Lustrous past

Camark Pottery’s original creative burst was later blunted by mass production

Dim light shows the circular configuration of gas lines that fed burners in Camark Pottery’s main kiln, big as a room and more than 7 feet high. Based on paper graphs found near the kiln, art-collecting potter Gary Moore estimates that the last firings went to 2,200 degrees.

Pottery feels like immortality, to a potter.

Even the clunkiest money-grubbery climbing cat or pseudo moonshine jug shucked from a plaster mold and slathered in a glaze as glorious as Pepto-Bismol — once it emerges from the hellfire of a kiln, that thing looks like permanence, proof against the ruin of time.

Not so the potters who made it, or their potteries.

On an overcast spring afternoon, art-collecting potters Gary and Michelle Moore of Little Rock followed auctioneer William Bacon of Camden through the ruin of what was, for most of the 20th century, Arkansas’ largest ceramics factory, Camden Art and Tile Co., aka Camark.

“Camark was sold all over the world, in New York, in California,” Gary said.

But that was a long time ago. The Camark pottery is a handful of vine-invaded industrial buildings, two of them collapsed. Inside, the Moores saw evocative detritus — mildewed tools of the potters’ trade heaped randomly in semi-darkness next to rats’ nests.

And there were stacks — stacks of white plaster casting molds, stacks of firebricks, stacks of cardboard boxes, stacks of dusty paper bags torn and revealing arrested cataracts of gray clay. Bump them and the powder poured out.

While 1950s and ’60s Camark trinkets surface readily in junk shops and yard sales, and are popularly considered little treasures, the only original designs made in this plant in many, many years have been works by rodents and wasps, and the unrelenting industry of plant roots that blindly seek to reclaim the land.

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This visit fell in late March, before an antique dealer purchased and safely carried away an unexpectedly large cache of white plaster molds once used to crank out Camark climbing cats, snuggling swans, Razorback pigs, candlesticks, card boxes, pedestal bowls, bowl-balancing bears, salt and pepper shakers. Believed to have long since been trashed, stacks of these molds — intriguing as geodes — so jammed the dim factory that the Moores had to turn sideways to edge past them as they explored the plant’s defunct but still monumental kilns.

The ruin was “beyond amazing,” Gary said, “because the huge circular kiln is still there, as big as a room. It was like a tunnel.” Once, flame-proof carts loaded with shelves full of pottery moved through this brick tunnel on trolley tracks. Along the way, the pottery was baked and then vitrified by intense gas-fed flames.

The tracks, and the carts stacked with refractory shelves, remain frozen where the plant’s last attempted firing left them decades ago.

“And there’s a second, smaller carousel kiln in another building,” Michelle said, “with the interesting ware boards and sawhorses they used. Everything is so piled around I was afraid of snakes.

“Next to that building is a collapsed one, the roof is gone. And it was full of those plaster molds, too, but they have all been just devoured by rain. They look like little coral reefs.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Camden landed this successful commercial pottery maker in 1926 in a competition with 25 other cities. Jacob “Jack” Carnes, a gifted merchant of ideas from Ohio (he was from Ohio, and so were the ideas), accepted the city’s offer of 7 acres, ready access to promising local clays as well as inexpensive fuels and shipping routes by rail and water on the then navigable Ouachita River.

Even before the factory was built, its first and greatest line was designed in Ohio by a respected potter from an old family of potters, John B. Lessell. He shaped clay shipped to him from Ouachita County into well-balanced forms and fired them under intricately figured, shimmering glazes.

“Camark wasn’t cheap things at first,” Michelle Moore said. “It wasn’t pig banks. That only came at the end. Even though it was made in a factory, it was art pottery, with Lessell’s luster glazes and very, very beautiful.”

Lessell died before the plant opened, possibly without having visited Arkansas. But his wife and business partners carried his trademarked glazes and designs to Camden, and they quickly established the pottery’s reputation for excellence.

In its second year another Ohio artist, Alfred Tetzschner, created the second wave of expensive Camark designs: futuristic and modernistic pots. His original pieces were mold cast and executed again and again by subordinates. But until demand began to outpace supply, the work was notable for attractive glazes, Michelle says.

Over the decades, Camark mass-produced such slipcast ware. Except for a little hand-throwing on the potter’s wheel by Frank Long, the pots all began as liquid clay (shipped in as bags of powder and mixed in a huge vat) poured into the molds which drew out the water until the clay had dried in the desired shape.

Pot after lightweight, hollow pot emerged from these molds and huge kilns, all essentially the same.

In its heyday, the factory employed 25, and a railroad spur near the front door carried lamps, ball-gazing kitties and fan vases around the nation.

Designers of varied abilities succeeded Tetzschner, eventually to die themselves or move away and be replaced in their turn. After Carnes’ death in 1958, public demand followed spiraling decline in product quality downward to darkness.

Although new owners restarted the plant in 1965, large-scale production ended in 1972, followed a decade or so later by the end of well intentioned small efforts. Finally a Camden minister, Charles Ashcraft, bought the plant because his sons were interested in making pots. But they did not revive it.

The intricate, hand-applied motifs and glorious glazes that were early Camark are only suggested by color photographs such as those in historian David Edwin Gifford’s two books on the pottery, including Collector’s Guide to Camark Pottery Identification and Values, Book II. But visitors to The Kavanaugh Co. shop in Little Rock this month were able to see several 1920s and ’30s Camark vases in an exhibit curated by Gifford.

Behind glass and beside other examples of American art pottery of the 20th century, those iridescent vases explained, without speaking, why the brand name survives so long after its creators’ demise.

But their legacy fits on a curio shelf.

“It’s sad, and it’s wonderful, too,” Michelle Moore said, peering into the gloom at one of the once furiously hot Camark kilns.

She lifted the top section off a two-part mold used to shape three small vases at a time. There lay a sprouted nut, somehow having insinuated itself inside the mold.

“How on earth is it growing in there?” she wondered. “How could anything?”

Bacon, who has bought the land and decaying buildings from the Ashcrafts, began selling off in March the contents and about 400 finished pots from the final run. Interest in Camark collectibles has not waned. He estimates that 250 shoppers came to his first sale, including the Moores, and auctioneer and appraiser Kate Anderson Askew, who bought all the molds. Roy Dudley Estate Sales has been offering them to the public.

Bacon does not plan to revive the pottery. He’s toying with the idea of demolishing the unsafe structures but leaving the larger brick kiln as a monument. “So people could walk around it,” he said, “and see what it was like.”

Style, Pages 49 on 05/30/2010