Object of the Week: Bowl by Edwin Scheier

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Edwin Scheier (1910-2008) was born in the Bronx, the youngest son of two German immigrants. To supplement his family’s income, Scheier left school in eighth grade to work as both a delivery boy and as an assembler in a factory. Not content to stay in the Bronx, he hitchhiked across the country multiple times before turning sixteen, working odd jobs as he traveled. While working as a delivery boy at the Blue Kitchen, Scheier met fellow delivery boy Jacob Kainen, who later became a notable printmaker and painter. Through Kainen, Scheier discovered the thriving New York art scene. Relying on the work ethic instilled in him as a child, he joined the city’s art world through apprenticeships, odd jobs, classes, and free artist lectures. During this period, Scheier met and worked for Viennese ceramicist Vally Wieselthier, an experience that introduced Scheier to ceramic art. As for many Americans, the Great Depression majorly affected Scheier’s life. For Scheier, it led him to become a traveling puppeteer. He learned puppetry fundamentals through a New Deal public works class and was hired in 1937 to entertain Civil Conservation Corps camps stationed throughout New York state. The Civil Conservation Corps, also made possible through the New Deal, provided jobs for young men who could not find work during the Great Depression, offering them food, clothing, shelter, and a monthly wage in return for manual labor. Scheier excelled in his work, earning a series of promotions that eventually saw him appointed as Field Supervisor for the Southern States. This appointment would be pivotal for both his artistic and personal life, as Scheier met his future wife and creative partner, Mary Scheier (née Goldsmith), during his work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

 

In 1937, Edwin and Mary Scheier left the WPA in order to travel through the south with their puppet show. Scheier accepted a position in Tennessee as director of an art center, where he taught classes on art, crafts, and puppetry. Both Scheiers were encouraged to explore ceramics during this period by Dr. Hewitt Wilson, the director of a neighboring Ceramics Laboratory. This encouragement, along with the technical education, access to equipment, and space to explore was pivotal for their artistic development. The Scheiers had the space to experiment—and fail—with clay, an opportunity they embraced. They also studied local potters, learning folk styles and American traditional pottery. Inspired, the Scheiers once again set out to travel and support themselves—but this time as ceramicists, not puppeteers. Together, the Edwin and Mary established Hillcrock Pottery in Glade Spring, Virginia in 1939. Initially their works were primarily functional pottery and small sculptures. The pair worked collaboratively, with Mary throwing the local clay and Edwin glazing and firing the works. Informed by American folk traditions, the Scheiers developed their personal style in Virginia. The remote location of their studio allowed Edwin and Mary to work long hours uninterrupted, perfecting their craft. Despite the Great Depression’s economic devastation, the Scheiers’ pottery became popular with buyers (albeit for low prices) and critics. In 1940, by their second year as full-time ceramic artists, the Scheiers won second prize at the Ninth Ceramic National exhibition at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, (today the Everson Museum of Art). They built on this early success, earning many awards over the next two decades. The couple’s success landed Edwin a teaching position at the University of New Hampshire in 1940. Given that Scheier had left school in the eighth grade, this was remarkable. Mary herself was made an artist-in-residence at the university, and so both had access to the university’s kiln and supplies. They would work with UNH for two decades, until Edwin retired in 1960. While often collaborative, the Scheiers also worked independently. Bowl, in the Everson’s collection, is one such example. Edwin often received acclaim for his delicate, intricate detailing, evidenced on Bowl as an intricate web of overlapping, stylized figures. While certainly drawn by the same hand, each figure is unique in features and body language. Arms and legs cross differently from figure to figure, though the most differentiation is seen in the figures’ faces. With ergonomic lines, Edwin distinguishes each female figure from those on either side of her. Eyes overlap nose bridges, or stare wide-eyed and spaced, and allusions to hair are rendered as stylized circles, swoops, and squiggles. All this decoration dominates the rich brown and cobalt blue of the bowl’s glaze. Edwin entered Bowl into the Fourteenth Ceramic National exhibition at the Everson in 1949 and earned a purchase prize from the Onondaga Pottery Company. After traveling abroad for several years upon Edwin’s retirement, the Scheiers settled in Oaxaca, Mexico. Despite creating their own pottery studio in Oaxaca, the Scheiers began to move away from pottery making. Edwin became inspired by local artists, designing weavings and creating ink drawings, pastel drawings, and prints. He also began to experiment with mixed media works. Eventually the couple returned to the United States, settling in Green Valley, Arizona, in 1978. During their twilight years, they made fewer and fewer pieces, though Edwin still worked in ceramics until 1999. In his final years he began to create digital art, or as he called it, “computer painting.” Edwin passed away at 97 years old in 2008. Bowl is currently on display in A Legacy of Firsts: The Everson Collects, an exhibition that examines over one hundred years of the Museum’s collecting priorities, from the Museum’s earliest acquisitions in 1911 to work acquired in 2019.

-Kelli Fisher, Curatorial Intern

Sources:1. Arizona State University Art Museum. “Edwin Scheier and Mary Scheier Biography.” Accessed July 20, 2020.

https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu/sites/default/files/scheier_edwin_and_mary_biography.pdf.2. Encyclopædia Britannica. “Civilian Conservation Corps.” Published November 20, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Civilian-Conservation-Corps.3. Scheier, Edwin, Mary Scheier, Bernard Leach, Paul Grigaut, Warren MacKenzie, Alixandra MacKenzie and Leza S. McVey. “Contemporary Ceramists: Edwin and Mary Scheier, Bernard Leach, Warren and Alixandra MacKenzie, Katherine and Burton Wilson, and Leza S. McVey.” Everyday Art Quarterly, no. 27 (1953): 2-25. Accessed July 20, 2020. doi:10.2307/4090746.4. Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Edwin Scheier.” Accessed July 20, 2020. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/edwin-scheier-29015.5. Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts and Onondaga Pottery Company. 14th Ceramic National Exhibition. Syracuse: Syracuse Museum of Art, 1950. Exhibition Catalogue, accessed August 6, 2020. https://collections.everson.org/index.php/Detail/objects/481.

Edwin Scheier, Bowl, ca. 1949, stoneware, 10½ x 8 inches, Everson Museum of Art; Purchase Prize given by Onondaga Pottery Company, 14th Ceramic National, 1949, 50.640