Four Hands One Heart

Documentary captures the extraordinary lives of ceramics masters Ed and Mary Scheier

Even before the lights dimmed, it was apparent that this was no ordinary movie première. Held in the recreation center -- down the path toward the boccie and shuffleboard courts -- of the La Posada retirement community in Green Valley, the screening of a documentary about two of La Posada's current residents had all the trappings of an in-house movie night.

Yet when the film's introductory pictures of Mary and Edwin Scheier as young puppeteers and potters brightened the screen, the room let out a sigh of old age seeing itself again in youth.

From her seat in the front row, a lady wrapped in a purple shawl, to ward off the cold of a rainy winter day, put binoculars to her eyes and quietly exclaimed that the film's first colors were wonderful. And they got even better.

Artists Edwin and Mary Scheier are the subjects of a documentary by New York filmmaker Ken Browne.
Vivian Spiegelman
Artists Edwin and Mary Scheier are the subjects of a documentary by New York filmmaker Ken Browne.

Produced by New York filmmaker Ken Browne, Four Hands One Heart covers the remarkable artistic careers of Edwin and Mary Scheier, both now in their early 90s, whose works are among the finest American ceramics of the 20th century.

Browne, whose previous credits include a short movie for the University of New Hampshire's Currier Gallery of Art, which has many Scheier works, and numerous television sports productions, first encountered the Scheiers' art in a New York doctor's office more than a decade ago.

"He had a drawing by Ed Scheier," says Browne.

Made of sand, pigment and wax, the image featured a human head craned back with its mouth open to the sky. A mirroring image peered down. And in its throat was a little bird.

"It really struck me at the time," Brown recalls, "because I felt it was a picture of my inner condition. So when the doctor asked me how I felt, I pointed to it and said, 'Like that.'"

The idea of making the Scheier movie didn't come to Browne until the summer of 1999.

Browne had heard via the Currier Gallery that the couple, who had lived at La Posada since the mid-1990s, were planning to close the studio they'd kept in their former house in Green Valley.

Says Browne, "At the time, I thought if nothing else, it was essential to get footage of Ed making a pot." Fortunately, that simple idea evolved into a fine film about two of Arizona's more soft-spoken treasures.

It covers the Scheiers' storied career, from their on-the-road days as puppeteers during the Depression through their rise to the top of the relatively small heap of American studio ceramics.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, when arthritis forced Mary to give up the craft, the Scheiers' works were benchmarks of the studio ceramic movement. Their serene forms won them numerous awards. They've been featured in many museum exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Arizona State University Art Museum in 1994, and have been collected by many other American, Asian and European museums.

"Everyone here has had some sort of interesting life," says Helmuth Froeschler, a neighbor and friend of the Scheiers at La Posada. "But theirs has been something special."

The large turnout for the première, he says, is as much a sign of respect as of curiosity.

"Most of the people here know very little about them," he says. "They might know they did pottery, but they really have no idea of their prominence in the field. The problem is Ed and Mary are so darned modest, you really have to work on them to get the full story."

Even then, the story easily gets sidetracked by the artists' tendency to backhand their achievements.

"We've had a whole succession of just pure lucky breaks," Ed says by way of introduction in the movie.

Those breaks began, oddly enough, with the Great Depression.

Both artists landed jobs with the Federal Art Project of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). Mary Goldsmith, a Virginian, headed a gallery at Big Stone Gap in southwestern Virginia. Edwin, a New Yorker, was a field supervisor in crafts who made the rounds of southern WPA centers.

His work brought him to Big Stone Gap in 1937.

Four Hands One Heart reflects Browne's view that what transpired from that first meeting has been part of a rich love affair between the two.

Married the year they met, the Scheiers shed the security of their WPA positions for a brief life on the road as puppeteers, traveling from town to town in the South, often bartering tickets to their shows for contributions of food.

Once, in Alabama, Ed recalls, "we got 24 watermelons and two jars of canned peaches."

The gig lasted about a year.

Ceramics entered the picture in 1938, when they took jobs at an art center in Norris, Tennessee. Norris was home to the Tennessee Valley Authority, the regional power utility, which had a ceramics lab. The Scheiers swapped duties monitoring the TVA's kilns for the chance to make their own work. Edwin initially modeled the clay, making small sculptures that conveyed the basic human themes that have been central to his work ever since. Mary formed pottery on the wheel.

When they weren't tending the clay and kilns, the couple traveled the South, visiting the region's folk potters.

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