What is Pewabic Pottery?

 Pewabic Pottery 1903 – 2005

A Brief History

Pewabic Pottery was founded in 1903 by Mary Chase Perry (later Mary Chase Perry Stratton) and her partner, Horace J. Caulkins (developer of the Revelation Kiln), at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. The Pottery’s first home was a stable on Alfred Street in Detroit. Four years later, Pewabic Pottery moved to a new facility on East Jefferson – designed by architect William Buck Stratton in the Tudor Revival Style. In 1991, the building (which still houses pottery) and its contents were designated a National Historic Landmark and today is the Midwest’s only historic pottery. The Pottery is also on the list of Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios, a Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Under the direction of Mary Chase Perry Stratton, Pewabic Pottery produced nationally renowned vessels, titles, architectural ornamentation for public and private installations and later when the Depression reduced the demand for costlier wares, ceramic jewelry featuring Pewabic’s unique iridescent glazes. Works fabricated by Pewabi Pottery can be seen throughout the United States in such places as the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., the Nebraska State Capitol, the Science Building at Rice University in Houston and the Herald Square installation commissioned by the New York Metro Transit Authority.

In Michigan, Pewabic installations can be found in countless churches (including Christ Church at Cranbrook, Holy Redeemer Church and St. Paul Cathedral in Detroit), commercial buildings and public facilities (such as Detroit’s Guardian Building, Northwest Terminal, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Detroit Public Library, and Comerica Ballpark) public spaces (Detroit People Mover Stations) and private residence (practically in Detroit’s Indian Village and nearby Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe.) Pewabic art pottery can also by found in many private and public collections, including the Detroit Institution of Arts and the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

An important figure in Detroit’s artistic and cultural life, Mary Stratton was a founding member of the Detroit Arts & Craft Society and later served as a trustee of what is now the Detroit Institute of Arts. She established the ceramics department at the University of Michigan, taught students in Wayne State University’s ceramic program and received honorary degrees from both schools in recognition of her accomplishments. In  1947, she received the coveted Charles Fergus Binnus Medal, the nations highest award in the field of ceramics. Mary Chase Stratton was named to the Michigan Women’s Historical Center Hall of Fame in Lansing, Michigan.

Stratton died in 1961, but the Pottery continued to operate for another five years under the direction of her former assistant. In 1966, ownership was transferred to Michigan State University, which operated the Pottery as part of its continuing education program. In 1979, the private nonprofit Pewabic Society was established to administer the pottery’s operations, and in 1981 Pottery ownership was transferred to the Society, whose board of trustees continues to serve as the Pottery’s governing body. The society soon began work to restore the building and revitalize the Pottery’s design and fabrication program.

Today Pewabic Pottery is a multifaceted ceramic education institution with active and growing education, exhibition, museum and design and fabrication programs. The Pottery fabricates heirloom-quality architectural tiles, vessels, garden ware, ornaments, and both reproductions and adaptations of its historic designs. It offers classes, workshops, lectures, tours, internships and residency programs for studio potters and other artists as well as outreach programs (hands-on) workshops, summer apprenticeships, classes for gifted and talented students to provide unique educational opportunities to students from pre-school through high school. It showcases ceramic works in widely varying styles and techniques by established and emerging artists. Through its historic exhibits, it tells the story of the Pottery’s role in the history of Detroit, the growth of the Arts & Crafts movement in America and the development of ceramic art.

Now 102 years old, Pewabic Pottery reflects Mary Stratton’s vision, which she expressed in these words: “It is not the aim of the pottery to become an enlarges, systemized commercial manufacturer in competition with others striving in the same way. Its idea has always been to solve progressively the various ceramic problems that arise in the hope of working out the result and artistic effects which may happily remain as memorials… or at least stamp this generation as one which brought about the revival of the ceramic arts and prove an inspiration to those who come after us.”

The Origins of Pewabic

On October 8, 1903, when Mary Chase Perry and Horace Caulkins accepted their first order from their customer (Chicago’s Burley & Company), Mr. Burley suggested that the new pottery needed an appropriate name. Perry had called her previous enterprises “Miss Perry’s Pottery” and later, “Revelation Pottery” in honor of Caulkins Revelation Kiln, but now the partners began looking for a new name. After many discussions, they selected “Pewabic,” a Native American word that was the name of a mine near Perry’s birthplace in Hancock, Michigan.

Claims that “Pewabic” meant “copper-colored clay” or “clay with a red color” were erroneous, but the false definition became accepted as fact when writer’s and historians perpetuated the error. In reality, “Pewabic” most likely has its origins in a Chippewa word “wabic” (metal) or “bewabic” (iron or steel). According to several sources – Frank Ettawageshik, the Ottawa owner of Pipigwaa Pottery in northern Michigan: Ken Pheasant, an Odawa language instructor at Northern Michigan University and the Ojibwa World Resource Book, edited by John McNichols and Earl Nyhomn and published by the Minnesota Archeologist Society in 1979 – Pewabic’s roots are probably imbedded in metal, rather than in clay.

In the Chippewa or Ojibwa language, “wabic” or “wabik” means metal (and is now alos used to mean dollar, as in “silver dollar”), while “bewabic” or “bewabik” means iron or steel. Unlike “wabic” and “bewabic” the Chippewa word for clay – “wabagon” – bears no resemblense to “Pewabic.”

The three tribes known as Oadawa (or Ottawa), Chippewa (for Ojibwa) and Otowatomi (or Potowatomi) comprise the people of the Three Fires. Their languages are almost identical.

The three things that make the “Pewabic” name an appropriate choice for the Pottery was the association with Perry’s birthplace, is truly American origin, and its alliterative quality.