Lester Breininger taught biology at my high school. His name probably doesn’t ring any bells, but I assure you that in the right circles, he’s kind of a big deal. Breininger was a ceramicist and a potter best known for his iconic Pennsylvania Dutch redware – pottery pieces made from local red clay and decorated in a bright yellow glaze. Although he retired while I was still in middle school, he still worked closely with the art department. I remember a couple of art club field trips where I spent entire afternoons harvesting red clay from the Tulpehocken Creek that we then used to make our own ceramic pieces in the Breininger style. And while I understood that Breininger and his work were an important part of the community, it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood how important it was to preserving Pennsylvania Dutch culture. He worked his clay using techniques that have been used by generations. The motifs used to decorate his pieces were even older. Everything about his work paid homage to people, especially potters, who came before him. His attention to historical detail was so respected that he was commissioned to create Christmas ornament for the White House. Since Lester Breininger passed away in 2011, his studio and his legacy have been maintained by three of his employees, including Thilo Schmitz and Curt Pearson, former classmates of mine who worked in Breininger’s studio while we were all still in high school.
When I moved to Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to bring a few of Breininger’s pieces with me. The first time a new Philly friend visited, he commented on how lovely they were and asked if I’d ever been to the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown. Henry Chapman Mercer, although much, much older than Lester Breiniger, had a similar love of pottery and desire to preserve not just the pottery itself, but also the processes used to create it. Mercer’s tiles adorn both his house, Fonthill Castle, and his Mercer Museum, as well as other historical buildings including the rotunda at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. After his death, the Bucks County Department of Parks & Recreation has taken over the tile works. Craftsmen and women still make tiles using Mercer’s techniques and the studio is open as a living museum.
One of UDPL’s many museum passes is for the Moravian Tile Works! By checking out the pass, two adults are able to tour the tile works, including the Clay Pit where giant blocks of clay are stacked one on top of the other. And, if you’re feeling like taking a bit of a drive, my former classmates who now run Breininger’s studio as Robesonia Redware are hosting the annual Summer Show on August 20th & 21st.
Although Breininger’s redware and Mercer’s Moravian tiles have very little in common visually, both studios are dedicated to preserving the historical importance of pottery and ceramics, not just as art pieces, but as an art form. As a librarian, I can’t think of anything better than being able to connect so tangibly with our past.