By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor
Well over half a century has passed, but former plate painters Dorothy Thompson of Prescott and Doris Gardas of Hager City remember vividly their days as plate painters for Red Wing Pottery.
It was a first job for both women, who started working at the pottery as teenagers.
Thompson, the former Dorothy Murphy of Red Wing, got to know the industry first as a little girl.
“My dad worked at Red Wing Pottery as long as I can remember,” she said. Although she spent part of the year living with relatives in the Twin Cities after her mother died, Thompson would spend about a month in the summer with her father. His job was to put pieces in the kiln and take them out after firing.
When she was about 9 years old, Thompson said, “I used to bring him lunch.”
In the mid-1940s, when she was 15 or 16 years old, he got her a job at the pottery. Her first job was to clean the surplus clay off cups before they were fired, but before long she moved into the painting department.
Thompson, who is an aunt to Robin Wipperling, manager of the new Pottery Museum of Red Wing, remembers sitting at a long conveyor belt on a wooden table. Her job was to pick up a dinner plate as it moved past her, paint a small pink segment of a Concord-Lexington rose, then put the plate back down so it could pass to the next painter.
“Then they moved me down to the leaves,” she recalled.
Thompson didn’t stay at that job too long.
“I got married at 17,” she said — 66 years ago — and she didn’t work anymore.
Gardas, the former Doris Altaffer of Bay City, applied for a job at the pottery just after she turned 18 during the summer of 1950. “It was my first real job,” she said. “I liked to paint. It was the one thing I knew I could do.”
The conveyor belt was at the center of her job, too. In fact, she recalls about eight different conveyor belts being used for the various pieces of a dinnerware set.
“There was a heat lamp at the end,” she recalled. “The ‘ware’ went under that to dry. After the heat lamp was an inspector. She would check everything out,” and might clean up a paint spill or set a plate aside if there was a mistake or an omission.
“I think they sold those plates as seconds for about $1,” Gardas said.
After the inspector put the finished plates on a rack, other workers wheeled it away for glazing and kiln-firing.
“Sometimes that kiln floor was below us. There was no air-conditioning,” she said. It got really hot.
Gardas worked on several designs, including various parts of the popular Bob White. When she worked on the Ardennes pattern, she said, “I was at the head of the line. We had a little wheel on a base and we’d put the plate on it and start it spinning by hand.” She would dip her brush into the brown paint then touch it to the plate while it was spinning to paint a circle.
“You had to have a steady hand,” she said, to avoid globs. “And you couldn’t sneeze.”
Thompson agreed — “Or laugh.”
The women worked an eight-hour day, with breaks. Conditions were decent, they said, and of course they were sitting most of the time. Co-workers were friendly.
Neither remembers how much she was paid, although Thompson recalled that working at the Red Wing laundry paid better.
A disadvantage, Gardas said, was that “We kept getting laid off, then called back.” She married in 1951 but continued working at the pottery until 1954. “I just quit,” she said, and went to work in the office at Red Wing Shoe Co., which offered steady employment — until she got pregnant and left the workforce.
She maintained a Red Wing pottery connection, though.
“I rode to work with my brother-in-law from Trenton Island, Teddy Hutchson," she said. “He designed the dinnerware clayware.”
Both women had some Red Wing dinnerware at home. Gardas bought seconds, thinking she’d hang them on the wall. “But I never did,” she said.
Thompson has a few plates left.
“My dad gave me a set of six of the rose dishes” she painted, she said.
They felt the dishes were heavy for everyday use.
Although they did not stay on as plate painters, both women continued to use their artistic talents. Thompson became a decorative cake painter, and Gardas became an active member of the Red Wing Arts Association. She especially enjoys painting nature scenes in acrylic and water color at her studio, which she calls Brushes with Nature.
All of the designs they painted can be found in the new Pottery Museum of Red Wing. They both find it a bit “weird” that plates they painted so many years ago are now museum quality displays.
“It’s amazing to think we could make something that you can still use today,” Gardas said.
Dinnerware decorators paint plates for fundraiser
Doris Gardas of Hager City and Dorothy Thompson of Prescott will reprise the work they did in the 1940s and ‘50s and paint some Red Wing-made luncheon plates as a fundraiser for the Pottery Museum of Red Wing.
Their creations will be featured at the July 9 Foundation Day celebration on the eve of the Red Wing Collectors Society Convention. The fundraiser “Wine-ing for Red Wing” runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the parking lot at the museum. It will include both silent and oral auctions.
Gardas and Thompson will demonstrate from 6 to 7 p.m., painting blank pottery plates. People will be able to purchase the small plates for a donation.
The oral auction begins at 7 p.m. It will feature some special plates both women are painting in advance to sell that night. Gardas will paint two Red Wing scenes — probably the Chief Red Wing profile on Barn Bluff and the boat houses. Thompson plans to paint flowers.
“Wine-ing for Red Wing” is open to the public.