by Jane Lenel
Babette Basch, who is 81, says she “goes to pot” when she goes to work. Not a fortuitous condition for any job, it would seem. But not so with Babette. Just step into her apartment, and you’ll be struck by an array of her accomplishments. Bowls, cups, platters and other ceramic objects fill every available space – a mere token of all she has sculpted over the years, and continues in retirement at Cathedral Village, a retirement community in upper Roxborough. Going to pot her “pots,” as she calls all her works of art, is what she does with abundance, expertise and continuing commitment.
These pots don’t resemble those we boil our spinach in, and they clearly aren’t of the Walmart dinnerware variety. They are beautifully designed ceramics with brilliant or subtly muted colors and varied textures, shapes and contours. This is potting artistry that has involved years of study and experience — a far cry from a mere arts-and-crafts hobby.
But potting isn’t the extent of Basch’s art. Her apartment also abounds with her paintings — broad swaths of patterned color on the walls overlooking her pottery.
In talking about working with ceramics, Babette explains the importance of knowing the whims and workings of kilns. “They are very complicated and are not consistent,” she says, and they determine the outcome of one’s work. There are almost an infinite number and variety. For example, some are fired by wood, others by gas or electricity; some are commercially built and others made by hand, and the heat, air and timing vary. Firing clay and porcelain also differ, and the glaze one uses requires special treatment.
“So you have to get to know the kiln you’re working with,” she emphasizes,” but you never know. I always pray to the kiln gods when I fire.”
Despite all the complexities and uncertainties, “I’m addicted,” and evidently has been since the third grade when she sculpted a nude model and gave it to her teacher — to be rewarded by the teacher’s putting it in a desk drawer never to be seen again. Actually, her affair started before that in second grade at Oak Lane School, she says, when she heard a talk by the internationally noted sculptor Boris Blai, head of the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art. Her mother was undoubtedly right when she said Babette was born with clay in her hands.
She grew up on a 47-acre farm in Huntington Valley and moved with her family to Wynnwood and Bala Cynwyd and several other places in the area. She has two daughters, Babette Strousse, an industrial designer living in Hong Kong, and Jean Anne London, a dietician living in Texas. She was married and divorced twice.
Following her early school years, Babette’s interest continued. When she was about 12, she attended classes in a summer program at Tyler, then studied there with potter Rudi Staffel, graduating in 1950. After graduation, she studied painting for 16 years with Staffel’s wife, Doris Staffel, and from 1951 to 1980 attended over 30 workshops in painting and pottery, including work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Maurice Blackburn.
Babette Basch’s work (her potting name is B.L. Basch) has been accepted in numerous juried shows, and has been exhibited and sold at Woodmere Art Museum and Water Tower Recreational Center in Chestnut Hill, the Clay Studio in Center City, Community Arts Center in Wallingford, Main Line Art Center in Haverford and in Cathedral Village, where she had a recent exhibit. Her work can now be seen at Joel Roberts’ gallery on Mechanic Street in New Hope. However, despite all these exhibits, she says, “I’m not a person who does shows, and I don’t do the internet. I’m not in it for the money.”
As if the all-consuming arts of potting and painting weren’t enough, she had a career as an art therapist, first studying at Temple University and becoming certified, then working at Jefferson Hospital for many years until her retirement. She also taught at the Abington Art Center (then located in Erdenheim) and at the Germantown Women’s Y, and helped start an after-school program at Rydal School when art had been cut out of the school program, as well as starting other programs in the township and volunteering help for disabled children.
Now, at 81, she paints at Cathedral Village. But she is looking for a place to do her pottery, since Tyler, where she used to work, has moved to the city, and Montgomery County Community College (MONTCO) is no longer a safe place for her. However, she has no intention of ceasing to fire.
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