The next time you visit Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, take a moment to look at the ceramic trim along the walls, sporting a parade of fish. At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., note the mosaic Stations of the Cross and dramatic depiction of a dove with halo in a dramatic sunburst. All are noteworthy examples of Pewabic Pottery, a simple yet elegant contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement that originated from Detroit—and one woman who emerged as an artistic pioneer.
Mary Chase Perry was born in 1867 in Hancock, a copper mining community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At the age of 10 she moved with her widowed mother to Ann Arbor, and the family eventually settled in Detroit. Taking an interest in artistic endeavors at an early age, Perry studied at the Detroit Museum of Art and at the Cincinnati Art Academy. During her studies, she excelled at china painting and became an expert at it, teaching and writing, and selling her work.
After returning to Detroit, she collaborated with her neighbor Horace J. Caulkins, a dental supplier who had developed an innovative method for firing implants that he called the Revelation Kiln. The invention piqued the artist’s curiosity, prompting her to utilize the device to experiment with glazing and firing. Her original glazes, which were usually either blue, green or yellow, took on a lustrous, yet subdued patina.
Perry and Caulkins decided to launch a business venture they simply called Revelation Pottery, after the kiln. The fledgling operation began in 1903 in a small carriage house in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood, just north of downtown. With an especially large order from Burley and Company, a prestigious Chicago retailer, came the stipulation that the partners choose a new name for their business.
The duo settled on “Pewabic,” a word derived from the ancient Ojibwa name for a river near Perry’s hometown. A local copper mine shared the name, and the word soon became associated with the color of the metal.
Demand for the distinctive ceramic pieces and architectural tiles took off, and quickly exceeded the studio’s capacity. In 1907 Pewabic Pottery moved to its current location, a Tudor revival building on Detroit’s east side designed by architect William “Buck” Stratton. In 1918, at the age of 51, Perry married Stratton.
“What’s especially noteworthy is that Mary Chase Stratton became an entrepreneur at a time when women were not even allowed to vote,” explains Steve McBride, executive director of the non-profit Pewabic.
The iridescent glaze she originated was an instant sensation, and today Pewabic is viewed by historians as major a contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. Pewabic tiles have been used for floors, wall coverings and fireplace surrounds in both public buildings and private homes. Stratton created striking tiles for the 1929 Guardian Building, a Detroit landmark revered for its bold, Art Deco design. Examples of Pewabic commissions elsewhere include the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln and the Science Building at Rice University in Houston.
“Many of these projects were huge and required the company’s involvement for several years— despite its small size,” says McBride.
Pewabic continues to produce tiles for contemporary buildings, including the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Comerica Park, home of Detroit Tigers baseball.
Stratton operated her business until her death in 1961 at the age of 94. The 1907 building is still in use, and is designated a National Historic Landmark. In addition to the working studio it houses a gallery, museum and retail store with items based on Stratton’s original work and that of contemporary artists, plus space for classes and workshops offered to the public.
“The year marks the 150th anniversary of Mary Chase Stratton’s birth,” says McBride. “So, we’re making a special effort to celebrate her legacy by creating some unique, limited time glazes that closely resemble those that she formulated.”
This article originally appeared in the 2017 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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