'A Beautiful Spirit'
Origins of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts

by Chere Jiusto and Rick Newby

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Summer 2001), 20-29; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2001.

"You get notorious," said Peter Meloy, "when you start a pottery in the middle of the wilderness."1 Meloy--at age ninety--was remembering the beginnings of his own backyard pottery in the small town of Helena, Montana, in the late 1940s. But he might well have been talking about Helena's Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, which Meloy helped found in 1951.

Over the past half century, the Bray, as the foundation is familiarly known, has certainly achieved renown, and even a little notoriety, in the American ceramics world and beyond. That it has flourished for fifty years in Montana, far from the East and West Coast art worlds, and that from its inception it has played an important role in the development of contemporary ceramics is cause for wonder, even astonishment. How was it that a band of strong-willed Montanans--in the midst of the conformist 1950s and with relatively little access to technical information about the making of pottery and ceramic sculpture--came to create this world-class haven for lovers and practitioners of the ceramic arts?

The story begins with the demand for brick in the growing community of Helena. Founded in 1864 as a gold-mining camp, Helena by 1869 boasted seventy-five structures built of granite and brick, and during the 1880s, many of the town's entrepreneurs displayed their wealth by commissioning the construction of lavish brick mansions on Helena's prestigious west side.2 The market for locally made brick prompted Nicholas Kessler, a local brewer and part-time brickmaker, to buy a pair of brickmaking machines and launch Kessler Brick and Tile Works in the 1880s. In 1885 he expanded the business, purchasing the neighboring brick business of Charles C. Thurston.

A year before the merger, Charles Thurston had hired a skilled brickmaker by the name of Charles H. Bray. Born in Tavistock, Devonshire, England, in 1864, Charles Bray had served an apprenticeship with a British brickmaker before coming to the United States in 1880. Bray soon became manager of the Kessler brickyard, where he enlarged and updated the plant and added sewer pipe and tile, decorative brick, and flowerpots to the Kessler product line.

The business enjoyed considerable success. In 1920 Charles Bray purchased an interest in the company, which by that time was known as the Western Clay Manufacturing Company. Eight years later, Bray bought out the Kessler family, becoming sole owner. Upon Charles's death in 1931, his son Archie stepped in as general manager and president of Western Clay.

Born in 1886 and groomed to lead the enterprise, Archie Bray had learned brickmaking at his father's knee, there absorbing the nineteenth-century practices of molding and "burning" brick. He combined this practical knowledge with the technical training he received in the Ohio State University ceramics engineering program, reputed to be the finest in the nation. Under his direction, Western Clay continued as Montana's preeminent brick producer, even at the peak of the Great Depression.

Only after World War II did the demand for brick and other ceramic products begin to shrink with the rise of new building technologies and materials. At the same time, Archie Bray, a longtime patron of the arts, became obsessed by a vision. He dreamed of founding a center for the ceramic arts next door to the Western Clay plant.3

A complex figure, Archie Bray was a hardheaded businessman who supported the arts and loved to garden. A member of Helena's cultural and business elite, he delighted in meeting visiting celebrities dressed in his dusty brickyard clothes. His son described him as "a resourceful man and very determined."4

As a young man, Bray had wanted to become a physician, but his father insisted that he be trained as a ceramic engineer. One family legend has it that the "bitter battle" of wills between father and son ended the day Charles Bray "took a buggy whip and whipped [Archie] until it cut the shirt off his back. . . . from that time forth, it was understood that he would go and be a ceramic engineer, which he did."5

From an early age, Bray nursed a fond regard for the arts, especially the performing arts. This was a passion his family did not share or understand, and the one concession his parents made to their son's artistic bent was to allow him to take piano lessons. Music would continue to be Bray's first love. "He was a nut on symphonic and operatic music. . . . he liked the French composers," recalled a friend. As an adult, Bray traveled every winter to New York City to immerse himself in opera and the theater.6

Not content with finding culture elsewhere, Archie Bray sought to bring the "finer arts to his hometown." For some six years, he single-handedly sponsored concerts in Helena. He was always "hocking the life insurance and mortgaging the house" to cover his losses when concerts brought in small crowds, his daughter Betty Bray Galusha recalled. Finally he linked his efforts to the national Community Concert Association series. The Community Concerts were "run as a business," a "saving grace" for the Bray family finances.7 The series brought to Helena such luminaries as Nelson Eddy, Jascha Heifetz, and Paul Robeson, along with many lesser-known performers. Bray chauffeured the artists about town, and he befriended many of them, inviting them into his home. These brief but intense contacts meant a great deal to him, and sometimes when he talked about the artists he had known, "tears would almost come into his eyes."8

Archie Bray came to know future co-conspirator Peter Meloy, and Pete's brother Hank, a talented painter, in the early 1940s. A mutual interest in clay brought them together. The Meloys had been fascinated by ceramics since their youth. In Peter's telling, drought and economic depression had left the Meloys with "plenty of free time," and so he and Hank had turned to digging clay from a clay deposit they had discovered on the family ranch near Townsend. Firing the pots they made in the ranch blacksmith forge proved a dismal failure, and by the time the Meloys encountered Archie Bray, they were determined to find a better way to fire their work. They visited the brickyard to buy blue clay that came from the company's Blossburg pits west of Helena, and after Hank sculpted a horse from this "very plastic" clay body, they asked if they could fire it in one of the beehive kilns. Bray agreed. Though the firing was not entirely successful, the friendship between Archie Bray and the Meloy brothers was launched.

Hank Meloy spent most of each year teaching painting at Columbia University in New York City, where he met many leading artists of the day, from George Grosz to Willem de Kooning. As sculptor Rudy Autio--another major player in the Archie Bray Foundation story--has testified, Hank was an artist of "sublime ability," who influenced Autio as a sculptor "profoundly."9

Peter Meloy, on the other hand, stayed in Helena, working as a prominent attorney and district judge. He made pots in his off-hours and built a small ceramic workshop in his backyard, where he installed his own electric kiln, one of the first in Montana. Archie Bray spent many evenings with the Meloys, talking "about building the pottery . . . talking about music." Together they hatched a plan to start a pottery at the brickyard.10

Another Montana potter also served as Bray's confidant. Branson Stevenson of Great Falls was a man of many parts: world traveler, printmaker, painter, sculptor, potter, oilman, salesman, and inventor. He first met Bray in 1947. As Montana branch manager for Socony Vacuum Oil Company (later Mobil Oil), Branson visited the Western Clay plant regularly and sold Bray steam cylinder oil and so forth. Always the art patron, Bray bought some of Stevenson's etchings, and the two men inevitably started talking about their growing interest in the ceramic arts.11

Branson Stevenson prided himself on his "curiosity, individuality, enthusiasm and skill," and as an artist, his greatest strength was as a technician and innovator. Always seeking "new and practical ways of creating art and the tools to perfect his art," he made several technical contributions to ceramics. Perhaps his most important was the wax-resist process commonly used today for the decoration of pots; this process utilized a water-soluble wax, Ceremul A, that Stevenson marketed for Socony Oil.12

By 1951 the Helena potteries--Peter Meloy's modest backyard pottery and Archie Bray's grand dream (on the cusp of realization)--were indeed gaining notoriety. That spring two young ceramics-savvy Montanans, Rudy Autio and Pete Voulkos, drove up to Helena from Bozeman. They had heard through Peter Meloy that "there was a chance to work at a pottery." As Frances Senska, the pair's pottery teacher at Montana State College, recalled, Archie Bray immediately "latched onto [Autio and Voulkos], and they latched onto him, and they worked in a corner of the drying shed that summer." To pay their way, the young men worked in the brickyard during the day. At night, they turned their talents to making pots and ceramic sculpture from Blossburg clay. And they signed on to help Bray build the pottery he had long dreamed of constructing next door to the brickyard.13

While Pete Voulkos and Rudy Autio labored in his brickyard, Archie Bray finalized his plans for "the first branch of the Archie Bray Foundation," which he called Pottery, Inc., a pottery that would produce production ware and provide a place for ceramic artists to work. In an undated letter to Stevenson, Bray described his vision for the foundation:

"Somehow lets keep it all on the plane we dreamed--lets be practical too, lets keep it all in good fun, to roll along the whole idea built around--"A place to work for all who are seriously interested in any of the Ceramic Arts." To be high standards--to keep it nice--that it may always be a delight to turn to--to walk inside the Pottery and leave outside somewhere--outside the big gate--up town--anywhere--the cares of every day. Each time we walk in the door to walk into a place of art--of simple things not problems, good people, lovely people all tuned to the right spirit. That somewhere thru it all will permeate a beautiful spirit . . . carrying on and forwarding the intentions, the aims and the life of the Foundation. Can we do it? What a joy it is to do it."14
According to the local paper, "Bray had dreamed and planned" the pottery "for so long" that he needed no building plans, and "long before the structure was begun, he would explain [the pottery floor plan] to friends by scratching it out on the ground with the heel of his shoe."15

With the arrival of Pete Voulkos, Rudy Autio, and Kelly Wong, another Montana State College graduate hired for summer 1951, Bray had no need--and no excuse--to postpone construction. The three young artists pitched in, as did Branson Stevenson, who took "his three weeks of Socony vacation" to help out, "laying brick, building the main stack and flues in the pottery, and working on the construction of the gas fired, downdraft, open fire kiln."16 Interested Helenans came out to lay a line of brick or two, as well. As Frances Senska later wrote, "So many amateurs laid brick for those walls, it's a wonder they remain standing."17 In his letters to Stevenson that summer, Bray frequently closed with "Lots of Brick to Lay, Branson, Lots of Brick"--a litany that Stevenson inscribed on a tile he installed in the pottery's wall.

At the banquet that celebrated the opening of the pottery, held on October 20, 1951, Peter Meloy presented Bray with a pot by Bernard Leach, the famous British potter and author of the influential A Potter's Book, and Rudy Autio unveiled a plaque--created in secret by Autio, Voulkos, and Peter Meloy at the Meloy pottery--that read:

"The helpers in the building of this pottery dedicate their work to the sincere wish that the work produced here will be the result of a serious effort to create those fine things as are so much a part of the life and interests of the man who is making this pottery possible."
After dinner Pete Voulkos "threw the first pot in the new building."18

The realization of Bray's dream was not without conflict, however. Despite his deep and very real passion for the arts and artists, Archie Bray was first and foremost a businessman, with a deeply rooted work ethic. His daughter recalled that he "never slept . . . more than four hours, five hours in his life."19 With the creation of the pottery, his work load only increased, and as he struggled to make the pottery self-sustaining, his frustration grew.

"These Potters are a problem!" he wrote Branson Stevenson in April 1952. He could not understand their disdain for making flowerpots and other production ware.20 According to Rudy Autio, "They were quite handsome products, [but] we didn't . . . particularly care for it. Turned out to be busywork and it . . . didn't really pay the bills. . . . we wasted a lot of effort doing it."21

Bray was incensed, too, by Pete Voulkos's night-owl approach to work. At 3 p.m., Bray told Stevenson in disbelief, "Pete and Mrs. Pete are up town for breakfast!!"22 Voulkos saw things differently. Between working on his own pots, teaching classes, and keeping up the production line, he was working, in his own words, "about eight days every week."23 Although Bray failed to recognize the strain that harsh working conditions and exhausting schedules placed on the artists, he did grant that, for Pete Voulkos, "being behind is his way of getting things done."24 But Bray never ceased to complain about the potters' work habits.

The potters, on the other hand, did not like the Archie Bray Foundation policy that the foundation receive all income from sales of the pots made on the premises, except for those created for shows and exhibitions. And, apparently, as artists with pride of authorship, the potters bridled at the suggestion that their individual work be stamped with the official abf stamp.25

There were aesthetic differences, too, and differences over how the foundation should present itself to the world. Influenced increasingly by modernism and the sobering realities of the Atomic Age, Voulkos and Autio made what Bray dismissed as "ribs, guts and belly buttons Art." Their work of this period seems tame today--certainly when compared to the two artists' category-shattering work of the late 1950s and early 1960s--but to Bray they were making "a lot of crooked crazy shaped pots."26

Despite the occasional conflicts, Archie Bray and his fellow board members moved ahead with their plans. They had always hoped to sponsor workshops by renowned ceramic artists at the foundation. Their first choice was Bernard Leach. In early 1952 Branson Stevenson learned that the influential British potter would be touring the United States late in the year. He wrote Leach, asking if he might be interested in stopping at the Archie Bray Foundation to present lectures and demonstrate his approach to pottery making. Leach agreed to visit the Archie Bray Foundation, together with two Japanese friends, Shoji Hamada, reputed to be Japan's leading potter, and Soetsu Yanagi, director of the Museum of Folk-craft in Tokyo.27

Much has been made of the 1952 tour by Leach, Hamada, and Yanagi. Ceramic historian Garth Clark noted that the "seminars at the Archie Bray Foundation . . . and at Black Mountain College . . . proved to be particularly far-reaching." Frances Senska has called the Bray visit "very influential," while Rudy Autio termed it "very significant . . . at least for me."28 Although Leach amused the Montanans by wearing his tweeds and a tie even while throwing pots, for both Autio and Voulkos, it was the living example of Shoji Hamada that most affected and influenced them. Hamada proved wonderfully adaptable to local conditions in Helena. Frances Senska remembered that "they went out to do watercolors, and it was cold, and the water froze on the paper. And Hamada was so tickled [by the] effect of the watercolor freezing on the paper."29

As Rudy Autio watched Hamada at the wheel, he "saw that there was more to pottery making than just making pots and selling 'em in some kind of dime store."30 He later said, "Shoji Hamada, more than any other person, gave me an insight into what clay was about."31 For Pete Voulkos, the example of Hamada was even more profound--and more intimate. Because Hamada did not use a kick wheel--"he always used a Japanese wheel you'd turn by hand"--he asked Voulkos to kick the wheel for him. "I was right there," Voulkos remembered, "and had my head down with his, and he'd tell me to kick faster or slower, so I was just watching his hands. . . . How often do you get close to a living legend like he was?"

In January 1953, less than a month after Leach's visit, Archie Bray somehow damaged his leg and found himself in the hospital with phlebitis. After a month of enforced rest, during which he fought bouts of flu and pneumonia, Bray seemed to be getting along fine. During that month, he did his best to keep the brickyard and foundation running from his hospital sickbed. Finally, he was allowed to go home.

On the drive across town, Bray asked his son a favor. "Drive me out to the brickyard, and let me take a look." Archie Bray, Jr., had just been "carefully admonished by the doctors . . . [to] take him directly home," and so he refused. His father lived "another three or four days," and "then all of a sudden" the morning of February 17, 1953, Bray died instantaneously of an embolism. He was sixty-six years old.32

As a prominent Montana "industrialist and ardent patron of the fine arts," Bray was eulogized at length in the local paper. He was remembered for his industriousness, his love of gardens and the performing arts, and his civic-mindedness. But perhaps most importantly, wrote his eulogist, "Mr. Bray died with his life's ambition partly attained in the establishment of Pottery, Inc., as part of the Archie Bray Foundation."33

Archie Bray, Jr., had never been an enthusiastic supporter of his father's foundation. However, after Archie Bray, Sr.'s death, the son honored his father's wishes and continued to support the pottery. "My father wanted it to continue," he said, "and I was going to do everything I could to see that he was not disappointed." Rudy Autio has said of Archie Bray, Jr., "He was the one who saw to it that [the] Bray Foundation survived, more than anyone else. . . . [After Archie Bray, Sr.'s death] he came to me and told me that, 'we'll see that you're okay, don't worry about it.'"34

Archie, Jr., and Pete Voulkos, however, had never gotten along, and in mid-1954, when Voulkos received an offer from Millard Sheets to head the new ceramics program at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, he jumped at the chance. Two years later, Rudy Autio--weary of "making two hundred dollars a month and trying to live on that"--also left the Bray, first moving his young family to Los Angeles and then, quickly homesick for Montana, returning to Helena to work under K. Ross Toole as a curator and exhibits designer for the Montana Historical Society. In 1957 Carl McFarlane, president of the state university at Missoula, offered Autio a position teaching ceramics in the art department. Autio accepted, and as he put it, a "whole new world began over here."35

After the departure of Voulkos and Autio, the Bray continued to thrive. And despite the battles over aesthetics and work habits, despite financial challenges, the foundation's first years had firmly established all the elements that today make the mature foundation, in Rudy Autio's words, a "very important center." First and foremost, the vision that Archie Bray articulated during those evenings at the Meloy home and in his letters to Branson Stevenson remains as vital at the start of the twenty-first century as it was fifty years ago.

Still a "place to work for all who are seriously interested in any of the Ceramic Arts, " the Bray welcomes--just as it did in the early 1950s--ceramic artists from across the United States. And just as Bray, Stevenson, and Meloy invited masters from England, Germany, Scotland, and Japan to present workshops and work in the pottery, so does the current Bray maintain an international character, with ceramists visiting from Siberia and Thailand, Korea and Finland, Romania and Taiwan.

Idealistic and practical, good fun and a place where much good work is done, the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts today stands as a worthy memorial to the "life and interests of the man who . . . [made] this pottery possible." It is, indeed, a "place of art--of simple things . . . [and] good people." And though there will forever be problems, "thru it all" still permeates that beautiful spirit of which Archie Bray dreamed fifty years ago.


RICK NEWBY is a writer, poet, and editor, who regularly writes about the ceramic arts for periodicals such as American Ceramics, American Craft, Sculpture, and High Ground. CHERE JIUSTO, a former resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation, is the architectural historian and community preservation coordinator for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office. A Ceramic Continuum: Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence, from which this article is taken, will be copublished by the Holter Museum of Art, Helena, and the University of Washington Press in June 2001.
Footnotes:

1. Peter Meloy, conversation with authors, Helena, Montana, July 2, 1998.

2. Chere Jiusto, The Heart of Helena (Helena, Mont., 1989), 5; Paula Petrik, No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Frontier, Helena, Montana, 18651900 (Helena, Mont., 1987), 67, 1415.

3. For the history of Western Clay Manufacturing Company, see Fred Quivik, The Western Clay Manufacturing Company: An Historical Analysis of the Plant and Its Development (Butte, Mont., 1985). See also Townsend, Montana, Townsend Star, undated clipping in scrapbooks, Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts Archives, Helena, Montana (hereafter ABFA); Helena Independent Record, July 22, 1945; Archie Bray, Jr., interview by Martin Holt, Los Angeles, California, August 3, 1978, ABFA, also available as OH 1429, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena (hereafter MHS); and Chere Jiusto, "Brickyards to Potshards," in More from the Quarries of Last Chance Gulch (Helena, Mont., 1995), 1069.

4. Archie Bray, Jr., interview.

5. Ibid.

6. Peter Meloy, interview by Martin Holt, Helena, Montana, June 19, 1977, ABFA, also available as OH 1443, MHS.

7. Archie Bray, Jr., interview; Betty Bray Galusha, interview by Martin Holt, Denver, Colorado, May 10, 1978, ABFA.

8. Peter Meloy, "Archie Bray and the Archie Bray Foundation," unpublished reminiscence, p. 4, July 1997, ABFA.

9. Rudy Autio, artist's statement in Northwest Ceramics Today (Boise, Idaho, 1987), 8.

10. Meloy interview; Meloy, "Archie Bray and the Archie Bray Foundation," 5-6.

11. Branson Stevenson, interview by Martin Holt, Great Falls, Montana, August 2, 1978, ABFA, also available as OH 1434, MHS; Herbert C. Anderson, Jr., The Life, the Times and the Art of Branson Graves Stevenson (Raynesford, Mont., 1979), 21314.

12. Anderson, Branson Graves Stevenson, 223224, 229, 240.

13. Rudy Autio, interview by authors, Missoula, Montana, November 3, 1998, ABFA; Frances Senska and Jessie Wilber, interview by Martin Holt, Bozeman, Montana, July 16, 1979, ABFA, also available as OH 1000n, MHS; Peter Voulkos, interview by Martin Holt, Oakland, California, August 7, 1978, ABFA, also available as OH 1000g, MHS.

14. Archie Bray, Sr., to Branson Stevenson, n.d., ABFA.

15. Helena Independent Record, October 7, 1951.

16. Anderson, Branson Graves Stevenson, 227

17. Frances Senska, "Pottery in a Brickyard," American Craft, 42 (February/March 1982), 33.

18. Helena Independent Record, October 28, 1951.

19. Galusha interview.

20. Archie Bray, Sr., to Branson Stevenson, April 10, 1952, ABFA.

21. Autio interview.

22. Archie Bray, Sr., to Branson Stevenson, April 10, 1952.

23. Voulkos interview.

24. Archie Bray, Sr., to Branson Stevenson, November 5, 1952, ABFA.

25. Archie Bray, Sr., to Branson Stevenson, December 1951, ABFA; Archie Bray, Sr., to Branson Stevenson, Spring 1952, ABFA.

26. Archie Bray, Sr., to Branson Stevenson, December 23, 1952, ABFA.

27. Bernard Leach to Branson Stevenson, April 24, 1952, ABFA.

28. Garth Clark, American Ceramics: 1876 to the Present (London, 1987), 101; Senska/Wilber interview; Autio interview.

29. Senksa/Wilber interview.

30. Autio interview.

31. Rudy Autio video interview, Revolutions of the Wheel: The Great Move West, vol. 2, video, Queens Row, Los Angeles, Calif., 1998.

32. Archie Bray, Jr., interview.

33. Helena Independent Record, February 17, 1953.

34. Archie Bray, Jr., interview; Autio interview.

35. Autio interview.


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Summer 2001), 20-29; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.