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Quality Over Quantity
The Pottery of the Overbeck Sisters

by Bob Brooke

 


While most people normally associate the Arts & Crafts Movement with such names as Morris, Stickley, Roycroft, and Rookwood, few ever heard of four sisters named Overbeck who, from their modest home studio in Cambridge City, Indiana, created some of the finest studio pottery ever to come out of Indiana. Their goal, “Quality over quantity.”

From the beginning, the sisters' goal was to produce quality, not quantity. The women learned by trial-and-error and their workshop was simple, consisting of an electric potter's mill, a portable kiln fueled with coal oil, and a clay-sifter made by a handyman. They believed in two principles—that all borrowed art is dead art and its corollary, that all good applied design is original. As part of the Arts & Crafts Movement, the Overbecks often looked to plants, trees, birds, and animals for their design motifs. And that quality goal is the reason there aren’t many of their works out there.

So who were the Overbecks?

Though the sisters grew up in a farming family, the arts filled their home. Their father was a cabinetmaker and their mother knitted, stitched quilts, weaved rugs, and sewed lace. All four sisters taught art at some point, and all but Elizabeth worked in other media, producing oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, and black-and-white drawings. They also produced tie-dye fabrics, executed enamel on copper, decorated porcelain, and even made earrings, pins, and buckles. The pottery studio always included baskets of crochet, knitting projects, and delicate lacework.

Margaret
As the guiding spirit for the Overbeck Pottery, Margaret, the eldest sister, studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy from 1892 to 1893 under J. H. Sharp, L. H. Meakin, Lewis Cass Lutz, Vincent Nowattny, and Otto W. Beck as well as from Arthur Wesley Dow and Marshall Fry of Columbia University. She taught at the Sayre Institute in Lexington, Kentucky and at the Megguier Seminary in Boonville, Missouri. She also gave early art instruction to her younger sisters, Hannah and Mary Frances, before they attended art schools. From 1899 to 1911, Margaret taught drawing, watercolor and china painting at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Sadly, she suffered severe head injuries from an automobile accident in Chicago in August of 1907. While home recovering, she organized and taught classes in Richmond, just 15 miles away. Three years later she worked as a decorator at the Zanesville Art Pottery and returned home to Cambridge City after the pottery factory burned.

Hannah

Sister Hannah attended Cincinnati Art Academy and Indiana State University and became a perfectionist in sketching and water colors. Ceramic Studio, a magazine for china painters, featured her drawings. She, too, taught art classes before returning home in poor health. Though bed-ridden with severe neuritis, she continued to design by having the pencil placed in her fingers.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth, the potter of the group, studied with Margaret in her early years and later at the College for Ceramics in New York with noted ceramist, Professor Charles Binns. As a teacher and lecturer, Elizabeth exhibited widely, bringing much honor and recognition to the Overbeck Pottery. Listed in the American Arts Annual and Who's Who in American Art, she received the highest honor for ceramists, being named a Fellow in the American Ceramic Society.

Mary Frances
Her sister, Mary Frances, attended the Cincinnati Art Academy, Indiana State University and Columbia University. She taught for a time before joining her sisters at the Pottery. A talented designer, Mary excelled in a wide range of art, selling original bookplates, sculpted, and painted in oils and water colors in addition to the vases, pottery and figurines. She was listed in American Arts Annual as well as Who's Who in American Art.

Unfortunately, Margaret would never see the family pottery develop as she died in August 1911, as a result of her injuries from the automobile accident in 1907

The Overbecks threw pots in the basement, decorated them in the first floor workroom, fired them in a shed in the yard, and sold them at the dining room table.

Margaret had her first design for china painting, a popular pastime for women, published in Keramic Studio magazine in June 1903. Hannah and Mary Francis also had designs published first in 1904, and all of them contributed regularly to Keramic until 1916.

Regular exhibits within the state and major exhibits outside the state, including the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, San Francisco, in 1915 and the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, brought acclaim to the Overbecks and visitors to their pottery.

The Work of the Overbecks
The majority of the Overbecks’ work included painted porcelain, red ware, imported vases, and figurines modeled on real-life persons or "grotesques" which Mary called "humor of the kiln." They were especially noted for their subtle hues in matte glazes as well as brilliant turquoise and heliotrope in bright glazes.

Each sister took on specialties in their collaborative endeavor. Hannah and Mary Francis designed most of the pots. Elizabeth experimented with glazes and clays.

The Overbecks usually made functional pieces, such as teapots, pitchers and tea sets, and preferred simple shapes. Their early works reflected the Art Nouveau style. The Arts & Crafts style influenced the majority of their works, and their later works reflected the Art Deco style. They had no production lines to maximize sales. Each piece was unique and their output was modest. Only Elizabeth used the potter’s wheel. Hannah and Mary Francis made all of their pieces by hand. They experimented with their own glazes—they often used matt glazes and soft tones, although a robin's-egg blue became a trademark—and they kept the formulas for their glazes secret. All their pieces feature delicate, intricate designs, using subtle colors that are close to each other in tone. If a piece came out differently than they planned, they destroyed it.

Mary Frances and Hanna traced meticulous designs onto their pieces, then incised, decorated and glazed them. No two pieces were alike, although they often reused portions of a design.

Hannah died in 1931, and then Elizabeth in 1936. Mary Frances continued to operate the pottery alone until her death in 1955, producing mainly flgurines. They included charming Southern Belles townspeople and animals, historical figures, and grotesques, originally made to use up clay and leftover glazes. It was nothing for her to make a mauve and blue elephant or a multi-hued bird sitting on a branch.

Overbeck pieces start at around $300 for one of their grotesque figurines. The Southern Belle, for instance, sells for $200 to $400. A top Overbeck piece could bring $75,000 to $100,000 in a rare case. But vases generally sell for $25,000 to $50,000 each.

The quality of the Overbeck vases is exceptional. But their fame came from their quirky, small-studio, weird pursuit of creating beautiful, original, and personal art pottery. That was a very romantic Arts & Crafts idea.

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