Renown for his decorative art, especially for his fine hand-painted ceramic wall hangings, NC State University alumnus Harris G. Strong (ChE ’47) has spent his life “doing what he wanted to do.” From owning his own bicycle repair shop at age 14 to running a highly successful pottery business throughout his adult life, Strong forged his own path with his artistic and engineering talents.
Born in Waukesha, Wis., Strong, 86, grew up wanting to be an artist. His aunt, Henrietta (Brownie) Strong, was his mentor. She owned a successful greeting card business and had so much faith in Strong she offered to pay for his college education when his father would not.
“She paid the tuition, and she gave me a weekly allowance,” Strong said. “That was a tremendous help to me. She was a great help all my life.”
Strong's company was renown for decorative art, including decorative tile plaques.
But when it came time to go to college, Strong struggled with the practicality of leading an artist’s life. “The only thing worse than an unemployed artist,” Strong quipped, “is an unemployed poet, which was my second choice.”
A solution soon presented itself when Strong had the opportunity to see some design work of his aunt’s friend, Simon Lissim, a well-known artist. Strong said, “He had designed some pieces for Lenox pottery, and I saw them and was very impressed. I thought, ‘Gee, studying ceramics may be a way of backing into the art field.’”
Strong came to NC State in 1939 to study ceramic engineering and soon changed his major to chemical engineering because he wanted to study the chemistry of glazes. While he was at NC State, he was a columnist and an associate editor for the Wataugan, a literary magazine published by students. He wrote stories and poems, many of which were rich with double entendre. “Some of them were a little raunchy, I think,” Strong chuckled.
As with many men of his era, he interrupted his college education to join the military during World War II. “I left college in my junior year to go into the army because I felt very strongly about that war. It was the only war I ever felt strongly about.”
During the war Strong worked in signal intelligence directly for General Douglas MacArthur in the South Pacific. After the war and upon finishing his degree at NC State, Strong took ceramic art courses at New York University. Strong said, “I had good technical information; I had good ideas, but I needed that art, and I had a great professor there, Ruth Canfield.”
Although Strong soon took a job as an engineer at Kelby Pottery in Brooklyn, he aspired to be on his own. Robert Krasner, chief designer at Kelby, and Strong formed a company on Wall Street in a fourth floor walkup. “It was after the war, and we were lucky to find anything,” Strong explained. “Robert did a great deal of the designing; I did some. I developed the glazes, [clay] bodies and techniques. I was particularly good at glaze chemistry.” Their company, the Potters of Wall Street, quickly outgrew its space, so the partners moved to a much larger space in Brooklyn and hired more employees. They did quite well, but the business had to be sold when Krasner chose to start an envelope business.
After Potters of Wall Street closed, Strong worked for a time at American Art Industries doing design, art work, chemistry and merchandising, but Strong soon felt the pull to be on his own again.
One day his wife saw an ad for a pottery for sale in the Bronx. “It was a weird building in the back of a German sausage-making store,” Strong recalled. “Every time they smoked sausages, the whole place filled with smoke.” He operated his pottery, Harris G. Strong, Inc., from that building for a while but eventually moved a couple of blocks away. Strong’s decorative pieces sold well, and the company grew to 39 employees. In 1961 Strong with Donald Deskey received the International Design Award from the American Institute of Decorators for a 30-foot-long, free-standing ceramic wall in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.
In 1970 Strong moved his business to Trenton, Maine. There the working space expanded to 37,000 square feet, employees grew to 47 and their product line included printmaking, engravings, paintings, photography and woodcuts.
“I got into every phase of manufacturing,” Strong said. “I had scientific knowledge and an approach that allowed me to do things no one else could do. My ceramic tiles and plaques were successful because many others in the business were making pie plates. We developed new techniques and textures. I even devised a method of packaging for shipping that was fantastic. We had less than one-tenth of one percent breakage. I engineered every process.”
Demand for his decorative art kept growing. At its height his business had showrooms in New York, Chicago, High Point and Tokyo, as well as distribution centers in Canada and the Caribbean and representation in the Middle East. Strong traveled a great deal and some of the moldings he designed were manufactured in Belgium, Holland and Germany.
Strong gives much credit to his employees. “We had a number of good artists, mat cutters and frame makers. One of my former employees came to see me about a year ago. He is an artist and a very good one. He said, ‘This was the best job I ever had because you never sat on anybody. You were open to every suggestion. You don’t usually get that in a job.’” Reflecting on those comments, Strong said, “I gave so much latitude to the other artists because I respected them. We were a close-knit group.”
About five years ago Strong closed the business in Trenton and opened the Strong Art & Craft Gallery. Recently diagnosed with asbestos-related lung cancer, probably as a consequence of working with asbestos-lined kilns, Strong had to close his gallery. He now resides in Ellsworth, Maine, and has two adult sons, Matthew and Andre.
Despite his years and his illness, which can leave him short of breath, Strong’s voice is youthful and rich with laughter.