Archie Bray (Senior) was a worker at The Western ClayManufacturing Company. Western Clay produced architectural clay products in Helena Montana, the state capital. For those who live in more populous places you have to understand that Helena even in the 1980’s only had a population under 30,000. The whole state, really a large state had few people living in it that many large cities out east.
Helena as a city got its start in the mid 1860’s with the discovery of gold. Development in town centered near the gulch, and the placer deposits of gold. However there were also mine up the gulch and production of quicklime up the gulch not far from the townsite. During the later part of the century there was a series of devestating fires that started in the gulch. Coming out of the gulch these first created there own wind system and spread very quickly. Brick veneer was quickly added to many of the local houses and brick housing became a standard for new quality homes. There were several brickyards, but Western Clay is the one that survived.
Archie (Senior) started a subscription perfroming arts series in Helena. Through a booking agent he would arrange to perfroming artists on their way to Seattle to stop and spend time in Helena. They would go to the Natatorium, ride horses if they wanted, visit the Bray and watch demonstrations by resident artists there and perform. Because these performances happened on a stop they often wanted to make in a long train trip, the costs were affordable in a small town. The series was able to book big time perfromers such as , “” . Music, fine arts, dance, and theater are big players in this town. Thry are out of proportion to the city size , and although seen as a draw for tourists, the biggest proportion of audiences is always local.
In the first years of the 1950’s Archie Started inviting university art students to work at the brickyard over the summer. They would work for him during the day and make art on nights and weekends. The ceramic pieces were usually fired on top of the brick in the beehive kilns. Over time the needs of the artists grew and kilns specifically for them were built.
In 195- , on thier tour across the US, Soetsu Yanagi, Shoji Hamada, and Bernard Leach, stopped at the Bray. They lectured, and did demonstrations. This tour, in terms of pottery was a turning point. It was influential enough to change the face of American Pottery. The Bray developed a line of standard ware that potters were supposed to produce to support The (Bray) Pottery, the people developed what really can only be seen as an appreciation of Wabi Sabi, without using the words, and much of US potter began to look towards the East for inspiration and less to the BausHaus, Scandinavian design and other European influences.
The pottery building grew in stages. Archie Senior, while building a wall, fell from a ladder and died of complications. Archie Junior took over the brickyard. He built a tunnel kiln on a loan and was never able to make it work right. A tunnel kiln is a long skinny kiln where the bricks are stacked on cars with railroad wheels and highly insulated floors that are slowly pushed through the kiln. Both ends of the kiln are cool and the center is the hotest. The kilns are left running. Only needing to be heated once, they also make good use of the waste heat to preheat the air used in combustion, and to preheat the brick coming into the kiln. There is a question if the tunnel kiln was too big for need, but it probably would have worked out if the brick were not cracking in the firing.
Part of the problem was certainly the clay. It could be that the best clay was played out in their deposit. I heard that this was the case when I visited there, but it also seems true that Archie Junior did not have the experience or knowlege to blend the clays well enough. Either way, they never got the tunnel kiln working properly.
The loan from the Small Business Administration was unable to be paid and Western Clay Manufacturing Company was scheduled to be auctioned. David Shaner convinced the Auctioneers to separate off the Pottery buildings from the Brickyard. There was a downturn in the economy and people were broke. Ken Furgason told me that Dave Shaner went around town looking for donations to save the pottery. People told him that they did not have money to spare. He said, ” we will take the change in your pockets, anything”. The auctioneer opened the bidding on the pottery and Dave Shaner bid every last cent he had. My memory is that this was $32,000 for the pottery, Chicken Coop, Director’s House and Garage.
In case I fail to mention it anywhere else David Shaner was a spectacular human being. He always had a smile for people. He was helpful, generous, and just plain nice. HIs teapots were full bodied unlike Fergusons. Ferguson liked understated Teapot bodies feeling that the forms were finished by the spout, handle and Lid. Shaners were fuller. Both made wonderful teapots.
In the early-mid 1980’s the Bray was the most important residency for clay in the world. It was busting at it seems even with 5 people there. The old pottery building had the directors studio, The Clay Business director worked in the old Directors house. The director, then Kurt Weiser, and Christie, his wife and son lived in the Chicken Coop. Christi had her studio in an old shack attached to the garage. The pottery also housed the community classes and the gallery.