California Terra Cotta Factory

All fired up over terra-cotta

terra cotta angel at Gladding, McBean in Lincoln, Calif.

A clay angel takes shape at Gladding, McBean in Lincoln, California.

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Who knew that terra-cotta—"baked earth" in Italian—could draw an adoring crowd? Yet for one month every spring, rapt admirers circulate among pyramids of orange pipe and stacks of hefty building ornaments at Gladding, McBean, a 60-acre clay products factory outside Sacramento in Lincoln, Calif. The visitors eventually pass inside, onto wood floors thick with milky dust, to watch artisans sculpt damp clay into massive medallions, garlands, cherubs, gargoyles, and lions' heads.

"There's great satisfaction in doing a piece that's going to go on a building and last hundreds of years," says sculptor Jean Cross. The 134-year-old company—the nation's oldest maker of architectural terra-cotta—remains a shrine to an important branch of design in the West. During the annual event, called Feats of Clay, docents lead 90-minute tours that include, among other things, a peek at the frozen-in-time office of Ernest Kadel, a principal sculptor who died unexpectedly in 1959.

Also on view are some 80 contemporary sculptures—from vases and teapots to abstract and fantastical creations—chosen in an international juried competition. Many of the works are presented in a 30-foot-tall beehive kiln the shape of a cupcake. Tours run April 28 through May 31, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and cost $12. For reservations and more information, contact the Lincoln Arts and Culture Foundation: (916) 645-9713, www.lincolnarts.org.

Photography by Gene Kennedy

This article was first published in May 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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