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.
A BROKEN HISTORY
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.
WITH A LITTLE BIT OF GLUE
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: bradkeelerartwares.com. 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.