American studio ceramics at mid century

That year William McVey was hired to teach sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and as a faculty spouse Leza had the run of studio facilities and began to audit classes. She studied with Maija Grotell, whose technical fluency and nurturing demeanor emboldened her. And certainly the artistic communality at Cranbrook widened her knowledge and influences. Through canniness or kismet, four skeins of theory and technique met in McVey’s work. The first was biomorphism. Organic asymmetrical forms were already the coming thing at Cranbrook, and McVey was arguably the first ceramist to grasp the full potential of biomorphic form in pottery, and the desire to jettison classical shapes. Secondly, she began to work on pieces—some nearly three feet in height—that had the scale of sculpture. Third, she gave up the potter’s wheel, the so-called true artisan’s tool, in favor of building her forms from clay coils and slabs by hand—a technique dismissed as fit for novices. But as she argued, “Hand methods allow a form to be pushed out from the inside—to better express the energies and vitality of growing things.”16 Last, to distance her creations—which she labeled “Ceramic Forms”—from utilitarian pieces, she crowned them with elaborately styled stoppers (see Figs. 7, 9). Or, rather finials: for if the traditional point of a stopper was to keep, say, wine inside a vessel, McVey meant hers to keep things out.17

McVey’s works in matte, earth-tone ash glaze or black finishes with long off-center necks are magnificent. Some are footed and attenuated in form; some are undecorated, others have minimal dotted glazed adornments. In the later 1950s she produced some openwork receptacles in semi-traditional shapes, decorated with vertical banding. But she never gave up asymmetry or produced pieces that were not imbued with her singular character. Sadly, the one major exhibition of her work—a retrospective at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1965—was a swan song. McVey never achieved the same level of recognition again.18

Surrounded by the works in his office, Aarons emanates an almost paternal warmth. During a period when the hearts of corporate captains seem as cold as marble, it is gratifying to see that a man who has made his fortune from the operations of bulldozers, cranes, pile drivers, girders, and rivets feels so deeply for the small thing, the fragile thing crafted by hand by a solitary artist, all in the name of beauty.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1977) p. 71.
2
 For comment on the currency of this sexist phenomenon, see Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World (W. W. Norton, New York, 2008), p. 23.
3
Greig Thompson, essay in Feeling, Thought, and Spirit: The Ceramic Work of Glen Lukens (Museum of Art and Archaeology, Columbia, Mo., 2006), p. 5.
4
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950 (University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1988), pp. 25–29.
5
Ibid., p. 32.
6
Jeff Schlanger, Maija Grotell: Works which Grow from Belief (Studio Potter Books, Goffstown, N.H., 1996), pp. 7–10; and American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, pp. 1–8.
7
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, pp. 37–45.
8
Ibid., p. 39.
9
Daniel Rhodes, “Form and Fire,” in Form and Fire: Natzler Ceramics 1939–1972 (Smithsonian Institution Press for the Renwick Gallery, Washington, 1973), p. 14.
10
Form and Fire, pp. 112–113.
11
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, p. 61.
12
Michael K. Komanecky, American Potters: Mary and Edwin Scheier (Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, N. H., 1993), p. 40.
13
American Studio Ceramics, 1920–1950, pp. 61–69.
14
Komanecky, American Potters, pp. 62–65.
15
Martin P. Eidelberg, The Ceramic Forms of Leza McVey (Philmark Publishers, Hudson, N. Y., 2002), pp. 37–42.
16
Quoted ibid., p. 52.
17
Ibid., pp. 45–54.
18
Ibid., pp. 71–76.

Gregory Cerio is a regular contributor to Antiques.

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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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