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Influence, Tradition, Revolution:

The Ceramic Art of Susan McGilvrey




by Gail Kendall


The ceramic art of Susan McGilvrey has many aspects and layers, all of which
merit discussion and analysis. I am going to concentrate on placing her form
development within the context of three important 20
th
century ceramic
movements. Each of these has had an international impact on the field starting
in the 1950s.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s three discrete ideologies evolved that held
sway in American ceramics. I have named them the Bauhaus Influence, the
Hamada-Leach Tradition, and the Voulkos Revolution. I will briefly describe each
of them here and reveal how, in a rather unusual amalgam, they converged and
melded in the ceramics of Susan McGilvrey.

The Bauhaus Influence
The Bauhaus School, which had a mere decade and a half of existence in the
Weimar Republic of Germany following World War One, has exerted an
enormous influence in the world of design ever since, and is associated with the
brief prescriptive: Form Follows Function. The Nazis closed the Bauhaus School
in the early nineteen thirties and the luminous professors who framed the
philosophy either fled Germany (architect and founder Walter Gropius, for
example) or fell into a proscribed obscurity. Before this closure, the school had
several homes and struggled to keep the doors open. However, the art and
design work that flowed from its professors and students, who hailed 20
th

century industrial and technical efficiency as a model, remains as a monument to
its importance and avant garde status.

Bauhaus did not support the entrenched hierarchy of media, which has been the
norm in the art world since the Renaissance, and which validates the separation
of art (painting, sculpture) from craft (fiber arts, ceramics, metal work). Instead,
Bauhaus celebrated human creativity within the context of its philosophy across
all media. A recent exhibition of Bauhaus design at the Museum of Modern Art
underscored this open-minded approach as viewers examined objects that
encompassed high art paintings along with woven wall hangings, rugs, fabric
design, furniture, pottery vases and more mundane forms through an extensive
range of fine and decorative art.

Some of the ceramic artists associated with the Bauhaus School are Ruth
Duckworth, Hans Coper, Gertrude and Otto Natzler, Marguerite Wildenhain, and
Lucy Rie. These artists immigrated to the United Kingdom or the United States.
Most of them became teachers, giving workshops and presenting at conferences
and consortia in addition to maintaining their fertile and influential studio lives.

Susan McGilvreys first instructor, Dean Schwarz at Luther College in Decorah
Iowa, was a student of Marguerite Wildenhains. His instruction aimed at
securing in his students a high craft and highly technical approach to throwing
pots on the wheel and demanded students achieve strong forms with even walls,
tight fitting lids, and highly compressed skins by throwing using ribs on both
the inside and outside of the pot when articulating the final forming of the
object.

This highly technical education provided McGilvrey with a strong structural base,
and explains how she manages to throw the large amphorae and tall forms that
have become a hallmark of her work.


The Hamada-Leach Tradition

The Hamada-Leach Tradition resulted from the fertile association of the English
potter and draftsman, Bernard Leach, the Japanese Potter Shoji Hamada, and
the Japanese writer and philosopher Shoetsu Yanagi. These individuals were
exceedingly interested in each others visual cultures, social traditions, and art
histories and ultimately believed there could be an East/West union of ideas that
would form a new avenue for art and craft production. Whereas form follows
function served as the mantra for Bauhaus, Leach, Hamada and Yanagi coined
the Japanese word mingei, meaning art of the people or folk craft and used
this term to identify the objects of everyday utility that they extolled and
promoted.

Leach and Hamada met in Japan where Leach had gone following art school in
England in the early 20
th
c. His idea was to earn a living teaching drafting and
wood engraving, but instead he became a potter and writer, and with his
Japanese friends founded a movement. In the 1930s Leach returned to England
to set up a pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall, England. The Leach Pottery ran an
apprenticeship program and those working in the program produced a standard
ware comprised of a line of straight forward utilitarian pots designed for cooking
and use at the table. The influences for this pottery came from traditional British
folk pottery forms. Like William Morris, whose Arts & Crafts Movement of the
mid-Victorian era was a great influence on the young Leach, the goal was to
enhance every day life through the use of handmade objects of beauty and
inherent integrity.

Leach apprentices, of whom there were never more than six at a time, went off
and became makers and teachers in their own regions or countries. One of
these, Warren MacKenzie, moved to Minnesota and was ultimately a longtime
professor at the University of Minnesota where he is now a retired Regents
Professor and working potter in his mid-eighties.


Following her undergraduate career at Luther College, Susan Mcgilvrey moved to
the Twin Cities and ultimately spent several years at the University of Minnesota
as a post-baccalaureate student continuing her pottery making studies. At
Minnesota she came under the sway of the Mingei movement through Warrens
mentorship. Additionally there were the six or so Mingei-sota potters living in
the area whose showrooms were open to the public and who were often
available to the university students for discussion, observation and studio visits.
These artists reflected Leachs and MacKenzies philosophies not only in terms of
the nature of their pottery, but also in terms of their lives: country potters, living
simply, committed to Arts & Crafts and Mingei values.

At the University of Minnesota Susan was introduced to a working methodology
that stood in strong contrast to the Wildenhain/ Bauhausian approach that
reigned at Luther College. The formality of structure, the even walls, tight
skins, and constrained forms were replaced with an emphasis on the use of
wetter clay, a slower wheel, and primarily a goal to have a finished pot that was
expressive of the nature of the maker, and that more strongly implied the nature
of the material. The contrast between these two schools resulted in the label of
tight or loose being assigned to any particular pottery form.

Two things were going on in the ceramics area at Minnesota. MacKenzie focused
on making of pottery underpinned by Mingei ideas. The other professor, Curtis
Hoard was a product of the most influential movement in contemporary ceramics
at the time and the one I call the Voulkos Revolution.


The Voulkos Revolution

Peter Voulkos studied ceramics in Bozeman, Montana at Montana State
University and learned to make exquisite thrown forms in the Bauhaus mode. He
and fellow classmate Rudy Autio became the initial directors of the newly
founded ceramic center, The Archie Bray Foundation in Helena and there they
hosted Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach as they toured the United States, and
thus the two young artists came into contact with a more relaxed and expressive
way of working clay. Voulkos ultimately threw off the constraints of working out
of any traditional set of ideas or values. Like all contemporary artists Voulkos
was not interested in aligning himself with a past tradition, even one as recent as
the Bauhaus School, but instead was interested in making the past obsolete.
Eventually he left Montana and The Archie Bray Foundation and started a
ceramics program at the Otis Institute in Los Angeles. What happened there is
legendary in the history of American ceramics as his first handful of students
went on to have incredible careers and along with Voulkos became the
generation of professors to shape the future direction of contemporary ceramics
in the United States.


Don Reitz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin was an adherent to
Voulkos ideas and instilled them in his students. One of these was Curtis Hoard
who then passed them on to his students at the University of Minnesota School
of Art.

McGilvrey has always taken advantage of her surroundings, eager to learn new
technologies and consistently open to considering new ideas. At Minnesota,
everything she had learned thus far came into question and her experiments
ranged widely as she tried on new approaches, both technical and aesthetical.
Directly upon leaving Minnesota she entered graduate school at Penn State
University, where her teachers were Ron Gallas, Jim Stephenson and David
DonTigny. Gallas was a student of Curtis Hoards at Minnesota. The conceptual
thinking of Peter Voulkos constituted the Alpha and the Omega at Penn State.

A pattern has revealed itself as I write about these three important movements.
Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School, Leach, the founder of the
Mingei movement, and Voulkos who created a revolution within the field of
ceramics all professed, two at academic institutions (Voulkos spent the majority
of his career teaching at the University of California-Berkeley) and one at his own
pottery through an apprenticeship program. I have attempted to illustrate a
lineage within each of them. (Anyone interested in learning more will find many
books, catalogs, and articles on both the individuals and the movements.)

Susan McGilvrey is a raconteur and her stories are interlaced with humor and
sarcasm. I asked her what drove her to settle on creating pottery forms that are
typically out-of round, asymmetrical, lean this way and that. Seeing her throw
and just knowing what kind of skill is needed to pull cylindrical forms that are
twenty inches tall I know these results are intentional. Her response was that in
graduate school it was difficult enough to produce work that even alluded to
utility and receive any attention from her professors, and that if she had thrown
straight forward pots she would have been asked to leave her program. Forms
that are askew, then, became part of her voice in clay, and upon analysis
dramatize the askew nature of many of the surface drawings, all of which have
stories or describe experiences that turn and twist upon one another and are
interlaid with word play and intricacy of meaning.

One of the most compelling aspects of vessel-oriented ceramics is the nature and
mystery involved in confronting and considering the notion of inside and
outside, the concept of containment. The traditional vocabulary used to
describe a ceramic vessel includes words like lip, shoulder, belly, foot. The
symbolism is obvious. The conjoining of a complex and metaphorical vessel form
with the graphic and painterly, sometimes abstract, sometimes narrative, usually
autobiographical surfaces, McGilvrey produces result in artwork that is
invigorating, energetic, and mysterious. At the core of her work exists a vibrant
intelligence, a rare talent, underpinned by an ambition for and commitment to
the life of an artist.