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Destination: Edith Heath

Edith at the wheel, c. 1960. Courtesy of the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley.

Trailblazer. Rebel. Revolutionary. These are the words used by the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), where they recently opened the much-anticipated show that chronicles the life and work of Edith Heath. I have to say, after getting a behind-the-scenes look at this exhibit (yep, I got a press pass, y'all) and speaking to the curators of this show, I could not find better words to sum up this inspiring woman. Born in Iowa in 1911 to Danish immigrants, Heath was a woman ahead of her time on many fronts. After attending pottery classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1934, where her love of alchemy, her Danish background, and her passion for design all came together, she moved to San Francisco to become an art teacher at the California School of Fine arts.

But the potter's wheel kept calling her, and with the help of her husband, Brain, they set up a studio in her home so that she could continue her work and study in ceramics. Not long after, as in less than six years after she started taking classes in Chicago, she had a contract with Gump's to sell her first pieces of tableware, her Coupe line. It was an instant success. I guess that Californians understood her point of view, given the more casual lifestyle we have. Heath was adamant that the porcelain dishes that were so prized and rarely used because of their "specialness" were of little use to our everyday lives and thus created tableware that was, in the words of OMCA, "Durable, not delicate, simple, yet stylish." The intent is that one's tableware would be stunning enough for Sunday yet practical for Monday.

She was also bent on using the clay from California — her designs and glaze were inspired by the California landscape. After an exhaustive search and many experiments on durability and workability, she settled on the clay from the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains in central California. As the clay sands ran down the mountains, they gathered minerals and other compounds that made this clay uniquely durable and easy to shape. Her products were "locally made" long before anyone had ever heard that term.

Factory floor, c. 1965. Courtesy of the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley.

In my first post about the Heath Ceramics company, I mentioned that my grandmother purchased a complete set of Heath dishes in the early 1950s and had them until her passing in the mid-1990s! That is a testament to how durable this line of tableware is.

On one of her visits to the town of Ione, as she was researching the clay properties in that area, she noticed that the local city water pipes were made from this same clay. Thinking that if this clay was durable enough to hold up to providing the flow of water into the entire city, it must also be a good choice for tiles in larger commercial architectural projects. She successfully convinced the designers of The Pasadena Art Museum to use her tiles on its exterior, with stunning results.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that Edith Heath was ahead of her time on many fronts. Before attending the incredibly well-curated exhibit at OMCA, I had no idea that she insisted on a fair wage for her ceramists in her Sausalito, CA studio long before this subject was of any concern to most. She insisted on using only local materials for her clay and glazes, being one of the first to think about her products' environmental impact. She went from student to highly successful businesswoman in an era where women often had no right to work at all! Truly a role model for us all.

Heath Ceramics, Creamer and Open Sugar, 1948. Stoneware, glaze. Courtesy of the Brian and Edith Heath Foundation.

As Edith Heath aged and her health became less vital, the question arose of how to ensure that her vision and product remained intact after she was gone. Enter Catherine Bailey, a product and design legend in her own right. The two women spent considerable time collaborating on how to move Heath Ceramics into the 21st century while maintaining the integrity of the original design and philosophy. In 2003, Catherine and a long-time friend and trustee for the Heaths, Jay Stewart, acquired Heath Ceramics. I think it goes without saying that they have done a tremendous job of staying "on brand" and have enabled it to remain as relevant today as it was in the 1940s when it first arrived on the scene.

Ok, now for my pitch for the OMCA. Guys, this is by far my favorite museum, period. I know they don't have the Mona Lisa adorning their walls and that they are not in a world-class city (that part bugs me so much, you all don't know what you're missing by assuming only the worst of Oakland, CA, this city is incredible). But ranting aside, this museum truly represents their community. It's one of the most diverse in the country, with its art, community events, and ability to make us all feel like art is, and should be, a part of all of our lives, not just the lives of the elite — kind of like Edith Heath!

From The Earth: plates, cups, bowls by HEATH (brochure). Courtesy of the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley.

If you are local, check out this exhibit ASAP. If you are planning a Bay Area trip, add this place to your list, you won't be disappointed.

Get tickets online to see the exhibition yourself and visit OMCA.


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