Visual Arts

Four Hands One Heart

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.

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.

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.

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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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow