But his dramatic personal history, with its fading echoes of an era when young people sought to build a new social order, is only the prologue to the full story of Malcolm Davis.
He was still a popular campus minister in 1974 when a neighbor invited him to attend a class on ceramics sponsored by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.
“I thought it was going to be an evening lecture, so I went from work dressed in my clerical collar,” Mr. Davis recalled in a 2003 oral history interview. “In a matter of weeks, I was transformed. It was as if there was that potter in me all my life just waiting to get out and just never had the opportunity.”
Over time, he gave up his ministry to devote himself to making ceramics. He became renowned for his porcelain and for a colorful ceramic glaze that he developed. He taught other potters all over the country, and museums and private collectors paid top prices for his teapots, cups, bowls and plates.
“He’s a historical figure in pottery because of that glaze,” Mikhail Zakin, a potter and teacher at the Art School at Old Church in Demarest, N.J., said. “He was just intuitively a beautiful potter.”
Mr. Davis, who lived in Washington and had a studio in Upshur County, W.Va., died Dec. 12 at Sibley Memorial Hospital’s rehabilitation facility in the District. He was 74 and, according to his wife, had a pulmonary embolism three days after hip-replacement surgery.
There was something about his discovery of ceramics that had the life-altering force of a religious epiphany. Mr. Davis had spent years grappling with the eternal questions of the human spirit only to find himself drawn in a direction he never expected.
“It was when I touched clay for the first time in my life, at almost 40, that it changed my life forever,” he said in a 2010 speech to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. “Something inside took over. . . . Clay found me without my seeking it.”
He was surprised as anyone, because he had never before shown much aptitude for art or for working with his hands. As a senior in high school in Hampton, Va., he took an art class, thinking he would get an easy A.
From pastor to potter
Malcolm Herbert Davis was born Oct. 17, 1937, in Newport News, Va. His father was a banker, and his mother was a church volunteer.
At the College of William & Mary, he majored in mathematics and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society before graduating in 1959.
Two years earlier, during the 350th anniversary commemoration of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, Mr. Davis was one of three people to ride in a horse-drawn carriage with Queen Elizabeth II.