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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Barbara Willis

Barbara Willis
Barbara Willis (1917-2011) has been called "The Mother of Commercial Pottery." Willis majored in education and minored in art at UCLA, where she studied with ceramist Laura Andreson. She received her bachelor's degree in 1940.

In 1941, with her husband away in the military, she began to make ceramic pieces in a studio behind her parents' home. One year later, at the age of 25, she opened Barbara Willis Pottery. Taking what she had learned from Andreson, whose bisque and crackle glaze work was hand-thrown, Willis began to make similar pieces using molds instead. She added what were then considered cutting-edge glaze colors of intense turquoise, citron and deep Chinese red.

By adapting a hand-thrown techniques to a commercial production method, Willis and her fifteen employees were soon selling pieces for $5 that would have cost five times as much. Her pieces were sold at upscale stores like Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, Gump's and Macy's. She said in a 2003 LA Times interview that she was making $25,000 a year at a time when her girlfriends were making $1,200 a year.

Just as quickly as success had come, however, it was over. Inexpensive imports flooded the market and put most California potteries out of business in the late 1950s. Willis estimated that she had produced at least 250,000 pieces by the time she closed her doors in 1958. She went on to other businesses, first importing artificial flowers and later selling real estate.

Renewed interest in her work began in the 1980s, but Willis did not know that her work had become collectible until the 1990s. In 1995 she found one of her pieces at a flea market. She left her phone number with the seller and soon received a phone call from a collector who told her she was a California pottery legend. She was encouraged to re-start her career, so she began hand-molding pottery in her Malibu kitchen.

Willis continued to make pottery until she was 92, when it finally became too difficult to lift the heavy clay. Willis never considered herself an artist, even after her resurgence as a potter. In the same 2003 interview, she told the LA Times, "I can't get over this; it's so ridiculous."

From latimes.com, accessoryhut.com and theautry.org
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grovenet.net
theautry.org
lamodern.wordpress.com
ebay.com - skwm
lamodern.wordpress.com
avaliving.com
accessoryhut.com

12 comments:

  1. I love the little pottery horses. (At least I think that is what they are.) Ohhhh I love the color of the pottery in the first pic.
    She made nice stuff.

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    1. I love the little horses too. I wish I could find one for my house!

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  2. I love that she continued potting to an old age, in my first year uni, I studied with a lovely lady 69 years young. I was 18 at the time!

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    1. I loved that she didn't even know she was famous till she was in her 70s...and that she said the whole thing was ridiculous.

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  3. Beautiful works... thanks for the lesson :)

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  4. Wow, she made some very cool pottery! Oh,that yellow. Love all that California pottery. Thanks for sharing Barbara Willis with us.

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    1. I think that yellow is spectacular too. I've never been a big yellow fan, but that is my favorite photo in this post.

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  5. The simple forms enhance the bold colors. Love it! thanks for sharing....again!

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  6. Thanks for sharing the info on Barabara Willis. I just purchased a pillow vase and an ashtray at a garage sale and was thrilled to see her stamp on the bottom. I could not find pictures of the pieces that I have . Do you know anyone who appraises her work?

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  7. thanks for all I learned from your blog about Barbara Willis. Today I found in a thrift store one of her amazing cracle glazed vessels for 59 cents. What a great piece in my collection of mid century modern American ceramic art!

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