Founding Members of the Potters Guild - 1949

Hilda Burr
Wilma Donahue
Eleanor LaPorte
William Lewis
Harvey Littleton
Ruth Lobdell
Carlos Palmer
Giulia Sunblad
Harriet Waite

Who were these nine founders?
by Ethel K. Potts

 I called the Guild in 1950 to sign up for a sculpture class. They held a meeting, I was later told, to decide on whether or not to let the public into their classes, up to then held only for themselves.

Wilma Donahue

When I arrived at the Guild, only the founders were there. Dr. Wilma Donahue seemed to be the leader. As President she ensured decisions were made properly. mostly by consensus and that the group got along well together. A small woman with white hair twisted close to her head, she seemed very wise and professional. Bill Lewis thinks she had an interest in adult organizations - she was beginning her pioneering work in the new field of gerontology, and the Guild may have been an experiment for her. She must have done clay work at some early point, but I have no memory of seeing any pieces of clay on her hands. A busy person, we rarely saw her.

Harriet Waite

Harriet Waite was clearly the core person at the Guild, as Director. She was always there. She took care of the practical running of the place - supplies, utilities, rental matters, cleaning, equipment - everything, chores we have now split up among many members. On top of this she was the main fundraiser, with her many connections. She didn't stack or fire kilns, as I remember, but that was about all she didn't do. A small, sharp-minded woman with a long interest in art, she dressed with flair. I remember her purple velvet pants outfit, long before women wore pants regularly. Without Harriet, the Guild would have collapsed many times in the early years.

Ruth Lobdell

Ruth Lobdell had some U of M connection - a fraternity housemother? A faculty widow? I never knew. She and Harriet sometimes gossiped deliciously about University of Michigan people they both knew. (I'd stay quiet at my work so they'd forget I was there.) Ruth worked steadily at portrait busts or animal forms - sculpture only.

Eleanor LaPorte and Guilia Sunblad

Eleanor LaPorte and Guilia Sunblad were rarely at the Guild. I think the Guild was part of their general cultural interest more than a place to work. Eleanor and her husband had spent time in Japan, he as an advisor to Gen. McArthur. Both LaPortes became quite expert on Japanese art. Guilia did some sculpture, but I remember her mainly as a sophisticated presence, in her jodhpurs. (Jeans and pants were not available for women yet. Rather than wear farm overalls, I copied Guilia and wore riding jeans at the Guild.)

Harvey Littleton

By 1950, Harvey Littleton was no longer around the Guild as he was working full time at Cranbrook for an MFA. His contribution was earlier and major. With Bill Lewis he made our first wheels with stuff from Lansky's junk yard. The two also used Ohio State University plans for a high fire globar electric kiln. Cone 9 and 10 oxidation firings were standard for us, with bisque and earthenware glazes fired together at cone 04. Those of the founders who threw learned early from Harvey. I watched him demonstrate only once but it was unforgettable - making large pots from small balls of clay. He threw thin and pulled all of the clay into the piece - little tooling was needed.

Bill Lewis

Bill Lewis was very much an early presence. For years Guild treasurer/secretary, his painting studio (and model train layout) were on the top floor of the building, and he walked through the Guild almost daily, stopping to talk, often about principles of design. The building would have been unaffordable without his sharing the rent. He also had the only phone in the building, which he shared. (The Guild still has his old phone number.) Bill's painting career was flourishing, so he no longer made many pots, though once a year he'd announce "It's time for my annual pot", and he'd throw a big punch bowl or jar. We all lent him glazes and fired the pot carefully, marveling at his continuing skill.

Hilda Burr and Carlos Palmer

All of the founders were unique characters, but the most unusual were Hilda Burr and Carlos Palmer. Hilda did sculpture, more memorable for the hours of work than for the results. She was an outspoken English woman, working at the University of Michigan in some field of psychology. She was undergoing analysis herself and she read Freudian significance into the forms we made. If we threw fat round forms or tall straight ones, she would look wise and say "Ahuummm". We became very self-conscious. Was there a shape she would not read as revealing? Square maybe? The tales she told were fun, and we missed her when she went back home. She felt disloyal not being in England while it was struggling after the war, though when she got there, she wrote: "life seems to consist of nothing but washing up".Carlos spent a lot of time at the Guild, working on modern sculpture, carving geometric abstract forms. He also collected sculpture, as he could afford. (He gave U of M museum a good David Smith piece). Conversations were lively when he was present. He had wide interests, was an editor of the Middle English Dictionary, and both collected and wrote limericks, though he would not recite the most risqué ones when someone young, like me, was present. Too bad - they were hilarious.