Montana State University

Spring 2010

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Mountains and Minds

I make pots April 30, 2010 by Marjorie Smith • Published 04/30/10

From Montana students and Big Sky clay, Frances Senska helped craft a ceramics revolution

Photo by Lonnie BallPhoto by Lonnie Ball

When she was asked to provide an artist's statement for an exhibit, Frances Senska would simply write, "I make pots."

And so she did for many decades--beautifully crafted teapots and wine sets, covered casseroles and jars, as well as her trademark ceramic partridges.

Senska, who died last Christmas Day at the age of 95, has been recognized as an accomplished ceramicist who had a pivotal role in Montana State University's Department of Art. But she also has been eulogized as a master teacher who mentored scores of potters ranging from housewives who wanted to learn more about art to Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos, two students who went on to revolutionize modern ceramics.

Senska often dismissed the attempts of interviewers to persuade her to draw an analogy between working with clay and working with students, but every so often, almost reluctantly, she would acknowledge a connection.

"You have to be patient when you're dealing with some inanimate objects," Senska said in a 1996 PBS video about her influence upon her students. "You can't hurry a pot. You can't throw a piece of clay like this; you have to coax it and assist it and direct it where you want it to go. And if you make a sudden move, the pot just goes. And I think people are the same way.

"What you're doing is passing on what you have gotten to someone else so that they can use it," she said in the video. "Sometimes they use it in very original ways, not ways you had anticipated--but which appeal to you."

"I don't think (Senska) saw life, teaching and art as separate things," said Josh DeWeese, who now heads MSU's ceramics program and had known Senska all of his life. "Art was her vehicle to engage with the community, and as the child of missionaries, that was essential to her."

"I'm a mish kid, my parents were missionaries, they did things to help people," Senska once said. "My feeling is that I want to make things that are useful, that are well made, that are good, that will be useful to people, and if they're art, that's a dividend."

Frances Maude Senska was born March 9, 1914 in Batanga, Cameroon, when the west-central African land was still a German colony known as Kamerun. Her parents were Christian missionaries. Throughout her life she maintained an interest in African culture, music and design. The Senska family returned to the United States in 1929 and settled in Iowa, where Frances completed high school and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art at the University of Iowa. She specialized in sculpture.

In 1939, she was hired to teach drawing and painting at Grinnell College, but in 1942 her position was eliminated so that the college could hire a physicist. Senska joined the Navy during World War II and while stationed in San Francisco, took a night class in ceramics, something that hadn't been offered at the University of Iowa. She had found her medium.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

"When I got out of the Navy and had all that beautiful GI money, I went back to school...just to get the vocabulary of art instead of ships and aircraft and earthmoving equipment," Senska once explained. Soon she renewed her teaching certification and accepted a position at Montana State College.

In 1946, MSC had only a Department of Applied Art. Senska was allowed to offer a course in that most practical of arts, ceramics.

"I started teaching ceramics with the merest little scrap of knowledge," Senska told Museum of the Rockies art curator Steve Jackson when he interviewed her for a catalog for a 2004 retrospective exhibit of Senska's work at Helena's Holter Museum. "I had had just two quarters of ceramics when I started teaching. I just learned it right along with the class."

That confession also may have held the key to Senska's success as an art teacher.

"She believed in teachers always working alongside students," said DeWeese, whose father, Bob, taught with Senska and whose family had been close to Senska since long before he was born.

With a $300 grant from Olga Ross Hannon, then head of what was the MSC art department, Senska and her first students, including several fellow WWII veterans, created a ceramics studio in the basement of Herrick Hall. They cleaned out a storeroom, built a small electric kiln, and acquired kick-activated potters' wheels.

Two of Senska's most famous students, Autio and Voulkos, were both members of her first post-war class. Senska often said it was easy to become one of America's most influential ceramics teachers. All she had to do was time things so her first class included Voulkos and Autio.

With Senska's encouragement, her two star students went to Helena as the first resident artists at the now internationally-acclaimed Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts.

Like Senska, Autio went on to become a professor, starting the ceramics program at the University of Montana, where he spent 28 years on the faculty. A native of Butte, Autio came to be recognized for large torso-shaped ceramic urns painted with horses and voluptuous goddesses (see sample on page 38) that dwarf Senska's carefully wrought pieces.

"You can't hurry a pot... you have to coax it and assist it and direct it where you want it to go."
When he died in 2007, Autio was memorialized in an Archie Bray Foundation newsletter as "a pioneer in the contemporary ceramics movement ... the Matisse of ceramics for his vivid color and masterful drawing," while the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery said, "Autio gained a national reputation by applying Abstract Expressionist concepts to utilitarian ceramic objects."

Senska's work looks small in scale next to that of Bozeman-born Voulkos, who became internationally renowned for his gigantic clay abstract creations.

A catalog for a show at the American Museum of Ceramic Art notes that Voulkos' massive, forceful pieces "led the charge in the 1950s that altered the status of ceramics forever--from a craft material suitable only for vessels, to a medium appropriate for sculptural works of art."  

"Voulkos transformed the craft of pottery into an art," wrote the London Independent upon the artist's death in 2002, while a 1999 Los Angeles Times art review is headlined "Peter Voulkos' vessels stack up as monumental gems."

Like Autio and Senska before him, Voulkos also taught at several colleges and universities, most notably the University of California, Berkeley. The Cal faculty senate's memoriam to him noted that while Voulkos established a ceramics studio for the Department of Decorative Art there, he also had a "gift for awakening in students a passion for art-making and for living life to the fullest." His honorary doctorate from MSU in 1968 was one of six he received.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

"We learned a great deal about the basics from Frances," Autio said during the celebration of the Bray Foundation's 50th anniversary in 2001. One important skill they acquired was digging their own clay. He added, "I was astonished after I left school and found out that you could buy clay in bags from a store."

One of Senska's favorite stories was about the time Voulkos waited beside a filthy pickup truck parked on Bozeman's Main Street until the owner returned.

"Where did you get stuck?" he asked the truck's owner with urgency, intrigued by the clots of good red clay clinging to the vehicle.

"And so, Peter discovered Bear Canyon clay," Senska said once, showing off a sturdy, perfectly formed bowl her protégé had made. "The glaze came from the next drainage, over at Trail Creek."

Digging clay out of Montana hillsides and scouting for glazes were significant parts of the life that Senska chose to live.

Josh DeWeese didn't take classes from Senska, who retired from MSU in 1973, but he fondly recalls going with her and Bozeman artist Jim Barnaby to get clay near Lewistown. DeWeese described how they shoveled the stoneware clay from a cut bank high on a hillside into a canvas chute and down into Barnaby's truck parked on the road below, loading as much clay as the springs of the old vehicle could tolerate.

Shelburn Murray, the woman whom Senska originally hired to cook and do housekeeping chores and who eventually became Senska's live-in caretaker during her later years, and a potter in her own right, said that Senska taught her "the lesson of frugality and making do with what you have" that she believed must have gone all the way back to Senska's childhood in Africa. "She taught me the value of making purposeful choices in life. Nothing was ever wasted," Murray recalled. "When towels were too worn to be used in the bath, they became rags in the pottery. I liked to say that when they were reduced to threads there, we could use them to darn our socks."

"Frances taught all of us the art of living," said former student and long-time Bozeman High School art teacher Ray Campeau, whose family was particularly close to Senska. In 1967, Senska and her long-time partner, MSU art professor emeritus Jessie Wilber, who died in 1989, gave Campeau and his wife, Kay, money for a down payment so they could purchase the historic James Martin home on Bozeman's South Grand Avenue. Senska and Wilber had rented rooms from Julia Martin in the house before they built their own Bauhaus-inspired home on Sourdough Road. The Campeaus--only the second family to occupy the 1892 structure--have kept it as a historic showplace ever since.

"My feeling is that I want to make things that are useful, that are well made, that are good... and if they're are, that's a dividend."
Known for speaking her mind, Senska had little patience with artists who thought teaching was beneath them. "I would have been doing the art no matter what," she once said. "If I had been working in the dime store, I would have been doing the art. I think it was nice that I had this job that sort of kept me in the business because I had to do it to show my students and my students did it to show me so there was art all the time."

And even though some of her students became giants in the field, Senska never limited her teaching to talented art majors. She and Wilber were major supporters of the creation of Bozeman's Beall Park Art Center (now incorporated into the Emerson Center) where anyone can take art courses.

"You know," she said more than once, "one of the things you have to do is educate your audience. If you don't have people who appreciate art, what's the point of doing it?"

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

Senska also loved music (especially African rhythms and jazz) and live theatre. She loyally attended concerts and plays until her last years. She was active in the civic community, a voice at public meetings, raising funds to keep the swim center open and providing meeting space and encouragement to committees bent on preserving everything from the boulevard strip on South Eighth Avenue to the old Student Union Theater.

Senska often dismissed the idea that she had a legacy. Murray said she suspects Senska "was simply too humble to accept that anything as grand as a 'legacy' applied to her."

Dean Adams, who teaches ceramics in the MSU School of Art, counters that Senska had a legacy and he and others, who may not even realize it, are a part of it.

"Frances was my friend but never my direct teacher," Adams said. "Still, though, I am a product of Frances Senska. I had one of her students at every level of my education." Adams ticks off his teachers who were Senska's students: Campeau and Gary Sullivan at Bozeman High School, Autio at the University of Montana, Bunny McBride at the University of Iowa, and Lyndon Pomeroy, who was in Senska's first class.

"My students participate in her legacy just by attending MSU--they also are students of Frances in a similar way to me. She may not have valued the concept of her legacy, but it is real and I am a product of it and in a very humble way, (I) do my best to perpetuate (it)."

While Senska denied having a philosophy as a teacher--"I just did what came naturally"--she had definite thoughts on teaching art. Rather than speak at the National Committee on Education in the Ceramic Arts when it awarded her a life membership, Senska showed the convention a student-made film.

"....afterwards this man came up to me and said 'You hold your hands just the way I do, but I learned from Peter Voulkos.' And I said, 'Well, it figures. He learned from me and I learned from Marguerite Wildenhain.'

"That's what education in the ceramic arts is all about," Senska said. "You learn from somebody who does it."

Marjorie Smith is a freelance writer and columnist who wrote and produced a PBS program and wrote several articles about Frances Senska and her impact on regional and national arts.