Saturday, March 26, 2011

M. C. Richards and me...

"Centering, In the Art of Pottery Poetry and Person."

"The Crossing Point, Selected Talks and Writings"

Mary Caroline Richards
(1916 - 1999)


A poet, potter, teacher, and mystical philosopher who said that all of her art was "a celebration of the numinous," M.C. Richards often remarked, "We live in the universe, not just on Maple Avenue." Supremely self-confident, renowned for her warrior personality, she attributed much of her lifelong fearlessness to her mother's wisdom. When she was an impressionable eight-year-old, for example, a distraught neighbor came running to M.C.'s mother to tell her that M.C. had climbed up on the roof and was perched precariously at the edge. Her mother went out and called up to her daughter, "Oh, M.C., you look so beautiful up there all silhouetted against the sky."
Mary Caroline Richards

Mary Caroline Richards was born in Weiser, Idaho, in 1916 and reared in Portland, OR.  She received a doctorate in English from the University of California at Berkeley in the 1940s, when few women received more than a high-school education, and later taught at the innovative Black Mountain College and other universities. She left two marriages and a number of unsatisfactory love relationships and started a new career at the age of seventy by joining the faculty of Matthew Fox's Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality. As a seventieth birthday gift to herself, she had her ears pierced.   -- Mary Ford-Grabowsky

M.C. Richards also is the subject of a biographical movie "The Fire Within" taken at her home in PA where whe gave workshops, painted, and lived in an intentional community Camphill Village, an agricultural community in Kimberton, Pa., where she had lived since 1984. (The Black Mountain Library owns a copy of this film available to be checked out.)

The Fire Within is a portrait of a remarkable woman whose greatest artistic ability was perhaps to find the artist in others (despite her own impressive output as a writer, painter and potter). Most of the film centers on Richards' last years, including footage of her as she taught, wrote and worked with many special-needs adults at a Camphill Village in Pennsylvania; Richards touched the creative spark in them while working on her own art at the same time. The film offers us a striking picture of a woman who was as down-to-earth and forthright as they come, but who was likewise a dreamy visionary. She was a contradiction, and a fascinating one.  (movie review by Ken Hanke | 04/28/2004, Mountain Xpress)

Cover art for film
My life was definitely impacted by M.C. Richards.  In the 1970's I read "Centering."  The book, which became an underground classic, pulled together ideas about perception, craft, education, creativity, religion and spirituality, arguing for the richness of daily experience if carefully attended to, and the creativity of the average person. ''Poets are not the only poets,'' Ms. Richards wrote.

At that time I was not yet a potter.  I was a "hippie".  I was willing to step into the unknown, several times actually.  My boyfriend, Charlie, and I opened a co-op store in Tallahassee, naming it "Pottery, Poetry and Person." after M.C.'s book title.  Another friend, Martha, was the co-op sponsor of the book portion of the store, a loft full of great new age reading including overstuffed chairs in which to sit and read.  No big box book stores had thought of doing that in 1976 yet.  My share of the co-op was some pen & ink cards and calendars, and doing most of the hands on managing/sitting there.  Other arts and crafts were also represented, leather making, silk flower arranging, batik painting on cloth, wood inlay, watercolors. 

Charlie taught at the local alternative high school.  He learned how to make pottery, bought a wheel and some kilns, and we started making pottery there in the back of the store.  I watched what he did, and tried the same.   I even started doing demonstrations at the local fairs, as well as carrying pottery to sell there.  It was a great thing to do in the 70's in Florida.   I still have a couple of bowls that Charlie and I made...he threw them, I glazed them. One plate I made from beginning to end is carved in a Native American design, and is still in my collection also.  (It is not at all in a style MC would have promoted, being very tight compared to her organic flowing style).

Fast forward to when I finally decided to become a "real artist" and go to the University of Florida in the 80's, studying under Nan Smith to learn everything I didn't know about ceramics.  There was a lot.  But I also wrote to M. C. Richards (via her publisher probably) and told her how she had influenced my life.  She actually wrote me back.  I didn't understand that a famous woman, who had published two books, could write a student on notebook paper, but I was so excited, I carried her letter folded in my pocket of my coat.  I rode (as most students do) a bike around campus.  Someplace or another, the letter fell out.  But M.C. never fell out of the special place she holds in my heart.

M. C. Richards also planted the seed that led me to Black Mountain, NC. 

As you may already know, after I got that BFA in ceramics, I stayed in school to get an M.Ed. and Ed.S. in counseling...and found that some of the ideas being promoted for counselors still echoed those that were spoken of in "Centering."  M.C. had taught at Black Mountain College, which closed its doors back in the 50's, but not before impacting the arts and education. 

Black Mountain College was the college where performing and visual artists and John Cage engaged in a "Happening" in 1950, well before it happened again  in 1968 when I was briefly an art student in The Hartford Art School in Connecticut.  (I also was the receptionist there, thinking myself less talented and more inclined to be earning an income). 

Black Mountain College was a short-lived laboratory for innovative teaching and art whose faculty and students included Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg and Charles Olson. They had workshops where everyone shared making pinch pots, exploring words in creativity and "brain storming."  Buckminster Fuller, (grand-nephew of Margaret Fuller, another genius) tried out his first geodesic dome there, and returned to make a more successful one than the original one of venetian blind slats.

M. C. Richards had translated a play from the French which was produced at Black Mountain College, including Bucky Fuller as one of the characters.

M. C.'s pottery and painting (like her prose and poetry) is loose, organic, speaks of the creativity rather than the polish, and is definitely inspired.  She taught me the value of process rather than everything.  That was fundamental in counseling as well.  I may have tried writing poetry also, but am willing to appreciate that written by others.

My youngest son went to a Waldorf school for a year also, which was based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner.  I just realized that MC wrote the book that I read about him also!
Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America.

And another influence of MC...when I interviewed at one of the rehabilitation centers where I counselled, I impressed the director by describing the organic crossing point in all plants (see below) as MC had taught.  Whether a person or plant, we all have almost microscopic points where change a plant from root to stem as the cells have different a person when change becomes healthy rather than unhealthy for the organism.

It's all about Centering.

Seeing with Your Inner Eye

Avocado half with pitPicture in your inner eye, your inner sight, four avocado seeds on the window sill. Three are suspended in a glass of water and have sprouted. One is still dry and papery and brown. Each of the sprouting seeds has its own character. One has two long roots, like two rubbery legs folding around each other in the bottom of the glass. Out of the top rises a cluster of tiny seedling leaves, and surprisingly, on this one, these leaves are white -- little tight white albino avocado seedling leaves, coming out of that big hard seed knob. Another has one short straight root and one straight shoot bearing green leaves at the top. The third has neither root nor shoot, but the whole seed has been split open by a thrust from inside, and the two halves shoved apart by the germinating seed force -- that little bunch of stuff, big as the end of your pinkie, shoving those big doors aside like a tiny Samson. It is a wonderful sight. And now let us look at the fourth seed, dry and papery and brown, nothing showing on the outside. But within are a life force and a living plantness which we cannot see with our ordinary eyes. If we are to behold the wrinkled old seed in truth, we have to behold it with imagination, with our inner eye. Only with the inner eye of imagination can we see inner forms of Being and Becoming. In this lifeless-looking seed there is a germinating center, totally alive and totally invisible.
-- from The Crossing Point
Selected Talks and Writings

1 comment:

  1. Sorry, I forgot to use a label for Black Mountain College for this post. It was important to both MC and me!


Thanks for making this a more personal connection by saying what you think. I'll post your comments for others to see soon!