A Local Life: Malcolm Davis, 74, pastor-turned-potter ministered through clay

January 14, 2012

As early as 1960, Malcolm Davis began organizing civil rights bus caravans and sit-ins in the South. He helped lead voter registration drives and was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan, all while he was still a seminary student.

After he became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, he moved to Washington in 1967 as the ecumenical campus chaplain at George Washington University. He became a leader in the peace movement and helped organize antiwar marches along with such ’60s activists as Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman.

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.”


Malcolm Davis was a potter who used to be a campus minister at George Washington University. (Gerry Williams/STUDIO POTTER MAGAZINE)

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.

He flunked.

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.

When a woman ran toward the carriage and touched Mr. Davis’s arm, he laughed and said to the queen, “Oh, that woman who grabbed my arm must think I’m your illegitimate son or something.”

The college president — who was also riding in the carriage — was not amused and threatened to expel him from school. But the queen herself, Mr. Davis later recalled, “just giggled.”

In 1964, Mr. Davis received a master of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminaryin New York, where he met Judy Friedenstein, a fellow student whom he married in 1963. She later became an artist working with fabrics and is his sole immediate survivor.

Before coming to Washington, Mr. Davis spent three years as an itinerant campus minister in Vermont. He and his wife were part of the liberal vanguard of the 1960s and, according to Judy Davis, both were on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”

In 1968, Mr. Davis helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign, which resulted in a makeshift encampment, known as Resurrection City, on the Mall.

But after his first pottery class in 1974, Mr. Davis began to retreat from the political front lines. Something about clay seemed more satisfying to his soul.

He made frequent trips to Penland, N.C., to study at a crafts school and, in the early 1980s, received a grant that allowed him to spend a year at Baltimore Clayworks, a center of ceramic art.

While there, he began to experiment with a Japanese style of porcelain glaze called “shino” (pronounced shee-no). When he took one of his pots from the kiln, he found that it did not have the customary milky-white glaze.

“When it came out, it was magic,” he recalled in Studio Pottermagazine. “There was incredible variety and drama on the pot. It was peach, then gray, with carbon-trapped oily spots floating on the side. It was the most exciting pot I have ever made.”

It took Mr. Davis more than a year to make another pot like the one from the happy accident in Baltimore. Through trial and error, he perfected a new shino technique, starving the kiln of oxygen to create the smoke that gives his glaze its distinctive effect.

In time, he was able to make pottery in vibrant shades of orange and peach, with contrasting splashes of black or gray. No one had ever made pottery like this before, and Mr. Davis soon began to win prizes at craft shows and to get commissions worth thousands of dollars.

He resigned from his campus ministry in 1984, giving up a steady salary and health insurance. (He continued to perform the occasional wedding and remained a member of of First Congregational United Church of Christ in the District.)

He set up a studio in rural West Virginia, near Tallmansville, staying there for months at a time, firing hundreds of ceramic items in a huge kiln the size of an urban kitchen. Nothing he made was purely decorative: He focused entirely on everyday objects — cups, pots, bowls — that could be used at home.

The glaze that he discovered, often called “Malcolm’s shino,” became a sensation in the pottery world.

“The way he was seized by clay was very inspiring to people,” said Mary Barringer, editor of Studio Potter magazine. “Hundreds of people, if not thousands, used his glaze.”

Mr. Davis could have kept his formula to himself, but he chose to share his new method with other potters. The student who had failed his high school art class was traveling across the country, teaching others how to make his shino glaze. His pottery classes, in effect, became his new ministry.

“He was just magnetic,” said Zakin, a former art professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. “People used to bring video cameras because it was just like theater. There’s never been anyone, in my 92 years, like Malcolm.”

For Mr. Davis, pottery was much more than a craft. There was something deep and enduring about molding vessels by hand, something that connected him to traditions and people reaching across time.

He called it his destiny.

“What we do with the clay,” he said in 2010, “what we create with our hands, what we offer from our spirits may not end racism or stop injustice, but it may just help keep our culture human.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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