Cream of the Crop

The Tennessee Magazine, August 1999

Potters Turn Pieces for Presidents

“From their workshop in a renovated dairy barn in Murfreesboro, potters Lewis and Eric Snyder are proving the good stuff still rises to the top.

 

They have created pieces for every U.S. president since Richard Nixon.”

 

In a Murfreesboro dairy barn, the cream of the crop still rises to the top. The cows, however, have been replaced by the colorful decorative and functional pottery of Lewis and Eric Snyder. The father-and-son team are well-respected clay artists in the art world.

 

Within the cool block walls of the renovated dairy barn, a maze of rooms overflow with pottery wheels, kilns and pottery in various stages of completion.

 

A journey through these rooms, ending in the two-floor gallery, is a glimpse of the often weeks-long process of producing a fine piece of pottery.

 

The Snyders’ reputation for creativity and master craftsmanship stretches all the way to the White House. They have completed commissioned works, including sets of dinnerware and commemorative plates, for every U.S. president since Richard Nixon.

While working to establish a Tennessee crafts program, the elder Snyder’s work came to the attention of the national Endowment for the Arts, which eventually commissioned the piece for President Nixon. When Jimmy Carter was serving in the White House, Rosalynn, his wife, and Vice President Mondale’s wife, a potter herself, requested an 11-place setting dinnerware for a Congressional Club dinner. Snyder says the progress of the work, handled through the Smithsonian and the Renwick Museum, was checked on almost weekly.  Lewis’ work found its way into the Reagan White House as a result of the World’s Fair in Knoxville. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee had a piece made as a gift for the visiting Reagans, which was presented the opening of the fair.

 

The Studio S tie to the current administration came from First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Along with 80 other artists across the country, the Snyders provided a Christmas ornament—a clay and semi-precious stone angel used on the Blue Room Christmas tree.

 

Though they have contributed to several presidential administrations, the Snyders have never met any of the commanders in chief.In addition to domestic success, Lewis’ work has been displayed and appreciated internationally. And to think it might never have happened.

 

Lewis was a political science and history major at Glenville State College in West Virginia when he was faced with choosing a minor. Once he started taking art classes, especially those involving clay, he was hooked. He went on to get a mast of fine arts degree from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. His next challenge was to start a three-dimensional art program at Middle Tennessee State University. Integrating art into rural education was and still is a challenge, but he is a firm believer in its importance.

 

Ten years after he started teaching in 1962, Lewis left the university. Two years prior, he had started Studio S Pottery. That same year, an invitation to Czechoslovakia was a major turning point in his career. I was one of two Americans invited for a four-week work symposium,” he says. “The experience was a hundred times more valuable than graduate school. It was overwhelming.

 

In fact, he believed the chance to work beside some of the world’s best artists was worth the unknowns of entering a communist country. Despite the fact his passport was confiscated until his hosts were ready for him to leave and Russian planes were flying overhead every day, he has no doubt that the exposure his work received then has led to displays in Prague, Czechoslovakia; Poland; Africa and South America. Within his own country, his work has graced display cases at the Emerson Museum of art in Syracuse, N.Y. and the Renwick Gallery Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

 

Eric, of course, grew up around clay and was sticking his fingers in it at an early age. As a 4-year-old, he was already selling little clay figures. Following in his father’s footsteps, Eric’s work also has met with international acclaim. His pieces are included in collections in France, Australia and Japan. His road to a career in pottery has been somewhat reversed from his father’s.

 

Having always been around it, he gravitated towards other fields in college. He studied communications and history at MTSU. In 1989, however, he joined Studio S full time, making it a family business.

 

In the years since, the Snyders have worked side by side, each designing and making his own products. What sets them apart from so many commercial potters is the astounding selection of glazes with which they are able to finish their products. We have about 5,000 different glazes we can use to get a wide spectrum of effects," Lewis says. "We keep 30 to 40 mixed up at any one time."

 

Those numbers are quite rare in commercial pottery, Eric says. “Most (potters) use a basic eight glazes.” Pointing to a completed box in the gallery, he says, “We used more than that on that one box.”

 

The box to which he is referring was among the Tennessee products chosen to be featured on QVC’s Quest for the Best program more than three years ago.  Even among viewers who might not have been collectors of pottery, their Tennessee Pottery Boxes were popular. “We sold 100 in about 5 minutes,” Lewis says.

Despite their success, all of their work is not geared toward receiving national or international recognition.  Among their works are small jewelry and cigar boxes for the members of wedding parties and one-of-a-kind or limited edition pieces for local corporate and civic organizations.

 

In addition to their decorative pieces and functional items such as casserole dishes and dinnerware, the Snyders also are widely recognized for their architectural work in terra cotta, a durable material used to enhance the beauty of a building. “We’re one of six firms the federal government approved for historical restoration in terra cotta,” Lewis says.

 

The architectural work can be seen in Nashville at the Vanderbilt Administration Building, the Hermitage Hotel and Merchant’s Restaurant. They’ve also worked on projects for a Frank Lloyd Wright house in West Virginia and the Majestic Theater in Dallas, Texas.

 

In an effort to share their love of the process of pottery-making, the Snyders offer four sessions of classes each year. These 10-week sessions cater to all skill levels and include the wheel-throwing and hand-building methods. Ten to twelve people usually compose each of the four classes, which meets once a week.  All materials and instruction are included in the $140 fee.

 

They are among the busiest people you will find, the Snyders never stop striving for the new and exciting.

 

“We’re almost always doing something new,” Lewis says. “Very few potters do their own glazes because they don’t want to spend the time on it. We experiment all the time. I’m inspired by nature and the environment.”

 

“Or by the colors in a sunset,” Eric adds.

Tennessee Pottery Boxes