“Made of Clay” exhibits Island pottery made to last

Mid 20th century pottery by Gladys Widdiss (1914-2012) and unknown Wampanoag potters. — Photo Courtesy of MV Museum coll

The clay cliffs of Aquinnah are one of the Island’s most popular attractions. The variety of earth tones represented in striations on the sheer walls have made Gay Head a popular landmark for tourists for as long as the Island has attracted sightseers.

But what many people don’t know is that the Vineyard was once known (at least among potters) for its less dramatic variety of clay: the run-of-the-mill substance of a nondescript color that is found around the Island. Martha’s Vineyard clay was once prized for its unique properties, and exported to be used by off-Island potters.

A new exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum takes a close look at this resource, which has largely been overlooked when examining the history of the Island.

The exhibit, “Made of Clay,” features a brief visual tour of one of the earliest construction materials known to man. The museum has gathered clay items from the 14th to the 20th century, to show how clay-based production has impacted our Island.

“We have a lot of pottery in the collection,” says Martha’s Vineyard Museum Head Curator Bonnie Stacy. “It’s one of those things that people tend to look past. They look at pieces in it in the Cook House or the pots in the Wampanoag exhibit, and they don’t necessarily realize the story behind these things. This was a way to explain more of the story.”

Not surprisingly, the most eye-catching collection in the exhibit is a selection of pottery pieces made from the various colors of clay from the Gay Head Cliffs. As the exhibit guide explains, starting in the 19th century, members of the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head used the colorful clay from the cliffs to fashion decorative vases and other souvenir items. A 1950s postcard indicates these items were available until well into the 20th century (when it became illegal to disturb the clay).

For the most part, the Gay Head vessels on display are striped, like the cliffs themselves. An exception can be found in two pieces made by Gladys Widdis, in which she created swirls and other patterns using the clay palette. Visitors can listen to an oral history, recorded by the museum’s Linsey Lee before Ms. Widdis’ death in 2012. The artist explains how she prepared the clay for sculpting, a process which varies from from artist to artist.

The earliest artifact in the exhibit (ca. 1300) is a large section of an early Wampanoag pot, one of many such relics that have been excavated from the Island. Later examples of Wampanoag pottery shards display simple designs made using sticks, shells, and other tools.

During the 19th century, potters from New England often sought out Vineyard clay. According to the informational booklet, the Vineyard was the only place in New England where clay suitable for stoneware could be found. The exhibit includes a few examples of stoneware jugs made throughout Massachusetts using Island clay.

Apparently, it wasn’t until the 1900s that non-tribal local potters began appearing on the scene. The largest showcase in the exhibit is dedicated to the work of a few early– to mid–20th century Island potters. This collection was provided by Tom Thatcher, who was part of a collective known as Martha’s Vineyard Pottery, which thrived during the 1950s and ’60s. Mr. Thatcher, who can also be heard describing his process in one of the exhibit’s oral histories, has provided examples from a handful of local potters in operation around the same time.

The exhibit covers a long timeline, and although it’s not the most visually striking of the museum’s collections, the selection reveals a lot about the history of the Vineyard. “It became very clear that a lot of the pottery pieces we have in the collection have a connection to the fabric of Martha’s Vineyard,” says Ms. Stacy. “The clay was so important to the Island. The more research I did, the more that became apparent.”

“Made of Clay” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum runs through March 2016. For more information, visit mvmuseum.org.