An ac­claimed ce­ramist’s grand­daugh­ter re­claims her fam­ily his­tory, piece by chipped piece.


I AC­QUIRED MY FIRST BRAD KEELER CE­RAM­ICS when I was seven years old. Maybe that’s a lit­tle young, but per­haps not, when you con­sider that he was my grand­fa­ther. Keeler, who de­vel­oped the first “true red” glaze, which he called Ming Dragon’s Blood, was best known for his serv­ing dishes fea­tur­ing bright red lob­sters and green let­tuce leaves, but his range was broad; grace­ful birds, play­ful kit­tens, and an el­e­gant pas­tel tulip-shaped tea set are among my fa­vorites. Some might think his work a bit kitschy, but there is much to love about his pieces. They are charm­ing, some­times whim­si­cal and al­ways thought­fully ex­e­cuted. And for me, they rep­re­sent the lost pieces of my fam­ily his­tory. Bradley Burr Keeler was my mother’s fa­ther. He was the son of Ru­fus Bradley Keeler, an ac­claimed tile maker most fa­mous for his work with Mal­ibu Pot­ter­ies and the Adam­son House, home to the Mal­ibu La­goon Museum (see Sources for more in­for­ma­tion). Brad fol­lowed in his fa­ther’s foot­steps. He worked for a se­ries of ce­ram­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers un­til he ac­quired enough skill and re­sources to build his own stu­dio and kiln in his back­yard. His suc­cess grew, and his wares were picked up by depart­ment stores and be­came very pop­u­lar. In 1952, while a new fac­tory was un­der con­struc­tion in San Juan Capis­trano, Cal­i­for­nia, and at the height of his pop­u­lar­ity and suc­cess, he died of a heart at­tack at the age of 39. My mother was only five years old.


In my child­hood, our kitchen al­ways con­tained a mys­te­ri­ous ar­ray of ce­ramic roost­ers and lob­sters that I knew were

spe­cial but didn’t quite know why. I just knew I had to dust them on Satur­day morn­ings. I grew up sur­rounded by my grand­fa­ther’s work but knew next to noth­ing about it, or him, be­cause there was so much about her own fam­ily that even my mother didn’t know. In my early twen­ties, I was sur­prised when my pa­ter­nal grand­mother gifted me with a large lob­ster bowl which had been gifted to her by my ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Cather­ine, Brad’s wife and my name­sake. She had been sav­ing it for when I was old enough to un­der­stand what it meant. I found my­self de­sir­ing to know more about my grand­fa­ther’s work, and seek­ing it out. Soon my step­mother sent me a sim­i­lar, smaller cov­ered lob­ster dish she found in an an­tiques store across the coun­try. This kicked off a long tra­di­tion of birth­day and hol­i­day gifts, and I be­gan to take col­lect­ing se­ri­ously. I, too, would scour an­tiques stores, and took to ebay, look­ing for pieces I could af­ford. In fact, I sought out pieces that were dam­aged: chipped, bro­ken, im­per­fect. For me, the goal was not to amass a col­lec­tion of per­fect pieces, but to gather to­gether the miss­ing pieces of my fam­ily his­tory. When I had a home of my own, my mother passed her pieces down to me. They now re­side in my kitchen along­side lots of other pieces that I’ve col­lected or have been given to me along the way, in­clud­ing from my great-aunt Jeanne, Brad’s sis­ter, only very re­cently de­ceased. They’ve been lov­ingly mailed from one blood rel­a­tive to another, sep­a­rated from each other by many miles and decades, but brought to­gether by a love of fam­ily and pretty ce­ram­ics.


My mom and I have taken a num­ber of fam­ily-his­tory field trips. We have vis­ited her fa­ther’s grave in the For­est Lawn Ceme­tery in Glen­dale, Cal­i­for­nia, along­side the likes of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, Mary Pick­ford and Michael Jack­son. We’ve vis­ited his home in Glen­dale, where his busi­ness be­gan, as well as his child­hood home in South Gate, a work of art com­pletely cov­ered in art tile de­signed by his fa­ther, Ru­fus. We’ve twice vis­ited the Adam­son House (see Sources). I trea­sure the ce­ramic birds and the trio of “moon­shine men” in over­alls, those first col­lectibles I in­her­ited after the death of my grand­mother Cather­ine, when I was seven. They sur­vived my child­hood, with only min­i­mal dam­age that could be re­paired with a lit­tle bit of glue, and they have sur­vived many moves across the span of my life, to now, when they claim a po­si­tion of honor in a glass-doored cab­i­net in my foyer. In the in­ter­est of pre­serv­ing his legacy, some years ago I cre­ated a web­site de­voted to his life and work: brad­keel­er­art­ There you’ll find a lit­tle fam­ily his­tory, some pho­to­graphs and a fo­rum for col­lec­tors to con­nect with each other. It is my hope that by keep­ing his mem­ory alive, I can pass my own col­lec­tion and his story on to my chil­dren, who will cher­ish them not be­cause they meant some­thing to me, but be­cause they mean some­thing to them.

Editor’s note: I’m a big fan of Brad Keeler’s work and was very hon­ored to have Cati con­trib­ute this piece to the mag­a­zine. Thank you, Cati! – Kathryn Drury Wag­ner

BRAD KEELER PIECES can of­ten be iden­ti­fied via a sticker, or will have ei­ther “BBK” or “Brad Keeler” inked or im­pressed into the un­der­side of the base of the piece, of­ten along with a num­ber, says Cather­ine Porter.

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