NORMAN — Known for its artful blend of form and function, wagon wheel place setting, “prairie green glaze,” and funky yet modern ceramic animals, Frankoma Pottery has long exerted a strong influence on Oklahomans.
Helping to put this rich but easily overlooked and sometimes subconscious legacy into perspective is a show called “Oklahoma Clay: Frankoma Pottery.” Curated by retired University of Oklahoma art professor Jane Ford Aebersold, the small, gemlike exhibit is on view in a first floor gallery near the entrance of OU's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
The company was founded by John Frank (1905-1973), who, shortly after his graduation from the Chicago Art Institute in 1927, was asked by Oscar Jacobson to develop a ceramics program at OU.
Supplying us with a fitting emblem of Frank's time at OU, where he taught for eight years, is a tall, handsome, classically slim and elegant 1928 “Jacobson Vase,” with a pale, dawn-like yellow glaze.
Done the same year is a tall vase whose iron red and green glazes seem to overlap — almost like something one might find in one of Claude Monet's impressionist “lily pad” paintings.
Other engaging Frank works from the 1930s and '40s include a maple-glazed humidor with a wave motif, a pair of floral green vases with silver overlay, and such figurative objects as sea horse bookends.
Especially notable, in the figurative category, are the designs for Frankoma, done during the 1930s, by longtime OU sculpture professor Joe Taylor. These miniature masterpieces suggest the rounded, flowing motions of such animals as multicolored horses; black, green and reddish-brown pumas; and a seated, quietly thoughtful “Coyote Pup.”
Almost equally appealing, if a little bit more kitsch, are Ray Murray's designs for the company, also done during the 1930s. Murray's works depict a small, squat, carefully coifed black buffalo, staring at the ground, as if pondering his fate, and a comely female “Indian Bowl Maker,” perhaps examining her reflection in its depths.
Charmingly “over the top,” too, is Murray's clay sculpture of an “Indian Chief,” dancing proudly wearing a long headdress, with a tomahawk clutched to his bosom.
No less striking are the brown, extremely elongated 1963 Frankoma designs of Willard Stone, portraying a prayerful “Indian Maiden,” a nestling “Mare and Colt,” and a super-skinny howling “Coyote.”
A blue water fowl wings past us on Frank's blue “Oklahoma Pond Jug with Stopper and (a) Liquor Cup,” while there is something solid and reassuring about the bulbous body of his green “Indian Jar.”
Offering a good counterpoint to Frank's folksy, prairie green glazed “Wagon Wheel Place Setting,” introduced in 1948, are the more edgy, exotic characteristics of his desert gold “Mayan Aztec Place Setting.”
Additional nearly iconic, yet user-friendly items include a tan double thunderbird ceramic canteen with a leather strap, an “Arrows to Atoms” trivet, and a 1972 “University of Oklahoma Plate.”
Blending form with function beautifully is a robin egg blue teapot and four cups, designed by Frank with a daughter, Joniece Frank, who became the company's president after Frank died in 1973.
The Sapulpa company continued under family guidance until it was purchased in 1991 by an outside investor, with the remains of the Frankoma property being sold at auction in spring 2011.
A worthy tribute to the artistic merit as well as commercial success of Frankoma, the small, but fascinating, and for many of us, moving OU exhibit is highly recommended during its run through Sept. 16.
— John Brandenburg