A Ton of Bricks

Linda Burton posting from Helena, Montana – If you’re going to lock your keys in your car you couldn’t choose a better place than “The Bray.” I heard about the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts the first day I arrived in Helena. Now (after that door-slam when you instantly realize your keys are still on the car seat) I’m sitting on the steps of their office waiting for AAA to arrive with the unlocking thing-a-majig. I’ve got one eye on the Scion and the other on an interesting circular structure just off to my right. The little brown brochure with a map of the place tells me it’s the Potter’s Shrine, built to reflect construction techniques used in the original buildings and to honor past and present ceramic artists at The Bray. It’s dedicated to Archie Bray, whose vision “gave birth to the Foundation” and it contains a bust of the man, sculpted by Rudy Autio in 1952. I started walking down the gravel drive and saw an array of brick buildings and chimneys and artworks scattered around this site that once was a brick factory, according to the brochure. A brick factory? A Foundation supporting ceramic artists? A man named Archie Bray? How did it all come together?

The brick factory. The brick factory site is over a hundred years old, I learned. It was a mainstay of the Helena economy; many examples of the brick and tile it produced can be found in historic Helena buildings. Named Western Clay Manufacturing in 1905, only a handful of the beehive kilns you see here remain in North America. Industrial and decorative bricks, sewer pipe, and tiles were fired in these kilns; originally they used coal; they converted to gas in 1931. The brick production system included refining and mixing the clay as well as extruding, drying, and firing brick and tile. No brick has been produced here since 1961; it was purchased by the Foundation in 1984 and is an important part of the landscape of the art center today. Three miles from downtown Helena, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Foundation. The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts is a public nonprofit educational institution, founded in 1951 by brickmaker Archie Bray, a philanthropist and avid patron of the arts. He wanted to make available a “fine place to work…for all who are seriously and sincerely interested in any of the branches of the ceramic arts.” Bray died in 1953, but the Foundation survived and today is internationally acclaimed; it serves as a leading workplace for ceramic artists and educators with over 500 artists from around the world on its alumni list – a “Who’s Who” of contemporary ceramics. The Artist Residency Program is the core of the Foundation.

Throughout the year a community of ten resident artists work in the studios here; ten more join them in summer months. The Foundation provides free studio space, monthly stipends, and subsidized costs for materials and firing; fellowships and scholarships are awarded annually to individuals with exceptional promise. The historic brickyard, the nearby mountains, and the contact with artists of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and approaches to clay provide a stimulating, and much sought after, environment for creative work.

The public is invited to visit the Galleries to enjoy exhibits of the artists’ work, or to purchase items created here. Come Monday through Saturday between 10-5; a list of exhibitions and events can be found at www.archiebray.org. Or you can spend an afternoon leisurely touring the property; the detailed brochure maps it out for you. “The Pottery” is the original studio building; here you’ll find artwork from the permanent collection, classrooms, and kilns. There is a Sales Gallery and a Warehouse Gallery too. The Summer Studios are just that, housing the summer residents; the year-round residents use the new 12,000-square-foot David and Ann Shaner Complex which also houses the Director’s office, and visiting artists.

The most fun you’ll have, as I’m doing today, is spotting the artwork scattered around the property; my favorite is Aruina by Robert Harrison, a series of arches framing the pastureland and mountains beyond. Tucked under the trees three ceramic figures sit amongst ceramic chickens, coffee cups in hand, tinkering with new ideas, it seems. Some ceramic dogs watch over the Potter’s Shrine, almost out of sight in the bushes. And about that Shrine, also created by Robert Harrison; it’s a great place to see a variety of work done by a variety of artists over time, and to admire that Autio bust of Archie Bray, the man who started it all.

Here’s AAA ; my car is unlocked, but I decided to stay for a while.

Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, 2915 Country Club Avenue, Helena, Montana 59602, 406.443.3502, www.archiebray.org