“I enjoy working with stoneware because it tends to be tougher, not like porcelain, which is fragile,” explains Toby Rosenberg, a potter based out of Portland. “I love the toothiness and grit. There’s a certain strength to it.” Rosenberg could easily be describing herself.
Rosenberg loves clay. She can tell you everything about it—its chemical structure, its colorations and its varying textures. What she molds, carves and fires in the kiln begins as soft clay, but it is a symbol of her artistic fervor and the paths it has taken since 1975, when she moved to Maine from New Haven, Conn., and made a business out of stoneware pottery. “Clay and earth are so primordial,” Rosenberg says. “That’s where it starts. The material speaks to me and informs what I do.”
Rosenberg graduated from the University of Southern Connecticut with a degree in education, but it was pottery that she pursued. She was always inspired by other women potters because “they tend to work until they’re dead,” she says.
She has also been driven by her own Judaic traditions. She creates pieces used in a variety of Jewish rituals. Goblets for bar mitzvahs “become part of people’s families,” she says. “Some of the kids who got goblets are adults now. They use them in their weddings. I become part of people’s families.” She has a longstanding customer base, some who have bought her stoneware for years, even generations. This familial intimacy illuminates her work.
“When I came to Portland, there were a lot of women who lived singly in apartments downtown. It was a safe place for them to live,” says Rosenberg. One of these women changed her life. Rosenberg was selling her pottery at a craft fair in Portland’s Monument Square when “this octogenarian woman comes up and starts tugging at one of the linen pieces…and I said ‘can I help you?’ And she says, ‘I think I made that!’”
It was an uncanny discovery: the woman had grown up sewing cut linen with her mother on Deering Street, where Rosenberg then lived, directly across from the woman’s childhood home. Rosenberg explains what made the phenomenon possible: “Things like [linen] got stuffed in drawers, found, and then donated.” Indeed, the woman had moved the week before, and her granddaughter had packed up and donated the long-lost piece to Salvation Army, where Rosenberg found it.
Rosenberg instantly gained a rich sense of history: all those women sewing meticulously after long days tending house and children. “As a feminist, I really wanted to honor that,” she says. “The handiwork of women that so often doesn’t get honored.”
She has been using cut linen patterns ever since, creating fruit and oral motifs in gorgeous purples and dazzling golds. Whether sipping their morning coffee from a Rosenberg mug or passing down a custom Rosenberg goblet at a granddaughter’s wedding, these are the designs that generations of customers have come to treasure and will treasure for generations to come.