|By Don Johnson
Those who have seen even a few vases or bowls by Polia Pillin are likely to nod their heads in agreement with a statement made in the forward of Pillin Pottery.
“It is important to note that Polia Pillin designed her paintings to embrace the shape of each and every ceramic vessel,” the book notes. “Her work is immediately recognizable without ever looking for one of her trademark signatures.”
Easily distinguishable from other American art pottery, Polia’s work has earned a steady following for its one-of-a-kind, Mid-Century Modern motifs. The story behind the pottery is as interesting as the creations themselves.
Born in Poland in 1909, Polia Sukonic immigrated to the United States when she was 15. She settled in Chicago, where she worked in the garment industry by day, studying sculpture and painting by night at the Jewish People’s Institute.
In 1927 she met William Pillin, a Ukrainian immigrant one year younger than Polia. They married in 1927.
William’s dream of becoming a poet was nurtured during the Depression through the WPA’s Writer’s Project, which took him across the United States. Among the places he worked was the Southwest, where he and Polia returned in 1936, settling on 16 acres in the Espaniola Valley.
They lived in primitive conditions, with the closest water source several miles away. After the birth of their son in 1940, the couple gave up the harsh lifestyle and returned to Chicago.
William found work in a book business, while Polia concentrated on art, painting in watercolor and oil. Her one-person show at the Chicago Art Institute drew the attention of the Chicago Sun Times, where a reviewer noted, “Her work, direct and colorful, is expressed with a fine feeling for design and a vital sensitive line. Her paintings are personal, with all influences well understood and assimilated.”
Polia’s focus shifted to ceramics after seeing displays at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1946 she enrolled in a six-week ceramics class at Hull House, a Chicago settlement house that offered social and educational opportunities to working-class immigrants. It was her only formal training in throwing and decorating pots, but it was enough.
She continued to work with ceramics at Hull House until the facility was needed for the rehabilitation of World War II veterans. Polia then moved the endeavor to her Chicago apartment. She shaped clay on a potter’s wheel in the corner, experimented with glazes designs from the kitchen table and fired the ware in an improvised kiln.
She also taught William how to throw and fire the pottery, which he continued to do after the couple moved to Los Angeles in 1948, transforming a garage into a pottery shop.
Determined to making a living on their own, she concentrated on pottery and he continued to write, with poems published in a variety of books and literary journals.
The poetry can still be found, but it is Polia’s pots that are most remembered. She created a variety of objects, including vases, plates, bowls, trays and plaques. Although some vessels are glazed but undecorated, it’s her unique, almost naive designs that make Pillin pottery so desirable.
In a 1956 article titled Painting on Clay, she wrote, “In short, humble clay becomes a medium for painting, the limit of which is defined only by the zeal and inspiration of the artist.”
Of Polia’s designs, females received much of the attention, although children and men were also incorporated into the artwork. Among the animals used, horses, birds and fish are often seen. Other subject matter ranges from cats to nudes, and from circus performers to Picasso-like portraits.
The designs typically cover the surface of the vessel. A tall vase might show a thin, stretched-out figure of a woman. Multiple images were common. It’s not surprising for a vase to have three or four subjects encircling it.
The pottery was mostly hand-thrown, although some molded vessels were used in the 1960s. Pieces were marked “Pillin” in stylized letters, incised on earlier works and painted on later examples.
Polia’s last known piece was made in 1991, a year before her death. William died in 1985. Because no production records were kept, the volume of work is unknown.
Crazing is normal and rarely affects value, although other considerations come into play. The subject matter of the decoration and the size of the item are both important.
Retail prices for decorated pieces of Pillin begin at about $350 and top out at roughly $4,000, according to Mike Nickel, co-author of Pillin Pottery. Plaques have sold for more, but the market has leveled off in recent years. One factor affecting value was the auction of about 200 pieces of Pillin in September 2011. Sold in St. Louis, the collection was handled by Seeck Auctions.
The majority of the items brought no more than $1,000, with roughly 10 percent of the lots hammered down for less than $300, compared to about 15 percent that realized four-figure prices. The highest price of the sale was $4,400 for an 11 1/2-inch vase showing three nude women, done in orange on a red ground, an unusual color scheme for Pillin.
Bringing $4,000 was a 7 1/2- by 4-inch plaque of a blue-eyed mother cat with a kitten. Cats spurred determined bidding throughout the auction.
“Extremely rare pieces brought exceptional prices,” Nickel said. But the auction also took its toll on other Pillin pottery. “I would say it cut the market value by 30 to 40 percent.”
As with any hand-painted American art pottery, it’s the design that usually gets collectors excited. “Aesthetics is as critical as perceived value,” he added.
“We have had good luck selling Pillin,” said Nickel, who has been a full-time dealer of American art pottery since 1989. He tries to be fussy about Pillin designs and shapes. The result tends to be strong sales. One piece he quickly sold was a covered box showing four women. What made the item unusual was that one of the ladies was waving.
That type of quirky feature typifies Polia’s designs. “People fall in love with that.”
Collectors who have handled an assortment of Pillin can easily spot the best material. “Once you get real close to the work, you know it in a heartbeat,” Nickel said.
It’s the unique look that continues to attract people who are unfamiliar with the pottery. “We still find new people coming in and being captivated by her work.” At one antique show, a woman who had never seen Pillin pottery walked away with four pieces.
Nickel is convinced that Pillin will continue to attract buyers for years to come. “I believe it has a bright future,” he said. “I’m happy people still love her work as much as I do.”
To learn more about Pillin, see Pillin Pottery by Jerry Kline and Mike Nickel (Schiffer Publishing, 2011), which was used as a source for this article.
To contact Nickel, phone (517) 526-1226 or email email@example.com.