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Niloak Art Pottery has a Local Connection

Nov 09, 2010 05:25PM ● By Anonymous

Recently McGilvrey shared some of her treasures, including Niloak’s rare swirlware, with fellow residents by setting up a display in the Ginger Cove lobby, the retirement community she now calls home. The earlier swirlware pieces are generally the hardest to find and most valuable because these were made by hand. “I did see a beautiful vase of swirlware in an antique store in Frederick, a few years back,” says McGilvrey. “I believe it was marked $400.”

McGilvrey’s father, John Lewis, first started working for Niloak Pottery, located in Benton, Arkansas, in 1932. Little did he or his family know that his artistic contributions would impact the direction of the pottery company whose work is now prized by collectors. He developed new glazes that included his own versions of Ozark Dawn and Peacock Blue II. Lewis also enjoyed creating pieces by hand, throwing pots on the pottery wheel although Niloak had started to increase the use of molds to meet the supply and demand for its popular pieces.

The solid colored pottery fired in molds, called castware, is more common place. “I see it around at various antique malls. I remember seeing a plain glazed vase over at a multi-dealer mall in Easton,” says his daughter.

Interviews with her father in 1990 and 1991 helped David Edwin Gifford write his comprehensive reference book, A Collector’s Encyclopedia of Niloak, published in 1993.

The Niloak company dates back to the mid-19th century. The first documented owner of the pottery business was John Hyten. His son Charles Dean Hyten continued management of the business with his two brothers, Paul and Lee, and the business in 1897 was known as Hyten Bros. Pottery.
In 1908 Charles Hyten joined forces with potter Arthur Dovey, a former Rookwood Pottery employee, to create a new type of art pottery that swirled colors through the clay. The name of the new pottery¾Niloak, was coined in 1910 and the name of the company that produced the ware was called Eagle Pottery Company.

The made up word Niloak is kaolin, an important component of clay, spelled backwards. No one exactly knows how the two collaborators chose to call their new creation Niloak--perhaps because the pottery itself was so unusual. Its products were sold at gift shops throughout the Southeast and by 1910, Niloak was a financial success. The unique pottery line was included in Missouri Pacific Railway’s exhibit’s display at the United States Land and Irrigation Exhibition in Chicago.
During the early 1920s Niloak was marketed as one of the “wonders” of Arkansas and was frequently on display at regional and state fairs.

In 1931, impacted by the Depression, the company looked for ways to boost lagging sales. Hywood Art Pottery was introduced in 1931, launching the start of traditional glazed wares at the Eagle Pottery Company. According to Gifford’s book, Lewis, a ceramic engineering graduate, introduced glazes that utilized mottling, air brush, and drip techniques.
Lewis left Niloak and Arkansas in late 1934 and moved to North Dakota to work for competitor Dickota Pottery and start its artware production line known as Badlands Pottery. Dickota produced the pottery until 1937, according to Gifford. Many pieces of Dickotas' artware is said to resemble Niloak’s swirl mission ware as well as some of the castware produced by Lewis while working at Niloak.

Kathy McGilvrey recalls her father giving demonstrations on the pottery wheel. “I remember going down to the studio and trying to make things for ourselves. In fact, when I was 13 or 14 years old I won a prize for a head I modeled of George Washington," she recalls.

Today pieces of Niloak are scattered around the country. Some are on display in museums and others in private collections. While the Arkansas, factory closed in 1947, interest among collectors continues. The next time you see some unusual swirled colorful pottery, it might just be an example of Eagle Pottery Company’s Niloak.