Long Time Gone

Archeologists don't count on identifying the individuals who made pottery from ancient Greece or even colonial Virginia. But "urban archeologists"--collectors whose flea-market finds date not from antiquity but, say, from this century's golden age of California pottery--figure they can.

One who eluded them for a long time was Barbara Willis. Her ceramics--produced mostly in the '40s and '50s--are prized for their characteristic combination of terra-cotta bisque and volcanic or cracked glazes, like those thrown by by the eminent ceramist Laura Andreson, whom Willis studied with at UCLA. Even the most avid collectors knew only that Willis had worked in the Los Angeles area until 1958.

Then, in 1995, a red-haired, straw-hatted woman pointed to a bowl at a local flea market and said to the seller: "Hi, I'm Barbara Willis. That's one of my pieces."

Willis began making pottery in 1942 while her husband was in the Air Force. The 25-year-old set up a kiln in her Fairfax district backyard and by 1948 was supervising more than a dozen employees in a North Hollywood studio. But in the early '50s, a flood of inexpensive imports from the revitalized ceramics industries of Germany and Japan forced most of California's small potteries out of business. Willis closed up shop in 1958, and was largely forgotten until interest in her work revived in the late '80s.

Since her reappearance, Willis has begun producing new work, which she molds in the kitchen of her Malibu home. Regretting that she owns few examples of her early work, the 79-year-old can be spotted at flea markets wearing her distinctive straw hat and sounding like any true believer. "Look," she announced proudly one morning at the Santa Monica Airport market, "a genuine Barbara Willis."

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