Sisu, the Amazing Maija Grotell

Sisu is a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, a tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience; it is also the word weaver Marianne Strengell used to describe her friend Maija Grotell.

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Maija Grotell at Cranbrook Academy of Art Faculty Breakfast, 1939. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Maija Grotell was born August 19, 1899, in Helsinki, Finland. She studied painting and sculpture in Helsinki, graduating in 1920. While working at a textile firm as an artist, she completed six years of graduate work in ceramics (1920-1926) under Alfred William Finch, a noted Belgian ceramicist and painter who practiced in Finland.

In October 1927, Grotell immigrated to the United States, settling in New York where she studied for one summer under Charles Fergus Binns. Her first employment was as an Instructor at Inwood Pottery Studios in New York City (1927-1928). She went on to teach children at the Union Settlement (1928-1929) and at the Henry Street Craft School Settlement (1929-1937), both in New York. While teaching ceramics and researching glazes, Grotell was also exhibiting and selling her own ceramics. From 1937 to 1938, Grotell was a ceramics instructor and research assistant at the Department of Ceramics at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She became a naturalized United States citizen in 1934.

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Maija Grotell in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Ceramics Studio. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Maija Grotell was one of the most significant potters working independently during the late 1930s. Although a relatively large number of women played important roles in the art pottery movement in the early twentieth century, few female ceramists were active between the first and second World War. Grotell was one of the exceptions.

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Maija Grotell at work. From the Maija Grotell Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

As Eliel Saarinen’s complex of buildings at Cranbrook began to take shape, he sought out distinguished artists and craftspeople to work in the studios. Impressed with a gallery exhibition of Grotell’s work, Saarinen envisioned her ceramics contributing to the architecture of Cranbrook. In the fall of 1938, Saarinen invited Grotell to join himself, Carl Milles, and Marianne Strengell at the Cranbrook Academy of Art as head of the ceramics department, a position she held until her retirement in 1966.

Grotell described the way she worked as such, “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.”

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Maija Grotell overlooks her students in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Ceramics Studio, 1939. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In her teaching, Grotell emphasized ceramics as a medium of artistic expression. Many students trained by her went into teaching and were integral to the development of America’s university ceramics programs following World War II. In her twenty-eight years at Cranbrook, her students included Richard DeVore, Toshiko Takaezu, John Glick, Susanne Stephenson, Lydia Kahn Winston Malbin, and Jeff Schlanger.

Of Grotell, Takaezu said, “Majia’s astute, honest, sharp criticism would sometimes fall into place months later, but it was always true. Maija didn’t say very much and what she didn’t say was as important as what she did say, once you realized she was thoroughly aware of everything you did.”

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Under This Roof Six Dreams Were Dreamed and All Came True – 1908, 1961. Commissioned by Henry Scripps Booth and executed by Maija Grotell, the vessel commemorates the founding of Cranbrook. Courtesy of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Her “astute, honest, sharp criticism” may have been what Marianne Strengell was thinking of when she started calling her Sisu. She had the tenacity to tell her students the truth; no holding back to spare feelings.

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“MG” signature on the bottom of a vessel at the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House. Courtesy of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Throughout her career, Grotell actively engaged in research on glazes. She developed copper reds, ash glazes, intense blues, and crackle glazes. One of her original discoveries was the use of chromium and iron in place of uranium to produce a brilliant orange glaze. Her work opened the door to the architectural uses of glazed, colored bricks in midcentury architecture, including those used by Eero Saarinen at the General Motors Technical Center (1953-1955).

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A glaze recipe from the Maija Grotell Papers in Cranbrook Archives.

She died on December 6, 1973, in Pontiac, Michigan, but Grotell’s glaze formulas remain a large part of her legacy. Another legacy came in 1977: the “Arts & Craft Court” at the Cranbrook Academy of Art was renamed the “Maija Grotell Court” in her honor.

Exceptional that such a strong, well-respected woman was so influential at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in its formative years as well as the art world.

– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar

Links:

Maija Grotell Papers, Cranbrook Archives, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

“Mary, Maija, and Toshiko: Re-Thinking Open Storage in the Collections Wing.” Cranbrook Kitchen Sink. Website.

The Marks Project, The Dictionary of American Studio Ceramics, 1946 Onward. Website.

Photo Friday: Grotell & Himelhoch’s

In November of 1942, Maija Grotell displayed her wares among the latest fashions in the windows of Himelhoch’s department store in downtown Detroit. Grotell, Head of the Academy’s Department of Ceramics from 1938 to 1966, placed her vases, pots, and plates in a stage-set ceramics studio, replete with a painted kiln, bottles of glazes, and a potter’s wheel (made of what appears to be Papier-mâché).Grotell Himelhochs 1The clothes related directly to the vessels, with the sign reading: “Ceramics: Wonderful Muted Colors To Wear Under Winter Coats Inspired by Maija Grotell’s Ceramic Masterpieces.” Himelhoch’s sold the clothing, while the Grotell works were sold through the Detroit Artist’s Market.

The images are attributed to photographer Joseph Munroe, November 2, 1942.

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

NB: Himelhoch’s opened in 1907 and was on Detroit’s Washington Boulevard from 1923 to 1977. The lovely building is a National Historic Landmark and survives today as apartments.

First Female Graduates

We recently had a query in the Archives about who the first woman was to receive an MFA at the Academy of Art. Actually, there were two – both in Ceramics. Edna Vogel’s bio can be found in a previous blog post. The other woman was Florence Kee Chang, a Chinese-American from Hawaii. Born in 1915 in Wahiawa on Oahu Island, Chang attended the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California after high school, where she received her B.A. in Art Education in 1942. She immediately applied to Cranbrook, where she studied ceramics with Maija Grotell, weaving with Marianne Strengell, and took a course in Metals with Harry Bertoia.

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Chang’s bowl and vase acquired by Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1943 as part of the Acquisitions Honors. On the right is Chang’s mark.

In May 1943, Chang was part of the first class of MFA graduates at the newly accredited Academy of Art. She and Vogel were the only two women to receive degrees that inaugural year. In addition, the Academy purchased two of her pieces of pottery, for which she received an “Acquisitions Honor.”

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Although she was from Hawaii, Chang adapted well to winter in Michigan! Courtesy Margueritte Kimball Papers.

Very little is known about Chang after she graduated. In 1955, she traveled to Japan, where she worked for two years as an arts and crafts director for the U.S. Army as part of what became known as The Army Crafts Program. Chang returned to Hawaii where she passed away in 2001.

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Chang’s 1942 Christmas card reflects the Academy Art’s sculpture and architecture.

If you have any further information about Florence Kee Chang, please contact us!

– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Edna Vogel: Cranbrook’s Other Wright Weaver

Researching in the Archives before a big tour, I came across an interesting person whom I earmarked to come back and examine further. I already knew Loja Saarinen wove textiles for Frank Lloyd Wright, but Edna Vogel’s story of weaving for Wright intrigued me; it turned out there was a bit more to learn about Edna Vogel.

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Edna Vogel in her weaving studio, July 1942. Joe Munroe, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Edna Vogel (1901-1953) grew up in St. Louis and studied at a teacher’s college and then Washington University in St. Louis. She wasn’t in love with teaching elementary school, but she did like making costumes, so in the early 1930s she went to New York to study dress design. Not finding the cloth she wanted in stores led her to discover an interest in weaving, and weaving led her to Cranbrook for summer courses in 1939.

Vogel studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art for four summers and two regular academic years, earning her MFA in May 1943. Like so many Academy students, Vogel bounced between disciplines, studying weaving with Marianne Strengell, ceramics with Maija Grotell, and working in the metals shop. She spent most of her time in the ceramics studio, with Grotell commenting in 1941 that Vogel had a “very fine understanding for color and form” and that “her technical research and discoveries are exceedingly valuable.”

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Ceramics and place-mat by Edna Vogel, made as a student at Cranbrook. Detail of a photograph, June 12, 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In the early 1940s, Vogel moved into the carriage house of Bloomfield Hills socialite Kate Thompson Bromley, who kept detailed diaries that include information on Vogel’s work and travels. 

Vogel worked in the carriage house with two assistants between three looms (small, medium, and very large), she began weaving placemats, pillows, fabrics, and rugs. The largest rug Vogel wove was for architect Albert Kahn, in a Swedish style, and she wove others for Kahn’s family. She also wove the rugs for Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1941 Gregor Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills. Wright instructed Affleck to use long, strip-like rugs for his living room in order to leave much of the concrete floor exposed. Affleck, who may have met Vogel through Grotell or Bromley, commissioned rugs from her sometime in the early 1940s.

Thrilled with receiving the commission, Edna Vogel set off in her car towards Wisconsin and Wright’s estate, Taliesin. Approaching Taliesin, she became nervous that the famous Wright would not want to see her without an appointment. She ended up knocking on the wrong door of the house, introduced herself to an apprentice, and, to her surprise, being taken into a meeting with Wright. He seemed charmed—with both her and her ideas for the Affleck House rugs. He was so impressed by Vogel that he invited her to come and work at Taliesin as both weaver and ceramicist.

She stayed for a long weekend, but as remembered in Mrs. Bromley’s diaries, Vogel’s chief complaint with Wright’s work centered on his interest in providing functional architecture but not always functional furnishings. Wright did not, Bromley wrote, “aim to make a house and furniture one unit as at Cranbrook,” and so Vogel decided to return to Michigan and remain at the Academy. She completed the rugs for the Affleck House, and at a visit to the house later, Wright’s wife Olgivanna commented that the rugs were the “finest she had ever seen.”

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Edna Vogel’s rugs for the Gregor Affleck House, c. 1941-45. Courtesy of Lawrence Technological University.

At the end of the 1940s, after exhibiting ceramics internationally and producing textiles for homes, Vogel moved to New York. She wanted a place to find new inspiration and focus on her weaving. In South Salem, about thirty-miles north of New York City, she bought a former school house with a first-floor residence and an open studio large enough for her 12-foot loom on the second floor. She produced rugs of various sizes that were noted for their painterly, subtle uses of color, and she maintained an extensive collection of yarns from around the world. Tragically, Vogel died of smoke inhalation in 1953 when a chimney fire spread to her yarn storage.

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Rug by Edna Vogel, displayed at Cranbrook. Photograph, July 30, 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

We have just a few images of Edna Vogel’s works in our archives and I found only a handful more in periodicals in the Art Academy Library. If you know more about her, or where her work lives on, let us know in the comments or at center@cranbrook.edu.

– Kevin Adkisson, Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Nunsense

Over the past few years, I have listened to researchers in the Archives and visitors to the museum describe works of art as divine or heavenly, but I don’t remember those words used to describe the artist. Until now. Did you know that during the 1950s-1960s there were several artists who studied at the Academy of Art who were also members of a divine order? Admittedly, I have not had much interaction with nuns in my lifetime, but I have a keen fascination (cue: “The hills are alive with the sound of music..”).

Sister Mary James Ann Walsh, BVM (Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was one of several nuns to study at the Academy where she received her MFA in painting in 1955. In 1953, Sister Mary was the First Prize Winner of the 9th Annual Iowa Water Color Show for her piece, “Ecce Homo.” That painting is now part of the Sioux City Art Center’s permanent collection. In addition to her Cranbrook degree, Sister Mary studied at the State University of Iowa and the University of Colorado. In 1959 she became head of the Clark College department of Art in Dubuque, Iowa.

Sisters at work in the metal shop, 1954. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Sisters at work in the metal shop, 1954. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The photo above shows Sister Mary Grace Esther Mehren, BVM, and Sister Mary Barbara Cerny at work in the metal shop in 1954. We are still looking for information about Sister Mary Barbara, but according to the Chicago Tribune (15 Jun 1958), Sister Mary Grace Esther was appointed to oversee construction of an eleven-story Scholasticate on the campus of Mundelein College. The building houses lecture halls, classrooms, a dining hall, and a chapel.

Another CAA alum (Metalsmithing ’49), Sister Helene O’Connor, O.P. (Dominican Order of Preachers), founded Studio Angelico in 1935, at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. Studio Angelico, the art department at Siena Heights, was named for the 15th century Dominican painter, Fra Angelico. Sister Helene chaired the art department, taught classes, and directed community workshops. An accomplished sculptor, ceramicist, weaver, and muralist – her work has been exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sister Marie Gertrude's, "Mother Hen," Bay City Times, 27 Sep 1964.

Sister Marie Gertrude’s, “Mother Hen,” Bay City Times, 27 Sep 1964.

Also of the Dominican order, Sister Marie Gertrude Lohman, O.P., received her MFA in Sculpture from the Academy in 1966. Several of Sister Marie Gertrude’s sculptures display in Illinois, including a statue of St. Catherine of Siena at the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Chicago and a statue of St. Albert the Great in the student courtyard at St. Rose Priory. Sister Marie Gertrude studied in Schifanoia, Italy, and her work has been exhibited in Chicago and Dubuque. In 1964, her work, “Mother Hen,” was displayed at the Studio 23 space at the Arts Center in Bay City, MI.

This research has only deepened my fascination of the divine sisterhood. I wonder what drew the sisters to Cranbrook? There were several other nun-students at CAA – I look forward to learning more about their contributions to Cranbrook and the art world.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

From an Intern’s Eyes: Old Drama and Timeless Art

In the second week of May, I began my first day at the Cranbrook Archives for my Senior May Project, a program ran by the Cranbrook Upper School to send anxious fourth quarter seniors off campus for internships and adventures.  And now, after two weeks of dealing with numerous dusty, yellowed papers (and one suspicious wooden box featuring some dead bugs and cobwebs) my initial excitement only grew.

One of my first projects here was to research the tenure of past Academy of Art faculty and staff members between the years of 1932-1976, and to make a comprehensive spreadsheet on the matter. That project led me to read through old faculty files comprised of payroll information (“how did people survive on $200 a month!” I thought to myself), retirement records, old correspondence­—I even came across the first telegram I had ever seen. I wondered, from time to time: “Did the secretary who typed this letter up ever think that a teenaged intern from China would one day behold this work and marvel at its antiquity?”

The first telegram I've ever seen.  1943, Cranbrook Archives.

The first telegram I’ve ever seen. 1943, Cranbrook Art Museum Exhibition Records, Cranbrook Archives.

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