QUESTIONS FROM OUR WEBSITE
This issue’s “CAS Mailbag” answers a timely question, perfectly in keeping with our 2018 Convention theme, “Ceramic Arts Studio: Decorating The Decades”.
Thanks for a great question! You aren’t the first collector who’s wondered “where did those talented decorators come from?” In fact, the Milwaukee Journal asked the same question way back in December, 1944, and here’s what they came up with, in an article credited to “Betty Ann”:
“At first it was only evenings which Betty Harrington spent at Ceramic Arts Studio, going back to her secretarial job during the day, and spending her free moments wondering what do to next, what could possibly be done next to achieve the desired effect. For a year and a half, Betty joined in the experiments going on at the little factory, for changing over from hand-spun to molded figures meant a lot of work. Machinery was built, then torn apart and rebuilt. Eventually the clay was deemed right, a satisfactory glaze was achieved, and a one-firing process (instead of the usual two) was perfected.
“Eventually, Mrs. Harrington gave up her secretarial job, and now she could work both day and night. The little building was cold in winter and hot in summer; she had to wear overshoes to keep her feet warm; sometimes, playful rats kept her company at night. ‘It was wonderful, though,’ she says dreamily, as she talks about the early struggles.
“Finally, other workers were hired. It was housewives who had never painted before, or who had never handled clay, who responded best to the training, and became the most skilled workers. Good eyesight is a requirement, and prospective painters are tested only for brush aptitude. The technique in painting the clay figures is so different than in painting others things, than an entire absence of painting experience is the best prerequisite. Mothers with grown children have been among the best workers, though there are young ones too – girls who were telephone and elevator operators, or who did housework. There is even one family on the job here – mother, daughter, son, son-in-law, and daughter-in law!
“And there’s a very homey sort of atmosphere in the little factory, too. Much of the equipment looks like something father knocked together in the basement, using garden hose, an old metal tank, beer barrels, etc. A mixer looks like mother’s cake mixer grown bigger overnight; even the kilns made of bricks look homemade, which they are. The women who fill and empty molds, who trim the little animals and figures, and who paint and dip them, wear simple cotton dresses, and aprons or sweaters, and skirts with pinafores, looking as though they’re working in their own kitchens.
“But there’s nothing homemade about the products they’re making, to the tune of 350,000 to 400,000 each year. The little animal families, and the nursery rhyme boy and girl, and the new series of United Nations people in native costumes produced here are appealing in design, nicely colored and glazed.
“Betty Harrington still produces nearly all of the patterns. Sometimes she sketches first, sometimes she works with the clay immediately, evolving her figure as she works. A figure might start out to be one thing, and end up as something entirely different. There’s a lovely little angel, which started out to be a girl jumping rope. ‘But it came out chubby,’ says Mrs. Harrington, ‘and became an angel instead.’
“Even thought the techniques of molding, painting, glazing, and baking in the kilns have been perfected, there are always new challenges which much be met. That they have achieved a successful ceramics business is almost as much a surprise to Reuben Sand, president of the company, and to designer Betty Harrington, as it is to a stranger, hearing about their trials and tribulations, their failures -- and their successes.”
And now you have the answer to that age-old question, “where do decorators come from?” Incidentally, for the “brush aptitude” test mentioned, prospective CAS decorators were given the task of decorating a Bright Eyes cat figurine. That explains why the paint work on many of these kittens varies in style (and sometimes, quality!) Fortunately, the best folks were hired, resulting in the fine figurines we cherish today. They were nice folks, too. As Betty herself said, “We were all good friends at the Studio, and just thought the world of each other. It was that kind of group – friendly, comfortable, and a pleasure to work with!”
And with those happy words, we pull the “CAS Mailbag” drawstrings tight until our next issue! If you have a CAS-related question, please send it to the attention of Editor Don Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org). He’ll do his best to come up with the – hopefully correct – answer.