Bewitched by the Bray: the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts

Before it became one of the foremost ceramics studios in the world, the site of the Archie Bray Foundation was the Western Clay Manufacturing Company. It took very little for Archie Bray to begin transforming the place into an arts center in 1951. Bray envisioned creating a place for “all who are interested in the ceramic arts” to work. In this he succeeded. Each year, the Foundation offers 10-12 fellowships to some of the biggest names in ceramics. During the year, these artists focus on their craft, honing, experimenting, and learning from each other. They also teach classes at the Bray’s community center, meaning that Helena’s amateur potters have access to instruction from some of the most famous ceramicists in the world. Beautiful as the vision is, it is not the story that captivated my attention, but the place itself.

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Set on the site of an abandoned brick kiln, it feels arcanely industrial, the sort of place a Victorian alchemist might set up shop. You can see this especially in the brick kilns. Huge brick domes surrounded by sheds made of a scapwork of corrugated tin, fencing, wood, and brick. A tall brick chimney and a tin tower of unknown purpose rise above the jumble on the ground. Abandoned bits of rusting machinery and discarded bricks complete the scene. All of this sits atop a Montana landscape transitioning from river bottom to prairie. Tall drying grasses, scattered prickly pears, willows, cottonwoods and buffalo brush.

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           These are the first two layers, the Natural and the Industrial. Atop, within and amongst, sixty years of artists have left their own mark. Card players, gargoyles, an angel, towers, cairns, a crate of spools, buttons, screws, tops (each as large as a torso) arches, vases, an endless variety of teapots. Ceramic all, they loiter in the grass, slink through the brick heaps, perch atop the buildings, recline in the shade. A jumble of beauty, a confusion of artistry, and this just the outside. Inside, some of the world’s best ceramic artists gather—10 to 12 a year—and focus on their craft. All in the public view. The day we went, a few of the summer residents stopped work to tell us about their projects. Experimenting, designing, dreaming, interacting. This is the Archie Bray.  Words like strange, odd, and eclectic should all be used to describe the place, but I don’t think they do it justice. I doubt my pictures really do much better. I had read things, even maybe seen pictures, but I wasn’t that sold on the idea. I went out of a sense of bloggerliness, and because my local contact (aunt) had set it up. I left convinced that I had found my new favorite spot in Helena.

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