Pewabic founder Mary Chase Perry Stratton turns a spry 152 years old today. We can only imagine what she’d think of today’s world, but we like to think that she’d be pleased that her pottery on East Jefferson is still a bastion of artisans dedicated to creating handcrafted tiles and ware and continue to encourage a love of ceramics.
It seems only fitting that Pewabic staff gathered yesterday for a tour of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in central Detroit to visit what’s believed to be one of the largest ecclesiastical installations of Pewabic tile, set in place in 1924. The low-fire glazed terra cotta tiles pave as far as the eye could see, not just the main chapel and a smaller one within the seminarian residences, but also corridors and vestibules.
As the artisans who make up Pewabic today examined the work of their predecessors – some of those architectural tiles are ones we still make today – it was easy to see how naturally history, present day and future possibilities come together. Even in this modern age, 58 years after her death, Perry Stratton is present. She’s in the tradition — that’s her clay mixer in fabrication – and you can almost feel her gaze before you glance up at the small window above the kiln room from where she kept an eye on the kilns.
True, times have changed. The current production kilns no longer need quite so watchful an eye now that they’re gas-fueled and electronically controlled, innovation Perry Stratton would embrace. She was cutting edge, herself, even as she espoused the Arts & Crafts tradition and eschewed automation. She wasn’t stagnant. She always strived to progress her craft, sometimes out of necessity, like when she turned to making smaller pieces including jewelry and eagerly bid on WPA jobs to keep the pottery operating and most importantly her employees employed after the Great Depression. Other innovation came to answer challenges, like when a friend doubted she could create a specific glaze hue. She did.
She’d be on board as Pewabic continues to make great strides, whether it’s in the development of a new glaze, our new fabrication space for the tile pressers to have some elbow room or even something she wouldn’t have ever considered: this new website that marries Pewabic’s two previous sites – one a web store and one everything else – into one cohesive site to better serve our visitors, customers and students.
We treasure our history as we embrace the current day and eagerly look toward the future. We can be both an iconic National Historic Landmark pottery and a cutting edge ceramics maker. Perry Stratton would no doubt ask so much of us.