Visual Arts

Central Kentucky pottery: Art with roots in the soil

This pitcher was made by Bybee Pottery. Six generations of Cornelisons have made pottery in Kentucky.
This pitcher was made by Bybee Pottery. Six generations of Cornelisons have made pottery in Kentucky.

Most Kentuckians are proud of their native soil, but that pride takes on a literal meaning in Madison County, where clay-rich soil supported a thriving pottery industry that began in pioneer days.

Lexington's Central Library Gallery is hosting a new art exhibit, Early 20th Century Art Pottery of Madison and Fayette Counties, that aims to educate viewers about the unique works of three potteries and four lines of pottery, including Bybee, operated by the Cornelison family for more than 200 years.

Most of the regional potteries are gone now, and Bybee itself closed earlier this year, but the exhibit's co-curators say they are trying to keep Central Kentucky's pottery legacy alive.

The exhibit features more than 200 pieces of art pottery produced from 1920 to 1945, a pivotal era in the evolution of the art form.

"During that time frame, there was a lot of interesting work being done around the country," gallery coordinator Peggy McAllister says.

Art pottery thrived during the early 20th century for a couple of key reasons.

Containers made of glass and tin had overtaken stoneware for use in everyday life. People no longer needed stone crocks, churns, jars and jugs for storage, so potters adjusted their focus to more artistic works.

Of course, the pre-Depression economy helped, too. People had money to buy art.

"The economy was booming in the '20s. It was like the Clinton years; there were really good times before the Depression, so you could afford a vase to put on your mantle," says Jerry Nichols, who, like co-curator Larry Hackley, contributed a chapter to the book Clear as Mud, which tells the story of the region's pottery history.

"It's a big story," Nichols says.

One part of the story that Nichols hopes to highlight is how local potters were once in national demand for the quality of their work. In 1922, a group of Central Kentucky investors incorporated Bybee Pottery Co. of Lexington on Seventh Street, near what was then known as Winchester Pike. The Fayette County location was extremely productive, and its products were featured in national catalogs and sold wholesale throughout the country, including New York.

"In 1925, they were doing really good," Nichols says, "selling stock and capitalizing it through a pretty high level. It was a big deal."

But the Depression crippled the industry, and it never quite recovered. Bybee filed for bankruptcy in 1928 but continued to make pottery. Waco Pottery, a contemporary pottery less than a mile from Bybee, stopped making pottery in 1943.

Giving the public a glimpse into an oft-forgotten aspect of regional history was one reason McAllister was interested in featuring the exhibit at the library.

"I thought, gosh, this is just so interesting because this is a story that people really don't know about," McAllister says. "It's part of Kentucky history and heritage, and it's really valuable for people to be aware of."

It's not just about history, though. The pottery items featured are sophisticated works of fine art in their own right.

"The forms are really elegant and beautiful," she says, "but they also have experimented with really unique glazes."

And they're not as well known to national collectors as brands such as Rookwood, but regional works of pottery from this era are every bit as good, if not better, Nichols says.

"Rookwood is mass-produced," he says, "and with this, you're talking a very small-scale production. This is Southern, homegrown, real stuff versus factory-produced stuff, so you could argue it is better. This is true Kentucky art, made of our natural resources and labor."