Glass menagerie By Brenda Blevins McCorkle The Daily News
The small ceramic birds in Bob Maddux's hand are more than nostalgic collectibles from a bygone era. They hold the history of his father's life and art.
The delicately painted birds, surrounded by handmade flowers, were the trademarks of pottery created by William Maddux, one of numerous California artists who enjoyed a thriving market from the 1930s to the late '60s.
"I remember very little about the first plant," said Bob Maddux, an eight-year resident of Silver Lake. "There was a Van de Camp's restaurant within a few blocks, I remember that more than anything. I have no photos of the shop or pottery and very few photos of my dad."
Until five years ago, Maddux had given his father's business little thought. His dad died in 1966, after wrestling with both financial and personal difficulties following the death of his wife and a couple of failed marriages. "I remember the last years of his life," Maddux said. "He really struggled."
His quest for information began after his sister was told by a friend about the collectibility of California pottery.
"We didn't know about it at all," Maddux said. "We were clueless, the whole family, and we didn't know that any of the pottery was around."
Maddux used modern technology to connect the dots on a cottage industry that all but disappeared after its California heyday. He started a Web site trolling for clues. And he began finding examples of the actual pottery, including several early pieces inscribed with Wm. or William Maddux. He also started putting together bits and pieces of details about the company.
Harry William Maddux was born in 1917 in Vallejo, Calif. During his late teens in the Laguna Beach area of California, he spent time with his aunts, who owned and operated Martha Neuman Ceramics. William Maddux, as he preferred to be called, began creating his own pottery.
"I remember him later proudly mentioning that he had three people working for him before he was 20 years old," Bob Maddux said. In 1938, William Maddux and his wife, Elma, opened a small manufacturing plant in the L.A. area and began pottery production, including lifelike bird figurines.
The couple's sons joined in. Maddux said he has vague memories of working on a line of pottery called "pixies," hollow pieces in the form of small, fairylike creatures.
"My brother and I worked mainly on the pixies," said Maddux, who was born in 1943.
He remembers parts of the plant, including the "mold room," where liquid clay, called slip, was poured into molds. From there, pieces were fired in a kiln to the bisque stage. After being decorated with glazes, the pieces were fired again, adhering the glaze tightly to each figurine.
The market for the pottery pieces exploded during World War II, when imports to the United States were at a standstill. His father "made good money with the company," Bob Maddux said.
At the end of the war, figurines from overseas were re-introduced into the market, and the bottom fell through for his father, Maddux said. In 1957, the company folded, with the elder Maddux incurring large financial losses.
Later, a line of pottery called Maddux of California was created. But by this time, his father was no longer involved in the business, Bob Maddux said. The name survived, changing hands several times, until 1980, with much of the pieces produced by various potteries.
Twenty years later, Bob Maddux is calling home examples of his father's signature work, the birds, including a pair of blue jays that his wife, Judy, bought as a surprise anniversary present in March 2000. Sons Perry Maddux of Kirkland, Wash., and Steve Maddux of Tacoma, are now avid collectors of the pottery, Bob said.
He has also found tiny yellow ducks and ducklings and green-tinted cockatoos, each inscribed with his father's name. Many of the pieces, Maddux said, were located on eBay or at the large antique shows held at the Portland Expo Center.
The Web site also has become a source of details and queries.
"Probably 90 percent of the queries are about Maddux of California pieces," he said. "I have to tell them that pieces stamped as such were made by a lot of different companies, using that name."
One part of his site is devoted to early pieces found by other collectors, including a hummingbird figurine purchased by Illinois collector Janice Feehan.
"It is the first Maddux hummingbird I have seen," Maddux notes on the Web site.
He also has found references to his father's company in several books on California pottery, including "California Potteries: The Complete Book" by Mike Schneider.
"It's ironic," Maddux said. "He's remembered, even though the last part of his life was so hard. He left a legacy, unbeknownst to him."