by Kate Nixon
The world of art pottery and ceramics collecting lost a generous soul this month. Robert A. Ellison, Jr., philanthropist and a lifelong collector of ceramic works, passed away on July 9th 2021 at the age of 89.
Robert, or “Bob” as he was known to his community, started his ceramic collection in the 1960s and then accumulated both historic and contemporary ceramic works; prime examples of these works from a lifetime of collecting are featured in the current exhibit “Shapes from Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection” active in The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August.
After moving to New York from his native Fort Worth, Texas to find a career in painting in his thirties, Bob established a painting studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and would visit flea markets to search out ceramic works. Ellison initially started collecting Dedham Pottery dinnerware and graduating to Hugh C. Robertson vases, Chelsea Keramic Art Works, Fulper Pottery – and eventually found the subject of a lifelong appreciation: the Mad Potter of Biloxi himself, George Ohr. The following quote is from his 2018 essay Listening to Pots Speak about the first time he saw an Ohr work:
“The work was a revelation. It was quirky, frequently abstract, uniquely constructed, non-functional and fit right in with what I loved about the abstract expressionist art that I was involved in.”
Ohr was among the number of ceramicists that Ellison dedicated his life to researching alongside Charles Volkmar and the works of Fulper Pottery – and studying Ohr gave Bob a mission. “I then felt that it was my mission in life to unravel the mystery of how he came up with the concept of turning a wheel thrown pot into an abstract sculpture in the early 1890s,” Bob wrote in Listening to Pots Speak. “I feel strongly that his work has not been sufficiently recognized for its contribution to ceramic history, as well as art history.”
Adrienne Spinozzi, Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, worked with Ellison to pick out the works that populate his exhibit. Spinozzi says of Ellison, “I will forever be grateful for the years I worked closely with Bob Ellison, starting in 2009 with his incredible gift of American Art Pottery to the Met. He shaped my education of this incredibly rich and diverse period of American craft—I had the privilege to learn this material through his eyes. This unparalleled collection, which includes some of the most iconic and signature expressions in clay at the turn of the 20th century, reveals the craftsmanship, ingenuity, and creative spirit that defines the period, and Bob Ellison collected it all.”
Pictures: Top: Bob in his studio surrounded by works in his collection. Middle: Flask with face. Bottom: Bowl with Two Panthers from Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, Pictures courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 2018, Bob donated works of his collection to the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms during their Craftsman Gala. Executive Director Vonda Givens fondly remembers interviewing him at his home in preparation of the Gala, where Bob would be the guest of honor. “In preparation for the Gala, I interviewed Bob in his home. Knowing of his legendary status as a collector, I was unsure of what to expect. As I am not a pottery expert, I worried that my lack of knowledge might give us little to talk about, but the opposite happened. We talked easily for hours as he showed me pot after pot, pointing out details and helping me to see through his eyes. He was warm, funny, friendly, and entertaining, and his delight in sharing his collection was thrilling. I will always remember that day as one of my best on the job!”
Jonathan Clancy, director of Collections at the Stickley Museum, knew Bob in New York and had the opportunity to talk about ceramics with him a number of times. “Amongst my fondest memories are the times we spent just walking around his apartment, opening cases and cabinets and looking at everything from medieval stoneware to 15th century Italian majolica to contemporary ceramics. One time, I had emailed him some questions about Ohr and he suggested I should just come up and see him. I arrived to find his massive dining table covered in snacks, an incredibly curated selection of Ohr pots, and a number of English pieces he thought I should be better acquainted with if I was to make any sense of the questions I had. It’s so rare to find someone who just really loved a good piece of clay–no matter when or where it was made–and rarer still to find someone so kind and willing to share their knowledge.”
Bob Ellison is survived by his wife Rosaire Appel, his daughter Hillary. son-in-law McKay Duncan, and his grandchildren Oliver and Wilha. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation.