The Fascinating Lives of the Pillins

Until reading Pillin Pottery by Jerry Kline and Mike Nickel, I was unaware of the fascinating lives and remarkable ceramics of Polia and William Pillin. I wondered for a moment if my wandering mind had just forgotten something I had once known as it does now and then, so I went to my shelves and pored through my books. There is no mention of the Pillins by Garth Clark in his notable tome American Ceramics: 1876 to the Present, and not a word of them in Elaine Levin’s The History of American Ceramics. They do appear in the ceramics section of Antiques Roadshow Collectibles by Carol Prisant, which notes “little has been written about their work.”

In Pillin Pottery, Jerry Kline and Mike Nickel give us the outlines of their personal histories and more than 700 color photos of their pottery. Reading it, I now feel introduced. However, their journey seems the stuff of fiction or at least merits a full biography. Actually, their story would make a great movie.

Polia Sukonic Pillin was born in Poland in 1909 to a talented family of weavers, potters and coppersmiths. She was just fifteen when her family sent her to Chicago where she toiled in the garment industry during the day and took classes in painting and sculpture at the Jewish People’s Institute at night. A cousin introduced her to William Pillin whose family had fled the pogroms in the Ukraine and settled in Chicago. They fell in love and two years later they married. Young, ambitious, and creative, they dreamed together that one day, he would be a poet and she an artist. After some detours and obstacles, their dreams came true.

Following the Depression, they settled on a sixteen-acre farm New Mexico. It was a hard life, as farm life often is. They cut and chopped wood for heat and cooking, lugged heavy water buckets several miles to the house, and read by kerosene lanterns. They also began weaving, their first venture into supporting themselves through art.

When their son Boris was born, they decided that such a rustic life was impracticable with a baby, and they returned to Chicago. William worked as a bookseller and Polia soon had a one-person show of her paintings at the Chicago Art Institute. It was at the CSI that she saw and was enchanted with clay. In 1946 she took a six-week course in ceramics at Hull House, her only formal training in pottery.

Eventually, Polia set up a studio in their kitchen including a wheel and a homemade electric kiln. She perfected a technique she called “painting on clay.” She added oxides to slip in various intensities and combinations, developing a palette of extraordinary range. With these slips, she painted her ethereal images of women, cats, horses, and birds on greenware pots. Chagall-like in color, her women dance, play instruments, ponder, gather together, ride horses, sit with their cats. There are no children, houses, meals or other symbols or ordinary domesticity. Polia fired her decorated pots to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, covered them in a transparent glaze, and then fired to 1900 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the studio-in-the-kitchen years, Polia taught William how to make pots. He began to throw vessels for her, took care of the firing, and sometimes helped with glazing. Polia never stopped throwing pots herself and always did the painting. At some point in the sixties, they made some pieces from molds in order to keep up with demand, but even then, they both threw pots.

Kline and Nickel quote her writing in a magazine article, “There is a school of craftsmen who contend that pottery is entirely a matter of form and glaze; that an artist is trespassing his legitimate domain in applying his concepts to a vase or a plate. Though I also admire the work of craftsmen who operate entirely in form and glaze, I feel that an artist can bring unique qualities to the ancient craft. Under the transparent glaze his textures and colors shimmer with jewel-like brilliance. Since this effect is possible only in clay and glaze, the artist need make no apologies for working in the ceramic medium; glaze is just as legitimate a surface treatment as varnish, lacquer, or linseed oil.” She seems to me to be justifying her methods to potters who might look askance at her painterliness and to painters who might look down on her for working on vases and bowls.

In 1948, the Pillins moved to Los Angeles where they remained for the rest of their lives. Here, they set up their studio in the garage. It must have been a relief to get the wheel out of the kitchen. By this time, they were able to support themselves with their ceramics.

William’s poetry career also flourished. His poems, deeply emotional, rich with references to American literature, European art, mixed with the pain of his family’s past, appeared in the most prestigious publications and by the time of his death he had published nine well received collections.

Today, Pillin pottery is highly collectible with prices starting in the high hundreds and many in the thousands.  It is sought after on the antiques and American art pottery circuits (a world that is foreign to me). Yet they remain outside the canon of American ceramics. I think their story and pots are worth a further look. And I would love to know if Polia kept a notebook of her engobe recipes and experiments. That would be fun to read.

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