with the basics of Betty’s career, there’s an undeniable thrill that comes from hearing her tell us the story in her very own words. You’re on, Betty! 


“I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on October 24, 1913, My father was a lawyer named Hal R. Martin, of mixed heritage — English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish. My mother was a homemaker of Norwegian descent named Lily Butler. Father was also a serious inventor, with untrained artistic ability.


“I was christened ‘Betsy Ina Martin’ after my maternal grandmother. In high school I changed it to ‘Betty’, because a very popular advertisement for dairy products featured an ugly cow named ‘Betsy’. I did not like the implication it evoked!


“My father was accidentally drowned in 1922 when his car fell through thin ice near the entry of a river into Lake Monona. He and others used to cross the lake in winter as a short cut to South Madison from the city. Our family was devastated. I was nine years old, and my sister Claire was seven-and-a-half. Father’s death was front page news in the Capital Times, and featured a family picture. We then moved in with two of mother’s sisters. We managed, although it was deep Depression days. Nobody had any money, but everyone was used to it.


“My sister Claire and I were both avid readers from the time we learned how. We read the Book of Knowledge, Kipling, Shakespeare, Bret Harte, and all the novels we could find in the library. The Book of Knowledge was profusely illustrated, and probably much of this reading about imaginary creatures stayed in the back of my mind for future reference.


“I kept a scrapbook in which I placed any and all pictures, poems, and ideas that I found attractive and thought-provoking. If I saw something that I thought was pretty, I’d save it and paste it in my scrapbook. Those pictures have inspired many of my ceramic creations, or given me an idea for another. I like to keep my pictures — they’re ‘half me’, and I myself am in the book. They’re sort of personal that way, I guess.


“When I was twelve, I won a ‘Draw A Hat’ contest, with the prize a Colt Art School scholarship. However, family finances after Father’s death meant that I could not follow through with this. I think my family realized there was ‘something there’ though, because they always kept me supplied with paper, colored pencils, crayons, and modeling clay -- that Plasticine stuff. I remember my mother telling my aunt one day, ‘you ought to see what Betty made of out that Plasticine.’


“In high school, I wanted most of all to take an art course, and in ninth grade I got into one. I could not enter any others because the business courses were mandatory. Which was good, of course, since I had to get a job. Living in a national Depression was not easy, and good jobs were scarce.


“In 1931, I graduated from high school with the skills to be a stenographer, office clerk, and accountant. Except for typing, I had a straight ‘A’ grade average. At 17, I got a job as clerk-typist in the State  of Wisconsin Adjutant General’s office.


“In 1933, I married Albert Harrington, and continued working for the state of Wisconsin until late 1934, when I took time off for the birth of my first child — my daughter Jeannie. With help from my mother, I returned to work at the State Entomologist’s Office, where I was promoted to Office Manager.


“In 1939, Al and I bought some property in Monona, just east of Madison, and had a small house built on it. Being outside the city limits, it was necessary to have wells dug for water and sewer. My daughter Jeannie was about five years old, and the contractors digging the well were working out in our backyard. The kids were all coming over to our house, and going out in back. I went out to see what was going on, and there were all these kids up to their ears in mud. They had found a layer of a sort of bluish clay that held well for modeling, and they were making plates and animals, and finally Jeannie said ‘Mother, why don’t you try and make something?’ So I started out, and for no particular reason it turned out to be a little girl, sitting, holding in her lap a bowl, which I decided was to be an incense burner. And it turned out pretty good. The repercussions from that simple act have since become a bit overwhelming!


“Thinking back, I can’t remember why I made a female figure, let alone a nude one. Then, as now, a mental image determines what comes to life in the clay. It comes into my mind, and sort of demands making. My subconscious mind is very cooperative and knowledgeable. Plus, there was no need to figure out the anatomy, as could happen with an animal figure. At the time that I made this first attempt at sculpting in clay, I was not surprised to do it — it seemed so natural. I have always been surprised that what came so easily to me seemed difficult and special to others. If it looked ‘right’ to me, it was OK.


“I needed some tools to kind of work around the fine spots on the figure, but I had a manicure set, and I used those manicure tools. Anyway, it looked good enough, and everybody liked it. I thought it would be nice to have the little incense burner girl made permanent, by getting her glazed and fired. After many phone calls with no results, I gave up. But some time later, when driving to work, I happened to notice a little cement building just off East Washington Avenue, about five or six blocks from the Capitol Square. It had a sign saying Ceramic Arts Studio. On impulse, I stopped and went in. There was a man seated at a potter’s wheel making a vase. There was clay all over, and a washing machine. Another man in an apron greeted me; that was Reuben Sand. I showed him my incense burner, and asked, ‘Could you fire this for me, so that it will be permanent, and I can use it as an incense burner?’ He said, ‘do you want it glazed?’ Well, I didn’t know from beans, but I said, ‘sure, make it pretty and smooth, you know’. He said that it would be ready in a couple of days. When I returned, they had put on this turquoise-colored glaze and fired it, and it came out fine. Mr. Sand said that there would be no charge, and asked if I would make other figures which could be molded and reproduced. Thus began a beautiful friendship, which lasted through all the years.


“The invitation to make more figures for the Ceramic Arts Studio opened up a whole new interest in life. First, I asked Mr. Sand for a bunch of clay. I took it home with me and frittered around, and everybody had their say-so about what I should make. I did a little squirrel, a little stylized cat, a tortoise, and some other small, whimsical animals.  Some of these early pieces almost look a little crude, as they were stylized for simplicity’s sake.


“Reuben took the first batch of figures that we had finished to Signa Westrom, the head buyer at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. She ordered a huge amount, and he quickly hurried back so that we could make them in a reasonable amount of time! They sold right away, so she knew that she was correct in her selection. That was the beginning of our success.


“After that, every time we had new figurines, Reuben would take them to Marshall Field’s for Miss Westrom’s approval. She was so encouraging, and willing to offer her opinion as to what might be good, and would sell.


“I continued to work at the State Capitol for a year, while at the same time working nights and weekends for Ceramic Arts. Then I resigned from the State job, and went to work full-time at the Studio. In all the years I worked there, my weekly salary was sixty dollars — but I did get a commission check when sales were over a certain amount. I’m proud to say that one year I made more than the Governor of Wisconsin! When you’re selling half a million pieces a year, as we did in those times, with minimal manufacturing costs, you had a good profit.


“Things were very busy at the Studio. I was mainly occupied with molding and preparing figurines for the firing kiln, but there was also a lot of business work too, and my office experience proved very useful. Reuben would talk and I would type, making fast work of correspondence.


“I’ve used the same basic tools for almost sixty years. My knife was originally a surgeon’s scalpel. I bought it so I’d have a good sharp carving instrument. When I started, I didn’t know there were such things as woodcarving tools, or sculpting tools — I bought it at a supply house for doctors’ equipment. Then, it was about one-half inch wide at the blade; it’s about a quarter of an inch now. All of the eight hundred or a thousand pieces I’ve ever made have been whittled with that knife, and smoothed with that knife. All of the molds that I’ve made, and all of those figures that we made, were made with that little knife. That’s whittling on plaster, and I did all of the fine detail after it was in a solid piece, where you could really have a vertical be a vertical and a horizontal be a horizontal. And that’s what that little knife has done. I go into a panic when I can’t find it, and I think ‘oh dear. . .’


“I also use dental tools that my dentist gave to me. They were worn out for him, but they work for me. And brushes. You can smooth clay just so far with your fingers. When you get into tiny places, fingers are just too big, so you get a brush.


“On May 7, 1943, I had a baby girl named Sharon Dee. Al’s mother, who was such an important part of the family, lived with us and took over the care of Shary, thus permitting me to work full-time at the Studio, and pursue my new career. At the time, I was very slender, and my pregnancy prevented me from getting close enough to my workbench to be able to carve on the molds. Finally, I solved the problem by moving the plaster molds to the built-in ‘shelf’ of my stomach. That worked well, and Shary can rightly say she ‘grew up with ceramics’.


“My older daughter, Jeannie, was now becoming a precocious young lady, showing definite talent and interest in all details of ceramics. During vacation, she often came to the Studio to ‘help’. One thing I remember Jeannie doing was rubber-stamping a tiny horse on the sitting Cowboy & Cowgirl. I thought the horse decoration was important, but could not buy a rubber stamp that small —1/4 inch. So, I made one, using the corner of a razor blade on the end of a new pencil eraser. Using black ceramic color for ‘ink’, the stamp was put on the belt buckles and boots of the figures.


 “I’m sometimes asked which pieces are my favorites. They are all my children. Some were more difficult than others, (as with children), and it is difficult to pick one over the other, as each has its own unique quality. I like all the animals, and one of my favorites is Suzette on the Pillow. I like most of the children, especially the Orchestra. And the seated Chinese, Sun-Li & Su-Lin, I always liked really well — they’re just kind of happy-looking. For quality of work, I think Adonis & Aphrodite, Modern Colt, the ballet figurines, the Indian set, King’s Jester Lutist & Flutist, Madonna and Child, and Water Man & Woman are nicely done.


“We were all good friends at the Studio, and just thought the world of each other. Nobody was ashamed of their job in those days. We were willing to do anything. We had what we called a ‘Friendship Club’ for ‘secret pals’. Everybody would draw a name, then on that person’s birthday the secret pal would give them a card and a little gift. Of course, nobody was supposed to tell who their secret pal was! Once a year, we’d have a ‘revelation party’, so everyone would get to know who their secret pal was. It was that kind of group — friendly, comfortable, and a pleasure to work with. Outside of my family, working at the Ceramic Arts Studio was the most exciting and fulfilling time in my life.


“In 1985, my eyes were damaged by macular degeneration, which left me with only peripheral vision and no depth perception. I had the horrible idea that my clay work was over. But, being a very determined person, I set out to make something work. I tried everything the Council of the Blind had to offer, and finally found a combination that worked for me. I also discovered that shadows could give enough definition to let me do my sculpting in detail. To further complicate things, I was diagnosed as having neuropathy, which causes a loss of tactile sense in fingers and feet. Nothing can be done for this, but it makes you drop a lot of things! My response to all these occurrences was ‘you do the best you can with what you’ve got’.


“In 1996, a group of Ceramic Arts Studio collectors decided to have their first Convention. Plans were made, and mighty were the preparations. I was impressed by the way this group attacked their problems, and the way they solved them. It was decided to do a Commemorative figurine, and I was asked to make one, which would be reproduced. I liked the idea of doing a Commemorative -- that is to say, a remembrance of this time -- but did not like the idea of someone else doing the production. My experience was that when anyone else did the finishing work, it lost the special look that was my trademark. I thought about it, and came up with a plan to make the one hundred pieces needed myself. I figured I could make two a week, and there were more than fifty weeks to do them in. I also thought this might be my last chance to do something like this, because of my failing vision, and advanced age.


“So, I made my decision, and offered to create a little nude girl, kneeling; each of the one hundred pieces would be of the same size and attitude, but different. I had in mind how to do this, and it gave the CAS club more prestige, to be able to offer ‘one-of-a-kind Commemoratives’. I wanted each person to know they had the ‘one and only’ of that kind, so that’s what I did. That’s why they’re all such different shapes. It was their natural inclination when they were born. We called her M’amselle.


 “At the convention, I had a chance to explain to the group how I made variations in positions and hair styles of the figure. I told them all how lucky I felt — to be able to live long enough to see the work I did fifty years ago be sought after by so many collectors, and to receive so many compliments too, from the nicest group of people I have ever met — the Ceramic Arts Studio Collectors.”  

                                                                    Betty Harrington, 1996


In his 1997 eulogy for Betty, her grandson Larry McMullin recalled that, when asked how she most wanted to be remembered,  Betty responded, “as a nice person who people liked”. She was, and we do!  Happy Birthday, Betty!