Four Hands One Heart

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

On one of these trips, in 1939, they stopped to fix a flat tire outside Glade Spring, Virginia, and noticed a muck of red clay in the tread. So they set up their pottery shop, calling it Hillcrock Pottery, in an old log cabin. They dug clay straight out of the ground and fired their kiln with soft coal from nearby mines.

Browne's film underscores the serendipity of the move. It brought them close to the writer Sherwood Anderson, who befriended them and sent a steady stream of monied New York friends their way. And it put them in the path of David Campbell, then head of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, who stopped to see them on his way to a Southern craft conference.

"He invited us to go along," Mary says. "And he told us we should send some work to the Ceramic National Exhibition in Syracuse." The National was then the premier showcase for American ceramics.

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.

The show's jury gave the Scheiers their first national recognition, awarding them a prize for one of their two works in the 1940/1941 show.

Thanks to Campbell, their works also won them an invitation, in 1940, to teach at the University of New Hampshire at Durham.

Mary recalls that when they hedged, it was Sherwood Anderson who pushed them to go. In the 20 years that they taught there, the Scheiers' works evolved from the relatively leaden forms they'd made on the back road into some of the most refined examples of handmade modernism.

They were just the thing for potters and collectors hungry for an American alternative to European designs.

The distinction of the works was their engaging sense of line. You see it in the compact delicacy of Mary's forms, which had the airiness and serenity of the finest Chinese ceramics, and in the flowing, narrative drawings that Ed applied to his and Mary's forms. His lyrical lines have the unselfconscious ease of doodles, but ones that fill the surfaces of the forms with glowing expressions of garden-of-Eden themes.

Ed Scheier says his work shows that he never got very far in the Bible. He's been working on mother and child and Adam and Eve for 50 years.

Yet as one observer in the movie points out, his emphasis on notions of birth, protection, coupling and love turns the tables on the fundamental human fears of death, injury and abandonment.

Both artists had watched enough folk potters at work to know that the best expressions of these and other themes didn't have to come from one-of-a-kind production. In the Scheiers' case, they flowed from repeated fabrication of basic utilitarian forms -- plates, cups, saucers, bowls, teapots and coffee decanters.

Mary, who worked full-time as an artist in residence at Durham while Ed taught, made them in bunches -- up to 200 a day. The improvisational spirit of her works often exemplified a beautiful balance between hard forms and soft, between spouts, for example, that looked as rigid as stone, and graceful handles that evinced the suppleness of pulled taffy. These works also underscored the spark of life that in rare instances jumps the gap between material and maker.

Though ceramics was the core of the Scheiers' career, the film touches on their move in the 1960s to Oaxaca, Mexico, where Ed worked closely with a family of talented Zapotec weavers to produce his own designs in textiles. It also includes segments about the couple's move to Green Valley in the late 1970s, and Ed Scheier's most recent work with computer imaging.

Browne has pitched the film to KAET, which is likely to run it once the final edits are completed.

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