Tom Edwards on Wallyware, the unofficial O.J. trial pottery, and a year of free ice cream
Ever since I could speak, I've always been proud to tell people about my dad's job. He makes pottery for a living, running a business out of a converted garage studio connected to my parents' Evergreen home. From here he throws, decorates, fires in a kiln, and ships out his handmade plates, bowls and mugs to art galleries around the country. Though he started out creating fine art pottery with colorful glazes, my dad really built his business around Wallyware, pottery decorated with one-panel comic strips that range from political humor to pop culture references, many centered on a fictional dog named Wally.
Me with my dad and sister in 1991, painting pottery-shipping boxes.
In honor of Father's Day and the guy who taught me that you really can make a living doing what you love (in addition to teaching me how to walk), I interviewed my dad, Tom Edwards, about his pottery business, how he came to be the official potter for the O.J. Simpson trial, and the time his art won our family a year's supply of ice cream.
Westword: How did you first get interested in pottery?
Tom Edwards: I was in high school and the counselor who helps you pick your classes kept going through all the electives and I didn't like any of them. Auto shop? No. Painting? No. And so basically they got to pottery and I decided to try it. I really liked it a lot because I'm artistic but I'm not very good at drawing, so I really just fell in love with it the first week of school and I've been doing it ever since.
Did you ever have any career aspirations other than being an artist?
You know, I think the short answer to that is no. I remember thinking, "What am I gonna do after I graduate from college?" And it was always kind of these things that didn't seem like me. In all honesty, I started making pots for a living right after college simply because I didn't really know what else I wanted to do and that was the one thing that I really loved doing. Maybe when I was a little kid I thought I was gonna be an astronaut, but nothing realistic. In high school and college I thought maybe I could go into science or engineering because I got good grades in those classes, but I really didn't love them. The only thing I ever really loved as far as a career was pottery. And since I started making it for a living, I haven't thought about leaving it. I really like it that much.
You studied art history in college rather than studio art. How do you think that informs your work?
I started out as a ceramics major, and when you're a freshman in college you're not usually the smartest person in the world, and I sort of thought that I couldn't get a degree in pottery because that's like playing all day, so I'll get a real degree in art history. But then my senior year I looked at these professors who were really dedicated to what they do and I don't have that. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to get a Ph.D. in art history. So then I went back and thought it would be so amazing to make pottery for a living, so my senior year I went back and took upper-division classes in ceramics. I think the real value in not getting a degree in pottery was that all those ceramics majors that I was talking to, asking if they were going to go out and start their own businesses, and they were all intimidated by that idea.
I think if you spend four years studying ceramics, you look around and look at all this great art and think you're not good enough. It's kind of like a Wayne's World "I'm not worthy." It basically beats up your self-esteem about your work, and after four years of studying something that you're not as good at as the great people, you go off and do something else. But I was fortunate enough to have not gone that route and I was still really excited about making a living in pottery even though my pots weren't that great when I was in college. But you really can just go out and do it. And it's a really satisfying life. I'm really fortunate to be creative and make a living at it. It's really something.
Your earlier work didn't include any words or imagery, but most of what you make now features one-panel comic strips featuring a character named Wally the dog that you draw on the pottery. What made you transition into drawing on the pots?
Most pottery doesn't have imagery on it; it has pretty glazes. So in 1970, that was what most people did. I think a lot of potters, when you take classes in art school, you look at Japanese pottery and you just love the temokus, celadons and copper reds. So that was the kind of work that I was doing after college. But the imagery thing came about one day as a joke. I worked in a pottery studio called Santa Barbara Ceramic Design, where the other artists there decorated these beautiful floral designs on pottery. One day as a joke I drew the Wally cartoon, kind of just as a dumb version of what they were doing. But then when I took the pots that I drew as a joke to the craft fair, they actually sold really well. People were looking at them and I was getting a lot of laughs, and then I got an order for a full dinnerware set of Wallyware from a couple. It was a $1,000 order, and it was bigger than any order I'd ever had. It blew me away, because I had never taken that big of an order from one customer, so that pretty much got me into doing it.
Plus, there's a real magic to drawing cartoons. I got back into a second childhood kind of thing drawing these images, and it was really fun even though I admit my style of drawing isn't nearly as good as a really good cartoonist. It was a lot of fun to do these clumsy, stupid drawings with funny jokes and that sort of took off on its own, not unlike when I started making pottery. I fell in love with goofy cartoons. And now whenever I make a pot, almost everything I make has images on it and I like that aspect of my work. They're not just pots, they have stories and ideas.
Keep reading for more from Tom Edwards.