59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum


Gay Head Pottery

Mid-twentieth century

Gladys Widdiss (1914–2012) and unknown Wampanoag potters





Twentieth century

Unknown artist

Oil on wood panel

The brilliantly colored cliffs of Aquinnah are sacred to the Wampanoag. The most recognizable geological feature on the Island, they were designated a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Park Service in 1965. The layers of colored clay inspired the name "Gay Head," and they became a tourist attraction along with the beaches and entertainments of Cottage City in the middle of the 1800s. Excursion boats steamed to the wharf at Gay Head from Oak Bluffs and from New Bedford. Wampanoag Islanders made pottery from the colorful clay and sold it to the tourists.

Gladys Widdiss of Aquinnah was a tribal leader, historian, and potter. She began making and selling pottery as a child and continued to refine and perfect her craft throughout her long life. In oral history interviews Widdiss offered detailed descriptions of her experiences selling pottery and her methods of making it, from collecting the clay through the complex steps involved with preparing it to be made into pots. She explained that firing the clay destroys the color, and as a result the pottery is quite fragile: "You can't do anything but look at it."