January 2007 Issue
Collectors of Cleveland-made Cowan ceramic art sing its praises.
While southern Ohio is known for its rich clay resources and colorful hand-painted works of pottery, the northeastern part of the state can stake its claim on the elegant art pottery of R. Guy Cowan. Created early in the 20th century just outside of Cleveland, the work of Cowan and a group of illustrious designers intrigues collectors with its timeless appeal. Many Ohioans in the know - and collectors around the country - have become experts on what's commonly known as Cowan Pottery, and are more than willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.
"You start collecting this stuff and you kind of go nuts," says Richard Olson, 62. He and his brother Jim own Treats restaurant in Rocky River, a charming little tea room housed in a building right around the corner from the old Cowan studio. Inside, patrons can find Cowan pottery displayed in cases and lining every wall. "People would come in here and say, 'Gee, I didn't know it was made in Rocky River.'"
The Olsons own hundreds of Cowan Pottery pieces, from functional lamps and tableware to rare limited-edition art sculptures.
Olson's interest in Cowan Pottery was piqued as a child growing up in Rocky River. "When I got older, I started collecting it at garage sales and what not," he says. "At that time you could still get it [at garage sales], but people are pretty wise now."
He points to one of his favorites, a pair of figures glazed in ivory. "Adam is offering the apple [to Eve], as opposed to the biblical tradition," Olson notes. Many Cowan pieces depict biblical and mythical figures or characters from literature. Olson gestures toward a beautiful ebony glazed head of a woman that looks almost tribal in style. "This is another limited edition by Cowan, called 'Antonia.' Legend has it she was an African princess who turned men into stone when she tired of them," he explains with a laugh.
The most popular Cowan pieces are highly recognizable for their sleek lines, unique glaze colors and art deco style. They're characteristic of the time period in which they were made, but also have elements of modern and classic design, giving them a broad appeal.
From 1912 until the Depression took hold and the company folded in 1931, R. Guy Cowan formed a foundation for ceramic art pottery in studios in the neighboring communities of Lakewood and Rocky River. American ceramic art would never be the same, as Cowan Pottery gained respect and recognition with the help of a group of close to two-dozen designers including such luminaries as Viktor Schreckengost, Waylande Gregory and Margaret Postgate.
More than 1,000 pieces will be on view when the Cowan Pottery Museum reopens in April. Housed in the Rocky River Public Library, which is undergoing construction, the collection features donations, loans and items purchased from private collections, many of them local.
Stacey and Robert Gerrity first discovered Cowan Pottery after moving to Rocky River about five years ago. On trips to the library with their young children, the Gerritys came across the Cowan Pottery Museum and decided to attend a lecture by curator Sue Brown. Soon, they were hooked. "I didn't feel guilty about buying Cowan pieces, because my husband was equally involved and just as interested," says Stacey.
The couple now proudly owns approximately 100 pieces. They started off with smaller, $20 bowls and have since moved on to lamps, intricate vases and figurines. Much of their collection is obtained at auctions, where they can bid over the phone.
"Just like other antiques, it's had its ups and downs in value," says Brown. As the museum's curator, she's hesitant to talk about the work's monetary value. Cowan Pottery is indeed all over the map in terms of what's available for collectors. She recommends that interested collectors refer to Cowan Pottery and the Cleveland School (Shiffer Publishing) by Mark Bassett and Victoria Naumann Peltz for information on all the Cowan Pottery artists. The book has more than 1,200 photos and a guide to the sculptures.
"On the bottom of the sculptures, and most pieces you come across, there's a mark - like V-99, that's Vase-99," says Brown. "That would scrub off, but you don't want to do that, because if you look up the number in this guide - which must have taken forever to develop - it tells you when the piece was introduced, the name of the piece, the name of the artist, the glaze color... This helps researchers and collectors find the piece and know more about it."
Opportunities are rife for a novice to start small and become acquainted with the variety of what's available. A bowl in signature "Egyptian Blue" glaze or an ivory-colored flower frog is an aesthetically beautiful conversation piece for curious collectors to buy when starting out.
The popular flower frogs - delicate figurines, usually depicting sprightly women - were meant to hold flowers as a centerpiece. Today, not many collectors will display them in such a way. This is just one example of the functional art pottery that Cowan created in the style of the time. Bridge prizes - nut bowls, ashtrays and match holders - served a purpose in the 1920s, but are now colorful and cherished reminders of another time.
Richard Olson's collection includes whimsical figures based on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Apparently, the king and queen decanters came in handy around the time of Prohibition. "I think it's rather tongue-in-cheek," says Olson, "but the idea was to hide your hooch in the bookends in case you got raided by the Feds."
Among the long string of antiques shops that line Madison Avenue in Lakewood is Joseph Davis Antiques. Past the shelves of tea sets, furniture and jewelry, Davis sells a small variety of Cowan pieces: In the back of the store is a pale blue bowl for $20 and a $400 vase adorned with abstract squirrels, among other items. His own collection at home, however, numbers in the hundreds. His most prized sculpture is the "Beaten Dog" by Waylande Gregory; it's based on a stray dog that the artist tried to nurse back to health, and it's believed that there are only three in existence. (The Cleveland Museum of Art and Western Reserve Historical Society each have one.)
"Now is a good time for collectors," says Davis. "Four or five big collections came on the market over the past few years." He admits that he went through a period years ago when he had hundreds of bowls from Cowan's commercial lines. He's since scaled down to accommodate his favorite pieces - items with Egyptian Blue and Oriental Red glazes, figure sculptures and exotic vases.
One piece of Cowan Pottery that any collector would snatch up if money were no object is the famous "Jazz Bowl" by Viktor Schreckengost. Experts believe that there are about 50 bowls in existence with three different designs. In December of 2004, one of the bowls went for more than $250,000 at Sotheby's auction house. In 1984, Davis had the opportunity to buy one for $4,500 at an art show.
"It was either a punch bowl or a car," says Davis, now 40. "I was 17, so I chose the car."
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|The Cowan Pottery Museum, Rocky River Public Library, 1600 Hampton Rd., Rocky River, 440/333-7610. www.rrpl.org. The Cowan collection is currently in storage while the library is under construction. The museum will reopen with an expanded display in April.
Treats, 1325 Linda St., Rocky River, 440/331-3414
Joseph Davis Antiques, 16426 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216/221-7119
American Art Pottery Association Annual Convention, April 25-29, Holiday Inn-Cleveland Independence, 6001 Rockside Rd., Independence, 216/221-3537. www.amartpot.org. The event features a show and sale, presentations, auctions and tours of Cleveland sites that contain American and European art pottery.