Edith Heath

U.S.A. (1911–2005)
Edith Heath founded her own business in the 1940s, and for 60 years she was the driving force at Heath Ceramics. Her dinnerware combines a craft-based heritage with modern lines in a way that has been prized by many.

The second of seven children in the Kiertzner family, Edith grew up on an Iowa farm. In 1931 she enrolled at the Chicago Normal School (later renamed Chicago Teachers College), where students were required to study art education. Heath excelled in this area, and after graduating she enrolled part-time at the Art Institute of Chicago, taking classes in the morning and teaching in the afternoon. An invitation to work at a Federal Art Project (FAP) training school led to Heath’s acquaintance with the ideas of leading artists, including Bauhaus designer László Moholy-Nagy. It was also during this program that she met her husband, Brian Heath.

In 1941, Brian Heath became regional director for the American Red Cross, and the couple moved to San Francisco. On the drive to the West Coast, they stopped in New Mexico, where Edith Heath would make an important discovery. The work of one of the most influential Native American potters – Maria Martinez – captivated Heath, and she knew at that moment that ceramics was the work she wanted to pursue.

In San Francisco, Heath taught art at Presidio Hill School while auditing classes at the California School of Fine Arts (later renamed San Francisco Art Institute). Access to pottery wheels was limited, so she and Brian converted a treadle-powered sewing machine into a wheel. Soon after, Heath successfully petitioned University of California, Berkeley to host a class on ceramic chemistry, which began her lifelong experimentation with clay and glaze. Working with a kiln in her basement, Heath became an expert in how different clay types affected aesthetic qualities of her wares. Her mastery of this science, combined with her modern sensibilities for proportion and form, made Heath a master ceramist.

In 1944, The California Palace of the Legion of Honor hosted a one-woman show of Heath’s work. This exhibit led to a meeting with a buyer for Gump’s, and Heath was soon making dinnerware sets for the San Francisco retailer. Two years later, Heath was one of 10 artists invited to exhibit her work at the San Francisco Gift Show, where she met Nelson Gustin, who offered to represent her work nationwide and guaranteed to purchase a year’s output. With that, Heath Ceramics was born.

In 1947, Edith and Brian purchased the space in Sausalito, California, where Heath Ceramics is still located today. Operated by new owners Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey since 2003, Heath Ceramics is one of the few midcentury American potteries still in existence.