The MSU Connection

Posted by Cara Catallo on

Pewabic’s relationship with Michigan State University is a storied one that dates back to the 1920s, when Pewabic tile began to appear throughout the East Lansing campus: in the unglazed floor of Alumni Memorial Chapel; surrounding the stone shields on Kedzie Hall North; on fireplaces in the MSU Union and Williams Hall, which also features the Children Reading sculpture and fish water spout Clivia Calder created using Pewabic’s signature blue glaze and kilns through the WPA Federal Art Project.

Some 40 years later, the connection became even more meaningful when MSU played a pivotal role in Pewabic’s very existence. With the passing of co-founder Mary Chase Perry Stratton in 1961, the fate of the pottery fell to Henry Caulkins, son of the late Horace Caulkins, the other co-founder. In time he determined that the best way to ensure any future for Pewabic would be for it to transition from a production pottery to an educational facility.

A dedication to education was nothing new for Pewabic. Perry Stratton’s first collaboration with Caulkins was as a china painting teacher who would travel near and far to demonstrate how his kilns, created to fire dental porcelain, were similarly apt to fire china painting. Perry Stratton herself was a lifelong learner, regularly researching symbolism to use in architectural installations and challenging herself to make glaze discoveries. When architectural work slowed substantially during the Great Depression, Pewabic relied on the income from teaching to survive and keep in tact its tight-knit band of makers. Perry Stratton also was instrumental in establishing ceramics programs at several metro-Detroit colleges.

Henry Caulkins approached Detroit institutions about his concept, but to no avail. Finding institutional interest was no doubt harder than he had initially imagined. Then, after repeated coaxing, MSU accepted the offer and absorbed Pewabic as an educational satellite in 1967.

Pewabic as an MSU entity was somewhat short-lived, though. By the late 1970s, a struggling economy and budgetary shortfalls caused MSU to reconsider. Fortunately, Provost C.L. Winder was receptive to a chorus of voices – including that of Henry Booth, son of Cranbrook’s George Booth –  pleading that every effort needed to be made to ensure a future for such a cultural asset. MSU acted with remarkable patience as a group of determined individuals who cared about Pewabic worked to establish a nonprofit to run the pottery. On Sept. 1, 1981, MSU transferred the pottery to the newly formed Pewabic Society, which continues to operate the historic pottery today.

Throughout the years, Pewabic has created various commemorative tiles depicting MSU. Recently we’ve revisited wanting to honor this long-standing relationship, so integral to Pewabic years ago. Our product development team determined that the Spartan helmet would translate beautifully into a sculpted licensed tile. Pewabic Glaze Development Specialist Alex Thullen determined the just-right MSU-approved “Spartan Green” glaze. We hope you love the resulting 4x4 tile, decades in the making, quietly demonstrating the grit and perseverance of these two historic institutions.

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  • Interesting article! Yet another reason to love my alma mater💚. I will definitely be purchasing one of these unique, beautiful tiles! Thanks for sharing this information.

    Katherine Mollon on

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