Into the Breach Craft on Display

Edith Heath: A Life in Clay at the Oakland Museum of California

The Oakland Museum is a walled garden of low-slung concrete across from the county courthouse. While the approach is intimidating, the space itself is charming in a brutalist way, and it's a nice place to spend the afternoon. Edith Heath: A Life in Clay is hidden away on a lower level and, considering the marketing efforts I’ve seen, it’s not very large. The walls are carefully painted with rich colors that echo her stoneware. At the same time, it still felt *designy* — austere and impersonal, in contrast to the rest of the museum. Finding the show was like finding a yoga room in the middle of a noisy casino.

The show begins as my map does, with a contemplation of the minerals and materials that constitute Heath’s distinctive clay vessels. I was surprised by this and heard other people commenting on it as well. I enjoyed seeing glaze samples, lumps of clay, and the like, but this section did not feel strongly tied to Heath herself, and I could not yet get a sense of who she was. Instead, by starting out with a lesson on production processes and resources which connected California’s post-War industry and culture, I gradually began to see that the Golden State was the star of the show.

At times, I felt Edith was reduced to a figurehead, touting the wonders of industry, design, and the American dream, especially through the photos and wall text, which featured many quotable soundbites about “good design.” Her backstory as a progressive thinker and educator is mentioned, but all rebellion against societal norms was somehow turned into an advertisement for the California good life made possible by modern technology. I wanted more about Edith herself, the woman who bucked trends and lived on a houseboat. By the time I saw a photograph of her, looking glamorous and absolutely bored in a strapless dress and statement necklace, I wanted to liberate her - lend her a leather jacket so we could ride motorcycles down the coast.

For me, the appeal of Heath ceramics is its heft and form; it wants to be touched, so it was a little disappointing that most of the work is protected under glass. Nevertheless it was really nice to see a wide variety of her work throughout the decades, though, in an ironic twist, because she had been using the same forms the entire time, it was pretty hard to tell them apart.