Bringing Barbados Back Home
Every morning when I wake up I make myself some coffee. And every time I go to grab a mug, I always reach for my favourite one. It’s ceramic, the perfect size, and it is covered in colourful stripes. Soft yellow, peach, sea foam green, white and blue wrap around and around in imperfect lovely ribbons. This handmade mug is cheerful and happy and reminds me of a beautiful, sunny place a couple thousand miles away.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
When I first met David Spieler, the owner of Earthworks Pottery in Barbados, he told me that he liked the idea of people bringing a little something of the island back home with them. He imagined someone exactly like me, in the middle of a cold, North American winter, sipping from my mug and thinking of Barbados. He was exactly right.
Once you visit his pottery studio and store and see the scope of what Spieler, his mother, and their team of dedicated artists and potters are producing, you’ll begin to notice Earthworks pieces all over the island. From little flower vases on the table at a restaurant, to hanging light fixtures outside a store, signs at a hotel, and plenty of dishware, bowls, mugs, platters, tea pots, pitchers, candle shades... Barbados is full of ceramic Earthworks pieces, unmistakable in their original, distinct patterns, colours, and shapes.
The extensive pottery collection at Earthworks now comes in 200 different shapes and over 30 patterns. “There’s always something new. There are thousands and thousands of pieces on display here, many of them are one of a kind, in a riot of colours and shapes, when you come in the door. It’s a nice place to come to because you know you’re going to find something that’s really unique and hopefully you’ll like, at a price that isn’t too expensive and most of all, it’s functional. What more can I say?” smiles Spieler as he stands in the middle of his studio.
Potters are scattered all over the place at various production stages, from shaping to decorating, placing pieces to be fired up in the kiln and glazing. They all smile and say hi as visitors walk around freely and observe them while they’re working. There’s music softly drifting through the open space, creating a relaxed, creative, work environment many would be envious of. Make no mistake, Earthworks is very productive. There are thousands of pieces on display in a kaleidoscope of colours, as a constant trickle of people peruse the packed shelves, waiting to discover the one piece (or set) that speaks to them.
On paper, all of this seems like an unlikely career choice for a former Biology teacher who was born in Ottawa, Canada. But when you see him in the middle of the studio, surrounded by all this art and creativity, along with his happy staff and the studio cat who is carefully slinking between displays, you wonder how he ever considered doing anything else.
When Spieler was young, his father died suddenly. His mother, Goldie, who was an artist, came to Barbados on a vacation with some friends. She fell in love with the island and its bright, vivid colours and, wanting to come back to paint, she brought David with her for a six month stint. At least that was the plan. While Goldie was running all over the island painting, she was offered a teaching job. Those weeks turned into years, and Barbados became the Spielers’ new home. But that was just the beginning.
Goldie became interested in the traditional types of pottery happening on the island at the time, in the 1960s. A dying art, she built a small home studio that housed two potters who would come down from a village called Chalky Mount, known for its clay soils and subsequently, clay pottery. But the men didn’t like leaving their village and, although this first attempt was not an immediate success story, Goldie eventually secured funding to organize a pottery-training project in Chalky Mount. Through this project a whole new generation of potters were born and despite the fact that the traditional way practiced by these men eventually died out, Goldie still had her studio, now filled with a handful of new, eager young potters.
“Mum was working during the day and coming home and potting in the evening. And she’s good! She’s an excellent, excellent designer and she was doing a lot of one-of-a-kind pieces. She was collected by the big hotels here, like Sandy Lane, and they put some of her pieces in the foyer so that people coming in saw them. Then people started to come here. So she was working making pottery, and working as a teacher. Over time, a demand for her product increased.”
Eventually, Goldie had to quit her teaching job and despite the fact that David, back then, was a Biology teacher who liked to surf in his free time, he couldn’t ignore the fact that Goldie’s business was growing and she needed more help. “I had no intention of coming to work here but I could see that she was selling more and making more and she had two staff members. She got a big order from another hotel for pieces for every room, and at that point I realized that if I didn’t come and help her, she wasn’t going to be able to make the demand anymore. So I took a year off from work,” Spieler laughs. “And that’s how it was.”
Spieler’s main initiative in the company was to start producing functional ware. His mother’s pieces were works of art, but he wanted to create pieces for everyday use: plates, bowls, mugs, serving dishes, tea pots, jugs, that maintained the original artistic integrity but were also durable. Using casting and pressing methods, Spieler’s functional ware was a hit, and as Barbados tourism boomed from the 1970s through the 1990s, Earthworks became a household name.
Today, Earthworks supplies to hotels, restaurants, and gift shops all over the island and even contributes to public art with two mosaics. One is down by the South Coast Boardwalk, and the other (which was a generational labour of love that Goldie, David, and his daughter conceived and created) is a 100-foot piece by the famous Baobab tree on Warrens Road in St. Michael parish. Earthworks is not only an important business in the community, it’s an artistic representation of Bajan life and culture.
“Today, people come [to Earthworks] because they want to get the best in locally made, functional work. Once they find us, they return year after year. Some actually come back to Barbados just so they can collect more pieces for their table, or their summer ware, or just a tea set to tide them over when it’s cold and gray in the wintertime so they can remember the sunshine. You know how it is in the winter. A piece from Earthworks will last you a lifetime and bring sunshine wherever you use it.”
Edgehill Heights 2