Sunday, March 22, 2015

“Life has no pleasure nobler than friendship” - and other poignant proverbs painted on pottery in Torquay

By Carla Nix’s daughter

Being a geologist by training, were I to travel to Devon, England today, I should bring home a chunk of greywacke rock – for that is the site locale for the Devonian system (aka ‘The Age of Fishes’ in the geologic time scale). And it’s where most of the story regarding The Great Devonian Controversy – the most important theoretical issues ever to be discussed at the Geological Society of London, the leading forum for geological debate in the 1800s – was centered. That historical event “is important today because it was a characteristic piece of scientific debate: in the judgment of the relevant scientists, it resulted in a significant new piece of reliable knowledge about the natural world.” (In case you are wondering, controversies that are not characteristic “have not been resolved and are not consensually regarded as having added to the stock of natural knowledge.”) The next time you’re in Devon, please appreciate that, as noted in a collaboratively written Geological Guide to Devon’s Rocks, “Devon’s geology is one of the most varied in the British Isles and this is reflected in the great variety of its landscapes. The county records around 415 million years of Earth history and is particularly distinguished by being the only one in the British Isles to give its name to an interval of geological time of world-wide recognition - the Devonian."

Selection of 'motto ware' from Torquay, England
Hundreds of Devon tourists had come and gone a couple hundred years before I even had a chance. What they chose to bring home as a memento was often a piece of the popular Torquay ‘motto ware’ (what we now refer to as ‘Torquay pottery’) made from the numerous clay beds in the area. As noted in The Old Torquay Potteries (1978, by D&E Loyd Thomas): “Although the Torquay pottery industry differed from its Staffordshire counterpart in that it was mainly concerned with the manufacture of decorative, rather than utilitarian, wares it would be rash to assert that any firm did not make a particular type of ware or style of decoration. The most that can be said is that certain articles, such as toilet seats, dinner services, and wall tiles are rarely found; probably because they were hardly the kind of thing to be bought by visitors as a memento of a holiday in Devon.” I most certainly agree, thankfully!

To the best of my recollection, the first piece of Torquay pottery that caught my fancy was a sweet sussie – a small, inexpensive gift, chosen specifically because it has relevance to the intended recipient – that my Mom had (yes, by absolute necessity that day in Canton TX, I think) to give my Dad. The handsomely painted little tray had the traditional brown lines, blue dots and country home on a cream-colored background. The quaint saying on this one was: “Who burnt the tablecloth”. My Dad constantly smoked a pipe and was therefore always leaving little pock marks in everything that an ash could possibly burn! From then on, Torquay trinkets became our family ‘fun’ as there was a cleverly pointed quip for everyone… My Mom’s Mom was the classic worrier, so her Torquay mug said: “Don’t worry, it may never happen” and a small bowl saying: “Do not hurry, Do not flurry, Nothing good is got by worry.” Dad was rarely surprised, so he happily received another fine present of pottery decorated with truly sharp-looking rooster that offered: “A match for any man.”

Both my mother and grandmother made good use of their needlework talents, so a few knick-knacks quickly developed into an impressive collection with additions like a small pitcher with flowers noting that “A stitch in time, saves nine.” I tended to get the travel items as I was coming and going from Dallas quite a bit in those days: “No road is long, with good company”; “A rolling stone gathers, no moss”; “Life is a struggle, not a race, A wise man keeps, an even pace.” Work-related anecdotes must have been quite popular for those on vacation: “Be slow to promise, but quick to perform”; “God helps them that help, themselves”; “Little strikes fell great oaks”; “Make hay while, the sun shines”; “He who sows thorns, will never reap grapes”; “Work while you work, play while you play, That is the way to be, cheerful and gay”; “Never say die, up man and try”; and my favorite insight… “Many friends few helpers.” Indeed, the breakfast table must be a universal best-seller as we ended up with several jam jars, tea cups, and sugar bowls to cheer our day: “Fresh from the dairy; take a little jam”; “Enoughs as good as a feast”; “I cum frum Paignton; Du e eave a, cup a tay.”

And the list goes on to delight… The Torquay Pottery Collectors Society maintains an impressive alphabetical list of sayings if you ever need inspiration or an endearing sentiment! Interestingly, from studying the similar list in Loyd’s book, I learned that the Torquay potters (probably the sales managers) were possibly the first folks to crowd-source their work: “… it is believed that many of the mottoes were introduced to the potteries by customers, who were invited to write suitable lines in the visitors’ books in the firms’ showrooms.” Loyd grouped the inscriptions according to subject, with categories like conduct, devotion, dialect (like that last example from our breakfast room), domestic activities, food/drink/tobacco, humour, mealtime, morality, patriotism, precepts/maxims, proverbial, sentiment, and work/play. Something for everyone no doubt!

While the items are uniquely special for infinite reasons, I think the reason my Mom so enjoyed her collections is because each became a ‘community effort’ for friends and family. (It also gives plenty of 'chatting ease' when talking to ‘strangers’ as I have discovered.) Our Five Hearts Farm was decorated with hearts from around the world that were brought as hostess gifts and sent with birthday cards. The same can be said about the oranges at Sunkist Cabin! Aunt Gale could always find some unique piece on her trips to Europe to remind each of us that we mattered and held a place in each other’s thoughts… Powered by the ‘thrill of the hunt’ for ‘missing links’ (chipped china replacements or a single volume of a book series), collecting can become a positive obsession and can be a proactive pathway to learning. To me, pulling back together those scattered pieces to create a bigger picture of a time and/or place is the awesome allure of the great museums – actual and virtual – and the romantic appeal of personal treasures – whatever the topic!

Because we can’t take even the smallest gem with us in the end – remember this wisdom from DARTMOUTH POTTERY DEVON, HANDMADE IN ENGLAND (stamped on the bottom of a Torquay tray that fit three spice shakers): “One today is worth two tomorrow.”

Little Things Make Big Differences – like adding ‘clear blue sky’ to simple redware pottery

By Carla Nix’s daughter...

Like many baby-boomers, there have been many school teachers in my family. While there may not have been many other options for women back in the day, I chose to leave the high-tech entrepreneurial world to make my major mark in higher education. I was too young for it to have been my mid-life crisis and it was not an easy change, so I claim it as a conscious decision. I calculated the risk and have never yet regretted the rewards I continue to reap, even after 20+ years. That's what can happen when a logical, big picture problem-solver – like my Dad – hooks up with a spontaneous, fearlessly creative artist – like my Mom. My varied 'career' path has always been grounded by a deep-seated need/ desire/ talent for making a seemingly little covert, difference that catalyzes significant overt, improvement – I like to think! In that regard, I expect there's an educator or 'Jedi master' within each of us. The people who discover and hone that ability to discern what really does matter in terms of making a difference, early enough in life or just eventually, are the 'giants' I admire and respect – and I am thankful that there are many from all walks... like Lester.

Lester Breininger signing a work
One plain, quiet – and crafty – teacher in Robesonia, Pennsylvania personified the meaningful, seamless merging of the arts and science/technology topics particularly well within this educational backdrop. Nationally known for his craft as a redware potter, Lester Breininger's role in local history was tremendous. He was often referred to as the resident historian of the Friends of the Robesonia Furnace, and many other organizations. A renowned antique collector, teacher and potter, he died in 2011 at age 76, but his legacy continues in Robesonia Redware: "a family tradition for nearly 80 years combined that produces top of the line Pennsylvania German Redware from traditional reproductions to our own designs." As his wife of 54 years rightly told a local reporter, "Lester’s spirit lives on in the things he's preserved and the lives of the people he touched." Many friends have enjoyed the farm scenes on the plates for which Mom's new breakfast nook on Normandy Ave was designed... the rich, warm, deep yellow walls matched the glaze as well as the redware complemented the woodwork. Miniature flower vases, animal-shaped banks, over-sized mugs, baskets, bowls, Easter eggs and Christmas ornaments added to the magic.

This story has to start far earlier though, as my Mom's Mary Baldwin College roommate (Susan Wilson, Mrs Cruser to me) introduced us to the amazing Lester Breininger (of Breininger's Pottery then). My chapter begins in 1976 when my Dad took us on the proverbial family road trip. It was actually pretty neat! That summer, we piled into the red Rambler station wagon in Dallas and set out to explore the country of my history book that year of the American Bicentennial celebration. After marveling at the beautiful Gulf coast (including a daring helicopter ride in Pensacola, FL), we went right up the east coast (lingering a while at Myrtle Beach and taking pictures of the Liberty Bell), all the way to New Hope, PA. That's where we stayed with the Cruser family for a wonder-filled week of new experiences that seemed relatively foreign to us 'Texas kids'. The Crusers took us to meet Mr Breininger one fine day, and, well, the rest now is history!

Some of the fun farm animal plates

Having been an elementary music teacher, my Mom always was taken with 'folk art' – like Pennsylvania Dutch crafts – and immediately connected with other educators – like Lester. I was most impressed with Mr Breininger as the penultimate life-long learner who dared to dive deep into his passion for pottery after a long, productive, life-changing career as a high school Biology teacher. He kindly showed me how he dug the clay and worked it into the 'things' that meant something to him. That was 33 years before Mom and Susan and I last visited with him in his studio as we each continued to add to our unique individual collections. Equally attuned to nature, I loved that he almost always added a personal note to each piece. It was usually a snip about the weather that day he dated the work: April 5, 1983 – dreary day; Feb 25, 1988 – sunny & cold; March 16, 1988 – cold & windy; May 8, 1988 – beautiful day; April 5, 1989 – more rain; March 27, 1991 – rainy day; and so on. As Mr Breininger and his work had become such a special part of our lives, I asked him to sign my last acquisition and I will treasure it always; he had made it on a 'nice' day.

Special pieces and a sample signature
And so many 'nice' memories are captured in the more unique pieces that Susan had commissioned for special occasions – like the anniversary bowl decorated with five hearts or the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial plate that graced our Five Hearts Farm house. I personally chose to keep the 10 x 12", fluted platter with this motto inscribed around the edge: "The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn." He made that on April 25, 1988 – clear blue sky. What I remember most about the exchanges memorialized in each relic is my sense of how exciting it must have been for my Mom to venture off from Texas to Virginia for school, and then how 'fun' it must have been for my parents to 'double-date' with George and Susan in New York City in the early 60s, and now how our meeting up with the Cruser family, whenever/ however/ where ever – like Breininger’s pottery – seems to capture the simple joy of life itself.

You can learn more about Lester's work in Collecting Breininger Pottery from A to Z by Paul G. Locher, available from Breininger Publishing LLC.

THE Texas Centennial Collection: rare glassware and souvenirs reclaimed from everywhere!

By Carla Nix's daughter...

Texas Centennial lapel pin
Most everyone accepts that most everything is 'big' in Texas – and that's especially true when it comes to throwing a party! The Texas Centennial Exposition may be the biggest birthday party ever. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Texas' independence from Mexico in 1836, it was the first world's fair below the Mason-Dixon Line. The Texas legislature and United States Congress each appropriated $3,000,000 for the project. The main event was held at Fair Park, Dallas. A $25 million project that transformed the existing fairgrounds into a masterpiece of art and imagination attracted more than six million people during its six-month run in 1936.

A. Harris & Co. order form
But the parties-before-the-party were well underway in 1935, the year my mother was born a 3rd-generation Dallasite. Because I come from a long line of sentimental collectors, it's really not surprising that my grandparents partly filled their Centennial baby's hope chest with the very 'smart' commemorative glassware. According to an A. Harris & Co. newspaper ad, "... original ideas in gift items especially designed for the Texas Centennial... Texas Centennial glass is in use at the White House at Washington and the Governor's Mansion in Austin. It is something you will cherish and hand down to later generations." And that’s exactly what happened!

J. Bywaters design
My brothers and I shared most of our at-home meals (not on that most special glassware) in the breakfast room of our 1919 Texas prairie house with the collection on display in a stately pine cabinet. Various souvenirs placed in and around the key pieces could have been a 1935 window dressing for Harris' First Floor Centennial Shop downtown… except that the magnificent flag in the corner wouldn't yet have flown over the Exposition. Our uncle Joe joined the staff of the State Fair of Texas in 1951, ultimately becoming General Manager of both the annual fair and the year-round operation of Fair Park. He acquired the flag that also waved over our annual Texas Independence Day parties that brought the glassware – and a whole lot more – out of the cabinet. Several items continued to travel to local classrooms as Mom very much enjoyed teaching Texas history through these one-of-a-kind artifacts.

Texas Centennial Exposition flag
I'd never thought about the significance of her collection until Wally Chariton explained what 'souvenirs' are from an historical point of view… souvenir: a usually small and relatively inexpensive article given, kept, or purchased as a reminder of a place visited, an occasion, etc.; memento. The idea was to get those millions of visitors to take something back to their friends and families, so the Texas Centennial celebration is now spread around the world, literally! Many of the paper items have succumbed to the tests of time, and I'd bet that you've experienced the effects of gravity on glass/pottery items first-hand! So, that Carla's collection not only grew, but remained intact over the years, is phenomenal.

As executrix of our parents' estates, I was quite proud that both of my brothers agreed that we should officially donate the few items Mom had loaned to the Old Red Museum. A ceramic cookie jar, brass/aluminum ash tray, blue glass tumblers, and a clear glass oval platter designed by family friend Jerry Bywaters are part of the permanent 'Big D' exhibit to mark "the highly successful Texas Centennial Exposition (which) brought national headlines to the city", making Dallas County nationally significant. Other collections reside at the Hall of State at Fair Park (Dallas) and the 2nd Floor of the Bullock Texas State History Museum (Austin), which "concludes with Centennial Celebration artifacts and vintage media that tell the stories of the moment when Texas saddled up and rode into the nation's collective imagination – boots, spurs and all."

But wait, there's more! Seriously! Sarah Reveley has put together a terrific Texas Centennial index that will inspire you to explore the entire Great State of Texas with a multi-disciplinary perspective. In addition to the Expositions in Dallas and Fort Worth, "statewide celebrations including construction of 9 memorial museums, 5 community centers, 16 restorations of historical structures, 2 park improvements, 20 statues of important Texans, and over 1,000 historical markers, grave markers, and highway markers." There's plenty to learn about this interesting time and associated people, places, events – and, of course, things!

Having delighted in the collection that surely caused me to appreciate the importance of 7th grade Texas History class.

P.S. It's not too soon to start planning your own Texas-size celebration for our upcoming bicentennial! The state legislature passed H.B. No. 2036: A BILL TO BE ENTITLED AN ACT relating to the creation of a commission to prepare for the celebration of the state's bicentennial.

UPDATE: Much of the collection has been donated to a group in Dallas so I hope to continue to work with it in the future. In response to the question about Frankoma pitchers, here is my description of the 3 different pitchers that we had...

Spring has sprung - yet again!

Time just 'flies' - whether I'm working or playing or simply doing nothing... and thankfully it's all 'fun' for me. My mom taught me how to manage that outlook. She personified alacrity: a quick and cheerful readiness to do something. And my close friends continue to help me gain an ever-more-realistic sense of my own timing. You know who you are, so thanks for that my friends.

Me and my Mom
The title of this blog comes from a touching comment that my mother, Carla Sue Rucker Nix, made on accepting the fact that her time on this planet - as we know it - had essentially run out. In my presence, but perhaps not specifically to me, she said something to the effect that she just wished it [the ending] was happening "five years from now." Of course, I thought to myself that I wished it would never happen... yet, there we were, sitting together in that precious present of that now.

And so, 'Five Years Before', in light of that time and place I'd find myself 'five years later', is today. By the calendar, it's been almost 6 years since my sweet mother died on May 14, 2009. It could have been yesterday, except that I am finally ready to launch this channel. It's one of many aspects that I'm exploring to share a glimpse into the legacy mom created through the special time we shared.

Section of the sampler Mom made for one of my birthdays
With the technical side of things set, I was thrilled to get these first thoughts out of my head and onto 'paper' for future reference - and who knows whatever else! I hope you enjoy reading these 'snapshots' as much as I enjoyed writing them... and thinking about them over the past years. They are presented in no particular order, just flowing as my time and attention allows these days. Please feel free to comment as you are likewise compelled.