Arts & Theater

Art review: California Faience creations at Crocker Art Museum

This porcelain vase is in “Of Cottages and Castles: The Art of California Faience” at the Crocker Art Museum.
This porcelain vase is in “Of Cottages and Castles: The Art of California Faience” at the Crocker Art Museum. Crocker Art Museum

One of the longest-lived and most prolific art potteries in the Western United States, California Faience, was founded in 1913 and flourished until 1959 when it closed.

“Of Cottages and Castles: The Art of California Faience” at the Crocker Art Museum includes more than 120 of the studio’s most beautiful vases, tiles, lamps and figurines. Among the influences on these objects were American Indian and Chinese ceramics, Hispano-Moresque tiles, and Arts and Crafts, art nouveau and art deco styles.

The pottery was started by Chauncy R. Thomas, an East Coaster who moved to Berkeley in 1912. Trained at Alfred University’s School of Ceramics in New York, he had led an artisanal pottery in Deerfield, Mass., before relocating to Northern California.

Two years after founding California Faience in a small building called The Tile Shop, Thomas was joined by one of his friends from the New York school, William V. Bragdon, who was teaching at the California School of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

The two had exhibited their wares at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915, and their success at the fair convinced them to join forces. An informative catalog, useful to any collector of the pottery’s wares, written by Bragdon’s grandson, Kirby William Brown, accompanies the show.

Primarily mold-made, their wares ranged from Arts and Crafts vases, with simple lines and solid glazes, to cuenca-style tiles (a ceramic equivalent of cloisonne) to later dazzling ginger jars with crystalline glazes, the result of a collaboration with Thomas Gotham of West Coast Porcelain.

The simple lines and matte glazes of their early pots were ideal for the period from 1910 to 1930, when people were for looking for decorations for simpler houses such as Arts and Crafts bungalows. A beautiful Persian blue shade was among the most popular of their glazes. Numerous examples of these vases are on view at the Crocker along with glaze samples and marking stamps for their tiles, which also make up a large proportion of the show.

By 1920 the famed architect Julia Morgan had discovered their work and found their tiles to be perfect for her plans for William Randolph Heart’s San Simeon mansion, known today as Hearst’s Castle. Morgan sent them designs for tiles that cover walkways, stair risers, window sills, belfry cupolas and other parts of Hearst’s palatial domain.

Their collaboration with Morgan on Hearst’s Castle and other sites lasted for 10 years, during which the company expanded and moved to larger quarters. Examples of the tiles and photographs of the San Simeon structure document the project. The collaboration ended in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, when many small businesses failed.

California Faience embarked on collaborations with West Coast Porcelain, producing California Porcelain objects with gorgeous “fractured” crystalline glazes. Several example are on view, as well as innovations, such as hard-to-make “mirror black,” glazed vessels.

Unlike many small artisanal concerns, California Faience continued to flourish until the late 1950s by opening up the facility to Northern California artists like Beniamino Bufano, who later became a prominent San Francisco sculptor. A pair of blue bear bookends by Bufano are included in the show, along with examples of figurines and small sculptures by other less-well-known artists. The show continues through May 17.

‘Lamp of the Covenant’

Sacramento artist Dave Lane, whose monumental sculptures have graced the California State Fair Art Show for many years, has installed a colossal commissioned artwork at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. “Lamp of the Covenant” is a 90-foot-long, 6-ton work suspended high over the heads of visitors to the museum in its soaring lobby space. Attached to an enormous oval of steel are world globes, antique objects, light bulbs, tools and other objects that bespeak the marvels of the cosmos. For information about times and admission prices, go to thecjm.org or call (415) 655-7800.

Of Cottages and Castles: The Art of California Faience

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento

When: Through May 17, 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $5-$10, free for members and children 6 and younger; every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”

Information: (916) 808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org

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