Remembering Leza McVey

by Mark McDonald

In 1975 I moved to New York City from Texas and landed a full-time job at the eponymous gallery of Lillian Nassau, the reigning queen of Art Nouveau. I benefitted greatly from daily exposure to her diverse collection of 20th century decorative arts; Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Weiner Werkstӓtte, Art Deco, and of course Tiffany, for which she had become the leading authority. I met fascinating clients, collectors, dealers, and curators who frequented the gallery; it was a true Salon atmosphere, a real laboratory for learning.

During these three years, my main responsibility at Lillian’s was the inventory; I researched, photographed, and recorded descriptions for every piece. I developed a deep appreciation and love for ceramics while handling world-class examples of French (Dalpayrat and Taxile Doat), Italian (Gio Ponti), Scandinavian (Rorstrand), and American (Grueby and Natzler) pottery. Somehow the clay medium appealed to me, it seemed more down-to-earth and accessible, less technical and mysterious than glass. This experience inspired me to begin collecting American Arts and Crafts pottery, primarily Grueby, Van Briggle, Teco, and Newcomb College.

In 1979 I left the security of that institution and struck out on my own, feeling I had gotten the maximum benefit from this apprenticeship. For several years I was an “American picker”, three decades before the reality show now on television. My travels, as “man-in-a-van”, led me west to Syracuse (home of the Everson Collection of American ceramics), to Rochester (where my brother and sister-in-law lived), to East Aurora (the Roycrofters), Buffalo (the Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House and Albright-Knox Museum), and onto Toronto where I met Ross and Joanne Young. Their shop, 20th Century Gallery, was extraordinary; they were early visionary dealers with great taste. They understood and explored modernism from its early European origins to mid-century.

The first vessel by Leza McVey acquired by Mark McDonald.(Photograph of vessel by Richard P. Goodbody. Reproduced from The Ceramic Forms of Leza McVey, by Martin Eidelberg, 2003, Philmark Publishers)

On one of these Toronto visits I purchased a huge ceramic vessel which they had recently acquired from an estate sale in Detroit, it was signed “LEZA” in script on the bottom. We assumed it was American but the name was a mystery. When I got back to New York I called one of my friends from my Lillian Nassau days, Martin Eidelberg, an art history professor at Rutgers. He was, and still is, a leading expert and writer on the history of 19th and 20th century European and American ceramics. Martin said, “Oh yes, that is Leza McVey. I just recorded an interview with her for a chapter I am writing for the catalogue for the upcoming exhibition, Design in America, The Cranbrook Vision 1925-1950.” Martin encouraged me to make a trip to Cleveland to meet her and her husband, Bill McVey who had been a sculpture instructor at Cranbrook from 1947-1953. The McVeys left the Detroit area in 1953 and returned to their hometown when Bill was offered a teaching position at the esteemed Cleveland Institute of Art. However, in recent years Leza had slipped into relative obscurity and was not in good health. Martin felt she would appreciate my interest and enthusiasm for her work.

Thus began a wonderful relationship I enjoyed with Leza and Bill that continued until his death in 1995 (she died in 1984). During my numerous visits to their mid-century modern home in Pepper Pike in east Cleveland, they shared many stories about their Cranbrook years and their fellow students Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Toshiko Takezu, Eero Saarinen and Jack Lenor Larson. The close-knit Cranbrook community, faculty and students, and the intensely creative atmosphere fostered by Eliel Saarinen and his family enabled Leza to make major strides forward in finding her own voice in her work.

In Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, and close to their families, both the McVeys' careers flourished. They built a modern international style house with an open plan living area bookended by his and her studios. She began exhibiting locally and showing her work in national ceramics competitions. This period of mature realization and national recognition culminated in her one-woman retrospective at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1965, the exhibition was designed by her friend the brilliant goldsmith, John Paul Miller.

View of the Leza McVey retrospective at the Cleveland Institute of Art, 1956 (Exhibition image reproduced from The Ceramic Forms of Leza McVey, by Martin Eidelberg, 2003, Philmark Publishers)

Leza contributed greatly to the then blossoming modern idea that pottery was not limited to traditional forms created on the wheel. She blended her talents and interests, sculpture and weaving, into her asymmetrical ceramic vessels, creating unorthodox forms at the same time that Peter Voulkos was revolutionizing clay art.

Sadly, she had a life-long degenerative eye disease that forced her to stop potting in the late 1960s. She began to rely solely on weaving as an outlet for her creativity. Although she had saved a small collection of her own pots in her studio, she was reluctant to sell them. They were her “babies”, the physical reminders of her most productive years. During my last visit with Bill, after Leza’s death, he consented to let me buy this example (lot XXX) off her studio shelf; he remembered that I had admired it often.

A few years after Bill’s death I teamed up with Martin Eidelberg and my generous client Phil Aarons (who recently gifted his large collection of American Studio ceramics to the Boston Museum) to produce a catalogue celebrating the life and work of Leza McVey.

Most pots have been designed as 'containers' for flower arrangements, a prescribed number of red apples, or perhaps a decorously shirred egg. These extraneous objects are needed to complete the design. But since flowers will wilt and apples do get eaten, I prefer completing the unit myself. This feeling - undoubtedly a limitation - has led to my incorporating stopper-accents in many of my designs.

—Leza McVey