In Good Company
The story of Edgecomb Potters is one of artistic and business success. Most of all, though, it is a love story.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Amy Wilton
Deep inside the sprawling Edgecomb Potters studio, Rachel Maldovan works steadily at a table crowded with bisque mugs. Plucking the cups one at a time, she swipes their wells and rims with a solution that will preserve their satiny smoothness when a scorching hot kiln forces their bone-colored surfaces to bloom into crystalline pinks, greens, and golds.
“As a kid I liked to draw, but I never imagined I’d be doing what I am doing today,” says Maldovan, a wholesome-looking, brown-eyed blonde who glazes nearly every piece of porcelain that emerges from this building — no small responsibility given Edgecomb Potters’ renown for spectacular hues. Thirteen years ago, Maldovan explains, she was making her living picking shrimp for a fishmonger in Bath. “I don’t like shrimp. I don’t eat shrimp. I don’t even like the smell of shrimp,” she says. “I was so unhappy.”
So she took a chance and applied for a job at the pottery that, as a child growing up on the Boothbay peninsula, she had watched expand from a converted one-room schoolhouse to a rambling series of contemporary silvery gray barns whose outdoor crafts displays are among the area’s biggest summer attractions. In turn, Edgecomb Potters owners Richard and Christine Hilton took a chance on her, a seafood picker with no experience handling clay. Under the Hiltons’ tutelage, Maldovan graduated from smoothing seams on soft, freshly molded pots to applying and firing temperamental glazes to embellishing the pieces with Richard’s signature brushstroke. “The little Nike swoosh,” she calls it after its resemblance to the famous sportswear company’s logo. “That was pretty special because Richard had trusted only one other person to do it. I practiced it so much that I dreamt about it. It was nerve-wracking, but I found that because I had picked shrimp, I had the hands to do it.”
Maldovan was not the first person that the Hiltons had hired on the strength of their intuition rather than the conventional wisdom that said their potters should have formal training in the ceramic arts. Studio manager Donna Balducci, who raises llama, goats, and sheep on a farm across the street, became Edgecomb Potters’ first employee when she chased her runaway dog into the schoolhouse thirty-two years ago. “She looked nice and strong,” says Christine with a wide, eye-crinkling grin. “Richard and I looked at each other, then we looked back at her and said, ‘Want a job?’ ” A few years later, the Hiltons decided that Balducci’s husband, Gary, a builder, was doing so many projects for Edgecomb Potters that they might as well put him on the staff. Likewise, Maldovan’s brother, Mikey Barter, demonstrated such diligence and care when he moved the Hiltons into their new home in 1996 that Richard offered him a job in the studio the next day.
“Work ethic is such an important aspect of this company,” Christine says. “Everyone here has passion. I believe everyone has a creative spirit. It just needs to be nurtured. Just look at Rachel. Sometimes I say to her, ‘Did you ever think you’d be an artist?’ And she is an artist. She’s got it in her. It’s very exciting. She’s proof that you don’t necessarily have to go to art school to create.”
In fact, Christine suggests, her employees’ lack of formal training has proven something of an advantage to what the Rand McNally Road Atlas called “one the most highly acclaimed art potteries in America.” Unencumbered by the rules, they are open to experimentation. “We push it,” Christine says. “Rachel is always pushing the glazes. We give her permission to create, and we give her permission to fail. Every time we open a kiln it’s like Christmas because you never know what is going to come out.”
Christine and Richard Hilton’s trust in their employees’ innate creativity stems in large part from personal experience. It was thirty-five years ago that the couple moved north from Massachusetts to open a pottery studio in the little red schoolhouse on Route 27 in Edgecomb that they had often admired on their way to Boothbay Harbor for the weekend. Christine was twenty-six and Richard was twenty-seven, and they had barely more than a penny to their names. “Our parents were very nervous about it,” Christine remembers, “but there was a renaissance in American crafts under way, and we were going to live our dream.”
Since her graduation from Massachusetts College of Art a few years earlier, Christine had been teaching pottery in the basement of the couple’s Boston area home. Richard, who was pursuing a career in broadcasting, would come home from work and head straight to her studio to de-stress. “He was my best protégé,” Christine says. “I thought Richard was blessed by not having gone to art school because he didn’t learn all the things that are supposed to be taboo. He approached the craft in an incredibly creative and innovative way.”
During their first several months in Edgecomb, the Hiltons lived where they worked, sleeping on the unheated schoolhouse’s floor and showering at a local campground. They fired their pottery in a small outdoor kiln that they had to brick up for each use. Spare as their existence was, it was only when that first summer faded into fall that they realized the magnitude of their challenge. “We could count the cars going by the schoolhouse on our right hand,” Christine says. “One afternoon Richard sat down on the steps and prayed, ‘Lord, just give me a little piece of success.’ To this day, I believe that prayer carried us. How else to explain it?”
They survived those early winters by trucking their wares to Boston, where Richard peddled them from a pushcart in the then-brand new Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Charismatic and handsome with his tousled dark hair and moustache, Richard entertained shoppers by hawking pots like a carnival barker.
In the studio, Christine and Richard were complementing each other’s interests and talents. “Christine is the free spirit,” Donna Balducci says. “She’s the artist. When I first met her, she was doing a lot of sgraffito — she’d take a pot, stain it with a solid color, then carve a story onto the surface. She’d also have me look for maple and oak leaves. We’d soak them in water, then brush the leaves with copper or iron and press them into the raw porcelain to make basket planters.”
Richard, meanwhile, had become fascinated with glazes, the glossy coatings that react with heat to waterproof ceramics and fuse them with color. Experimenting with combinations of chemicals and firing temperatures, he was at once bold and exacting. “He was very focused when he was working on a new glaze,” Balducci recalls. “He’d be right on it until he perfected it.” Often laboring into the wee hours, Richard spent several years developing recipes for notoriously fickle crystal glazes that blossom randomly on a pot’s surface like frost on a window. Balducci got into the habit of opening her kitchen window on summer mornings to listen for the sounds of pottery being tossed into a dumpster across the street. “I could tell by the number of crashes whether it had been a good night or a bad night,” she says.
Richard’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Newspapers from Boston to Dallas to San Diego raved about the luscious, shimmering colors of Edgecomb Potters’ vases, bowls, and platters. Within the ceramics industry, Edgecomb Potters was known for, as The Crafts Report, a business magazine for crafts professionals, put it, “riding the cutting edge of copper glaze technology.”
To keep up with consumer demand, the Hiltons transitioned from throwing pots by hand to production pottery, which involves creating molds to reproduce multiple pieces of a single design. They went on to expand their Edgecomb facility several times — it was Gary Balducci who constructed the two-story gallery and attached production buildings — and they opened shops in Freeport and Portland. (Besides pottery, their galleries sell a variety of crafts made by more than three hundred artisans.)
As Edgecomb Potters grew, the Hiltons assembled an uncommonly loyal and close-knit staff (twelve people currently work full time, year-round in Edgecomb). “There are people who have been here fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years,” Donna Balducci says. “There’s a reason why: Chris and Richard are both brilliant artists and business people, but they are kindhearted, too. They’re very passionate about their employees.”
When the Hiltons offered her a job that afternoon in the schoolhouse three decades ago, Balducci told them she had no experience with clay. “I was totally green, but I was very good with my hands,” she says, echoing Maldovan’s assessment of her skills. “I did a lot of sewing and knitting, so it seemed to come naturally.” Like most of her colleagues, she has since learned virtually every job in the studio, from loading the kiln to glazing the pots to running the gallery to shipping pieces to customers. “Some artists are afraid to give away their knowledge, but Chris and Richard have always been eager to share. They’ve also been very open to hearing what we have to suggest.”
Their generosity extends beyond mentoring, another longtime employee, Carol Colby, says. One summer she complained daily about her broken dryer, only to arrive home one evening to find that Richard had purchased and installed a new one for her while she was at work. “I was totally blown away,” she says.
At the same time, Colby adds, the Hiltons are exacting bosses, “triple type A personalities” with strong perfectionist tendencies. She tells of coming to work one morning and learning that the entire batch of pots she’d prepared for firing the day before had been a failure because she had waxed them improperly. Richard gave her the job of tossing the pieces in the dumpster so their crashes would remind her to take more care. “Richard is explosive and then it’s gone,” she says, adding with a laugh, “It’s a good thing because given some of my mistakes, if he carried a grudge, there’s no way I’d be still be working here.”
Indeed, the studio functions with the intimacy of a family, which perhaps is not surprising given the number of family relationships on the small staff: There are the siblings, Rachel Maldovan and Mikey Barter, and the two couples, the Hiltons and the Balduccis. In addition, the Hiltons’ niece works in the Edgecomb store, two of the Balduccis’ children work part time, and the Balduccis’ Labrador retriever, Spinella, is the unofficial Edgecomb Potters mascot. Donna Balducci has been known to bring a baby monitor to work so she can hear when her goats are kidding, and the entire staff will walk across the street to watch the babies being born.
“We are family,” Christine says of the crew. “It’s an amazing extended family. We care about each other. Everybody has tough times in life when the family pulls together to support one another, and my employees do that for each other here. We’re very fortunate.”
At no time have those relationships been more important to Christine Hilton than the last three years, by far the most challenging in Edgecomb Potters’ history. First, the recession forced the Hiltons to lay off some valued employees. “Richard, Donna, and I huddled together and we kept crunching the options: What if we kept them on three days? What if we did this? What if we did that? Because we owe them a living,” Christine says. “It was a horrible, horrible time.”
Not long after, Richard was stricken with health problems that have kept him from working, though he does visit the studio from time to time. “I don’t want to say he won’t be back because we always have hope,” says Christine, who declines to elaborate on her husband’s condition. “We all miss him greatly, but he is still a major force here.”
Office manager Debbie Duke says she is proud of the way Christine has stepped up to handle the business details that had always been Richard’s forte. “It has been difficult for her, but she’s learned a lot about the business side of the company during the past year,” Duke says. “Hopefully, we will see Richard back, but in the meantime, he’s got a really good crew. Having worked for Richard for so many years, we know what he wants and we go forward every day with that in mind.”
Some years ago, the Hiltons became born-again Christians, and that faith allows Christine to view the couple’s current difficulties in the context of a bigger, more optimistic picture. “When I look out my office window at the schoolhouse and the studio, I’m still flabbergasted at what Edgecomb Potters has become,” she says. “I’m amazed by it. It’s the American dream. It happens. Fifteen years ago Richard and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re having a great ride.’ No matter what happens to us, we have had an amazing gift — the love we share, the family we have, the passion we’ve been able to explore and grow. How many people get to do what they love and have success with it? So when we look at that the challenges we’re having today, who are we to say it hasn’t been great?”
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Amy Wilton