Pewabic tile, Detroit's art treasure

The Pewabic Pottery at 10125 East Jefferson.

Mary Chase Perry was born in  copper country — the town of Hancock in  Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — on March 15, 1867. Her father was the town doctor. From those remote and rural origins came a creative genius who influenced the art world with her innovative and lovely pottery and glazes.

After her father was mistakenly killed one night by a miner with a grudge against another man, the family moved south to Ann Arbor, then Detroit. Mary studied at the Art Academy in Cincinnati and at studios in New York. She studied sculpture in Cincinnati but her love of color drew her toward ceramics. She took up painting on natural surfaces, such as egg shells, silk, and eventually china. China painting was a fad in the 1880s and ’90s.

By then her family was living in Detroit next to Horace B. Caulkins. Caulkins had built up a successful dental supply business, and had developed kilns for firing false teeth.

Mary Chase Perry was making a name for herself as a china painter for her original methods and for the articles she wrote for technical magazines. Caulkins adapted one for firing decorated china and in 1897 asked her to travel the country demonstrating it.

Mary Chase Perry in her studio in 1905.

Around this time, Perry did some soul searching. In an interview with The Detroit News in 1932, she remembered her epiphany:

“I was trying to decide what I wanted to do, and had gone to spend a week at the lake shore to think the thing over. A piece of paper fluttered along the beach and I picked it up. There was an article printed on it headed ‘Develop the Resources of America.’ The article outlined the rich possibilities in our own soil for making the clays for pottery . . . Ever since I have been trying to develop the resources of America by using the clays found in our soil.”

She asked Caulkins if he would support her in her endeavors, and the two went into partnership. By 1903, streetcars and automobiles were fast replacing horses and carriages. Perry and Caulkins approached Alanson J. Fox, who had an empty horse barn on John R and Alfred Street, to ask if they might rent it.

“When I explained to him that I wanted to make pottery, he looked indulgent, though a little dubious, and set the rent at $8 per month,” Perry recalled.

They called it the Stable Workshop and their product was called Revelation Pottery. Perry studied ingredients such as kaolin, ball clay, feldspar and flint in ceramic ware. She experimented, juggling ingredients, heating them at various temperatures. She developed the iridescent glazes that became her most admired and renowned achievement. But she took some secrets with her when she died, believing that each artist should create something new of their own. Artists at Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery, the studio she founded, have been able to recreate some of her glazes, some through experimentation, some through analysis, but some are too toxic to be used today.

Her talents were not restricted to the artisan’s side of the business. In her diary on Nov. 28, 1904, she notes that she sold a robin’s egg lamp for $80, adding: “Take note of profit!”

At the time Mary Chase Perry became intent on “developing the resources of America,” the Arts and Crafts movement was sweeping the art world. It had its roots in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s emphasis on craftsmanship in the 18th century, and the medieval reminiscences of the Pre-Raphaelites.

William Morris’s designs exemplified the ideals of natural inspiration and truth to materials with wallpaper, textiles and stained glass, and the movement inspired a generation of architects, such as William B. Stratton in Detroit.

In 1906, Stratton founded the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, whose purpose was to promote beautiful objects for everyday use.

“Few people knew or cared about hand-crafted pottery, metal or textiles in those days. The public thought art had to be in a frame or on a pedestal,” said Perry, who served with Horace Caulkins on the Arts and Crafts executive committee.

Industrialist Charles Lang Freer, a noted collector of Oriental art and founder of the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C., was a mentor of sorts and encouraged Mary Stratton in her work

The society opened its first sales room at 122 Farmer Street in November of 1906. Among the objects for sale were raffia baskets, rocking chairs made by Labrador fishermen, tooled leather handbags, and weavings from the Massachusetts Institute for the Blind. It was the only outlet for handicrafts in all of Detroit. After the Farmer Street location, the society’s rooms were in a stable on Witherell, and finally in their own home on Watson Street.

Through their Arts and Crafts connection, Perry and Caulkins asked the architect William Stratton to design their new pottery on property they had acquired across from Waterworks Park on Jefferson and Cadillac. Mary provided the creative genius, developing forms and rare glazes. Horace was the clay specialist, who perfected an oil burning kiln which was soon used throughout the world.

The new pottery was christened ‘Pewabic,’ named after the Upper Peninsula copper mine where Perry used to walk with her father. The word came from an Ojibwa word for clay the color of copper. Eleven years later, Mary Chase Perry married Stratton in Horace Caulkins’ home.

The Strattons also worked as a team. She did interior tiles and bright chimney pots for the Arts and Crafts building. They carried out the Women’s City Club commission together, her tiles being used for the lobby, swimming pool and dining room.

Industrialist Charles Lang Freer, the noted collector of Oriental art and founder of the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C., was a mentor of sorts and encouraged Mary Stratton in her work. He had a beautiful home on Ferry where he gave her the freedom of his ceramic treasures and talked to her about the rare glazes developed in the Orient. He considered Mary Chase Stratton the most important contemporary ceramist and hers were the only American pieces he included in his collections.

Though Stratton always kept working with pottery, the bulk of her time was spent on important tile commissions such as the Union Guardian Building, Sacred Heart Seminary, the Fisher Building, the Detroit Public Library, the loggia of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Christ Church Cranbrook, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, and a huge job for the Washington D.C. Shrine of the Immaculate Conception consisting of arches outlined with iridescent Pewabic tile, huge ceramic medallions set in the ceiling, and 14 Stations of the Cross for the crypt.

These monumental legacies are not perhaps what Detroiters encounter everyday, but countless homes throughout the area — from mansions of the auto barons to the proliferating suburban Tudor and arts and crafts homes of the ’20s and ’30s — showcase Pewabic tiles in fireplaces, foyers and baths. Grosse Pointe Park and Indian Village are treasure troves of Pewabic tile.

Mary Chase Stratton worked daily at the pottery into her nineties. She died at age 94 in 1961. She lamented that “If only Americans were not so prone to tear down their buildings a few years after they have put them up, I might believe that the tiles were the most important part of our work. . . but I am inclined to believe that the pottery in which we have achieved some unusually fine glazes will outrank in artistic value of all our other work.” Indeed, her pottery is on display in museums across the world, including the Louvre in Paris.

Possibly one of Perry’s most visible works is the facade of the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit.

(This story was compiled using clips and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News