Published: September 20, 2011
Puppets, pots and peregrination made for the remarkable and prodigious careers of Mary Goldsmith Scheier and Edwin O. Scheier, whose blended natural aptitude and high aesthetic sense resulted in some of the most important studio pottery of the American Twentieth Century.
Although the Virginia-born Mary Scheier had studied in New York at the Art Students League, the Grand Central School of Art in Paris and at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, and Bronx-born Edwin studied at the New York School of Industrial Arts in 1928 and took advantage of free seminars at Cooper Union and spent plenty of time in New York museums, both were largely self-taught ceramicists.
Their story is a romantic one: the couple met briefly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was reacquainted in 1937 at the Big Stone Gap and Abingdon Art Centers, the first WPA galleries in Virginia, where the then Mary Goldsmith was the director, and Scheier, a teacher of crafts and puppetry, visited as field supervisor of WPA crafts programs. They married that year and took to the road as itinerant puppeteers, sometimes accepting food for payment, until they realized that the itinerant life was not for them.
They set up next at the Federal Art Project in Norris, Tenn., where they worked and studied pottery, absorbing some of the traditions of East Tennessee ceramics. They established their own studio, Hillcrock Pottery, in 1939 in Glade Spring, Va., where they began to produce small sculptures and functional pottery.
At the invitation of architect David R. Campbell, also the director of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, they relocated in 1940 to Durham, N.H., where Edwin taught and Mary was artist-in-residence at the University of New Hampshire. They were fixtures in the community for the next 28 years, gathering a dedicated following. They made periodic visits to Mexico, taking in the ancient culture and design, and they moved to Oaxaca full time in the late 1960s, where they lived and worked for ten years until they moved again, this time to Green Valley, Ariz., where they lived until Mary Scheier’s death at 99 in 2007 and Edwin’s at 97 in 2008.
Once they began to focus on pottery, the Scheiers and their work were highly sought after. Much of their enormous output was functional, most frequently commissioned. From the very beginning, they depended on local clay they often dug themselves. They drew on a myriad of influences: rural Virginia and Tennessee ceramic traditions, the whimsy of their puppets, ancient and native Mexican imagery and the prevailing aesthetic of the nearly entire century in which they lived, all garnered from their peripatetic careers and expressed through their own innate gifts.
Theirs was a lifetime partnership. Early on, Mary Scheier made wheel-thrown pots, exhibiting an unusual mastery of form. Her hand was graceful and her pots were remarkable for their delicate form and the thinness of their walls. Edwin Scheier created some show-stopping glazes in soft shades of blue, green, pink and purple with compelling decorations, often incised. His designs ranged from the figural through the biblical, pre-Colombian and abstract. While they began working separately, with Mary throwing and Edwin decorating, they came to work side-by-side in what P. Andrew Spahr, who is the director of collections and exhibitions at the Currier Museum of Art, describes as a total collaboration, so bonded were they. He uses the term “synergy” to describe the couple, their work and the dynamic of form and decoration.
The two were potters of innate talent, self-taught and passionate about their work. They began to be recognized early: just two years after they began to make pottery, they won second prize at the Ninth Annual Ceramic National Exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y. This was the first of a lifetime of national and international prizes for the ceramics they created together and independently.
In the nearly three decades they lived and worked in New Hampshire, Mary and Ed Scheier were in the vanguard of American studio pottery. They were well known in the New Hampshire arts community, and many area collectors were devotees. They welcomed visitors to their house in Durham. The University of New Hampshire museum owns a selection of gifts from the artists: 38 pots of various shapes and sizes, and five large, flat blue plates. The university’s Scudder Art Gallery mounted a retrospective show of the Scheiers’ works, including paintings, pottery and weavings, in the fall of 1979.
The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, which was the first American statewide crafts organization and is approaching its 80th anniversary, holds a selection of Scheier pieces dating from the 1930s through the 1960s. The league served as an economic engine, playing a major role in attracting artists to New Hampshire, making it an important arts center. The league’s Campbell facilitated the Scheiers’ (and other artists of the time) settling in New Hampshire. The Scheiers and others sold their pots through the league. Over the course of their years in New Hampshire, the pair explored new forms and techniques. Mary’s pottery became more adventurous and Edwin’s aesthetic became more sophisticated, looking toward Surrealism, Arabic script and pre-Columbian cultures
The relationship between the Scheiers and the Currier extends back to the 1940s, as does their relationship with the University of New Hampshire. The Currier holds more than 700 Scheier pots, tapestries and cartoons, sculpture, drawings and other artifacts.
The Currier was the site of one of the earliest museum exhibits of Scheier pottery. “American Potters: Mary and Edwin Scheier” opened in 1993 and traveled to other sites. The couple left their entire collection to the museum, which opened a gallery in their honor in 2010.
Early patrons were Lucille and Isadore Zimmerman, whose 1950 Frank Lloyd Wright house in Manchester was replete with fine Scheier examples. In 1988, the Zimmermans bequeathed the house to the Currier, along with a good selection of their collections. Some 30 Scheier pieces, including a dinnerware set, are on view at Zimmerman House.
Of the almost ethereal tactile qualities of Scheier pots, says Kurt Sundstrom, associate curator at the Currier, “when you handle a Scheier piece, you can feel where the artists put their hands.” He cites the amazing colors and extraordinary combinations that make it an indescribable experience to handle them, noting that they were meant to be used, touched and held.
Spahr spent some time with the couple over the years, and recalls a devoted pair, deferential to each other, who were quite humorous; Edwin with a dry wit and Mary who loved to laugh. Their company was a special pleasure. Even in her late 90s, Mary maintained a lively interest in current events. The couple also maintained a large library and both were interested in Modern art
While they lived in Oaxaca, Edwin was inspired by the archaeological monuments and designed tapestries that were woven by local weavers. He also delved into sculpture, working in the indigenous Guanacaste wood, carving forms related to the archaeological history of the area.
When the couple relocated to Arizona, Edwin set up a studio and was potting once again, creating three-dimensional figures such as Adam and Eve, fish and other creatures, with applied and carved sgraffito decoration. When well into his 90s, it was recommended that he give up throwing pots; he acquired a computer and began making computer drawings using some of the same themes he used in his pots.
Their friends Ruth and Melvin J. Bobick remember the Scheiers with great fondness. The highly regarded Professor Bobick, who taught sociology at the University of New Hampshire for 47 years, describes a couple who “worshipped each other,” who enjoyed ideas and maintained a lively interest in public issues. He notes that they took thoughtful stands on events of the day and social philosophy. They had, Bobick says, “a high respect for craft of all kinds and worked at theirs seven days a week, sunup to sundown.”
Bobick reports that his introduction to the Scheiers began in 1958 with the opening of a new gallery at the university that included Scheier pots. He admits that he “fell in love with their work” and called them to see if he could buy some. His purchase of a Scheier pot was his first art acquisition and the beginning of a long-lasting friendship.
Bobick also recalls Ed Scheier’s puckish humor and that he was fond of telling preposterous and apocryphal stories that held his listeners spellbound.
Such was the strength of their relationship that when the Scheiers were thinking of moving to Oaxaca and selling their New Hampshire home, Ed Scheier wrote to the Bobicks to see if there was any interest on their part. The Bobicks jumped at the chance and made the purchase at a very good price. The house had been designed by the architect who brought the Scheiers to New Hampshire, David R. Campbell, and the Bobicks live there today in what the professor describes as “a beautiful house.”
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