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Edith Heath – a distinctly Californian artist who continues to inspire

Edith Heath, founder of Heath Ceramics, is the feature of OMCA’s current exhibition, Edith Heath: A Life In Clay. This original exhibition explores the artist behind the distinctly California aesthetic, which is still omnipresent in modern dinnerware and design over eighty years later.

After viewing the exhibition, OMCA visitors can peruse locally-made goods at the OMCA Store and reflect on how much Edith Heath’s iconic design aesthetic still influences artists and craftspeople today.

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Edith moves west  to California

Born in Iowa, Edith Heath made her way west after her schooling and eventually landed in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the 1940s, Heath and her husband, Brian, took weekend road trips to defunct clay pits around California so Edith could collect local clay samples for experimentation.  She gathered brick clays from Niles Canyon in the Bay Area, talc from Southern California, and fire clays from Ione in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

She was inspired by the casual California indoor/outdoor lifestyle, and began to create plates, cups, and bowls with these tougher, more durable clays.

“I was looking for a clay that nobody knew anything about, that had unique properties that I could utilize and develop, that would be expressive of the region,” said Heath. “I began to work with California clays that would turn out looking like something that nobody else had ever made.”

Heath’s distinct ceramics  aesthetic -formed with clean lines, made of sturdy, local materials, glazed with muted, natural colors expressive of Northern California and shaped for the relaxed, unpretentious culture of California- is still en vogue over seventy years later.

Of the colors of her platters and plates, Heath said she was looking to recreate “textural and tonal colorations similar to those found in rocks and pebbles.” She included a higher percentage of clay in her glazes to create the matte and scratch-resistant finishes which Heath products are now  known for having.

One of the first displays visitors come across in OMCA’s Edith Heath: A Life In Clay is a case featuring Heath’s own mother’s elegant, porcelain china sitting next to a classic, sturdy, and modern Heath dish. Heath’s earthy dishware stands in stark contrast with the pristine china set and highlights how Heath rejected the aesthetic of the day and instead, embraced  an entirely new aesthetic that she herself cultivated in California.

“People here are much more easygoing, more humane and less concerned about status,” Heath once said about California. “I was trying to do something that was more egalitarian rather than aristocratic. Not ‘Art’ pottery — functional dishes.”

Today, Heath Ceramics is owned and operated by Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, and still produces versions of Heath’s classic dinnerware. The glazes they use in each seasonal collection are also variations on  Heath’s original color palettes, all of which Heath derived from the Californian landscapes.

The Heath 2022 summer collection color palette reflects California’s  summer sunlight along with the more ephemeral tones of summer shadows. According to Heath Ceramics, this season’s collection “is designed to evoke the feeling of high summer. It’s the first bite of a ripe peach, quiet shade on a blazing afternoon, and sunlight stretching into evening. The glaze palette features warm, rich tones that reflect nature during its most prolific season. And like summer itself, it’s only here for a limited time.”

Over seventy years later, Heath Ceramics is not the only company or artist to continue to draw  inspiration from her original Californian-inspired designs.

Working with Heath’s Ghost: Jered’s Pottery

Jered Nelson, an Emeryville-based ceramicist, along with his talented crew of artists, create beautiful designs. In the early aughts, Jered worked as a prototyper and problem solver for Heath Ceramics where he pored over Edith Heath’s personal notes, “working with her ghost” to further innovate the California clay body and methods she had developed.

In 2010, Jered became a full-time independent potter, and is now making dinnerware for some of the nation’s top chefs who are refining  the California culinary style. Jered has created dinnerware for world-renowned chefs and designers including Daniel Patterson, Michael Mina, Michael Chiarello and Stanlee Gatti. Some of his dinnerware is available for purchase at the OMCA Store.

Inspiration from the environment

Clouds and Ladders Jewelry is designed by artist  Kate Joseph who works out of her studio in a redwood forest north of San Francisco. Joseph has a background in painting and her designs are distinctive, versatile, and lightweight – and each is a tiny work of art you can wear.

Like Heath, Joseph’s  process involves sourcing high quality metals and polymer clays, and then using  a multi-step sanding and finishing process to create the smooth, matte finishes that makes C+L jewelry so unique.

Joseph has said, “My inspiration comes from the world around me: landscapes, the moon, plants, and even the work of artists whom I admire. Using my love of modern art & design history, I transform these ideas into wearable interpretations meant to activate your imagination.”

This summer, visit OMCA’s original exhibition, Edith Heath: A Life In Clay , and then stop by the OMCA Store to experience how California’s landscape, history, and ethos inspired Edith Heath who continues to inspire contemporary artists today.