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Orcutt ceramicist Don Frith shows his teapots at SLO Museum of Art 

Don Frith stops at a small counter near the entryway of his Orcutt home.

Under the glass on the surface is an article about Frith and his late wife, Barbara, herself a renowned artist who died in 2007. The display is a cluster of pottery, in varying design styles and colors. A single dusty pink rose juts out of a small blue vase in the center.

click to enlarge BREAKING THE MOLD Orcutt artist Don Frith's unique teapots are on display in an exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through Oct. 29. Frith wrote Mold Making for Ceramics in 1985, a definitive book on the art form, which is still used today. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS OBISPO MUSEUM OF ART
  • Photo Courtesy Of San Luis Obispo Museum Of Art
  • BREAKING THE MOLD Orcutt artist Don Frith's unique teapots are on display in an exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through Oct. 29. Frith wrote Mold Making for Ceramics in 1985, a definitive book on the art form, which is still used today.

"This was made in 1949," Frith says, pointing to one of the ceramic works as he passes the display. "I've always kept it because it was when I was learning how to do this."

Once he's settled in his workshop, Frith comes alive. From a shelf in the garage, he pulls down two of his older pieces, carefully wiping dust away as he takes them apart to point out the finer details in the work. The teapots, each one about 8 inches tall, represent decades of tireless craftsmanship and a lifetime spent perfecting his art form.

Today they are sold all over the world, admired in galleries, and pined for by collectors who favorite his Etsy page. At the age of 92, Frith has earned a reputation as one of the best artisans in the medium, and currently, his works are all on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, where he is featured in a solo exhibit through Oct. 29.

All of the ceramic teapots were made right here in Frith's home studio, at a table sandwiched between the family car and what was his late wife's workspace.

"I love the challenge to get this whole thing exactly right," he said. "And at the stage I am now, I'm making the teapot with a wooden handle and a wooden knob on top, and they are all directly related to design."

click to enlarge THE ARTIST AT HOME At nearly 93, ceramic artist Don Frith is still making stunning teapots that sell for up to $600. Frith continues to use the original ceramic wheel he has been working with for more than 50 years. - PHOTO BY REBECCA ROSE
  • Photo By Rebecca Rose
  • THE ARTIST AT HOME At nearly 93, ceramic artist Don Frith is still making stunning teapots that sell for up to $600. Frith continues to use the original ceramic wheel he has been working with for more than 50 years.

Frith and his wife moved to this home in 1989. A former ceramics instructor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Frith had always found some form of success in ceramics, selling pottery, and consulting on technical projects. In 1985 he wrote Mold Making for Ceramics, a masterwork detailing the process that many artists who followed in his footsteps still work with today.

But it was in Orcutt where he would develop and perfect an idea for what would catapult him to another level as an artist: A flower-shaped teapot with an ornate wood handle.

The teapots are astoundingly complex, right down to the gently feathered edges of the petals. There is nothing cartoonish or kitschy about Frith's teapots; there is a modernist, almost abstract tone to much of the work he produces. And yes, they are actual functioning teapots, albeit ones that are meant to be treated as precious works of fine art. While not all of them are flowers, those are among his most popular styles.

"Once I began to intently look at flower blossoms, and even to carefully take them apart to see what each one actually looked like, I was hooked," Frith wrote in his artist's statement. "My attempts at making these flowers [were] directed toward creating flower blossoms that seemed to be real, yet are strong enough to stand careful use."

To just call Frith a ceramicist feels inadequate; he is also an expert fabricator in wood and acrylics. He works in woods such as walnut, creating dynamic and brawny handles that add a complex layer to his teapots. The walnut, crawling with erratic lines of grain, swooping into delicate layers of brightly colored pottery, creates a poetic juxtaposition of elements. But the success of Frith's work is in how seamlessly intertwined he makes all of these apparently contradictory materials work as one uniformly flowing piece.

click to enlarge SHORT AND STOUT Don Frith's pieces, like this one offered for sale at his Etsy store, are fully functioning but intended to be treated as fine art. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TEAPOTS BY DON FRITH
  • Photo Courtesy Of Teapots By Don Frith
  • SHORT AND STOUT Don Frith's pieces, like this one offered for sale at his Etsy store, are fully functioning but intended to be treated as fine art.

Frith, a former Navy Seabee who served in the Philippines during World War II, also has the mind of a well-ordered scientist. He holds a patent for two designs, including one that helps calculate the diameter for ceramic lids to account for shrinkage in the kiln. Each one of his pieces is carefully numbered and logged, a meticulous record of the hundreds and hundreds of pieces he's created throughout the years.

"When I make a teapot, I sign it," Frith said. "I can look on my list and tell exactly what day it was made."

Frith also developed the process for fabricating and utilizing the acrylic portion that forms the base of the teapot. At one point he was turning out a teapot at least once a week, a pace he almost keeps up with today.

"I started [making] the flower because I realized how beautiful the flowers were," he said. "I figured out how to do all this. Nobody makes teapots with a nice acrylic bottom, and it works just beautifully." Δ

Sun Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is always ready to sip some tea. Contact her at rrose@santamariasun.com.


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