Sunday, March 22, 2015

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.

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