Feat of clay

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

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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.


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