Rupert J. Deese dies at 85; Claremont artist created functional pottery

Rupert J. Deese, a longtime Claremont ceramicist who began producing functional decorative pottery with shapely forms and silky glazes during the Southern California postwar design boom, has died. He was 85.

Deese died July 12 at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center in Pomona of complications from arteriosclerotic disease, his daughter Mary Ann Brow said.

His death came barely a month after that of his wife of 59 years, Helen Deese, a former English professor at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and UC Riverside. She died at 84 on June 4 at their Claremont home after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Known as Rummy, Rupert Deese was part of a circle of Claremont artists including woodworker Sam Maloof, painters James Heuter and Karl Benjamin, and ceramicist Harrison McIntosh, with whom he had shared a studio in nearby Padua Hills since 1950.

Deese created such functional yet decorative pieces as ashtrays and martini pitchers as well as bowls, vases and other stoneware for the home. The fired clay forms were usually finished with a soft matte glaze in natural colors. One of his cocktail pitchers with a deep blue sheen is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


“He made elegant vessel ceramics in functional forms that were very well suited to the modern California home,” Bobbye Tigerman, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at the museum, said. “They fulfilled contemporary needs.... He was very much in touch with how Californians lived.”

Deese’s pieces also are in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Mingei International Folk Art Museum in San Diego and many other museums, and have been exhibited at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.

He worked in his studio during off hours, after his day jobs teaching art at Mt. San Antonio College or designing dinnerware for Franciscan. He retired in 1983 and regularly threw pots in his studio until 2005.

Rupert J. Deese was born July 16, 1924, in Guam, where his father was stationed as a Marine. His mother called him Rummy because as the pregnant wife of a serviceman on the island in the western Pacific, she had little to do besides play gin rummy.

After high school he joined the Army Air Forces, serving stateside during World War II. Then he enrolled at Pomona College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in applied art in 1950. He received a master’s in fine arts in ceramics from Claremont Graduate School in 1957.

He married Helen on March 4, 1951, and they had four children.

Besides their daughter, a patent attorney in Madison, Wis., the couple is survived by sons Rupert, a graphic artist in New York who goes by Tom; Frank, a screenwriter in Los Angeles; and Sam, a lecturer in American history at Boston University; as well as eight grandchildren.

Memorial services are planned for October in Claremont and San Diego.