California pottery on exhibit-local potter showcased

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    Pottery lovers can soon indulge themselves in all the splendors of California’s contributions to functional ceramics when a new exhibition opens July 4 at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. “California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism” highlights commercially produced tiles, tableware, garden accents and other accessories from the early 1900s to mid-century. One of the artists to be showcased is a Malibuite who never expected to see her work in lights in the new millennium.

    Barbara Willis experienced tremendous success as a modernist production potter in the 1940s and 1950s. Though brief, her career afforded her a comfortable life that includes a beautiful Malibu beach home. But, as fate would have it, pottery wasn’t done with Willis. More than 50 years after her heyday, Willis’ work is fetching hundreds of dollars by collectors, and authors and museum curators are after Willis to interview her and display her talent once again.

    Bill Stern is the curator of the California pottery exhibition based on his book of the same name. He said Willis’ work is a terrific example of the innovative design and bold colors that are trademarks of local ceramics. “Barbara’s use of color and form are imaginative and her work is appealing now because we are appreciating modernism again.”

    The pottery of California has a rich heritage, drawing from its exposure to the cultures of Mexico, Spanish-Moroccan, China and Japan. Geometric designs, intense colors and nontraditional shapes and finishes gave pottery from California a distinction many things from this state share-uniqueness. Willis made her own mark on the industry through her personal style and inventive techniques. According to Jack Chipman, the author of “Barbara Willis: Classic California Modernism,” Willis’ work was, and still is, unrivaled. “Barbara started a whole new trend of the combination of stained and tooled bisque along with crackle glaze.”

    Willis attended UCLA in the late 1930s with the intent to study education. She ended up in a pottery class taught by Laura Andreson, a well-known California studio ceramist who helped create the university’s ceramics department. “I took Laura’s class and fell in love with pottery. I’d never even had an art class before that,” Willis said. A career in teaching was forgotten and Willis spent the next three years under Andreson’s tutelage. After graduating from university, Willis opened her own pottery studio and was soon represented by one of the best sales reps of the time, Dick Knox.

    The beauty and simplicity of Willis’ pottery made it attractive to the consumer but the timing of her emergence into the marketplace put Willis, and a few other potters, into an unexpected financial boon. During wartime, imports were not allowed into the country; therefore, department stores and gift shops relied on domestic ceramists to fill all of their orders.

    According to Chipman, California artists rose to the challenge. “They literally came out of the woodwork, and creativity and fearlessness was the hallmark of California pottery.”

    Chipman notes that most people are unaware of the thriving pottery industry in California at that time. “It really influenced the lifestyle here,” he said. “There was a pottery yard in just about every city where you could buy seconds [pieces with minor imperfections] so everybody had pottery in their house.”

    Unfortunately, the booming California pottery industry died out almost as quickly as it arose when the war ended and imports flooded the market again. Willis sadly closed down her shop and turned her attention to a new business importing silk flowers. She also started a family.

    For decades Willis continued her pottery as a hobby but figured her time in the limelight had come and gone. Then in 1996, while shopping in a flea market, Willis discovered one of her pieces. She told the dealer that she was the artist. It was then she realized how sought after her work had become by antique collectors.

    “Her stuff has never been really plentiful because other companies of the time mass-produced and she had a small crew,” Chipman said.

    Willis’ work is also special because, due to the small size of her production studio, the majority of her pieces are signed on the bottom.

    At the age of 85, Willis is thrilled to be experiencing resurgence in her pottery career, but she humbly says she’s just been in the right place at the right time-twice.

    Pottery enthusiasts can see Willis’ vintage pottery in the “California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism” exhibition at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles July 4, 2003 through Jan. 25, 2004.

    Plus, one of Willis’ pieces from approximately 1950 will be auctioned off at The Museum of California Design’s annual California Design Award benefit July 12.

    More information can be obtained about the benefit or the exhibition by calling 323.930.2700.