Santa Barbara Pottery

In 1973 a young California man, Ray Markow, a recent graduate in ceramics from the University of California, Santa Barbara began selling his hand thrown pots, stoneware planters in macramé hangers, mugs and and such. He established the first incarnation of Santa Barbara Ceramic Design with a lot of enthusiasm and ambition.

There are two ways to make pottery: you can work in solitude and do everything yourself, or you can work in a workshop, with a group of potters each doing separate tasks. For thousands of years, farmers raised crops in the summer and to supplement their incomes, threw pots in the winter. They worked alone. Neolithic women made bowls and cooking pots while they watched their children, perhaps firing with the other women in their village. Similarly, today most studio potters work alone, making their pots, glazing, firing, and selling them. However, the more productive workshop situation has been the norm in many eras and locales, such as Ancient Greece and Rome, and in the industrial potteries of Stoke-on-Trent and art potteries of nineteenth and early twentieth century America. In this model, throwers throw while glazers glaze, and the firemen tend the kilns.

As Markow’s sales increased, he brought in others to work with him, changing from a solitary studio potter to the head of a workshop. He hired throwers to produce his vases and plates and candlesticks and, more importantly for him, talented decorators to cover the pots with delicate flowers, occasional tigers, and a host of other flora and fauna designs. In Santa Barbara Ceramic Design: Art Pottery from America’s Riviera Terry Gerratana, a collector chronicles the 14 years that Markow operated a ceramics workshop.

The book focuses more on what Gerratana calls the artists than the throwers, but I especially liked reading about the young men who spent their days making the pots. They were, it seems, pretty amazing throwers, pulling up tall thin walls from surprisingly small lumps of clay, fourteen inches from a few pounds, one after another, all day long, week after week. One, Bob Osif, the others nicknamed the “monster thrower,” and demon pot thrower,” because of his skills at the wheel.

The early years were freewheeling with both the potters and the artists creating their own designs. Markow sold the pots at the more prestigious craft fairs, participating in Guilford, Morristown, Rhinebeck and the ACC shows. With success SBCD moved towards standardization and relied more on the wholesale market than retail.

Later, under financial pressure to cut expenses and in a drive to become more efficient, SBCD turned to slip molding and brought in a ram press. Markow no longer relied on potters to throw the ceramics on the wheel. A staff of artists continued to cover the vases with meticulously painted flowers but by 1987, even the glaze and designs were no longer hand done and Markow abandoned clay. Today his business is called Santa Barbara Design Studio and he makes and sells giftware wholesale.

It’s an interesting piece of history. And Gerratana does a good job of telling it.

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