Maija Grotell: Works Which Grow From Belief

by Jeff Schlanger and Toshiko Takaezu

Copyright © 1996 by Jeff Schlanger and Toshiko Takaezu. All rights reserved.
Available from Studio Potter Books.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction.

The Life

Today, looking across the waters of New York harbor, it may not be a simple thing to imagine the America to which Maija Grotell came, an immigrant from Finland, in 1927. Ceramics facilities in the United States when she arrived bore little resemblance to the proliferating resources we take for granted at the end of the century. Now we choose from among educational programs on all levels. Suppliers and manufacturers offer ready-mixed clays and glazes, power equipment, every size and type of kiln, plus dozens of magazines, hundreds of informative books, and millions of color slides.

Ceramics in the nineteen-twenties in America tended to be considered either an industry or a hobby. The global history of ceramic art and its continuity into the present moment had yet to be widely understood. A foundation for the development of this understanding was accomplished, in large part, by the pioneer teaching of Maija Grotell's generation. For them, ceramics practice demanded mastery of the kick wheel and of often difficult, underscaled firing facilities, along with the continuous experimental production of test glazes in order to build a common working knowledge of the possibilities.

The Finland that Maija Grotell was born into, on August 19, 1899 in Helsingfors, was even more stringent an environment. There she had been trained in painting, sculpture and design at The Ateneum, the Central School of Industrial Art, and had completed six years of graduate work in ceramics while supporting herself drawing for the National Museum and working as a textile designer. Ceramic materials, however, were not then available to individuals in Finland, and there was but one teaching job in the entire country. In order to continue to develop her individual work, she had to leave.

Young Maija (photo courtesy of Margueritte Kimball) Maija's first summer in America was spent at the State College of Ceramics at Alfred, New York, where she met, among others, the founder of the school, Charles F. Binns, and Arthur Baggs of Ohio State University, leaders in the establishment of university-level ceramics programs where the art of clay was offered as adjunct to established engineering curricula. Maija had already found work at the Inwood Studios in Manhattan and went on to teach at Union Settlement and then at the Henry Street Settlement, while exhibiting and selling her own ceramics. From 1936 to 1938 she was also the first art instructor at the School of Ceramic Engineering at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

A Diploma from the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition and a Silver Medal at the Paris International in 1937 were among the first of twenty-five major exhibition awards she was to receive over the next thirty years, including six from the Syracuse Ceramic National Exhibitions and the Charles Fergus Binns Medal from Alfred University in 196I.

In the fall of 1938 she was invited to enter a very different creative environment when she joined architect Eliel Saarinen, sculptor Carl Milles, weaver Marianne Strengell and later designer Charles Eames on the faculty of Cranbrook Academy of Art, outside Detroit, Michigan. It was while teaching at Cranbrook that she achieved her finest series of works. Her work was purchased for twenty-one museum collections, including the American Craft Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Everson in Syracuse, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum. Her extensive glaze research enabled Eliel and Eero Saarinen to use huge exterior walls of brilliantly colored glazed brick in the architecture of the General Motors Technical Center. She died in 1973.

Indications of the sources of Maija Grotell's fulfillment are in many areas of her life story: the caliber of the people she knew in Finland and America, the range of her training, and the exceptional consistency of the rhythm of her life. Her mother had been an artist, and A.W. Finch, her teacher at the Ateneum, was also a painter with broad experience in the Parisian art world of the time. She was trained to be a professional in every branch of fine and industrial art, along with students such as Toini Muona who later became important figures in Finnish design. At Cranbrook, her colleagues had international reputations and were at work on major projects in all fields.

Maija Grotell, trained to be independent, knew six languages, which may be one reason why her work is so clear and free from colloquialism. As a girl she was an exceptional athlete and had accustomed herself early to demanding high standards of strength and endurance from her body. Later she taught herself to throw large, perfectly centered vases using more than fifty pounds of clay on a stand-up, foot-operated wheel after making and wedging all the clay by hand. She was also a full-time teacher and a full-time potter.

She said, in 1968, "I worked 'round the clock; all the windows were dark. I felt very fortunate to be able to work all night and then, they not notice in the morning if I had. I worked awfully hard. It's not wise to do it in that way. But, I was fortunate to be so. Oh, ya, that's all right. I was just lucky the way I was."

As a teacher she offered each student a way into creative art and an individual standard of excellence. With great care for the singular rhythms of each person, she used silence, humor, disarming ambiguity and an occasional, powerfully-focused, perfectly-timed remark delivered in a centered, resonant voice. The exquisite control of her teaching and its lasting inspiration was often suddenly clear years later when a student realized that this teacher who had the wisdom to direct students to find the sources of their own creative lives, had also renounced the spectacular but short-lived results that can come from teaching techniques and style.

Maija Grotell's commitment communicated belief fully and with great originality. She joined strong friendships with many of her students while maintaining the standards of her own unique vision. She said succinctly, "If you help a student too much they are lost when they leave or you leave. The best thing you can do for students is to make them independent so they do not miss you."

The Works

Maija Grotell's works have great posture. They stand with glory and without arrogance. They are powerful, secure and stable, yet they stand softly. Their backbones grow up from the center of the earth as they inhale, use and warm great volumes. Their breath is deep and controlled by the spiraling power of their curving walls. Their throats are open through to the bottoms of their insides, showing us that the gestures of our interior passages to the outside can be magnificent.

The touch that formed these vessels is confident and powerfully rhythmic. The mark, the pace of the moving hand and strong, propelling foot - tender, irregular and slow - remains in the deep surfaces. The sculptured skin is approachable, and the whole construction of the clay shell shows how beautifully it is possible to handle naturally turning ceramic material.

Vase by Maija Grotell
Vase. Maija Grotell. 1951. 13x11". Cranbrook Art Museum, 1952.4. Photograph by Jack Ramsdale.

Maija's shapes bloom from great posture, great breathing and great gesture. The best of them are an achievement of a vision, a yielding of material finally to beautifully continuous human determination.

She said, "I always have something I am aiming at, and I keep on. I do not sketch on paper; I sketch in clay. So if it is not what I want, I make another one and keep on. In that way, I have many similar pieces. My reason is not for repeating, but for improving. Because if I have one that I like - I mean one that has come to what I was aiming at, then it has no interest any more and I would not try to make another one. And also I like to learn from each piece I make in some way."

Layers of bold pattern and vivid color extend the gesture of spun forms. Pattern drawn in color can be clear and fresh as though it had just grown there. The source is nature - the natural process of building a series of perfect layers, each one alive with authority. Maija Grotell was always curious about materials and their possibilities. "I'm not being curious about my next door neighbor. But about materials I have been tremendously curious."

Colored clay slips alone create an extraordinarily rich surface on many pieces. This range of roughness is also used under glazes and sometimes built up in relief patterns. Areas of slips and glazes are brushed onto the works as the wheel revolves so that even deep glazing radiates the handled, spiral skin of the clay beneath.

Maija developed a dazzling series of turquoise blues from copper oxide, as well as reduced reds, plums and flesh pinks. Dark, boiling iron-oxide glazes balance contrasting color patterns to build surFaces of symphonic volume. Pale yellows, greens, tans, grays and white extend a glowing spectrum along with intense accents of orange and silver.

Bowl by Maija Grotell
Bowl. Maija Grotell. 1956. 9x14". Copper blue pattern and interior on iron ground. Syracuse University Art Collection, 1966.19.

Color of this power is extremely diffcult to use; it can destroy the character of form and coat like commercial paint. But Maija Grotell's best works are complete summations. She controls a chorus of color over memorable form, firing her kilns with inspiration to project the clay ground up through the bright layers.

Coordinated and clear, Maija's means were fire, the turning wheel and well-wedged clay. Giving herself meant passing on all passion, patience and belief within the single life she lived. Any writer, even one who also works on the wheel, may not locate Maija Grotell in words, pictures passing on a printed page, or even in the transformation of memory over time. Know her now in a feeling the body receives directly from the pottery. Her pottery, stated in clear joy, full color and fresh, classic form for forty years of powerfully sustained work, remains with us all, holding a whole woman.

Maija's spirit seems to ride the rippling waters of the harbor now, out where you can almost see around the edge of the world and on beyond the moon into deep space. Maija's spirit seems to be a lighted buoy, with an iron bell - essential, steady, and anchored below the shifting tides, deep beneath the undercurrents, tied into the invisible molten center of spinning Earth.