Dozens of glaze colors, hundreds of designs, hundreds of thousands of pieces created - all bearing one name - the name of the brilliant artist and his wife whose lives left a permanent and timeless imprint on the tradition of American art pottery. This is the Van Briggle legacy - begun in 1899. With the passing of time new chapters are added, and this artistic legacy is as alive today as any time in its history. Each day the Van Briggle studios produce the early designs of its founders, Artus and Anne Van Briggle, as well as pieces created over the years that compliment their celebrated style, in a variety of colors - both historic and contemporary.
At Van Briggle Art Pottery in Colorado Springs, the beginning of a new millennium brought the dawn of a new century in this Van Briggle legacy. Beginning our second hundred years of creating fine art pottery, we find ourselves returning to our roots. Simultaneously, we are looking to the future, contemplating what legacy we will leave for future generations. We are surrounded by evidence that we bear the name of a creative genius, highly acclaimed in his day, and the dedication of so many artisans and staff over the past 100 years, which brings a deep sense of joy as well as responsibility.
Almost daily we experience poignant reminders of the Van Briggle legacy: someone walks into our showroom with a piece of Van Briggle wrapped in a towel or newspaper, placed in an old shoe box, with a story of how their grandmother purchased this piece 75 years ago on a trip to Colorado Springs - and that she wouldn’t part with it for any price; we walk into a museum in Pasadena, California and unexpectedly see a small collection of Van Briggle pieces, all bearing dates from the early 1900’s; we receive a telephone call from a collector who just bought an old "Lorelei" vase for a few dollars in a box lot at a farm sale somewhere in the Midwest - the farmer and his family had purchased the piece years ago when they came to Colorado after the harvest was in; while on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. we find pieces of Van Briggle pottery among their permanent collections.
Stories like these remind us that the work of our hands today is the continuation of a celebrated artistic heritage begun over one hundred years ago. Indeed, we do feel a responsibility that is both sobering and exciting as we continue the legacy of Artus and Anne Van Briggle. Their names hold a distinctive place in the history of fine and decorative arts. The desire to continue an honored tradition brings with it a dilemma: how do we continue their artistic legacy without simply mimicking its earlier sublime creations? We want to know that if Anne and Artus were to miraculously return to us one day, as we open another kiln filled with art pottery bearing their name, they would see designs and glazes they would cherish in their hands and hearts, as we hold theirs in ours. We would want them to recognize the pottery pieces inscribed with their name. However, knowing they were accomplished artists, we would also want them to say, "...and how you have grown with the years!" We must stay true to our past, yet we must evolve and grow – after all if art is anything, it is dynamic! Clay is a particularly versatile medium for an artist. A survey of what is produced by potters around the world shows that, more than any other medium, clay offers the artist extraordinary scope of expression.
As artists and artisans here at Van Briggle, we occasionally monitor what other artists are doing with clay and glaze. Fads and trends have their moments in time, and it can be tempting to follow these more immediately accepted styles and idioms, though they lay beyond the bounds of the Van Briggle tradition. However, we are repeatedly drawn to one over-riding goal - to establish an aesthetic that transcends time; to create a style unique to our heritage that establishes itself by continually reaffirming its principles; to explore new ways of expression while always being reminded of their origins. In judging the viability of each new design or glaze we find ourselves asking these questions: Does it look like Van Briggle? Is it worthy of bearing that name? Is it informed by our legacy without simply repeating it?
An overview of Van Briggle pieces over the last century shows hundreds of designs with flower, animal or human subjects artistically applied to pottery forms. Typically, these pieces are highlighted with a soft matte glaze - Artus Van Briggle’s passion. The subject of Van Briggle is, essentially, nature, which for all intents and purposes is an inexhaustible source for the artist. Themes and motifs inspired by nature can be interpreted and reinterpreted indefinitely on graceful forms. Matte glazes may be created with a broad range of hues to enhance and lend these forms a soft satin touch. A viewing of our current inventory shows a number of designs created by Artus and Anne Van Briggle that have been produced continuously since the early 20th century. Along with these, one finds distinctive designs by other artists that have been added to the collection over the years. Of course the majority of pieces are glazed with the signature Van Briggle matte glaze - one of Artus’ most profound achievements - in various colors. Over the past two decades we have carefully identified and retained only the designs we feel fit most appropriately into the Van Briggle style, and have eliminated others that do not. When new designs are added they are carefully selected to enhance and further the Van Briggle tradition.
Artus Van Briggle established his pottery during the Arts and Crafts movement, a time when many artists and craftsmen were creating their works in reaction to the mass production of the industrial revolution. Though the scope of the Van Briggle tradition is broader than the movement, Van Briggle’s work fits well within its emphasis on making hand-crafted art available to a wider public. In the same way, it is our goal in an era dominated by ever increasing emphasis on technology, to provide our society with a counterpoint of artistry and hand craftsmanship.
What could be more rewarding? Reminders of the Van Briggle legacy are all around us. An old black and white photograph immortalizes a moment when Artus posed outside a kiln while the earliest Van Briggle artisans brought pieces for his inspection. A former employee describes how the kilns used to be fired with coal, which he remembers shoveling by hand. A pottery piece from 1902 has mysteriously acquired a look and feel that only the passing of time will create. These reminders and countless others renew and strengthen our resolve to continue the tradition.
Each day brings a sense of excitement and anticipation; there is no end in sight to the Van Briggle legacy. Inspired by the essence of our style, successive generations can continue to express the timeless and endless themes found in nature, interpreted through creative minds and skilled hands. Artus and Anne Van Briggle’s aims and values were noble and sincere. As we remain true to these goals, the Van Briggle tradition, begun so many years ago, will continue long into the future.
The Artisans and Staff of Van Briggle Pottery