It’s a style that has been around since the 1930s, and there was a time when the hand painted Blue Ridge style dishware could be bought in dime stores and were among the cheapest dishes available.
Today, there are only a handful of people who can reproduce this style of china, and even fewer can say they were the original artists of the dishware.
Marie Garland Branham can claim both. She is still making full dish sets and selling them at her daughter’s antique store in Cave Spring.
The historic art form is being kept alive by the 94-year-old who worked for Southern Potteries, the producer of the Blue Ridge china in Erwin, Tennessee in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Branham, who still lives in Tennessee, will soon be moving to Cave Spring to make her work more available to locals.
Christa’s Antiques is the closest place to find Marie’s handiwork although according to her daughter Christa Grant, it can also be found in shops throughout Northwest Georgia and parts of Tennessee. She said she has uncovered her mother’s work in several antique shops, which often gets mistaken for original Blue Ridge pottery that was made in the 1930’s-50.
“That’s almost redundant because she is an original artist,” Grant said laughing.
The only difference between the work her mother does now and what was produced when she worked for Southern Potteries is the fact that original Blue Ridge was made with an assembly line. Each painter had one part of the design to complete, one doing the stems, petals, trim, etc.
What Marie does now is all solo work including free handing her designs on the pieces, creating original designs, as well as firing the pieces in the kiln several times until completion. Her signature can also be found on or below leaves on her china. Marie also uses some replica Blue Ridge molds for her china as well as some modified ones, another noticeable difference.
The Southern Potteries factory was originally opened in the early 1920s, but at the time used decals on all of their china pieces. According to Marie, the pieces were only made with stencils or decals because the people producing them couldn’t paint. Later in 1930s the factory introduced the iconic Blue Ridge style that Marie would later paint.
Grant said her mother moved to Erwin, Tennessee when she was 18-years-old to live with her older sister. Her sister, who was already employed at Southern Potteries as a painter, got Marie an interview for a painting position as well. She was hired on the spot due to her exceptional painting skills and joined the assembly line.
The Blue Ridge method consisted of free handed brush work on the unglazed bisque — the unfinished china. The designs painted by the workers were dictated by customer orders, creating a wide variety of artwork done by the artists. Marie recalled that her least favorite experience came with an order of Christmas china that required her and her group to paint poinsettias around the edges of dishes and other various china sets. Grant said that her mother hated painting all of the poinsettias, which in her opinion didn’t even look real. She said her mother never wants to paint another poinsettia again.
Grant said Marie worked for Southern Potteries until she met her husband and they moved to Virginia. At the time they moved, WWII was beginning and the two found jobs at a shipyard. Marie found work copying blueprints of ships by hand while her husband worked as a welder. After the war, she got a job teaching others to paint at a job rehab center. Grant said that her mother also participated in some antique shows later in the 90s.
Since then, she painted off and on as a hobby until her daughter had her paint some glass pieces when Marie visited her in Cave Spring. After creating a few pieces and returning home to her supplies, Marie started creating new china and sending her work to her daughter’s store through visiting family members. She has sent Christa’s Antiques dishware, pitchers, cookie jars, bowls, cups saucers, and even a children’s tea set all which are safe to use with food and drink.
But Marie doesn’t plan on sending her china down through family members forever. Come September she’ll be relocating to Cave Spring to live in a small apartment in the back of Christa’s Antiques. There she will have her own living space and workshop where she will be able to make china for the store.
“I’m very proud of her and what she has accomplished” Grant said.
Christa’s Antiques sells both original Blue Ridge work as well as Marie’s work. The collection takes up several shelves and fills at least three china cabinets. All of the china is for sale and because of its legacy and Marie’s touch, each one is a little piece of history.