Clay Bodies: The Brief Lives and Lasting Legacies of Rufus B. Keeler and Brad Keeler, Father and Son Ceramicists
An introduction, and an excerpt
Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of my grandfather Brad Keeler’s birth. Brad was my mother’s father, and his wife Catherine, was my grandmother who I am named after and who I knew and loved. Brad died when my mom was four years old. Her memory of him is fragmented at best.
For the past ten years, I have been working--slowly--toward a book about him and his father before him, Rufus Keeler. It is my way of my excavating the family history, and examining it in the light.
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The year 2022 saw an acceleration of this project, so now I am confident (knock on clay) that 2023 will be the year that I will finish the book, entitled Clay Bodies: The Brief Lives and Lasting Legacies of Rufus B. Keeler and Brad Keeler, Father and Son Ceramicists.
Periodically, I will be posting excerpts from the book here and on the Brad Keeler Artwares blog, and possibly elsewhere. I invite my readers and Keeler ceramics collectors to share their thoughts and ask questions.
[For more details about Brad Keeler, visit Brad Keeler Artware.]
Taking the Long Way Home
“How close are we to Laguna Beach?”
“Why?” my husband asks, knowing the question means we are already on our way. We start off down the coast highway. On this sunny California winter weekend, we have decided to take a day trip to Balboa Island in Newport Beach. It’s still early, so when we’re back at the car I decide to tack on something extra.
“Do you have any idea where we’re going?”
I open the photo app on my phone and thumb through to the album that contains the photo of the eighty-year-old envelope that is, surprisingly, still in excellent condition. I read off the address as I type it into Google Maps. A pie-slice of ocean is visible out the passenger side window, seen between the street-facing restaurants and hotels.
“Look at that,” he says, pointing at enormous stair-stepped homes leading down the hillside. “I’m looking at the ocean,” I say, pointing down a street with no outlet.
We hadn’t planned any of this. Yes, we’d talked about taking a day trip, but my husband is a planner, so this spontaneous side trip to Laguna was a little aggravating for him. Still, he went along with it.
We were on the lookout for the house my grandparents, Brad Keeler and his wife Catherine, my namesake, spent at least one summer in. A letter dated and postmarked July 1942 was mailed to the address from Brad to Catherine, who was staying in the house with their first child, Brad Jr., whom they nicknamed “Guddle”. Based on the date, she would have been pregnant with their second, Patrick. Their only daughter, my mother, Heather, would be born six years later.
The letters had been in my mom’s possession for decades, untouched in an ornately carved trunk that had once belonged to them, presumably a souvenir from a trip. The cream colored (from age or was it that way originally?) ruled paper had handwriting so neat and regular you could set a clock by it. In recent years, knowing my interest, my mom had handed them off to me to read. I don’t know that she meant for me to keep them but somehow I’ve managed to never give them back. They now live on my bookshelf near all of the collectors books I’ve accumulated containing Brad’s brief or sometimes longer bio alongside color pictures of his works, intended to assist collectors with identifying and valuing the ceramics he called his “artware”.
Brad Keeler was a master ceramicist and prominent businessman at the height of his career when he died of a heart attack at 39. He has since been a mystery, someone even more beloved for his absence from her life. She was only four years old when he died. His heart condition was known— his cardiologist even put him on the infamous “rice diet” with its strict adherence to a limited menu of low-sodium foods. But for all the intervention, he spent thirteen days in the hospital, and then he was gone.
At the time of his death, December 1952, the family was living in a cliffside house in Laguna Beach while his new factory was under construction in nearby San Juan Capistrano. My mom still talks about it, remembers the steep staircase built upon the hillside that led down the bluff to the beach.
But that was the second house, and right now we are looking for the first house, the one that was right on the 1, Pacific Coast Highway. The small one, a luxury as he began his ascent up the ranks of ceramicists making their living after the cessation of most imported Japanese pottery during World War II.
There are so many things that I’ll never know, but some I can still glean and those letters are the key. They were love letters, yes, but more than that they are a microcosm of what life was like for some in the 1940s, the vernacular of twenty-somethings way back then:
My Most Beautiful and Beloved Wife — Received your card today and so happy (Phooey) Darling, every minute of the day I dream of you and your sweet letters. My hands are skinned to the bone diving into the mailbox…”
Love talk drifts into workday details, gives a glimpse of his workaday life:
My Darling I’ve been so busy with samples I’m near warn out. How we’ll ever make it by Sunday, I don’t know— I may have to go down Sunday morning and make some sort of set up with James— If so I’ll let you know for sure even if I have to telegraph. So don’t worry. If that happens I’ll come down Monday & Tuesday and rest with you. (In bed).
I know from other sources that this particular James is a man named James Webster, and their collaborations together would result in a line of pottery they’d call “Bradster”— now a rare find.
Every letter was this way, a mixture of inside jokes, subtle racy humor, alongside details about his work:
I received your letter this morning and have read it four times today, even once on the toilet! It was wonderful, the letter I mean….
The check from Shaw this week was fair, around $300.00, but with show samples next week it looks sort of slim. Samples for the show are coming along nicely. Parrots excellent, roosters good, ducks good and horses poor.
This is Evan K. Shaw of American Potteries, where my grandfather set up shop, in the heart of Los Angeles. My grandfather is best known for his work modeling birds from renderings he made using the Audubon bird book, an oversized green cloth-bound book that I now have on my bookshelf. It’s fascinating to see his own assessments of his work, the uneasy marriage between artistry and entrepreneurship.
I’m awakened from my revery by my husband, worried that we might have missed our mark.
“How much farther?” he barks, exasperated.
“It’s just after Agate and before Pearl. Coming up…. Here’s Agate.”
I scan the structures for street addresses. I know the house before I read the address to confirm. It has to be it, according to the map.
Periwinkle blue clapboard. Shake-shingled gabled roof. A large wooden engraved sign hung from the eaves: “Doctor Nice - Chiropractor.”
Next door is an old converted service station that now sells houseplants beside a shuttered garage. I convince my husband to double park and hop out before he stops me, walk the perimeter of the house, take pictures. If anyone notices me, no one says a thing.
I look it at from all angles, notice the L-shaped window taking up a corner — kitchen window? I imagine my grandmother standing there, washing dishes and gazing out over a sparsely traveled PCH, the bare hillside beyond which is now stacked with houses. Near center, a metal sculpture of the human form takes up the middle of a bay window of a room that is lined with pillows — a yoga studio? Wasn’t it once a dining nook?
I picture my uncle, Brad Jr., then just a toddler, pressing his face to the glass to watch cars. How did my pregnant grandmother fill her days here? Where were her return letters?
The front door is paned glass. My reflection looks back at me as I look straight through the house to a matching back door. At the bottom of the door, below the panes, is a mail slot. Is this how it’s always been? Is this how the letters were delivered?
I peer through the side gate toward a terraced backyard leading to another house. I look down at the sidewalk beneath my feet, notice the age, a newer slab — replaced sometime in the aughts — has someone’s scrawled message to the future. I scour the older slabs for any relics of the past but can’t see any signatures or handprints. But how much history they must contain!
Someone notices my husband idling, approaches the car. He motions to me and I know it’s time to go. Reluctantly, I get back in but part of me wants to linger, to soak in whatever the past has left behind.
We think about heading home. Then I ask, “What about the other house?”
My husband sighs.
I don’t have the address and think it’s a lost cause, but then I remember the death certificate. My fingers can’t pull the image fast enough on my phone.
“What’s taking so long?”
“I keep losing the signal. Pull over.”
The miracle of the internet cooperates long enough for me to download it again from the family research website. Yes! There is the address. It’s just four miles away and by luck we’re already headed in the right direction.
We arrive only to find the housing tract gated and cut off by a guard shack and it’s a disappointment, but only temporarily. We pull in, thinking they’ll just make us turn around, but I have an idea. I don’t give my husband a chance to say no. As he rolls down his window, I say to the guard, “I just want to see the house my grandparents lived in.” I plead with my eyes.
“What’s the address?” I give it to him, he checks a map, then he waves us through.
My GPS leads us through the neighborhood, around bends, up and down hills, through a mix of upscale and plain houses that. We come to a cul de sac.
And there it is, a clinker brick beauty set at the end of the block. Again I get out and take pictures, wander as if I own the place. Should anyone ask, I will tell them why. To reclaim the past.
My mother hasn’t seen this house since she last lived here, at age four. We’ve tried and failed to find it before but of course we needed an address. Now I have it.
This is the house where the family was living when he died, two months before his what would have been his fortieth birthday. Was it a February like this one, seventy years ago?
Two Laguna Beach houses bracketed by a decade of success, births, love, and death.
He wouldn’t have known how much his death would change their lives. I stand at the edge of the clinker brick walk, look out over the ocean, the sun just beginning to set.
Excerpted from a work in progress, Clay Bodies: The Brief Lives and Lasting Legacies of Rufus B. Keeler and Brad Keeler, Father and Son Ceramicists, and copyright the author Cati Porter. This work may not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission of the author except as embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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