Eldreth Pottery founder is moving in new direction
● By J. Chambless
Dave Eldreth in the Eldreth Pottery store, with one of his paintings and some of the company's traditional stoneware and redware.
By John Chambless
“I've been fortunate and blessed to
have done this for so long,” Dave Eldreth said last week. “But
it's time to move on – for all of us.”
The Eldreth Pottery business that he founded 41 years ago, initially working craft shows and weighing down his 1972 Ford Pinto to the breaking point, is running very briskly. Eldreth spoke in an office at the company store as the nearby cash register rang up sale after sale to a crowd of eager customers. At the end of the year, Eldreth is stepping down as the founder and artistic guide for the company, which now employs about 30 people and has steadfastly adhered to its core principles of traditional designs created by American artists, all produced in the same building where he started.
The surrounding farmland hasn't changed much since the day he moved into the onetime mushroom processing facility north of Oxford, but Eldreth Pottery is now known across the nation and eagerly collected. While Eldreth said his duties at the company have been trailing off over the past few years, he still designs the annual Santa figurine. Coming up with different ways to depict Santa for 34 years “is challenging,” he said, laughing, but this year's figurine was special. Santa is waving one hand in a gesture of farewell.
Eldreth is a spry 72, and while he's stepping down from the business, he's not going to be idle. He's looking forward to doing some more traveling with his wife, Faye – “I've been to every continent, including Antarctica,” he said – but his main focus will be painting and a bit of a relaxed pace.
For the past several years, he has been refining his painting style, which is now nearly abstract. Large color fields suggest vast landscapes, with vivid colors suggesting dawn or evening. There's an example hanging in the company store – no signature, just a suggestion that traditional American pottery is not all Eldreth can do. The work is vastly different from what he's known for, and Eldreth enjoys the range of reactions from his buyers.
“Some people just don't get it,” he said, laughing. “But people who like them appreciate the emotional experience of them.”
The main thrust of the new art is to give away all the money he makes from the paintings to the Epilepsy Foundation. His daughters, Diana and Dana, have grappled with epilepsy all their lives, and Eldreth wants to continue to fund research into treatments or a cure. “That's my goal – to do something I love and try to help people,” he said. “I sold three paintings last week, and I just had the buyers make out a check to the Epilepsy Foundation. That way, I'm not involved. I always told my kids to find a job that you'd do for nothing, and I finally found it,” he said, laughing.
Eldreth's paintings are represented by Artblend Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Muse & Company Fine Art in Atlanta, Ga., and Artisan Gallery in Lancaster, Pa. , and he has a website (www.daveeldreth.com) that will focus on his new work. Eldreth is excited about the prospect of a new life in galleries. “I only wish I was in my 40s again,” he said.
His painting style was initially detailed realism, but he eventually felt bogged down by it. “These don't have details,” he said. “I try to create some sort of emotional impact with the colors and the soft edges. They're sort of based on landscape concepts.”
Eldreth has one more pottery signing event in November, where he will sign pieces and meet fans. Then the business will be taken over by Dan Watt, who has been with Eldreth since the days when the company had only four employees. Watt was working at Pfaltzgraff Pottery, and Eldreth met him there during a tour of the facility. Eventually, Watt asked him for a job, and the addition of engineering expertise helped Eldreth's company take a big step toward mass production.
While the number of contributing artists and designers has grown since the days when Eldreth was doing everything himself, the products have a similar aesthetic that buyers love. While rooted in traditional American redware and salt-glaze pottery, there's a whimsy that runs through everything, and the functional cookware and decorative items look great together.
Over the past couple of years, as the company was running smoothly without his constant input, “I was thinking about closing it,” Eldreth said. “But our employees approached me and asked if they could run it. Our manager, Dan Watt, said he'd like to take over. As of the first of the year, they'll be running the business. It will be the same people working here that we've had for years, but the name will change to Hart Road Potters,” named after the narrow country lane that leads to the company.
Eldreth's daughters have been instrumental in running the business for the past few years, but are leaving to find their own paths. Diana is a jewelry designer and Dana is pregnant with her first child and wants to devote time to her family. “I've always told them, 'Pursue your heart,'” Eldreth said, echoing the way he started the business. “That's what I did, and I've been fortunate enough to have it work out.”
Eldreth went to the Maryland Institute of Art, “then got out and kind of bummed around, traveled, got a job teaching and moved back here to the area,” he recalled. “I taught art classes for 10 or 11 years in the Baltimore area. When I moved back here, I needed six credits to transfer my teaching certificate from one state to the other. I took a ceramics class and, well, really liked it.”
That was the moment that turned Eldreth's life around, and now he can look back and muse, “I've been doing this a very long time. It was a struggle in the beginning, but it's pretty well established now.”
As the company has grown and garnered critical acclaim, press notice and consistent high sales, “I've had offers to buy it over the years,” Eldreth said, but most of the companies of his size outsource production overseas. “I just couldn't do that,” Eldreth said firmly.
The company has always been run like an extended family, and designers are free to innovate products, and come in when they want, as long as the work gets done. That has been helpful for employees as they raised children, and now some of them have grandchildren.
“It's been a great experience,” Eldreth said. “It's become like a big circle.”
Eldreth Pottery’s final Christmas Open House will be held at the company's Strasburg Showroom (246 North Decatur St., Strasburg) Nov. 10 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Nov. 11 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Nov. 12 from noon to 5 p.m. Eldreth will be available to sign some of the final pieces made by Eldreth Pottery. Call 717-687-8445 or visit www.eldrethpottery.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.