By Nicole Hennessy
Nestled in the Rocky River Public Library is the Cowan Pottery Museum.
During a span of less than 20 years, R. Guy Cowan and the many talented artists who worked beside him created art pottery that is now world-renowned.
However, these two decades of achievement are not the focus of the Cleveland Artists Foundation’s current exhibit, “Unchallenged
Workmanship: Artists out of Cowan Pottery.” Rather, it is about what came after the 1931 closing of the studio for seven of the artists featured in the exhibition.
“They were successful; they were mass-producing commercial pottery,” Lauren Hansgen, the foundation’s executive director, explains of the Cowan Pottery days. “They didn’t make it, though, through the Depression. There weren’t enough buyers out there.”
Today, she said, they’re so widely collected and well-known that it’s become a legacy. This exhibit addresses the meaning that Cowan Pottery had for the careers of the artists who worked there.
In the Beck Center for the Arts, where CAF’s gallery is located, Hansgen, walked from display to display, lovingly commenting on each piece. The exhibit is organized according to artist — Waylande Gregory, Walter Sinz, Thelma Frazier Winter, Edris Eckhardt, Viktor Schreckengost, Alexander Blazys and Elsa Vick Shaw.
Hansgen pointed to a small sculpture. “This is a piece from the museum, by Margaret Postgate,” she said, the white figures representing three Marys. “This is the only piece for her in the show.”
Behind this was a similar, but larger, piece by Walter Sinz, which was created in the 1950s.
“So, you can see that they were revisiting the Cowan stuff that they were familiar with, something that carried through later into their careers.”
Throughout the exhibit are examples of the revisiting of images, such as that of Moses.
When visitors descend to the lower gallery, they are met by the Waylande Gregory exhibit. Side by side stand two figures, “Nautch Dancer” and “Burlesque Dancer.”
Belonging to two different collectors, their curves accommodate each other, as if they were meant to dance beside one another.
“Part of the point was to show the way that these artists were innovators and what each of their contributions were,” Hansgen explained, standing near another Gregory piece. “He patented this technique of putting glass in the glaze. So this is a great example that.”
Moving on from the glittering glass fused into the glaze, she continued, admiring tea sets and the few paintings and drawings included in the exhibit.
Carol Jacobs, curator of the Cowan Pottery Museum, said that because this year is the centennial of the opening of Cowan Pottery, many events are scheduled around town through 2013, including a May 5 Cowan symposium at the library and a July 15 pottery sale at the Don Umerley Civic Center.
Most of the artists who are exhibited at the Beck Center can be found at the museum, as well as some who aren’t, as it has a collection of more than 1,200 pieces, less than half of which can be displayed at one time.
“I just love seeing the progression of these artists,” said Jacobs, referring to “The Three Marys” piece Hansgen mentioned.
She added that the community should be very proud of Cowan Pottery.
“This is something that makes Rocky River unique,” she said, citing the period after moving from Lakewood as the period during which Cowan produced the most successful, popular and experimental pieces.
“I knew that these artists were successful, but to see the actual proof of that was quite inspiring.”
“Unchallenged Workmanship: Artists out of Cowan Pottery” will be on display until May 5. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 1 until 5 p.m., and by appointment.