Come to the Closing Ceremonies of this wonderful exhibit, Friday, Oct. 2, 5 to 8 pm, Art Around Town in Portsmouth NH.
by J. Dennis Robinson
Their name is pronounced “shire.” And if you have not seen the visually explosive art exhibit by Ed and Mary Scheier, you’re running out of time. The retrospective of their work ends October 2 at Discover Portsmouth.
Be prepared to be surprised. The wildly shaped and colorful pottery and the primitive-style wood sculptures are the product of a famous Seacoast couple. Curiously, they began their lifetime partnership as puppeteers in the rural South before turning to pottery. The independent and prolific team was lured from Virginia to work at the University of New Hampshire in Durham prior to World War II. The goal at the time was to raise the quality of ceramic instruction at UNH. And it worked. The Scheiers took the art world by storm and built an enthusiastic following of collectors and admirers.
“This was a new era for artists–being hired to teach as faculty,” guest curator Dale Valena says. “Artists had free studio space, a salary, and time to work on their art. The Scheiers were able to experiment and mature as artists due to the arrangement.”
The Scheiers were both experimental and collaborative as artists. They worked together, taking chances with pottery and sculpture, trying out new ideas during the mid-20th-century Modern Art movement. They became famous in their time. This retrospective exhibit offers a unique view of their career, especially from the 1940s to 1960s.
The exhibit, too, is a collaboration. Curator Valena works at UNH Special Collections, where many Scheier pieces are housed. The body of their work, some 1,200 pieces, is part of the Currier Gallery collection in Manchester. The Scheiers were active in the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, a statewide group that is represented in an accompanying exhibit upstairs at Discover Portsmouth.
“This is exactly the kind of creative networking and collaboration we’re striving for here at Discover Portsmouth,” says interim executive director Kathleen Soldati. “Part of our mission is bringing history and culture together in Portsmouth to entertain and educate visitors and locals alike.”
Edwin Scheier was the experimental half of the partnership. He was always exploring different styles. The couple loved to visit Mexico, where Ed studied and was inspired by pre-Columbian forms. His exploration of biblical and primitive imagery was innovative for the time. While some of his pottery vessels and platters can be used, they are really sculpture.
“That’s what artists do,” says Valena. “They’re constantly reinventing themselves, working new inspiration into their body of work.
Ed was also a prankster with a breakout sense of humor. Mary was the down-to-earth practical one who produced utilitarian pottery for sale. Friends recall that Mary was also a great gourmet cook and sewed her own clothes. The couple spend 28 years in New Hampshire and lived into their 90s.
“It’s a very cool New Hampshire story about a unique couple,” Valena notes. “The Scheiers are special because they were talented people who worked hard and influenced their contemporaries.”
Twenty thousand visitors have already seen the summer show and Valena hopes hundreds more locals will stop by in the closing days–and get to know this fascinating couple.
“The show has been successful because we also include the history of the League, highlight the Scheiers as UNH teachers, and explore the artists they collected, The exhibit even offers a mid-century living room vignette, like looking back in time. We were lucky to include a rare video of Mary making a pitcher on a potter’s wheel –and it’s mesmerizing.”
A second exhibit upstairs features stories of artists and craftspeople from the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and New Hampshire Art Association, two groups to which the Scheirs belonged. Curated by Robert Chase and Richard Candee, the balcony gallery offers insights to the local art scene during the heyday of Ed and Mary Scheier.
“We hope the exhibition inspires a new generation of potters and collectors. We need both!” Valena says.
Discover Portsmouth is located at the intersection of Middle, Congress, and Islington streets downtown. The welcome center gallery, information desk, and gift shop are open daily from 9:30 am to 5 pm, and until 8 pm Friday, September 25 and October 2. Donations are welcomed. For more information call 603-436-8433.