Native clays

Native clays

Native clays from the fifty United States have been harvested and blended together.

From this "porridge," scratched from America's rivers, forests, mountains, plains and deserts, a limited edition of one thousand American Eagle ceramic tiles was cast. Each glazed tile is hand painted and numbered.

Each is accompanied by an affidavit of authenticity and a list of the 50 clay sources.

Fifty incompatible clays would have burst in the kiln had they merely been mixed before turning up the heat. In order to create a durable ceramic piece, we first blended together all 50 clays and then integrated the combined batch with a generic red clay similar in composition to that used by Navajo potters. It's never been done before ... well, maybe just once --- 25 years ago!




There's Mississippi mud and Yukon tundra in the American Eagle tile. There's Hawaiian lava and New York ball clay carved from the earth by Prof. William Parry of the College of Ceramics at Alfred University. There's even Mojave Desert hectorite, rare clay for which cosmetics companies such as Revlon pay over $2,000 per ton.

Put them all together in a kiln and BAM! They're incompatible. So we integrated them into a hospitable environment, using as a binder the type of clay found in Native American pottery of the Southwest.

Reminds one of American history in which incompatible cultures populated and repopulated our nation infusing strength and vigor with each new arrival.

One year into the millennium, in 2001, the United States celebrated its 225th birthday. It was the year of the infamous "9-11" attacks on America. Virginia, the first of the 13 original colonies, won't celebrate its 400th birthday until the year 2007. There was an intriguing anniversary in the year 2,000: radio carbon testing indicated that Leif Ericson and his Viking crew first set foot in North America during the year 1,000.

Collecting the clay samples took more than six months. We started in the fall but quickly learned that clay could not be dug in many of the northern states due to frozen ground. By spring baggies, boxes and tubes of clay had come in from all fifty states.

Our primary benefactors were geologists at state affiliates of the U.S. Geologic Survey. Also, we received a great deal of help from geology professors at universities through- out the nation. Where possible, we chose clays unique to the respective regions: Georgia red clay, Block Island (RI) glacial clay, Mississippi oil drilling "mud" etc.

In a search for an art object to promote sponsorship of a series of bicentennial television dramas, the 3M Company of St. Paul, Minnesota approached the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University with two questions: "Is it possible to obtain native clays from 50 states and blend them into a master batch for firing and glazing? Could a ceramic keepsake commemorating 200 years of American history be designed and then cast from the batch?"

As a result of the challenge, and beginning in the spring of 1975, Willis Lawrence, dean of the college, made inquiries of brickyards and individual potters throughout the country for information about the availability of clay samples.

Returns came from Hawaii and Alaska; New England; the Delta; the Mountain States; and Plains and Coastal states Then, working at the college during the summer months, Bruce F. Bell and James E. Funk, Jr., mixed and tested clays under the guidance of Fred McMann, kiln room technician at Alfred. At the same time, the engineering and art faculty at the college set up a prize competition for an original design to express 3M’s television theme, "From Sea to Shining Sea."

The winning entry (pictured), disk-shaped with a linear design etched in the clay and fired with a white crackle glaze, was submitted by William D. Parry, professor of sculpture and ceramics at Alfred University. Nearly 700 of the commemorative pieces were cast from a mold at the college for nationwide distribution to State governors and television officials


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