I have crossed the bridge over Monument Creek many times, often on a hunger-fueled trip to 7/11; however, I had never taken the time to see the historic Van Briggle Pottery Building. The building is donned with intricate ceramic and terra cotta pieces from a kiln that was once part of the place, created by world-renowned ceramic artist Artus Van Briggle and his wife, Anne. Van Briggle’s work had a profound effect on the Art Nouveau movement, winning prestigious awards from the Saint Louis exposition, the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, and the Paris Salon. The building that most students recognize as the facilities office actually sits as a symbol of Colorado College’s intertwined relationship with the century-old, world famous artist.
Photos by Daniel Sarché
I spoke with George Eckhardt, a campus planner involved in historic preservation work at CC, to learn more about the Van Briggles. When I went to see him, he welcomed me into his office. It was adorned with intricate ceramic pieces and Eckhardt’s random findings, such as leftover pottery that was once buried under Cutler Hall. Replications of eaves that once were part of the Jackson House adorned the ceiling. It was clear that Eckhardt had a great appreciation for the little artifacts that most aren’t aware of on CC’s campus. Eckhardt had little interest in discussing himself and dove right into the history of the Van Briggles, leafing through articles and books discussing the ceramic work created at the kiln on Glen Avenue and Uintah Street.
Van Briggle began his mastery of ceramics in Ohio, and eventually continued on to study art at the Académie Julian in Paris. There he fell in love with fellow art student Anne Gregory. They finished their studies in 1896 and returned to America, this time to Colorado Springs. The couple settled down and opened up Van Briggle Pottery, where they sold pottery in the Art Nouveau style. “With Art Nouveau, you don’t just make a smooth pot and paint on it, you put figures into the pottery,” Eckhardt explained. “You make it part of the design, as in formed out of the pottery, not an add-on. When you make the piece you put figures, leaves, everything on it.”
The couple was closely tied to the surrounding community of Colorado Springs: Anne ran the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center while her husband headed CC’s own Art Department. During his time in Paris, Van Briggle became enamored with the matte glaze used in art from the Chinese Ming Dynasty. On his return to Colorado, Van Briggle set out to recreate the ancient Chinese process of the matte glaze that inspired him. However, Van Briggle didn’t do this alone; a fellow CC professor helped him in his artistic quest. Professor William Strieby, head of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Department at CC in 1908, gave advice on chemical equations, helped Van Briggle get materials, and even allocated space in the laboratory in the effort to perfect the matte glaze that made Van Briggle’s work so unique. “It was a great example of two areas of study converging,” Eckhardt said.
The Van Briggles’ art is consistently reappearing today. “Visitors come in with old vases or pictures of their fireplaces, asking for us to look at them,” Eckhardt said. He mentioned how the pottery house draws people from all sorts of backgrounds. As of recently, CC looks like it might become part of the Van Briggle narrative once again. “The college is trying to buy the Van Briggle name,” Eckhardt told me. “It’s been for sale since 2011. The college hopes to buy the name and the chemical formulas.” Eckhardt showed a hint of glee at the thought of owning the matte glaze recipes developed here a century ago. This purchase would be a timely, symbolic convergence, reconnecting the triangular relationship between Van Briggle Pottery, the Fine Arts Center, and Colorado College.