Friday, May 25, 2007

Dave Stewart Was a Serious Potter

Dave Stewart was a serious potter. He looked like an ordinary guy--middle-aged, slightly balding. But he was supporting a wife and three kids from his craft alone, and they were getting along. He had bad teeth--discolored for years from high fluoride in the water in Deaf Smith County, Texas (and probably his cigarettes, too)--but his smile was very real and appeared on his face at the drop of a hat. He was unpretentious. He read widely--Krishnamutri's works were engaging his mind when I studied with him--and was apt to burst out with a line or two from T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" in the studio. He hated going in to town for any reason, much preferring the solitude of the back country of Dulzura in San Diego County. And he was Marguerite Wildenhain's assistant every summer at her Pond Farm Pottery workshops in Guerneville, California.

He had been planning to become a dentist, and was in college taking courses at San Diego State when he saw Martha Longenecker throwing pots on a wheel (she was a new professor of art there). He came home to his newlywed wife Nyva and told her that dentistry was out, and that he was going to become a potter. She must have been surprised; but she supported his decision as he threw himself into the abyss...

This was many years before I met him. By the time I did, his youngest girl Leslie was thirteen and he had been Marguerite's assistant for nearly twenty years, a position he did not earn until well after that first meeting with Martha Longenecker! She, by the way, continued at San Diego State for thirty-five years. And Marguerite was almost eighty already when I came on the scene.

Early in his potter's struggle he would fill up the old Ford van with boxes of pots, and go traveling up the California coast selling them to shops. He'd open up boxes right on the pavement at their back doors, and shopkeepers would buy them right there and then. He'd sleep in the van, and come home when he was out of pots. That was 'fifties and 'sixties. Boy, it was different when I hit the scene! Almost nobody bought wholesale--they were tight with cash, and wanted the artist to leave their wares--unpaid for--in their shops, and would pay a consignment fee to the artist after the work sold. The lure was this: wholesale was fifty percent, but on consignment you could often get seventy or sevent-five percent of the retail price if you waited. These weren't "shops" anymore, either--they were Galleries. Oh, my. And, sorry to say, those lousy conditions of the 'seventies have been replaced today by this--get this--the galleries will just give you FIFTY percent now, no more, AND you have to wait to get paid.

Actually, Esteban's in Sedona still buys stuff outright at wholesale prices, as they did in the 'seventies. They are an "arts and crafts store," not a gallery. But there are darn few of them out there anymore. Worthington's in Springville, Utah right outside of Zion National Park (with a TON of tourists parading through, as in Sedona) also buys wholesale. I guess if you've got megavolume of sales, it still works.

About Dave. He'd gotten past the pack-it-up-in-the-van stage, and when I met him he had an annual show at his house. His invitation list was huge, and people would arrange their vacations to include the one day a year he broke out the wine and snacks, got wife and kids all working industriously taking money and packing pots while he got to chat nonstop with folks all day. The pots overflowed his studio, and were perched on rickety tables, logs, and rocks under the giant oak trees around his place.

Oh, let me digress about "his place" a second: a nice, rich older couple who owned a "house on the hill" in Dulzura with unknown acres and acres of surrounding land liked Dave, and liked his pottery. There was a small house on their property (at the bottom of the hill) with a shed next to it--probably from the 'twenties or 'thirties. They rented it to the Stewarts for $75 a month, and had been doing so for years. Nyva had fixed it up and kept it painted, the hardwood floors polished and covered with hand-braided rag rugs. Dave had turned the shed into a shop. The garden walkways were lined with pottery shards from earlier "seconds" he'd destroyed. Porches had been turned into sleeping rooms for the kids. They'd asked about buying it, but the owner laughed and told Dave he already had the bargain of the century (can't remember their names, but the wife wrote a book about recovering from her cancer using wheat grass juice). So Dave and Nyva just kept paying their $75 a month, and counted their blessings.

After I'd studied with Dave for two years on a once-a-week basis, and had gone on to try my luck as an independent potter in Prescott, Arizona, he and Nyva had discussed an offer that came up which changed their lives a lot: in San Diego there is an "Old Town," renovated adobe buildings in the shadow of the Presidio, a Spanish fortress on a hill overlooking the magnificent San Diego Harbor (for a good description of really "old" San Diego in the mid-1800s, read Dana's "Two Years before the Mast"). Within Old Town was the "Bazaar del Mundo," a wonderful assemblage of shops and restaurants. The Bazaar's owners had a vacancy coming up in a hole-in-the-wall shop right next to the main entrance, and wanted Dave to sell his pottery there.

The Stewarts realized they really didn't have much saved for retirement--it was all day-to-day. The kids were leaving the nest soon. Danny, the oldest, was heading for Cal Poly at Pomona to study landscape architecture. Gail was soon to be married. Bottom line: they took the offer. Dave stayed home in Dulzura and made pots like crazy. Nyva, Gail, and Leslie took turns manning the shop eight hours a day, every day. It was a forty-five minute drive each way to get there. But they did it. And they did this for several years. I don't know what the rent was, but this time they could take in 100% of the retail. And, with a bloody great amount of work by the whole family, they did put aside enough for retirement. Dave finally stopped making pots a few years ago, and he and Nyva have since moved into an apartment in Imperial Beach (Dave's bald now and doing oil paintings).

For you potters out there, note one conspicuous absence: I don't know that Dave ever wasted his time going to "Arts and Crafts Fairs." With the exception of time on the road in his Ford talking directly with shopkeepers, Dave spent his time MAKING POTS, not selling them. Today, you need to shell out big bucks to go to these fairs; you need to shell out for fancy tarps and tents, and of course the big van to carry all that. Can you make money? If you man the show yourself, when do you have time to be an artist? In this arena, I can see only one option: be VERY good at pottery. Be VERY good at slicking yourself up through brochures, a list of prizes you've won, etc. Be accepted at the THE Laguna Beach six-week long summer art show! Pay a huge amount for electricity, tent, the whole shmear to be there for six weeks (including an RV to sleep in). Accept Master Card and Visa. Hire others to sit your booth. Be prepared to make the same thing that's "in" over and over again. Be of the temperament to still love yourself after tagging your work with exorbitant prices, and have a straight face when you talk your customers into believing your stuff is worth every penny. In this one instance, at this one show of shows, doing an Arts and Crafts Fair is probably worth it.

Otherwise: again, be VERY good at pottery. Go to Sedona. Go to Worthington's. Go to New York, San Francisco, maybe Atlanta. Find the places with unbelievably high traffic, and find the shops--NOT the galleries--which will buy your ware wholesale. Accept the wholesale prices: it pays to have someone else be the shopkeeper, and NOT to have your stuff on consignment, having to keep track of it all the time. Believe me, your time is worth a lot--and you'll fritter it away every moment you're not on the wheel. And how do you think you can BE a good potter if you're not constantly improving yourself on the wheel?

Today, once you've established wholesale outlets, you can ship stuff to them instead of showing up in your van. You can send them pictures via email. You can try to sell stuff via website, but something as hands-on as pottery will be difficult and time-consuming to sell--except to existing customers.

So, another "otherwise" to Art Fairs: as Dave did, sell from your own studio once a year. Be part of a studio tour or not, that's a different story. Be patient. Tell all your friends to come, make nice invitations. Keep a record of every person's name and address who ever bought a pot from you. Make it an annual event. Have refreshments. Have someone help you with the cash box and wrapping pots so you can schmooze.

IF good fortune smiles on you as it did on Dave through the Bazaar del Mundo offer, be prepared to have multiple trustworthy people helping you out. Pottery is not the high seller as it was in the 'seventies. People expect more. There can be NO LEAD in your pots--Dave worked with lead, and it wouldn't fly today. One of his students, Peter Deneen, says he works with lead and gets it tested regularly, and has no problems. This IS possible, but people are still leery and it takes time and energy to convince them. Easier to skip the lead, though some beautiful glaze possibilities will be lost to you. Your work must be flawless. You must be dedicated and tireless. But, if you can get a shop--your OWN shop--IN THE RIGHT PLACE, you can fly.

I'll talk about Dave's glazes and his forms more at another time.


Anonymous said...

I have two pieces signed David Stewart that I have been trying to research. I came into them through a friend that died, and wanted to find their origin. If possible, I could provide you with the signature on the bottom of each piece. They are so interesting.
Thank you - Mary Beth

barb said...

Glad to help, I'll email you on this. Barb

Anonymous said...

I have a wonderful piece I bought that has a paper label that says David Stewart and "materials from Mexico." It is hard to make out, as the paper is quite worn. The pot is terrific. I didn't see any dates in your blog for his selling/shop. Could you provide those? Thanks for this wonderful bio on him!

barb said...

Well, let's see. He'd been Marguerite's right hand man for over twenty years when I started getting lessons from him in, hmmm, 1975. But he didn't get a shop space at Bazaar del Mundo in Old Town until a couple of years later, say around 1977-78. I think he had that shop space for at least seven years, maybe ten, when he finally retired.

About "materials from Mexico"--that stumps me, unless at some point after 1977 he found a better deal on clay materials (red clay, fireclay, ball clay, & some glaze components like tin oxide) in nearby Tijuana or Mexicali. I know that clay pits give out & he had already switched from Red Mule to Red Horse clay from Alberhill in the early '70s. So, either price hikes or unavailability may well have sent him south.

If you want to send me a photo of the pot, I may be able to rough-estimate date it.

Alison said...

This is such a great post! Thanks for the wealth of information about DS. We've come across many pieces of his Lion's Valley work, but we recently acquired a fish planter that has a different glaze treatment (and a different mark as well). Do you know when he might have made this piece?

barb said...

It's after I studied with him--he was experimenting with a new clay and starting to do mold-made stuff (that he could slip-color and sgraffito on by hand to make each unique). Before the Lion's Valley time... would have probably been, hmmm... very early 80's I'd guess. He liked the fish motif a lot.

Mo-Tab Girl said...

My parents went to his home every summer and spent the wad! We visited the shop all the time, my father is also an artist and a good friend of Dave and Nyra. My parents kitchen and home are a tribute to this fabulous potter. I myself own many pieces including an entire set of dishes!!!!! Now my children are getting married and want Pottery like mine.... Wish he was still making the stuff!!!

thriftergirl said...

Hey if you're still blogging. I found thre
e signed plates by David Stewart and am interested in finding out more information on them. Would you be interested in helping me? They are fabulous!!!

barb said...

Sure, send me pictures, to Barbara

barb said...

I was just reading your blog post about David Stewart and can see that you are very familiar with his work AND that you are willing to help identify his pieces. I was hoping you could tell me if this unsigned piece of pottery that I found is a David Stewart piece. I have attached two images of the pottery in question – I hope you can answer this question. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure it out online to no avail.
Thank you in advance for your time and expertise. I would really appreciate knowing.

Hi, Camilla--

I was a bit stumped until I saw you are living in MN...

The leaf design looks very Dave Stewartish, but the white glaze & darker clay (with no speckles) didn't look right. I thought maybe this was from an era where he did mold work as well as wheel thrown (he'd cast stuff like teapots & vases & then hand-decorate them). But, there is no stamp on the bottom & he stamped his mold work too (thanks for including the picture of the bottom).​

But Minnesota...aha! One of Dave's best students was Peter Deneen and he had his own small multi-potter workshop in a St. Paul basement, & storefront in Minneapolis. None of his potters signed their work. It was cone 5-6 as well, but they never quite got the same glazes (Dave used a gas kiln, not an electric, for his glaze firings). I'm pretty sure that's where it's from. Other Stewart students might do leaf designs, but he taught us all to sign our work. Peter's shop was an exception.

I just looked & found in my business card pile Peter's card from about ten years ago (okay, no tittering...) "Cloth & Clay Inc.", Peter Deneen, 1-888-646-0238, 651-646-0238, 2325 Endicott Street, St. Paul MN 55114., email Looks like the website's still there. You might send him the photos & see if he concurs that it's from his shop.

Hope this helps! Cheers, Barb


MorningStarArts said...

Hi! I was a child when David's children were young; my mom used to drag me out to his house for the sales, but all I remember is sitting in the car reading a book, and that they had a huge tree, probably a live oak, shading their yard. I do have lots of Mom's purchases from those sales, and one of them is an angel with trumpet, in David's inimitable style, complete with the original hanging cord. I am looking to sell this, but because it is OOAK (before his Lion Valley days), I have no idea of its value. Where can I have an item such as this evaluated? Any help you can give is appreciated.

Barbara Szabo said...

Good question! I'm not in the valuing and reselling business so I'm clueless here. I have browsed eBay and found some things there, but I don't know if there is someone who's like a national expert on David Stewart collections who could give you advice. I'd just search the crap out of the internet to see what's selling, and where there might be showings, retrospectives, that sort of thing, where there's a curator you could contact.

It was a huge live oak tree. Usually hotter than Hades in Dulzura for his sale, how could you stand being in a car? Anyway, not much help, I'm afraid. Good luck! Barbara