Karl & Becky Brown Martz
by Henry Swain
Karl Martz began his apprenticeship in l934 at the Griffith Brown County Pottery. He had completed his degree in chemistry at I.U. and had been asked by the Griffiths to work in their shop to help them with some of the glazes that were giving them problems.
This was in the middle of the Great Depression, and Karl was grateful for the opportunity.
He helped fire the kiln, worked with glazes, and threw pots on an electric potter’s wheel a local man had made from an old cream separator. While the Griffiths were on vacation, Karl made scores of serving bowls for the Nashville House restaurant in exchange for meals and board. He felt quite important eating at the Old Nashville House and supporting himself. After a year, he decided he would rather be on his own.
He married Becky Brown in 1935, and they moved to Brown County renting a room in a farmhouse on Town Hill. It was a room in the main building of a girl’s summer camp founded in l910. Artist Musette Stoddard managed the camp. After a few months, they moved to a nearby two-room cabin called Chewink.
Karl set up his first kiln, a 20-gallon stoneware crock. He made small pots, which were sold at the Brown County Folks shop by their friend Portia Sperry. Firing the kiln at night produced occasional flames and sparks, which led some neighbors to think they were operating a still.
Portia Sperry continued to market most of Karl’s work after they moved to the Batchfield cabin north of Nashville. Karl built his first real kiln there.
As often happens in our young lives, some older person witnesses our struggles and, chooses to help us. Scott Murphy became Karl’s patron, and arranged for them to move to the Pink House just west of Nashville on Helmsburg road, a much more visible location. Becky was hired as receptionist for the Brown County Art Gallery, located across the street from Calvin’s Hardware occupying the first floor of the Masonic Building.
Becky began her interest in pottery by making glazed buttons, which were fired in the spaces between the larger items. She gradually developed her own skills as a potter by observing and learning from Karl.
These were difficult times for artists and craftspeople, but they were also good times. Food was inexpensive. Sundays found time for picnics at the park. Joseph Hays started the Brown County theatre. Karl and other locals formed the pool of actors. There was an outdoor stage with plays under the stars. There were long conversations in front of fireplaces in the evenings. Life was good.
The tourist trade dwindled after the beginning of World War II. They moved to Chicago where Karl worked at a war job at Carnegie Illinois Steel. In l945 Henry Radford Hope, chair of the I.U. Fine Arts Department, invited Karl to come teach ceramics. They rented a cabin in Brown County. Karl commuted to Bloomington with Virginia Weddle until they were able to buy a car.
In 1949, they began to build a house of their own across from the North park entrance near the cabin and woodworking shop of artisan Earl Page. They worked on the house for ten years. It was of contemporary design influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.
I had the pleasure of working with Karl and Becky on an addition to the original structure.
They became good neighbors to Onya Latour who built two houses up the hill behind their home. Their two sons Eric and Brian spent their formative years at this location, and were influenced by Onya’s unique character and artistic talent. The boys now express kind memories of growing up there, hiking along Salt Creek and the State Park.
Eric is now professor or immunology at the University of Massachusetts. Brian’s talents led him to music. He is a jazz musician, and instructor of low brass instruments at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.
Karl continued his job at I.U. while Becky operated their studio along with raising their children. Becky became a recognized potter in her own right.
They considered those years in Brown County their “golden years.” While it was their plan to always live there, work scheduling, their children going off to college, along with other practical unforeseen problems, led them to move to Bloomington.
There are several in our county who own and appreciate some fine ceramic pieces of Karl and Becky Martz. They have become more valuable with the passage of time. It is very satisfying to see their work being more recognized and appreciated. During those hard economic times of the Great Depression, we thought of ourselves as ordinary people who were struggling to get started with our lives.
Struggle, we all had in common. Money was necessary, but not a goal. We enjoyed the community in which we lived and worked. We vaguely recognized the contributions we were making, but our accomplishments did not seem all that important at the time. Retrospection in old age allows us to view some of our past citizens with new understanding.
Karl and Becky Martz were not just two ordinary citizens. They left behind fine pieces of their creative pottery to be enjoyed by all who are fortunate to have them in their homes. Living a creative and productive life into old age can turn some who start out as ordinary, into extraordinary people. It helps to have inherited certain talents and a lot of luck.
Karl died in l997 at age 84. Their son Eric has a web page to honor his parent’s work and life. Search the Internet under <MartzPots.org>. Click “Enter web site Karl Martz & Becky Brown”. Eric would appreciate hearing from any readers who may have known his parents. He is seeking photos of any Martz pottery you may have, which he would like to add to the website.