American studio ceramics at mid century

Maija Grotell came from a world apart. She arrived in the United States in 1927 from her native Finland, where she had received more than six years of training at the Central School of Applied Arts in Helsinki. She had studied pottery there with the Belgian artist Alfred William Finch (1854–1930). Soon after she landed in New York, Grotell found work teaching at art schools and community socio-educational cooperatives such as the Henry Street Settlement, all the while building up critical notice for her work through small gallery shows and exhibitions. By 1938 her renown in craft circles was such that Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) invited her to take over as head of the ceramics department at the Cranbrook Academy of  Art—a post she would hold for nearly thirty years. Grotell’s skill at the potter’s wheel was impeccable. Her forms, whether round, ovoid, cylindrical, or flared, are always in perfect proportion (see Figs 4, 5). What excites the collector, though, is the continuous refinement of her artistry with glazes.6 “In the twenties, her work was often decorated in an almost naive scenic style, but the more she was exposed to new source material, the better and more creative she became,” says Aarons. “She was always experimenting, and made one great leap—in style, scale, use of color, glazing technique, and texture—after another. Her motifs from the 1940s into the 1960s range from geometrics to lustrous chevrons, to striations, to jagged, eye-popping abstracts. She was so prolific.”

By contrast, once Gertrud (nee Amon) and Otto Natzler found their style, they never strayed from it.  And a transcendent style it was. “They among all the studio ceramists produced the most consistently amazing pieces,” Aarons says. From Vienna’s upper middle class, they both harbored artistic ambitions and bonded over ceramics. Although they took classes, they were largely self-taught, and were shocked when they took a silver medal at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Modern in Paris in 1937 (in which both Lukens and Grotell participated). The following year, the Natzlers joined the great Jewish cultural and intellectual diaspora precipitated by Nazism and moved to Los Angeles. Awards, and the attention of galleries and museums, came quickly.7 The exquisiteness of the Natzlers’ work lies in the tension between Gertrud’s delicate classical forms and the generally monochromatic, yet dramatic, vivid, and often almost violently textured glazes that Otto applied to them (see Figs. 6, 8). Gertrud “honed her skills to the point where the walls of her pots became literally eggshell thin…. [and she] spent hundreds of hours perfecting minute changes to each part [of a pot] in a quest for a harmonious and beautiful whole.”8 Otto, meanwhile, continually sought to develop new, powerful glazes. “The glazes have energy. They act! Flowing in subtle cascades…clotting into concentrations of color, boiling, cratering,” Daniel Rhodes wrote in the catalogue to a Natzler retrospective in 1973 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery.9 At the time of this show, Natzler ceramics were in the collections of more than forty museums in the United States.10 Yet, Aarons recalls with a sort of rueful amusement, he was able to purchase one of their pieces at the San Francisco department store Gump’s in 1986.

You get the sense that had Mary (nee Goldsmith) and Edwin Scheier been cast ashore, Crusoelike, on some forsaken island, they would have searched for a way to make art before they searched for fresh water (see Figs. 6, 8). The Bronx-born Edwin haunted museums, took a few crafts, arts, and performance courses, but followed no single path in the cultural world. Mary, who was from Virginia, did receive formal artistic training in New York and Paris, and in 1935 accepted a post running a federally sponsored arts center in Appalachia. Edwin had found a job as a field supervisor for the WPA Crafts Program. They met in 1937. Chafing at their bureaucratic work, they quit their jobs and traveled, supporting themselves by staging puppet shows. When they could not make ends meet, Edwin took a job running an arts center connected to the Tennessee Valley Authority. To offer the Scheiers a creative outlet, a sympathetic friend who ran the TVA industrial ceramics studio offered to let them try pottery making after hours. The couple took to the craft immediately.11 They built a potter’s wheel from old parts of a Ford Model T, built a kiln from an oil drum, and in 1938 headed to a clay-rich area of rural Virginia to open a pottery.12 Mary threw the pots while Edwin focused on decoration. Together they created a palette of soft blue, green, pink, and purple glazes. Edwin began to develop a personal ornamental style—tinged with influences of primitive and folk art—that included high-relief appliqué stick figures or incised sgraffito images. In 1940 the Scheiers won a prize in a national ceramics exhibition, and later that year their work was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. More importantly, that year both were offered posts at the University of New Hampshire, where they would stay for the better part of twenty-seven years.13 In the academic environment, Mary’s pottery forms became more daring, and Edwin’s aesthetic grew more sophisticated. He explored his far-flung interests in such topics as surrealist painting, Arabic script, and—most significantly—the runic imagery of pre-Columbian Mezzo-American cultures. From the mid-1940s on, his ceramic designs would run along the twin lines of abstraction and the display of almost mystical figural patterns drawn mainly from Mayan art.14 In 1968 the Scheiers moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, where they took up sculpture, weaving, and painting. They retired to Arizona in 1979.

If fortune seemed to smile on the Scheiers, for much of her life Leza McVey (nee Sullivan) seemed mired in a pattern of  frustration. She was always in the shadow of her husband, the successful portrait sculptor William Mozart McVey (1905–1995), and had to play the dutiful faculty wife during his many academic postings. She was also plagued by a chronic eye condition. Though trained as a ceramic artist in her native Cleveland, her early work gave little evidence that she possessed anything like a unique artistic perspective. But in 1947, at age forty, she began to blossom.15 She started down a path that would lead her to create work that, among all the studio ceramics in Aarons’s collection, is perhaps most forceful in its claim to the status of fine art. 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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