Cornelison Pottery, Bybee, Kentucky

August 29, 2013

Over 270 images featuring more than one hundred and fifty ceramic pieces shown in the Early 20th Century Art Pottery from Madison and Fayette Counties exhibition at the Lexington Public Library (November 12, 2011-January 22, 2012) were recently added to KOAR.

2012.59.7Central Kentucky pottery may not be quite as well known as other regional brands, such as Rookwood in Cincinnati, but as co-curator Jerry Nichols says, “This is Southern, homegrown, real stuff versus factory-produced stuff, so you could argue it is better. This is true Kentucky art, made of our natural resources and labor.” The Lexington exhibition included work from three potteries, one with two production lines: Cornelison Pottery (later known as Bybee Pottery), Waco Pottery, and the Bybee Pottery Company of Lexington. Details about the last two potteries can already be found in KOAR (by clicking on the “Link to Artist Details”), from an earlier exhibition at the Hopewell Museum in 2012.59.7 mark2Bourbon County, Waco and the Bybees: Central Kentucky Art Pottery, 1900 to 1935 (May 27-September 27, 2009). There is less information given on the Cornelisons’ pottery, however, so this post focuses on them.

Bybee is a small rural town in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in southeastern Madison County, Kentucky. Bybee Pottery, owned by six generations of the Cornelison family, operated as the Cornelison Pottery until around 1954, when it finally adopted the name of the town with which it was so closely identified. (Alas, causing much confusion with the now-extinct Bybee Pottery Company of Lexington!) Bybee Pottery was the oldest continuous industry and last surviving traditional pottery in Madison County, the oldest working pottery west of the Alleghenies and second oldest in the United States, when operations were suspended in 2011, just two years after it had celebrated its bicentennial. At that time, Jim Cornelison called the idea of permanent closure “a misconception. The pottery is not closed, we just aren’t producing anything at the moment.”

The Cornelison-owned Bybee 2012.6.20Pottery claimed it was originally established in 1809; actual written sales records proving its existence date as far back as 1845. Pottery was produced for over a century in the same log building, which always looked much as it did when the business began. The oldest and central portion of the structure, a landmark from pioneer days, was built of V-notched logs with solid walnut ceiling beams. Tall people often were forced to duck under these beams since the accumulation of clay dust eventually raised the floor level several inches. Many longtime employees came from the community. “We have had generations of families work here, and not just ourselves,” Buzz Cornelison, Jim’s brother, noted. “Most of the people we have hired over the years are neighbors.”

Webster Cornelison founded Bybee Pottery, which passed down to James Eli, then to Walter (who was proprietor during the 1920s heyday of art pottery), and to Walter’s son Ernest in 1939. Most Cornelisons had not been potters themselves; they had hired potters. That was until the fifth generation, when Walter Lee Cornelison (Jim’s and Buzz’s father) came along. As Buzz explained, “My great-grandfather made a kick wheel for my father when he was a little boy, and he said he had his own corner … his 2012.58.2own clay. Every once in a while, somebody would walk by and say, ‘Try it this way’ and show him something. That’s the way he learned to throw.” Walter spent decades at the potter’s wheel, even after he took over the business, producing hundreds of thousands of pieces now prized for their quality.

The art of ceramics begins with mineral-rich clays having a crystalline structure that becomes more plastic when mixed with water. The clay used to make this pottery can be found in an open pit about three miles from Bybee. Historic records show that the first settlers mined this same clay-rich soil near the Kentucky River in southern Madison County, then still on the American frontier, and took the clay to Fort Boonesborough for making crude dishes. Since Kentucky’s pioneer days at least fifty small potteries have been located near the clay deposits of Madison County.

The Cornelisons’ process of making pottery remained very similar to the methods used two centuries earlier. The clay was open-pit mined several 2012.61.1feet beneath the topsoil, more recently dug out by bulldozers, backhoes, and tractors rather than shovels. (After removal of the hundred tons of clay typically used in a year, the hole was filled in and marked for the next year’s dig.) The fresh clay was then ground to remove any pebbles or impurities in a simple pug mill, traditionally powered by a mule-drawn wheel. The clay was formed into “logs” then stored in an ancient vault to keep it moist and pliable until needed. The only thing ever added to the clay was a little water.

After being weighed on an old balance to ensure uniformity, the clay was thrown by hand on a traditional foot-controlled potter’s wheel, now powered by electricity. Once off the wheel, the clay body will retain whatever shape it has been given as it is allowed to dry. Finishing details (such as handles, flukes, and spouts) can be added by hand while the clay is still in 2012.6.24a leather-hard state. The clay form must be thoroughly dried before firing in the kiln, heated to 2,200° for 24 hours; natural gas eventually replaced wood for fuel. Firing chemically transforms the clay into a material resembling the moderately hard stones from which clays originate.

Finally, adding glazes created Bybee’s signature colors and patterns. Glazes are silica-based substances that provide a lustrous non-porous (thus waterproof) surface. Fluxes added to lower the melting point of the silica, such as certain mixtures of minerals or metal oxides, can act as color-inducing agents. Typically, glazes are hand-applied after the bisque (first, or unglazed) firing by dipping, brushing, sponging, or pouring directly onto the surface of the piece. Then it must be fired again, this time at a somewhat lower temperature (to preserve the integrity of the ceramic body), transforming the glaze into an amorphous glass structure that fuses with the surface of the clay.

By the early 1900s, demand had diminished for the utilitarian crocks, churns, jars, and jugs used in a largely 2012.57.3agrarian society. The need for everyday pottery became obsolete with the increasing prevalence of modern storage vessels made of glass or tin and the industrialization of the potter’s craft. Many of the remaining traditional potteries in Madison County went under. But the Cornelisons, like many other American Arts and Crafts potteries determined to continue creating handmade objects, adapted to the twentieth century by shifting their production to “art” pottery that was designed to be beautiful as well as functional. (Waco Pottery and Lexington’s Bybee Pottery Company soon followed; all three Kentucky potteries gained national recognition during the economic boom of the 1920s.) Practical and decorative tableware, cookware, and containers glazed with bright custom-made colors created a distinctive look that marked each piece as a handmade Bybee original.

KOAR images shown here, from top to bottom:


Want to know more? Try the links below: (video)
Appalshop Archive: Bybee Pottery (includes a tour of the pottery and how pottery is made)
“Madison’s Oldest Industry is Pottery” by Dr. Fred Engle, Madison’s Heritage Online (July 14, 1971) (includes audio and video links)
“Bybee Pottery celebrates 200 years “ by Tom Eblen, Lexington Herald-Leader (February 22, 2009)
“After two centuries, Bybee Pottery now facing its toughest challenge” by Bill Robinson, Richmond Register (May 31, 2011)
“Bybee Pottery One of the Oldest Potteries Left in America” by Tommy Fox (November 29, 2011)

Brrr, It’s Cold Outside …

February 5, 2013

Can you imagine painting outdoors during the bitter cold snaps we have endured this year in north-central Kentucky?

1958.24That is exactly what Louisville artist Carl Christian Brenner did! “The weather never stopped Brenner,” wrote Jean Howerton Cody in a 1979 Louisville Courier-Journal column. “He would set up his easel and a folding chair in a portable hut with large glass exposures and paint away in rain or snow.” Brenner loved nature and being outdoors, especially rambling around the forests and fields of his adopted hometown and its vicinity. As Diane Heilenman described in a 1985 Louisville Courier-Journal article, “Wearing his artist’s hat and carrying a staff and a paint box, Brenner was a familiar figure in Louisville parks and Pewee Valley woods.”

Brenner’s most iconic paintings are detailed landscapes of his favorite haunts: scenes from what is now Cherokee Park and along River Road in Louisville, Pewee Valley in Oldham County, and the hills just across the river in New Albany, Indiana. His favorite subject was beech trees, as illustrated above. He painted other Kentucky views as well, including the Cumberland Mountains and the Falls of the Cumberland River in Whitley County. At various times Brenner also visited the Southern wetlands and highlands to paint, and traveled West to the Plains states, Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, and the Rocky Mountains. (Brenner is also known to have occasionally painted portraits and experimented with printmaking and graphic art.)

“Brenner’s view of the 2008.2.8city’s parks and woods were THE thing in Victorian Louisville,” declared Heilenman. “Louisville author Meliville O. Briney once wrote, ‘If you grew up in Louisville, a Brenner painting on the wall is as much a part of your pleasant childhood as a rose-back sofa in the parlor or the fire of cannel coal that burned in grandma’s grate.’” While his works demonstrate a wide range of styles, including Realism and Romanticism, after 1878 Brenner was considered part of a group of Louisville artists known as Tonalists, who used muted color to evoke mood. Brenner paid special attention to seasonal effects and time of day through his sensitive rendering of natural light and shadows.

Carl Christian Brenner was born August 1, 1838 in Lauterecken, Bavaria (Germany), and attended public schools there from age six to fourteen. According to “A Biographical Sketch of Carl Brenner” in The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century (1878), a teacher who recognized his artistic talent made application to King Ludwig I for Carl’s admission to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. The king readily granted permission but Carl’s father, a glazier by trade, refused consent for Carl to pursue further art studies. His father objected to art as a career, believing that nobody could make a living as an artist, and wanted Carl to train (and join two other sons) in the family business.

The Brenner family emigrated to the United States in 1853, when Carl was fifteen. They landed in New Orleans, where there was a strong German presence in the arts community, and stayed there briefly before journeying upriver that winter to Louisville, Kentucky, which also had a substantial German population. Carl remained in Louisville for the rest of his life. He originally worked with his father as a glazier (which turned out to have been a handy skill for constructing that portable hut!), then later as a house, sign, and ornamental painter. Carl’s artistic workmanship drew much admiration, however, even when used just for painting signs.

1988.9.2Not long after arriving in Louisville, Brenner’s talent was noticed by an influential patron of the arts, George P. Doern, publisher of the Louisville Anzeiger, a German-language city newspaper. After seeing Brenner’s pencil sketches of scenes along the Mississippi River, Doern advised him to become a landscape painter. In 1863, Brenner received his first professional artist’s commission, a vast panorama (35,000 square feet) of Civil War scenes, from its beginning through the battles at Chancellorsville, for the Masonic Hall of Louisville. By 1867, Brenner had rented a studio at 103 West Jefferson Street, where he pursued his true passion of painting canvases when he was not painting signs and houses to afford his avocation.

In 1871, Brenner began devoting more of his energies to landscape painting. His friend, U.S. Representative (and future Kentucky governor) J. Proctor Knott is said to have boosted Brenner’s career around 1874 by arranging for the sale of his painting Beeches to William Wilson Corcoran, founder of the Washington, D.C., gallery that bears his name. (Brenner named one of his sons after Knott.) Encouraged by the Corcoran sale and the Civil War panorama commission, Brenner gave up his business to become a full-time landscape painter at the age of forty, using his earnings as a glazier, house, and sign painter to establish his own studio at 407 South Fourth Street (Fourth and Jefferson) in 1878.

Brenner had become a very popular and well-esteemed figure about town. “Night-time sales of his work in his gas-lit studio were social events of the time,” stated Heilenman. (Sounds a bit like the current First Friday Trolley Hop tour of art galleries in downtown Louisville, doesn’t it?) Cody shared a contemporary account of one such event: “Every year, just before Christmas, Brenner conducted his annual auction at his studio. A newspaper account in 1885 noted, ‘The studio was well filled last evening. The bidding was lively, although the pictures went for very modest sums.’ The top price was $113.” Heilenman also noted, “Prices rose from $35 a painting in the 1870s to more than $1000 just before his death.”

During his lifetime, 1999.12.8Brenner was the most well-known of Kentucky artists. His paintings were exhibited in Vienna, Philadelphia, New York, and California, as well as regionally in the first Louisville Industrial Exposition in 1874 (and every subsequent annual exposition) and the 1883 Southern Exhibition on the site of what is now St. James Court in Old Louisville.

Brenner’s 1864 marriage to Anna Glass, daughter of an eminent Louisville violinist, produced six children. Three sons inherited his artistic talent; Edward became an architect and Proctor Knott studied art before taking holy orders at St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana. Carolus showed such promise that he was sent to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, since his father knew for certain that one could indeed make a living as an artist! Several works by Carolus are also in KOAR, one of which is included as the last image here. (Perhaps more on Carolus in a future blog…)

Carl Christian Brenner died of a kidney ailment on July 22, 1888, in Louisville and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery. “Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal, wrote in 1888, shortly before Brenner’s death at the age of 50, ‘It was a grand triumph of Carl Brenner, an untutored sign painter of limited education and little or no instruction in art, to have painted the beech better than any American dead or alive,’” Cody quoted, then later continued, “Brenner, at the time of his death, was written up in the London Magazine of Art. Not bad for a self-taught artist from Louisville.”


An image of Carl Brenner sketching on the Kentucky River is available at:

“Brenner on the wall used to be central to being a kid” by Jean Howerton Cody in the Louisville Courier-Journal, November 8, 1979, is available at:

“A Legacy – Carl Brenner 1838-1888” by Diane Heilenman in the Louisville Courier-Journal, February 3, 1985, is available at:

Available through the KOAR Publications webpage ( are:

Catalogue of the J.B. Speed Memorial Museum’s 1947 exhibition “Kentucky Paintings by Carl Christian Brenner” at:

Patty Prather Thum’s “Artists of the Past in Kentucky”, which contains an informal biographical sketch of Brenner on p. 11-12, at:


KOAR images shown here (top to bottom):

1958.1.24                Carl Christian Brenner, Winter
2008.2.8                  Carl Christian Brenner, Winter Landscape
1988.1.9.2               Carl Christian Brenner, Winter Sunset
1999.1.12.8             Carolus Brenner, Untitled