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The Ceramic Artist

Updated: May 3, 2021

The Artist in his studio, 1989

George David Shaner was born on 11 November 1934 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the fifth and youngest child of John Yerger Shaner and Emma Shirey Shaner. His parents were frugal and hard-working and the children were expected to contribute to the family welfare. David would later describe both his parents as being "very industrious." He spoke of his childhood as "fairly typical, I guess, looking back... We were not what we would call poor people, but we were not affluent people either, and hard work was part of our everyday existence."

His Childhood home, 47 Walnut St., Pottstown, PA

At an early age his father put him in charge of maintaining the family's yard and vegetable garden. When he was older, he spent every day after school and all of Saturday shoveling coal at the Shaner coal yard on South York Street. When his father went into the prefabricated concrete business, he helped build all sorts of things from burial vaults to septic tanks, earning $6.00 a week.

Along with the work ethic came strong lessons in self reliance. David recalled that when he was twelve his father “took me out and bought me a new coat and told me that from then on I would be buying my own clothes. They lived through the Depression, and they were very proud of the fact that they didn't have to take relief from the government, but they were sure that the depression was going to arrive sometime soon, and we all had to prepare for it."

His interest in the arts started in the 1st grade and he hoped that when he grew up, he would do something in the arts. He was determined to go to college, despite his father's insistence that he enter the family business like his brothers. His mother, however, was an ally and strongly pushed for him to go to college.

With his mother's support, hard work and saving, he enrolled in Kutztown State Teachers College after graduation. He was the first member of his family to attend college. It was at Kutztown that David first worked with clay. Its effect on him was almost magical. In his words, “When I first touched [it] I knew that that was the medium I wanted to work in.”

David received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art Education in 1956 and began teaching art in a middle school in the Berwyn School District in Berwyn, PA. The following year he married Ann Elizabeth Stoner, an elementary education major from Lititz, PA whom he had met while at Kutztown.

David was still intrigued with working with clay. He visited the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in Alfred, NY, which, at the time, had one of the finest pottery programs in America. He loved what he saw and wanted to study there, but he literally had no pottery that could demonstrate his talent. The school's director invited him to "come up for the summer school anyway, and we'll see how it goes." David took advantage of the chance to prove himself. He and Ann quit their teaching jobs in Berwyn and moved to Alfred.

Stoneware Pot, Smithsonian American Art Museum

By the end of the summer session, David had demonstrated his talent and was accepted into the program with a casual invitation to "stick around." With their first child, David Jr., arriving money was tight until 1959 when David earned his Master of Fine Arts. His thesis work focused on the relationship between man and nature, a topic that would become increasingly important in his life and his work.

After earning his degree, David began teaching pottery and recreational crafts at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, at the same time working as a studio artist and selling his work. He explored new glazes, and it was during these years that the well-known Shaner’s Red glaze was born.

Pillow-shaped Vase, Smithsonian American Art Museum

While at Illinois, he spent some time at the Archie Bray Foundation, a unique residency program for ceramic artists situated on the old Western Clay Manufacturing Company property. The lure of the wide open beauty of the West and the freer working environment at the Bray caused David to reconsider his career as a professor. In June 1963 he was offered a job there as the Assistant Director. Knowing that it would allow him to grown as a potter, David eagerly accepted. With his wife and three children, he moved from Illinois to Montana. The next year he became the Director at the Bray, serving in that position for the next seven years. David's participation was crucial in saving the Foundation in 1966, when the government foreclosed on a Small Business Administration loan on the brickyard property and the main pottery building. He demonstrated his leadership skills by raising the necessary funds in five short days. During his tenure established Bray's reputation for "breeding good potters."

Shaner's Red Tea Pot, 1977

Although he was successful at the Bray, David desired to "go off and be a potter" on his own. They "scraped together everything we could from our retirement and savings, and even borrowed from Ann's parents" and bought 60 acres of land just outside of Big Fork, Montana and near Glacier National Park in 1970. A home and a complex of pottery buildings were built. On Labor Day 1970, David's kiln, which he had built, was fired. They also put in vegetable and flower gardens, harkening back to David’s childhood when he was responsible for the family garden. Over time the gardens expanded to include specialized collections - a fern garden, day lilies, peonies, even bamboo and a formal rose garden, although the latter proved less successful. He found in the gardening a release, calling his work there his “spiritual work.”

After their fourth child started school, Ann went back to teaching, but she and the children all helped with the pottery. David, like his father and grandfather, thus became the proprietor of a family business.

Over the next quarter century, David worked hard to support both his family and his deep love for creating things from clay. His work became popular with the general public and collectors, earning him the praise and respect of his contemporaries in the world of ceramic art.

In 1995 David noticed a weakening in his arms and the kiln shelves became more difficult to lift. At first he thought it was due to recurring back problems. However, he was diagnosed with ALS or "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a disease of the nervous system that causes death through a degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. He continued to practice his art as long as possible, making pots by hand when he no longer had the strength to use a potter's wheel. Ann would then place the pieces in the kiln.

His last work was in preparation for a show in Seattle in 1997. Following that he gave all his equipment to various potters and closed up the studio. Over the course of his lifetime, David had a profound influence on American ceramic arts. He received many awards, among them three National endowment for the Arts Visual Artist Fellowship grants, the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts, induction into the College of Fellows of the American Craft Council, and honorary membership in the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. David had a profound impact on scores of people in extraordinary ways: potter, sage, philosopher, teach, environmentalist, master artist, community leader, and loving husband and devoted father. He was considered "a potter's potter."

He died on 2 July 2002. "I have always tried to distinguish myself by working at my art rather than being distinguished." - David Shaner


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