Overbeck Museum

Enchanted by some Overbeck pottery I had seen in various exhibitions and art museums over the last couple years, I looked for a more substantial collection. And I discovered that a museum dedicated to their work exists in the small town of Cambridge City, Indiana—where the sisters had lived.

The museum is housed in the public library, behind a locked door. I expected to peruse the small collection on my own. Instead, I discovered that a librarian had to be present while I was in the collection. Thanks to my impromptu questions, I kind of got an informal “guided tour” of the collection and the Overbeck sisters from the attending librarian. She was a native of the area and had plenty of personal and familial stories to add.

The collection includes a range of mediums—vases, plates, figurines, grotesques (monster figurines), paintings, sketches of designs that they used in the pottery, and molds for the figurines. The items in the collection are either gifts or items on loan. Cards beside each item list who gifted or loaned the item—many items are on loan from the Richmond Art Museum, which is undergoing renovation.

At the entrance to the room is a large wooden ship with ceramic figurines—the Don Quixote. Mary Francis created this ship as a toy for children visiting the library. Over the years, the ship became a little worse for wear and was placed under a glass case—and out of the hands of children.

In 1972, Kathleen and Arthur Postle bequeathed their Overbeck collection to the public library. In 1978, the museum was formally established and in 2000, moved with the library to a new building (its current site).

The collection is displayed in wooden cases made by a local maker specifically for the collection. When the new library building was being constructed, they built the museum room with the display cases in mind.

The Overbecks—originally Overpeck—came from Germany before the American Revolution, bringing with them education and artistic skills. The emphasis on education and art continued through the generations. The six Overbeck daughters were not encouraged to marry but rather devote their lives to their arts. (One sister married. The sole son married and his descendents are the only surviving Overbeck offspring.)

The Overbeck sisters studied at many different institutions and were quite recognized for their skills. Four were potters, one was a musician and linguist, and the married sister was a photographer.

In 1911, the four potters opened a pottery business, which continued until the last sister passed away in 1955. Harriet, the musician, helped with the upkeep of the household. (Apparently, she was a bit embittered about how life turned out for her. She was unable to make full use of her musical talents in small Cambridge City, and she felt that she hadn’t received the Overbeck “heritage” of being able to work creatively with her hands.)

As the sisters died off, it seemed to me that the move from pottery to figurines and paintings began. I love their pottery (the figurines and paintings not so much). Some of the pottery has a modern air about it. The sisters sketched out designs that they use on their pottery—not all have designs. In some cases, the designs were painted on the pottery. In other cases, the designs were carved into the pottery).

The sisters used a special glaze, whose recipe is lost with time. (Though rumors exist that maybe the descendents of the brother know the recipe.) I thought of Gustave Baumann‘s specially made pigments, whose recipes no longer exist. In both cases, their loss preserves the value of the original works.

The collection also includes an original auction notice. On June 26, 1965, all Overbeck property—pottery, paintings, furniture, and collectibles—was auctioned off. I stared at that notice, stunned by the implementation that what has become valued art over the decades was sold off during an estate sale. And I wondered how much art the Overbeck sisters generated. (Wouldn’t that be great if they keep an inventory of their pieces?)

If you go, be sure to look for the six tiles of children playing (one in the front window case and five in the back case). These approximately 8-inch diameter tiles were originally part of the walls in a 1st grade room in a Cambridge City elementary school.

The librarian who accompanied me into the room remembered lining up along that wall; the children would run their hands across the tiles as they walked by them, little realizing their value or that they would appear in a museum decades later celebrating the artwork of the Overbeck sisters.

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