During the early 1900s, many potters moved to the Mississippi River Basin when they emigrated from Eastern European countries to the US. As those potters usually were not accustomed to Western aesthetic systems, traditional forms and ideas from their homeland cultures often were hybridized and embedded in the vessels they made for their new Midwestern clients.
Even though markets for this pottery were strong, the rural location of many studios and potteries isolated both the potters and their wares from standard branding and commodification systems. Because the work was not professionalized by inclusion in mainstream commerce, no academic or critical centers were established to aesthetically define or promote the collective or individual significance of the pottery or its makers. As a result, this vernacular work has been marginalized, and it’s likely that an important chapter in the history of American ceramics is about to be lost to anonymity because of it.
One potter who may have escaped this fate is Stoin M. Stoin. A Bulgarian émigré, Stoin probably settled in East Liverpool, Ohio, around 1922. Although there’s almost no information about the next four years, it seems reasonable to assume that Stoin worked as a potter in that vibrant community. It’s likely that he was acquainted with George and Dennis Singer as they were becoming established as important entrepreneurs and jobbers for the distribution of pottery for large manufactories in Ohio, and it’s believed that Stoin was introduced to Eugene Houghton in East Liverpool. Later, Wayne County and the Houghton Pottery in Dalton, Ohio, surely functioned as a home base and the spiritual center for Stoin’s professional life as he returned to that place and the Houghton Pottery several times.
Though Stoin was well known during his lifetime, biographical details of his life and his body of work, usually not signed, are almost forgotten today.
A Lifelong Dialog
Though his name was shortened to Stoin M. Stoin after his entry into the US, he was known as Stoyan Mehov Stoyanov in Bulgaria. He was born in the village of Gumoshtnik, Bulgaria, but he was educated in nearby Troyan where he also began his work in clay. There, as an apprentice with potters from the Lovech Province, he mastered the use of the kick wheel and the craft of pottery making.
Although Stoin may have made wheel-thrown pottery in East Liverpool, his skills and compelling aesthetic vision didn’t gain recognition until 1926 when he was hired by Eugene Houghton to develop a line of decorative wares for the Houghton Pottery in Dalton. After his initial two-year experience in Dalton, Stoin worked as a manager, potter, or glaze technician at 14 other large and small potteries—including three that he established—in Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas, and West Virginia. At those places, he made pottery that often was glazed with original, sometimes secret, recipes from his personal formulary of nearly 150 glazes.
Clearly, his studio experiences with Bulgarian master potters and teachers prepared him for a lifelong dialog with the physical and sensuous qualities of clay and glazes. Indeed, when his career was launched at the Houghton Pottery in 1926, his work suggested that he was already enchanted by the asymmetrical application of glazes over sturdy jars and other containers. His fascination with the disunion of those glazes over clay forms—including variations of sponged, wiped, or sprayed glazes over white or colored underglazes—continued for almost 50 years.
During those decades, Stoin, like many other potters from the era, was also engaged by an ongoing intrigue with the patterns of flowing glass and colors of glazes as they covered the walls of pottery. His interest in those dynamics, reminiscent of da Vinci’s studies of moving water and waves, was sustained by an almost daily interaction with the dervish-like movements of spinning clay and the forms that could be pulled from it. But, when Stoin’s clay forms and glazes were dried and fired, the rich kinetic energy of his pliable clay in motion was transformed and fixed as still points in a world of perpetual motion—a place and time filled with social reforms, economic expansion, easy travel, and a national love of football, Stoin’s favorite spectator sport.
Stoin was not a reformer and did not use conventionalized designs for the decoration of pottery. He was, without doubt, interested in personalized versions of natural philosophy. However, instead of popular images of vines, flowers, or critters like mice, spiders, lizards, frogs, beetles, and bugs on vases and containers, Stoin continued his resolute focus on simple forms, handsome glazes, and the natural qualities of clay. He was not, for the most part, interested in having painted or carved images on his pottery. Simply put, Stoin loved to make well-crafted objects from mixtures of clay, minerals, and fire that were covered with no surface decoration other than glaze. Even so, regardless of his disposition, some handsome exceptions do exist.
The popularity of one-of-a-kind studio ceramics had not fully materialized when Stoin began his work at the Houghton Pottery, but graduates from Alfred University were already established at important potteries throughout the US. Some of them were particularly interested in the repetition of thrown shapes that later were individualized by unique carved or painted decorations. Stoin followed a similar plan except that his wheel-thrown forms were personalized by solidified runny tints and shades of monochromatic glazes. He varied that concept on seven named lines of his wheel-thrown vases and containers for the Weller Pottery in 1928. Each line was signified by specific color themes and glaze applications that were also designed by him.
By the end of the 1940s, Stoin—who was beginning to identify himself as a ceramics engineer—lost interest in hand-thrown thematic pottery. Consequently, that work was replaced by the design and production of popular wares for middle-market clients. New works—planters, ashtrays, condiment serving dishes and other novelties, including TV lamps—were manufactured at the Diamond Pottery in Ohio, the American Bisque Pottery Company in West Virginia, and other places.
Saved From Obscurity
Stoin’s retirement years were spent with a son and his family in Farmington, Arkansas, where he threw pottery on an electric wheel for personal pleasure. Stoin (b. 1895) died in 1988 and is buried beside his Swiss wife Lydia Boss Stoin in the Farmington Cemetery.
In the mid 1990s, Stoin and his work may have been saved from nameless obscurity by several publications that valorized the qualities or bona fides of his pottery. The documents included: a recently discovered profile and feature story about his pottery from the October 1, 1928 front page of Zanesville’s Sunday Times-Signal; the release of self-published monographs and pottery histories by Dale Stoin and Dr. James D. Houdeshell; and two brief critical reviews in pottery collector guides. Biographical and production information about Stoin’s life and work was further enriched by the 1993 reproduction of vintage catalog pages from the Niloak Pottery. Illustrations on those pages identified 62 numbered shapes from Stoin’s 1931 wheel-thrown (and wood-fired) wares for Niloak’s Hywood Art Pottery line. Collector guides for the Weller Pottery and other manufactories also have documented additional Stoin-designed shapes and wheel-thrown forms. Collectively, these images provide a baseline for the attribution and possible identification of other unsigned works. Even so, without more supporting documentation, unsigned pottery can only be attributed to Stoin and his body of work.
Although critical recognition of Stoin’s pottery still remains an issue, a new audience of collectors and researchers is generating a growing interest in the unique vision of this potter. Indeed, experienced and beginning collectors are actively searching for the best of Stoin’s signature pottery from the Burley and Winter Pottery Company, as well as the Houghton, Weller, Niloak, and the National potteries. Those collectors must, I think, also believe that Stoin’s egalitarian pottery represents a significant aspect of early 20th-century vernacular modernism from the Mississippi River Basin.
This profile is based on my research for two articles in past issues of the Journal of the American Art Pottery Association (Fall 2013. Vol. 29, No. 4. and Summer 2018. Vol. 34, No. 3.) My article in Phi Kappa Phi Forum (Spring 2017. Vol. 97, No. 1.) is about our discovery and identification of Stoin’s pottery.
Dale Stoin’s 2002 monograph, “Stoin M. Stoin/Master Potter/A biographical sketch of his life and work,” has been an essential reference. Also, in a recent essay, Georgia Museum of Art curator Sarah Kate Gillespie described the combination of rural and regional aesthetics as another form of modernism in the 1920s and 1930s. She used vernacular modernism to describe this quality in her analysis of photographs by Doris Ulmann. The designation can be applied to other artworks as well.
the author Artist Bill Paul taught at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), Park College, and the University of Georgia (professor emeritus, retired 2002). He was the first curator and exhibitions director of the Charlotte Crosby Kemper Gallery at KCAI, and he was also the first curator and second director of the Georgia Museum of Art. Paul has served as a trustee or board member of the American Federation of Arts, the American Association of Museums, and the Arts Festival of Atlanta. His interest in Stoin M. Stoin’s pottery began with the accidental identification of an unmarked vase and a decision to collect pottery from the 15 studios where Stoin worked.