Pennsylvania potter will hold his annual sale on Aug. 17


June 23, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Soon after dawn on Saturday, Aug. 17, the first of Lester Breininger's fans will arrive in Robesonia, Pa. All day long and again on Sunday from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, a steady stream of loyal customers will make their annual pilgrimage to the 22nd Annual Porch Sale at the Taylor Mansion to buy Mr. Breininger's redware pottery.

Route 422 is Main Street in Robesonia, a small town 10 miles north of Reading. To get to the Taylor mansion turn left two blocks after the only traffic light in town. Park in the field across from the house with the big wraparound porch festooned with red, white and blue bunting and a huge American flag suspended between the third floor dormers.

Mr. Breininger, a 56-year-old recently retired biology teacher, began potting 26 years ago because, he said, he was curious to see how it was done in the old days. Whenever school was out, he would work in his backyard pottery. In January, after 33 years of teaching, Mr. Breininger retired, but he is still a part-time potter. His interests in civic and patriotic groups keep him busy.

Nevertheless he manages to fire a few thousand pieces of pottery every year, and on one weekend in August he sets out his wares for sale on table after table, shelf after shelf on the porch and in two downstairs rooms of his house. There are plates and jars, flowerpots and pitchers, full size and miniature, figures of dogs, bears, deer, goats and sheep -- all made in the traditional Pennsylvania German manner with incised and trailed designs. Some plates are decorated with human figures; others have chickens, cows, pigs or sheep; and still others have birds, houses, tulips or vases of flowers.

Some are careful copies of pieces in museum collections, others are Mr. Breininger's own designs. A number are incised with Pennsylvania Dutch aphorisms. "Gluck oder un Gluck ist alle morgen unser fru stuck" translates to "Good luck or bad luck is every morning our breakfast." Another proclaims in Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, "Out of the earth with understanding, the potter makes most everything." And another has the German for "This dish is made of earth and clay and man is made of the same stuff."

All the larger pieces are signed and dated on the back and tell the weather on the day they were made, as was the custom of some potters in earlier times.

For his first porch sale in 1970, MR. Breininger invited the neighbors in for mint tea and cookies to show them what he had been doing. "The response was unbelievable," said Mr. Breininger, a tall, bearded man who wears the traditional Amish hat and talks with a bit of a Pennsylvania Dutch accent.

For his upcoming sale Mr. Breininger has sent out postcards showing his 9-month-old grandson Lester IV in a sgraffito-decorated punch bowl 18 inches in diameter. "My daughter-in-law took the picture as a lark because we kidded about using the punch bowl as a baby bath," said Breininger. "She didn't know that early in this century George Ohr, the famous mad potter from Biloxi, took a photo of four of his kids in large pots he had made."

Mr. Breininger will have several large punch bowls for sale for around $175, making them some of the most expensive pieces for sale; only his most elaborate 22-inch plates cost more, $225. There will be a broad selection of wares priced under $50.

He has prepared for more than a thousand people to come for mint tea and cookies and to tour the pottery, where young assistants will show how plates are made from slabs of clay laid over molds and potter Greg Zieber will demonstrate how jars, pitchers and big punch bowls are turned on the wheel.

Drab green ware -- finished pieces dried but not yet fired -- will become colorful in the kiln. Assistants will demonstrate how the wiggles and squiggles of slip decoration are trailed from a slip cup and how sgraffito designs are scratched through a coating of light colored clay slip.

Mr. Breininger's work seems to get better and better. He collects 18th and 19th century redware and he thinks because he is so involved with old pottery he gets the authentic Pennsylvania German feeling into the pottery he makes.

In 1986 Pennsylvania's Gov. Richard Thornburgh recognized Mr. Breininger's talents and gave him a medal for excellence in the arts. No other traditional craftsman had ever been considered for a medal. "I got more requests for my pottery after I stood up there along with a poet from Pittsburgh and a director of dance and [painter] Andrew Wyeth, who got the biggest prize as the best artist," he recalled.

Each year Mr. Breininger makes some pieces he has never tried before. This year it is double-walled covered bowls with cutout tulips. He is particularly proud of making the sign for the current summer exhibition of redware at the Heritage Plantation Museum in Sandwich, Mass., called "Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware." Mr. Breininger slip-trailed the entire title on a large platter which he pierced with two holes so it hangs like a shop sign at the entrance to the exhibition. "When I made it I had no idea it would also be used on the cover of the show's catalog," said Mr. Breininger. He has loaned 25 pieces of early 19th century redware from his own collection to the exhibition, which lasts through early October.

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