If you enter the lobby of the Tenants Harbor post office to mail a letter, you will see three porcelain plaques with distinctive blue lettering letting you know when the last mail pick-up is, where Netflix goes and where all other mail can be deposited. Inside, there is a nameplate with the postmaster’s name on it, also porcelain with the same blue lettering. Indeed, there are porcelain spoon holders, mugs, and serving bowls in homes all over the St. George peninsula with stylized lupines, birds of peace and spruce landscapes in a similar style. Sadly, the supply of these cheerful pieces will soon dry up because their makers, potters Trish and Steve Barnes, have decided, 30 years into operating Noble Clay, that it is time to shut their Martinsville showroom/studio door and retire.
“It’s been a bittersweet decision,” says Trish. “We’ve had the most wonderful customers, loyal and true, many of whom have become friends. But we want to spend more time with our kids and grand kids.” And just maybe, she adds with a rueful smile, “have the chance to have a real Maine summer.”
The path that led the couple to bring Noble Clay to Maine in 1990 began in Swarthmore, Penn., after the two reconnected with each other at a birthday gathering. Steve had recently decided to leave his post teaching biology at the University of Delaware—”University politics drove me crazy,” he says—and had taken an adult education class in pottery, which he enjoyed. Trish had already been working in clay, creating sculptural pieces. When they decided to marry they made a plan to set up in business.
Trish brought two sons into the marriage, so making a success of the enterprise was essential. “Steve got real good at making pottery real fast.”
“And Trish taught me all I needed to know,” Steve quickly adds.
The couple started out making red earthenware pieces, but encountered too many technical problems. “Then we went to white clay, to stoneware and finally to porcelain,” Trish recalls. “Porcelain was by far the most wonderful clay to work with. It has it’s technical challenges, but over the years it has cooperated well with us.”
In December 1983, at a holiday craft show, they debuted Noble Clay and what became their signature style, now so well known in St. George. “We named ourselves Noble Clay because Steve’s middle name is Noble and Patricia means ‘of noble birth,’” Trish explains.
Right from the beginning they applied lettering to their plates, something that proved not only attractive but very popular for custom designs commemorating special occasions such as weddings or the birth of a child or grandchild. “We were influenced by the work of Pennsylvanian German potters—I loved the lettering they used,” Trish says. Having done calligraphy since high school, she found the idea of applying lettering to clay especially appealing.
The decision to move to Maine came in 1989, once their sons were finished with high school. Steve’s family were longtime summer residents at Howard’s Head, so the couple knew where they wanted to be. The house and barn in Martinsville seemed ideal. After renovations, the barn became their studio, with a narrow showroom on the first floor.
Noble Clay will close its doors September 30. Blue Tulip will carry any remaining Noble Clay pieces for as long as they last after that. “It’s been a great run, “ Trish says. “Thirty years is a long time.”—JW