Arts and Culture

Tom Edwards on Wallyware, the unofficial O.J. trial pottery, and a year of free ice cream

Ever since I could speak, I've always been proud to tell people about my dad's job. He makes pottery for a living, running a business out of a converted garage studio connected to my parents' Evergreen home. From here he throws, decorates, fires in a kiln, and ships out his handmade plates, bowls and mugs to art galleries around the country. Though he started out creating fine art pottery with colorful glazes, my dad really built his business around Wallyware, pottery decorated with one-panel comic strips that range from political humor to pop culture references, many centered on a fictional dog named Wally.

In honor of Father's Day and the guy who taught me that you really can make a living doing what you love (in addition to teaching me how to walk), I interviewed my dad, Tom Edwards, about his pottery business, how he came to be the official potter for the O.J. Simpson trial, and the time his art won our family a year's supply of ice cream.

See also: Artist and writer: An interview with my brother, painter Evan Kutz

Westword: How did you first get interested in pottery?

Tom Edwards: I was in high school and the counselor who helps you pick your classes kept going through all the electives and I didn't like any of them. Auto shop? No. Painting? No. And so basically they got to pottery and I decided to try it. I really liked it a lot because I'm artistic but I'm not very good at drawing, so I really just fell in love with it the first week of school and I've been doing it ever since.

Did you ever have any career aspirations other than being an artist?

You know, I think the short answer to that is no. I remember thinking, "What am I gonna do after I graduate from college?" And it was always kind of these things that didn't seem like me. In all honesty, I started making pots for a living right after college simply because I didn't really know what else I wanted to do and that was the one thing that I really loved doing. Maybe when I was a little kid I thought I was gonna be an astronaut, but nothing realistic. In high school and college I thought maybe I could go into science or engineering because I got good grades in those classes, but I really didn't love them. The only thing I ever really loved as far as a career was pottery. And since I started making it for a living, I haven't thought about leaving it. I really like it that much.

You studied art history in college rather than studio art. How do you think that informs your work?

I started out as a ceramics major, and when you're a freshman in college you're not usually the smartest person in the world, and I sort of thought that I couldn't get a degree in pottery because that's like playing all day, so I'll get a real degree in art history. But then my senior year I looked at these professors who were really dedicated to what they do and I don't have that. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to get a Ph.D. in art history. So then I went back and thought it would be so amazing to make pottery for a living, so my senior year I went back and took upper-division classes in ceramics. I think the real value in not getting a degree in pottery was that all those ceramics majors that I was talking to, asking if they were going to go out and start their own businesses, and they were all intimidated by that idea.

I think if you spend four years studying ceramics, you look around and look at all this great art and think you're not good enough. It's kind of like a Wayne's World "I'm not worthy." It basically beats up your self-esteem about your work, and after four years of studying something that you're not as good at as the great people, you go off and do something else. But I was fortunate enough to have not gone that route and I was still really excited about making a living in pottery even though my pots weren't that great when I was in college. But you really can just go out and do it. And it's a really satisfying life. I'm really fortunate to be creative and make a living at it. It's really something.

Your earlier work didn't include any words or imagery, but most of what you make now features one-panel comic strips featuring a character named Wally the dog that you draw on the pottery. What made you transition into drawing on the pots?

Most pottery doesn't have imagery on it; it has pretty glazes. So in 1970, that was what most people did. I think a lot of potters, when you take classes in art school, you look at Japanese pottery and you just love the temokus, celadons and copper reds. So that was the kind of work that I was doing after college. But the imagery thing came about one day as a joke. I worked in a pottery studio called Santa Barbara Ceramic Design, where the other artists there decorated these beautiful floral designs on pottery. One day as a joke I drew the Wally cartoon, kind of just as a dumb version of what they were doing. But then when I took the pots that I drew as a joke to the craft fair, they actually sold really well. People were looking at them and I was getting a lot of laughs, and then I got an order for a full dinnerware set of Wallyware from a couple. It was a $1,000 order, and it was bigger than any order I'd ever had. It blew me away, because I had never taken that big of an order from one customer, so that pretty much got me into doing it.

Plus, there's a real magic to drawing cartoons. I got back into a second childhood kind of thing drawing these images, and it was really fun even though I admit my style of drawing isn't nearly as good as a really good cartoonist. It was a lot of fun to do these clumsy, stupid drawings with funny jokes and that sort of took off on its own, not unlike when I started making pottery. I fell in love with goofy cartoons. And now whenever I make a pot, almost everything I make has images on it and I like that aspect of my work. They're not just pots, they have stories and ideas. Keep reading for more from Tom Edwards.

How would you describe Wally to someone who doesn't understand or who's never heard of you?

That's always hard, because Wally sort of started as this nebulous joke. I always intended for it to have this weird mystery to it. What's Wally, who is he? I would describe Wally as simply this dog that has adventures and he can be anywhere or do anything. He's a little character that basically hangs out with people and has adventures and there's always a joke. A good Wally cartoon is always one that's like a little movie in a one-panel cartoon. I always try to have the picture be the high part of the movie. It's meant to be perfectly cryptic or unusual. I've had people at craft fairs walk up to me and say, "Do your kids draw this stuff?" And I have to tell them, "No, I draw it, it's my work, it just looks like a kid drew it." [Laughs.]

Demi Moore wore a Wally pin in The Seventh Sign, right?

Wally really did have a part in that movie. She had a Wally pin on her raincoat, and there's this scene where she's being chased through a church and there's all these nice closeups of her and Wally. This was before Ghost, when Demi Moore became the patron saint of potters because of that scene in the movie, so I always felt like I've had a connection to her.

What are some of your favorite adventures that Wally has had over the years?

The ones that I like a lot are the ones that are incredibly transient and only work for a short period of time. I did one a long time ago when Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland were slated to get married and then they called it off. So I made this wedding plate that just had Wally in a tuxedo raising a glass and it said, "Happy Wedding Julia and Kiefer, love Wally" and then I painted on a sale sticker that said "Sale: Half off." And we only sold those for a very short period, but what I love about the design is more than one gallery had someone come in who was a friend of Julia Roberts and they actually gave Julia Roberts that plate. Those are the ones that I really like, because they're so weird. A hundred years from now, people won't even know what it's about. You'll have to look it up on the Internet to figure out what the joke is.

It's interesting to think about people looking back at your pots and not remembering what the joke was even about anymore. When you cut a comic panel out of the newspaper, it yellows and fades and doesn't really have a function beyond the joke, but a pot is a tangible object you can drink coffee out of forever.

They're kind of stuck with them, aren't they? You can throw that comic off your refrigerator but that plate, man, you've got it for life or you send it to the thrift store. An e-mail I got just today was from a guy who had never seen my work and he was in a thrift store in Hastings, Ohio, and he found "Wally goes to a punk rock nightclub," which is one that I haven't done in over twenty years, one of my very first designs. And he found this mug, thought it was hilarious, and then he looked it up on Google and was really thrilled to find my website and so he sent me this really long e-mail talking about how he'd never seen my work and found this mug. I love that. I love that people still wonder, "What the hell is this?" And then it compels them to write me an e-mail. He didn't buy anything, he just wrote me an e-mail. But it made my day.

Something that strikes me about your work is how different it is than other pieces in fine art galleries. They have, like, centerpiece pottery that's way too expensive to eat off of while yours is very different -- you can put it in the dishwasher or the microwave and it's not super-expensive. Was it a conscious decision to make your pottery more functional? No, I don't think I ever psyched it out that much. I always just liked the fact that instead of some really fancy vase that you look at and put on a pedestal, I like the idea of my stuff traveling around and being used. I just would prefer to have my work of art be on something you drink coffee out of. I am sort of like the class clown in the fine craft gallery. You go to these galleries and it's these beautiful pieces of blown glass, this really nice stuff, and then in the corner there's just the goofy stuff and I'm always really humbled by them. I like the idea that instead of the $500 vase people can get a couple of $30 mugs. It's more affordable but still very precious. Just this weekend your mom and I were visiting old friends and this one friend of ours said, "I drank coffee out of this mug every day for the last thirtyyears. That's all I drank coffee out of." I was really touched that one mug meant a lot to this guy. It's a nice feeling. Keep reading for more from Tom Edwards.

One of the stories I vaguely remember hearing as a child that I wanted to ask you about was the pottery you did for the O.J. Simpson trial. What's the story behind that?

During the O.J. Simpson trial I did a whole bunch of jokes about it, and one of the best ones was "Wally bakes Geraldo Rivera into a cake and gives it to O.J. Simpson." So it's basically got this cake with an arm and a microphone sticking out and Geraldo's eyes peeking out from the icing and it's Geraldo interviewing O.J. in jail. Geraldo Rivera actually held that mug up on his show and then it also got sold to the prosecution team. Gil Garcetti was the district attorney of Los Angeles, and his wife saw my work in a gallery and she bought a bunch of pots, like twenty or thirty pieces, to give to all the people on the prosecution team. And then I came up with more jokes, so I shipped out this big order of the pots and it was really exciting to think that Marcia Clark and all the people on the prosecution team would be drinking coffee in the morning out of one of my mugs before going in to try to put O.J. in jail. Unfortunately at the time they said I was sworn to secrecy and I couldn't go to the media about it, but I still have a signed letter from Gil Garcetti thanking me for these pots. So I was the official potter of the O.J. Simpson trial.

So wait, are you allowed to talk about it now?

Oh, sure. You've got the exclusive, kid. Run with it.

The other story I wanted you to tell was when you won the year's supply of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

There was a contest for ice cream bowls juried by Ben Cohen, the guy from Ben & Jerry's, so I made this art ice cream bowl. The prize if you won the contest was a year's supply of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, so I sent off the bowls and I never heard from them so I figured I didn't win. But then I called the gallery about a week after the opening and sure enough, mine had won first prize. I thought a year's supply of ice cream would be a lot more, but they ended up sending me coupons for 52 pints of ice cream -- and as you remember, we ate them real quickly. We probably went through 52 pints of ice cream in about three or four months and we lived like kings. It was awesome.

I remember trying every flavor. We tried peanut butter and jelly. All the weird ones. There was a weird caramel popcorn crunch one. It was fun. You'd have friends over and we could just gorge on Ben & Jerry's. Those were the days. I think the funny thing about that was that I won a national contest, I won first prize, and the value of that was about $150.

I thought they would bring a truck to our house or something.

That was our fantasy, wasn't it? We got carried away. I thought maybe we'd go to the store and they'd just let us take as much as we wanted. [Laughs.] Or they'd park a freezer truck in our driveway.

It was still really magical.

It was. I've given talks in schools and told kids about it while I'm talking about making a living as an artist. If you want to make a lot of money, being an artist is not the fast track to fame and fortune, but it is the slow track to ice cream.

For more information on my dad and to check out his work, visit the Wallyware website.

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Robin Edwards
Contact: Robin Edwards