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2 Sculptures in Collection

Maija Grotell


(1899-1973) Finnish/American

Works in Selected Public Collections

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY; Detroit Institute of Art, MI; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Everson Museum, Syracuse, NY; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, MI; Museum of Arts and Design, NY, NY; Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT

Recent Exhibitions

With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932, Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI, 2021

American Studio Ceramics, Ball State University Museum of Art, Muncie, IN, 2008


Crafting America: Artists and Objects, 1940 to Today, by Jen Padgett and Glenn Adamson, University of Arkansas Press, 2021

Maija Grotell: Works Which Grow from Belief, by Jeff Schlanger and Toshiko Takeazu, Studio Potter Books, 1996

Working Through the Archives: An Artist’s View, by Jeff Schlanger, The NCECA Journal, 1998

Born 1899 Helsinki, Finland
Died 1973 Pontiac, MI

Maija Grotell was an influential artist and educator that some refer to as the “Mother of American Ceramics.” A prolific maker, a dedicated teacher, and a woman who worked all of her life in a discipline dominated by men, Grotell forged a path of independence and experimentation that continues to serve the ceramic arts. She was central to the development of ceramics as a legitimate discipline for artistic expression and her work with glazes, in addition to her role as mentor and teacher, are part of her legacy.

As a young student, Grotell learned painting, sculpture and design at The Ateneum, the Central School of Industrial Art in Helsinki. She then completed six years of graduate work in ceramics, one of two students working with Alfred William Finch. While in school Grotell supported herself by working as a textile designer and drawing for the National Museum, but once she completed graduate school there was no next step in ceramics. Not only were materials—clay and glazes—difficult to obtain in Finland but there was only one teaching position for a ceramist in the entire country. Recognizing that teaching would be her livelihood, she left Finland in 1927 and immigrated to the U. S. where there were more ceramic resources and schools. While resources in the U.S. were more abundant, the discipline had yet to be established as a fine art and was only recognized as a serious academic pursuit by a handful of universities. In fact it is due in part to Maija Grotell‘s artwork and her teaching that the medium is highly respected today.

Upon her arrival to the U.S., Grotell went to what remains one of the dominant ceramic schools in the country, New York State College of Ceramics in Alfred, New York (today Alfred State College of Technology, State Univ. of New York). There she met Charles Binns who founded the school and was the son of the owner of Royal Worchester Porcelain works in England, and Arthur Baggs who established a university level program in ceramics at Ohio State University as a part of its Engineering program. After a summer of study at Alfred, Grotell found a teaching job at Inwood Pottery Studios in New York and followed that teaching for a year at Union Settlement. Grotell then secured a position as an instructor at the Henry Street Craft School, part of Henry Street Settlement, a community center in New York city that has served as a national leader in service to local families for over a century. Grotell taught at Henry Street for nine years (1929-1938). From 1936 to 1938 she also taught at the School of Ceramic Engineering at Rutgers University (NJ).

Grotell maintained her own artistic practice while teaching and began to be recognized as a new artistic voice. In 1929 she won an award with the Barcelona International Exposition. In 1931 she received a certificate of excellence for an American Ceramics Society exhibition in Cleveland and in 1933 she won an honorable mention in the prestigious annual National Ceramic Exhibition in Syracuse. She would go on to win this award six different times during her life. In 1937 she received a Silver Medal at the Paris International Exposition.

In 1938, after having been turned down the year prior because of her gender, she was contacted by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and asked to join the faculty of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan as the head of the Ceramics Department. Grotell knew about Cranbrook and founder George Booth’s commitment to art and design. She had made an initial visit to Cranbrook in 1934 and had met Saarinen who, after seeing her work, had arranged for an exhibition of her work at Cranbrook’s museum. Grotell’s modern designs and colorful palette appealed to Saarinen’s sensibility. She joined a faculty of outstanding artists and designers who would collectively go on to build one of the most important art and design academies in the country. Grotell’s contributions as Head of the Ceramic Department at Cranbrook cannot be understated. Leading by example, offering quiet thoughtful critiques and encouraging individual expression, Grotell taught some of the most celebrated American ceramic artists including Richard DeVore, John Glick, Howard Kottler, Jeff Schlanger and Toshiko Takaezu (also in the Jeri L. Wolfson Collection).

While Grotell’s days were consumed with teaching, in the evenings and on weekends she did her own work, a major portion of which was experimentation with glazes. From early in her career she did extensive research and was not afraid to try new combinations of chemicals or glazing techniques. After coming to Michigan, Grotell moved from figurative decoration to more abstract geometric patterns. Eventually she began to build the patterns up by adding strips of clay or painting on a thick slip so an articulated relief captured the glazes on the vessel’s surface.

Grotell’s shapes were simple thrown cylinders and spheres that became vases or large plates like those in the Jeri L. Wolfson Collection. Patient and precise in her glazing, she knew the result she wanted and was not prone to accept accidents of the kiln. The wave pattern on the Untitled plate in the Jeri L Wolfson Collection is applied with control while also reflecting a confidence and freedom with the materials. The curved white glaze pattern crosses over the rings of the thrown form and the white rim serves as a frame for the whole. Grotell’s biographers report that she spent over a decade in search of the brilliant blue found on the Untitled charger in the Wolfson Collection. The ameba like wave pattern on this charger was one that she utilized often on bowls and plates. The shape is ebullient and implies movement and growth. The blue rim is in precise portion to the charger’s width.

In the 1940s Grotell stepped into the realm of establishing fine art pottery even further when she began to make unglazed colored clay vessels with tooled or textured surfaces. In the 1950s she merged the techniques of applying multiple colored slip layers and bubbled glazed surfaces to create animated surfaces that were distinctly patterned. She often cut or scratched through one glaze surface to reveal the layer of slip underneath. Grotell was not only a pioneer in her approach to glazing and surface decoration but she also helped popularize the potter’s wheel, which was widely used in Europe at the time but not well known in the U.S.

In 1961 Grotell’s contribution to the field of ceramics was recognized when she won the Charles Fergus Binns Medal for Excellence in Ceramics from Alfred University. She retired from Cranbrook in 1966. At the time, it was assumed that Toshiko Takaezu, Grotell’s student and spiritual and artistic heir, would step in as the next Department Head of Ceramics at Cranbrook. Takeazu had been teaching summer sessions at the academy for some time but she accepted a teaching job at Princeton University instead. Throughout her life Takeazu continued to express her gratitude to Grotell stating: “Hawaii is where I learned technique; Cranbrook is where I found myself.” Takeazu and Jeff Schlanger, another of Grotell’s students, worked to promote their teacher’s art for decades including publishing Maija Grotell: Works Which Grow from Belief in 1996.

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