Maija Grotell

Finnish-American ceramic artist and teacher Maija Grotell was born in Helsinki in 1899. She trained at the University of Art & Design Helsinki and worked as a textile designer for the Finnish National Museum while studying. With employment scarce in Finland in the 1920s, Grotell moved to New York City in 1927.

After only three days, Grotell found work and spent the following summer at Alfred University in Western New York under the supervision of Charles Fergus Binns. While Binns taught in a formal, constructive manner, Grotell preferred to learn directly on the potter's wheel. During the interwar period, wheel-thrown ceramics were not yet common in the United States. American pottery making favored slip casting, coiling, and slab building. Yet Grotell's skill at the potter's wheel was undeniable and she distinguished herself as an instructor in New York City in the 1930s.

In 1938, Grotell was hired as head of the ceramics program at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, filling a position previously occupied by Waylande Gregory. Grotell was initially hesitant to accept the job because she feared her independence might be compromised and credit for her work given to male colleagues. However, over the next three decades, through her experiments with high-fire glazes and stoneware clay forms, Grotell proved herself a dedicated, innovative ceramicist and a passionate educator. She would often teach all day and then work in the pottery studio all night. Eventually, this tireless work ethic would take its toll, leading to chronic muscle tightness in the 1960s. Grotell ultimately passed away in 1973 in Pontiac, Michigan.

Grotell's legacy as an important ceramic artist is evident in the many fine geometric and figural works that remain. Examples are held in various private collections and by notable institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cranbrook Art Museum, and elsewhere. Furthermore, Grotell is often referred to as "the mother of American ceramics" since she made Cranbrook's ceramics department a leader in the field and trained prominent artists like Richard De Vore, Marie Woo, Jan Sultz, John Parker Glick, Howard Kottler, and Toshiko Takaezu.

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