Feat of clay

Artus Van Briggle was one of the great tragic geniuses of American art
Peter Fish

One good way to take the pulse of the nation is to scan the vast electronic yard sale that is eBay. There, once you've browsed the Malibu Barbies and 1973 Chevy Vega repair manuals, you can type in "Van Briggle Pottery." When you do, your screen will fill up with items like "van briggle three indian headed vase $389 mint condition" and "van briggle pottery flower frog vase absolutely fabulous... in excellent condition (starting bid $350)."

In the world of art pottery, Van Briggle remains a potent brand name. That's not bad, given that the man behind the name died 100 years ago. But then again, Artus Van Briggle was one of the great tragic geniuses of American art.

"He loved animals and flowers, frogs and dragonflies," says Bertha Stevenson, who as president of Van Briggle Art Pottery in Colorado Springs is keeper of Van Briggle's kiln-kindled flame.

Van Briggle was an Ohio boy who realized young that he wanted to be an artist. It was the era when, in response to the industrialization of American life, artists latched onto the ideal of the beautiful, the handcrafted. In Van Briggle's case, this passion was channeled toward sculpture and pottery. After an unpromising apprenticeship at something called the Arnold Fairyland Doll Store, he hooked up with one of the leading studios in the country, Rookwood Pottery Company.

But Rookwood was in Ohio, and Van Briggle earned his fame in Colorado Springs. How he got there is another strand of the story. One aspect of the West that isn't often remembered is how many people came out here just to get well. That was especially true of Colorado, where the dry, sun-filled air was deemed especially salubrious for victims of the 19th-century plague, tuberculosis. Van Briggle had contracted TB sometime in his 20s. And so, in 1899, at age 30, he moved to Colorado Springs; his future wife, Anne Lawrence Gregory, followed the next year.

I am no pottery connoisseur. You could show me an ancient Greek amphora and a bud vase from Target and I would say of both, "That's pretty." But even to the untutored eye, Van Briggle's work is special. Despite ill health, he scoured the foothills behind Colorado Springs for the ideal blend of clays. He consulted with chemists to attain his grail: re-creating the lost matte glazes of Ming Dynasty pottery, an interest presumably shaped by an 1893 trip to Paris, where he studied ancient Asian glazes. His finished works ― many of which are now valued in the thousands of dollars ― garnered him international acclaim.

 

You can see more than 700 of them at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, which houses the largest public Van Briggle collection in the world. There are bowls and vases and decorative pieces: elegant, languid, and often ― with names like Lorelei and Despondency ― bearing the melancholy aura of an artist who knew he didn't have much time left.

"It's a great honor to carry on the Van Briggle tradition," Bertha Stevenson says. That's another unusual part of the Van Briggle story: While most American art-pottery studios vanished long ago, Van Briggle endures. It's run now by Bertha and son Craig, who serves as the company's chief designer. Visit the Colorado Springs studio these days and you can see pottery going from clay to kiln to finished product: The company produces more than 4,000 pieces a year. "It's a unique business," Bertha says. "There's nothing quite like it. But it's fun to be here ― I'm here every day."

Back at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, you can see Van Briggle's last work, of sorts: a clay death mask done by his wife, Anne. Van Briggle died on the unsuitably festive date of July 4, 1904, at age 35. But shining all around the mask are more luminous works: vases and bowls with their flowers and dragonflies, sculpted out of common Colorado clay but designed for the ages.

INFO:  Van Briggle Art Pottery (showroom open daily, factory closed Sun; 600 S. 21st St., Colorado Springs; 719/633-7729); Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum  (closed Sun-Mon; free; 215 S. Tejon St., Colorado Springs; (719/385-5990)