Museum of Ceramics Celebrates ’40-Plus-One’ Anniversary with New Mural

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio – After postponing its 40th anniversary, officials and supporters of the Museum of Ceramics rallied with the “40-Plus-One” celebration, which culminated Saturday with the unveiling of a historic mural at the downtown facility.

A series of celebratory events over the past two weeks included the Eastern Ohio Plein Art Club hosting artists who painted from the streets, art shows and the unveiling of a new mural Saturday morning.

Painted by Canfield artist Christopher Leeper, the mural depicts scenes pulled from photos of the city’s past showing its history as the pottery capital of the nation. Museum director Susan Weaver said she was familiar with Leeper’s work but “never dreamed he would be interested” in painting the mural commissioned by the museum’s Lady Slippers art group.

After he learned the museum was considering adding a mural, Leeper sent word that he’d like to be considered. His wife, Kathy, is a former East Liverpool resident, and he told those gathered Saturday morning he was “really grateful and humble to be able to do this.” He started the work in February using acrylic paint and three kinds of varnish on the four-foot-by-30-foot mural. 

The painting work took place in Leeper’s Canfield studio on several special panels that were then joined together and attached to a fence along the Broadway side of the museum. 

The Museum of Ceramics got its start in 1970 when William H. Vodrey III convinced the state to purchase the vacated post office building for a museum. A decade later, its door opened, one of 50 historical sites owned by the Ohio History Connection. Representing the OHC at the unveiling was Bill Kennedy, coordinator of the eastern sites. 

Also present was the museum’s first director, William Gates, hired in 1978 to create the permanent exhibits and who served until 1987, when he took a position with OHC in Columbus. Other directors unable to attend were Robert Fryman, Mark Twyford and Sarah Vodrey.

The Lady Slippers were given the honor of unveiling the mural, which brought applause from those gathered as they viewed the colorful painting.

The mural begins with Bennett’s Pottery, representing James Bennett, – credited as the city’s first commercial potter – and shows both men and children working at the small one-kiln pottery on the banks of the Ohio River. 

A portrait of Col. William Vodrey is next, representing the pottery barons who invested in the industry. He also was the grandfather of William H. Vodrey III, who was instrumental in starting the museum, and great-grandfather of local attorney Jackman Vodrey, who serves today as the Museum of Ceramics Foundation’s president.

The C.C. Thompson Pottery is depicted as representative of the more than 200 potteries which operated in the city during its heyday. A trademark from Knowles, Taylor & Knowles Pottery is shown, representing the stamps all pottery features and the Lotus Ware for which the company was famous and which remains highly coveted by collectors. As the mural continues, it depicts a group of workers from the Taylor, Smith & Taylor Pottery, paying tribute to all pottery workers past and present.

Although potteries today use modern continuous tunnel kilns to fire ware, in the past, hundreds of bottle kilns dotted the city’s landscape, and one that once served the Goodwin Baggott Pottery that exists on Second Street, owned by the museum and Ohio History Connection, is pictured.

Female workers from the decorating shop applying decals are also pictured, and Weaver said it was common for children to sit next to their parents, helping them earn more for the day with “piece work.”

The current day is represented at the end of the mural with a colorful display of Fiesta ware, still produced just across the river in Newell, W.Va. at the Fiesta Tableware Co., and Weaver said this represents the modern pottery of today, the bright future of the one remaining pottery and the city’s future. 

Speaking for the Lady Slippers, Judy Fannin said the group is pleased and proud to provide the mural not only for those visiting the museum but visitors to the city.

“The rich history of the pottery industry is something to be treasured, and this special piece of art will ensure exactly that,” she said.

Eileen Dray-Bardon spoke on behalf of the recently-created Columbiana County Visitors Bureau, saying it is hoped not only visitors from elsewhere but residents will take advantage of tourism opportunities in the county, saying, “We don’t all know what we’ve got going on in our great county. This mural you’ve added is yet another reason to visit East Liverpool.”

Pictured: Canfield artist Christopher Leeper stands near the mural he painted for the Museum of Ceramics in East Liverpool after members of the Lady Slippers unveiled the art work they commissioned.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.