Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Receiving Pain - Revealing Beauty


example of one of the identifying stamps used by Southern Potteries for their Blue Ridge dishware in the 1930s until the 1950s
Although it is an inspiring theme, the concept “Beauty from Ashes” does not exactly represent the outcome of Chevis Davis Chitwood Kyte’s short life.

But it has a kernel of truth in it.

When hearing that phrase, you may be tempted to relate it to the Phoenix, the mythical bird arising from its own ashes. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any such happy ending to Chevis’ own life.

However, despite the pain Chevis experienced in her life, ironically, the job she had to obtain to support herself and her two remaining children after her divorce paid her to create beauty and bring it into the lives of her customers.

As last Tuesday’s post showed, Chevis died of cancer on November 15, 1942. If you were sharp enough to notice it in her death certificate—as reader Wendy of Jollett Etc. had mentioned—you saw Chevis worked as a decorator for a pottery company.

The specific pottery company Chevis was employed by gives an interesting perspective on her own life. I first discovered the connection while taking my time, wandering through her entry on the 1940 census record. There, I discovered one of those recording flukes—apparently the census enumerator didn’t exactly follow directions there—that allowed me to discover the specific name of the company where Chevis worked.

It was a name that has become well known in some circles.

Southern Potteries listed as place of employment for Chevis Davis Kyte in 1940 census

While Chevis’ home town—Erwin, Tennessee—was mainly a railroad town, there was one offshoot from the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway that provided a divertissement from that form of employment: their subsidiary, Southern Potteries, Incorporated.

hand painted dish from the Blue Ridge dishware collection of Southern Potteries Incorporated during the 1930s through 1950s
By the time Chevis needed to seek employment there, she had joined the ranks of approximately three hundred other local workers who had all been specially trained in the freehand painting process that gave the colorful products their competitive edge. By then, the company had assumed its better known Blue Ridge name and emblem, and was seeing its distinctive wares marketed in showrooms in major U.S. cities.

The whimsical dishes, no one piece exactly the same as another, became so popular that—long after Chevis’ passing—the company grew to employ over one thousand local area residents, all working in some phase of the production process to create and deliver those hand-painted wares.

With changing market conditions negatively impacting sales, the Erwin plant eventually closed in 1957, but by the 1980s, collectors revived interest in the Blue Ridge pieces, and examples of the cheerful folk-art style work can now be found on several websites.

I can’t help thinking about Chevis when I see these delightful patterns. Bold and colorful, they seem so carefree—an emblem of a lifestyle so many of us wish we could enjoy. And yet, truth be told, the life Chevis lived was anything but carefree and bright. I often wonder if her work became the creative outlet she used to assuage the pain she surely bore, or to provide a therapeutic haven from the many reminders of her life’s troubles.

God knows she surely needed it.

Blue Ridge dishware collectibles from Erwin TN circa 1930s


All photographs above courtesy Brian Stansberry - Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License; further information provided via Wikipedia files for the Blue Ridge stamp here, the single plate here, and the two plates here.

9 comments:

  1. "Cheerful," "Whimsical," "Carefree" -- yes, perfect adjectives for these plates. I wonder if we are looking at Chevis's work.

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    1. I noticed in the Wikipedia article on Southern Potteries that it mentioned, later in their history, names of specific employees permitted to sign their names to their work. That allowance, however, post-dated Chevis' tenure there. So who knows? Maybe we are looking at her work--or something she had seen done in the shop around her.

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  2. Do you own a copy of one of her works? :) They are beautiful!

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    1. Oh, believe me, Iggy, I would have loved to! I did check, among my aunt's belongings, to see if by chance she had any Southern Pottery plates, but sadly, no.

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  3. Those patterns are so sweet! Thank goodness for detailed census takers so that you could find the name of the company. :) I recently learned that my husband's great grandmother was a ceramics painter in Spain - it hadn't occurred to me yet to try to find examples of what the company was producing at the time, but now I will have to get on that!

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    1. Oh, yes, do check it out, Melanie! It would be wonderful to have an example of the type of work your husband's ancestor painted. With Internet access today, it is not as hard as one might think to find such answers.

      I was extremely grateful for this census taker's little blooper. It opened up a different lens on understanding my grand-aunt.

      Thanks for stopping by today, and for your comment. Here's hoping you will be writing a post of your own in the near future, sharing on your blog about your discoveries of a certain ceramics shop in Spain!

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  4. How beautiful! I bet it was a job she loved, and I can see how it would have been a creative outlet for her. No two plates exactly alike..very interesting. I will have to keep an eye out for some of those plates. :)

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    1. I thought you might like to know about those plates and see some examples, Far Side. Knowing your antiquing interests, I wouldn't be surprised if you actually run into some of those plates!

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