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A photo of pewter dinnerware made by Willa Hollingsworth

Traditional Arts in Ohio: Embodied Learning and Pewtersmithing

Willa Hollingsworth in her workshop starting to spin a pewter revere bowl top. Photo courtesy of Willa Hollingsworth.When you look at a piece of pewterware by Willa Hollingsworth, dancing may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But for Ms. Hollingsworth, a former dancer, becoming a pewterer started with absorbing the “steps” that it took to spin a disk of pewter into a plate, a bowl, or a chalice. Controlled body force, she explained, is the foundation of her work, and she was only able to learn it through years of apprenticeship and practice. 

 Hollingsworth apprenticed under the tutelage of David “Three Feathers” Jones. Both military veterans, the two have been a couple and have worked together since 1997 at Three Feathers Pewter in Millersburg, Ohio, which Mr. Jones founded and Ms. Hollingsworth now owns and operates.

 Hollingsworth has followed the traditional course of pewter mastery—years of apprenticing to become a master journeyman, which requires extensive one-on-one learning and individual practice to master the techniques and aesthetics of a craft. But in many ways, Ms. Hollingsworth is also a trailblazer. Among the remaining pewterers in the U.S., very few are women, and for many years Ms. Hollingsworth was the only woman of color business owner in Holmes County. 

A New Year’s display at Three Feathers Pewter showcasing a table setting of pewter dishware and serving accessories. Photo courtesy of Willa Hollingsworth.Ms. Hollingsworth found that the physical techniques of
 pewterering required some adaptation for her body. She made herself a sheepskin vest to protect her upper body from the shaping tool used when spinning pewter. As a general rule, she pays close attention to how crafting particular pieces affects her body—for example, after experiencing unusually intense pain while making one object in large quantities, she now avoids making many identical pieces in one sitting. 

Luckily, there is much variety in her work. At Three Feathers Pewter, visitors encounter an array of historically inspired and contemporary pewter goods, from ornaments, to jewelry, to dinnerware. Stepping inside the shop, the first display visitors see is a stand full of small shiny figurines. Ms. Hollingsworth explained that customers start there because that’s where
 she and Mr. Jones started: carving tiny animals and fantastical creatures, creating molds out of vulcanized rubber, and casting the figurines in melted pewter. Continuing into the store, visitors see a display of buttons, which are sought after by historical reenactors, Scottish Highland dancers, and stitchers interested in handcrafted notions.

I asked Ms. Hollingsworth if Three Feathers Pewter did a lot of online business, and she said that people who seek their pieces tend to visit in person to see and handle the items themselves. Among all of Ms. Hollingsworth’s pieces, the most impressive are the neatly spun bowls, plates, and chalices; their simple forms belie the great skill it takes to craft them by hand.

Visiting Three Feathers Pewter is an educational experience. Other than the use of electricity, it runs just like an early American colonial pewter workshop. Ms. Hollingsworth always has samples of raw copper, tin, and antimony on hand—which, when melted together, make pewterto show visitors.

A damaged pewter plate used by Willa Hollingsworth as a teaching tool. Pewter dishes can’t be exposed to high heat due to pewter’s relatively low melting point. Photo courtesy of Willa Hollingsworth.Hanging at the entrance to the work area is a pewter plate with what appears to be a flower burned out of it. It’s an example of what happens if you try to warm up food in a pewter dish on a stove—pewter has a relatively low melting point, which makes it good to work with, but impossible to cook with. Ms. Hollingsworth acquired the plate from a patron who brought it into the store one day; she offered to replace it for free if she could keep it to use as a teaching tool to warn patrons about exposing their pewter to high heat.

There are also objects of education and memory in the workshop itself, meant just for Ms.
 Hollingsworth. A sharp, crescent-shaped piece of pewter hangs in view of the spinner to remind her to always wear protective eye gear while working; the same piece flew off a plate Mr. Jones was working on years ago, just missing his face and lodging itself in the wall next to him.  Ms. Hollingsworth remarked, “as with many traditional early American crafts, pewtersmithing has an element of danger to it.” 

One wall of their workshop is lined with old pewter pieces that Ms. Hollingsworth and Mr. Jones have picked up in antique and thrift stores. The pieces were made by pewter artisans who are no longer with us, but whose craftsmanship can still teach traditional aesthetics and methods to artists like Ms. Hollingsworth. Such skill-heavy pieces are not always in high demand; Ms. Hollingsworth finds that she must strike a balance between creating objects in response to patrons’ interests and keeping up her skills in crafting the finer pieces she has worked so hard to master. Even if people are not lining up to buy tableware, she said, she still has to practice making those pieces.

Conversely, one of their most popular items is made out of simple scraps—Mr. Jones once decided to twist some strips of extra pewter into icicle ornaments for Christmas trees, which sold out immediately the first time he brought them to an art fair. The person who bought them said they remembered similar pieces from their childhood in a German immigrant family.

Pewter icicle ornaments from Three Feathers Pewter. Photo courtesy of Willa Hollingsworth.Ms. Hollingsworth is a singular artist in a tradition with few practitioners, but she is also a central member of the downtown Millersburg’s business community in Holmes County. She created the Shop Downtown Millersburg website and Facebook page to help promote Millersburg’s many small businesses, which include galleries, clothing stores, restaurants, and a historic hotel. In her own shop, Ms. Hollingsworth sets aside space for Ohio artists to show their work, and she periodically invites area musicians to play during special events.

Like many rural places, Millersburg has experienced out-migration, especially from young people, but it also has many dedicated individuals like Ms. Hollingsworth who are working to create a sense of place that makes people want to stay—for a weekend or for a lifetime. As a longtime small business owner, Ms. Hollingsworth is dedicated to sharing her expertise with local up-and-coming artists and entrepreneurs, who she knows will help her community thrive.

The years of embodied practice required to become a master
 pewterer means that passing on her tradition will continue to be a challenge. But when the right apprentice comes along, Ms. Hollingsworth is ready to begin that journey with them. She will share those “steps” that she has learned and that she continues to practice, so that one day this craft can live on in another artist’s hands, body, and heart. 

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on 
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Article by Cristina Benedetti, Ohio Arts Council Folk and Traditional Arts Contractor
Featured photo: Pewter dinnerware made by Willa Hollingsworth. Photo courtesy of Willa Hollingsworth

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