Feat of clay

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

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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)

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