Heath Ceramics founder celebrated in upcoming exhibition

By Gina Gotsill

Bay City News Foundation

Edith Kiertzner’s family lost their Iowa farm in the 1920s, and the family china set was one of the few things they kept. One can imagine the scene of the Great Depression as in a movie: Edith, her parents and her six siblings, wondering what would be next, their white china served in a box, ready to serve the best Sunday meals that anyone could no longer afford.

Later in life, Kiertzner, who married Brian Heath in 1938, would become a ceramist and would describe white porcelain – the material these dishes were made of – as “gutless”. She revolts against refined material stripped of its character and texture. And she rejected all that it represented – the imported wealth and the preciousness that people reserve for special occasions.

Edith Heath would create dinnerware designs in the 1940s with richly textured California clays and blaze a trail that still burns today. In fact, it’s possible the dishes you just purchased were inspired by Heath’s Californian aesthetic and sensibilities.

California’s Oakland Museum brings Heath’s artistic process and entrepreneurial spirit to life in “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay,” on view through October 30. The exhibition is much more than a collection of tableware: it is a fascinating creative journey that has something for everyone.

Want to know how clay comes out of the ground and see what makes California clays unique? To verify. Want to follow Heath’s rise from a ceramist who created one-of-a-kind pieces to an entrepreneur who disrupted the homewares industry? To verify. Want to swoon over modern lines and get inspired? Check, check!

The exhibition is curated by Drew Johnson, curator of photography and visual culture at the OMCA, and guest curator Jennifer Volland, an expert on the life and work of Heath. Quotes affixed to the walls throughout the exhibit help tell the story. And a detailed timeline guides visitors through Heath’s difficult childhood, her teaching jobs, her marriage, and all the years she was in the right place at the right time.

Edith and her husband, Brian, moved to San Francisco in 1942, after Brian’s work as regional director of the American Red Cross. Edith took ceramics classes at the California School of Fine Arts, taught at the Presidio Hill School in San Francisco, and in 1943 began researching clays and glazes.

Edith had the spirit of a scientist and an inventor, and wartime shortages prompted her to seek new materials to make her art. She and Brian spent weekends scouring California for clay in the landscape, show curators say.

“With many mining operations shut down during the war, she was unable to obtain the materials she needed to practice ceramics,” Volland explains. “So the pair would find missing clay pits and gather materials, including brick clays from Niles Canyon in the Bay Area, talc from Southern California and fireclays from Ione in the foothills. of the Sierra Nevadas. The latter, Ione, was the source of the first Heath Ceramics clay used in its production of clay bodies.

Edith knew she was breaking the mold and she reveled in it. She had embraced California’s laid-back lifestyle and modern sensibilities.

“What I’m doing is going to change things,” she said. “Things won’t be the same.”

The Second World War dragged on and imports of domestic ceramics stopped. Edith’s big breakthrough came around 1944-1945, when Gump department store shoppers discovered her ceramics exhibit at California’s Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Impressed by his modern aesthetic, Gump’s buyers asked him to create a line of dinnerware. Heath used a speckled California clay body, leaving a super-fine white porcelain in the dust. Heath Ceramics – and Edith and Brian’s business venture – was born, and the conversation around what ceramics could be changed completely.

In 1947, Heath Ceramics moved to a factory in Sausalito and began producing dinnerware that would go far beyond California. The Heaths were going national. The ceramics establishment balked and called Edith a “treason”. But consumers had the final say, and Sausalito-based Heath Ceramics is still in business today.

“The fun part was she was constantly exploring,” said Winnie Crittenden, a Heath Ceramics employee since 1974. “Stacks of seconds were piling up and just not selling. So she and I worked to pour glazes on it, and we would have a unique model. And finally, we ended up with this series of landscape plates.

One of the exhibits in the exhibition features his earthy, modern dinnerware alongside his mother’s elegant, pristine porcelain service. It’s like a “before and after”, where we can see how Heath rejected the attitudes and aesthetics she grew up with.

“People here are much more easy-going, more human, and less concerned about their status,” Heath, who died in 2005, said of California. “I was trying to do something more egalitarian than aristocratic. Not ‘Art’ pottery – functional dishes.

“Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” runs through October 30 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Admission is $16 for adults, $11 for seniors, $7 for youth 13-18, and free for children 12 and under. For tickets and more information, visit https://museumca.org/.

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