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.Functional Beauty: New OMCA exhibit showcases the life and work of Edith Heath

music in the park san jose

Why would anyone need to rebel against white clay?

The complex answers to that question are explored in the Oakland Museum of California’s upcoming show, “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay.” Subtitled “Trailblazer. Rebel. Revolutionary,” the show, which opens Nov. 13, traces the history and contributions of Heath, who in her long life, 1911–2005, consistently refused to be constrained by anyone’s ideas of what she should do and make.

Edith Heath was born Edith Kiertzer in Ida Grove, Iowa, the daughter of Danish immigrants. Her farmer parents worked hard—as did their six children—but lost everything during the Great Depression. Everything, that is, except for the family piano and their Haviland china set.

That white clay set—beautiful, delicate and so expensive there were no buyers as family possessions were auctioned off—seems to have become a sort of totem for the future ceramicist.

After high school, she saved enough money to attend and graduate from the Chicago Teachers’ College. From there, it was on to the Chicago Art Institute, and eventually the Federal Art Project, where she met artist László Moholy-Nagy and became influenced by the ideas of the Bauhaus School, which advocated combining aesthetics with everyday function. In other words, it taught that design should be both beautiful and functional, as well as accessible to everyone.

At the FAP, she also met future husband, Brian Heath, and in 1941, when he became regional director for the American Red Cross based in San Francisco, the couple went west. Stopping along the way in New Mexico, Edith discovered the work of Native American potter Maria Martinez. In San Francisco, she studied at the California School of Fine Arts, where she began to develop the “clay body” that she used and worked on for the rest of her life—earthy, textured, durable clay “that had the quality of the California landscape,” as exhibit curator Drew Johnson described it.

By 1943, she was experimenting with glazes using the principles of “eutectics,” which allows certain chemistries to melt at much-lower-than-expected temperatures. By 1944, she had her first major show at the Legion of Honor.

“The early [commercial] pieces, made for Gump’s in San Francisco, are speckled and quite delicate,” Johnson said. Examples of these are in the exhibit.

Then the rebellion really began. She and Brian Heath opened Heath Ceramics in Sausalito in 1947, mass producing ceramics for daily use in post-war, mid-century modern America. This was highly controversial in the “hand-thrown only” art community. She couldn’t be both artist and merchant. She was a sell-out.

Heath didn’t care what they said. She wanted to create products that both reflected post-war prosperity and helped define the California dream of indoor/outdoor living. The exhibit features a patio table set with Heathware.

By 1949, the factory produced 100,000 pieces a year. Heath Ceramics, which was sold in 2003, continues to manufacture today. The “Coupe” line, designed in 1948, is still in production.

Yet despite her commercial “defiance” of the art world, her work was recognized in shows at major museums, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired pieces for their collections.

“Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” is, obviously, a showcase of Heath’s artistry; her work’s clean, simple forms and glazes that enhance the clay’s textures. “But we want to go beyond,” Johnson said, “and talk about her personality and her processes.”

For example, Heath loved items that were “not quite perfect.” She hated waste, and used leftover clay to make buttons. And less-well known than her tableware are her tiles. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is literally “clad in Heath” tiles, according to a blog by Angela Bilog. In 1971, Heath received the AIA Industrial Arts Medal award from the American Institute of Architects for the project, the first time a non-architect was the recipient.

Johnson noted that the historic Los Angeles Times building contains a beautiful stairwell with a ceramic handrail covered in Heath tiles. Examples of her tiles will be on view in the exhibit.

Another exhibit highlight: one of Heath’s dresses. Again unlike her overalled, clay-covered ceramicist peers, many classic photos of Heath show her perfectly coiffed and beautifully dressed.

For those who want to know more about Heath and her work before visiting the show, Johnson recommends the 2019 KCET documentary Heath Ceramics: The Making of a California Classic. A newly published book, Edith Heath: Philosophies, contains an essay by Johnson.

A cursory web search reveals that Heath’s hand-thrown pieces command high prices: A lemon-yellow bowl was listed for $8,500 on one auction site.

Yet Johnson described what is for him one of the show’s most telling exhibits: A case in which rests two groups of ceramics. “One is classic Healthware, the other is Haviland china,” he said. “Her legacy is to the people who continue to use her products.”

“Edith Heath: A Life in Clay,” Nov. 13–June 26, 2022, Oakland Museum of California. Visit the museum’s website, or call 510.318.8400 for current community safety recommendations.
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