Two of a Kind: Couples in Craft in MAD’s Permanent Collection

More than any other time period in the history of art, the twentieth century is marked by a high volume of prolific couples in the arts—from Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock in the world of painting, to Ray and Charles Eames in that of design. No arts sector was more saturated with couples than craft, with Anni and Josef Albers, Kay Sekimachi and Bob Stocksdale, Katherine Westphal and Ed Rossbach, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, and Mary and Edwin Scheier, all of whom are represented in the permanent collection of the Museum. Traditionally, the artist’s narrative values individual achievement, but some of these couples chose to instead forge partnerships beyond marriage, and established successful working collaborations. The Natzlers and the Scheiers in particular are examples of craft couples who worked together as professional ceramists.

Mary and Edwin Scheier met in 1936 and married a year later. In 1937, they began their first shared artistic endeavor in the form of a traveling puppetry show. They settled down to work in academia at the Tennessee Valley Authority Art Center a year later; there, the two skilled potters began working together. The couple had a clear division of labor: Mary threw famously thin-walled pots while Edwin did the decorative work of glazing, slip working, incising, and adding reliefs of abstracted figures [fig 1]. During their twenty-eight year artistic partnership, the Scheiers did at times work individually on pieces from start to finish, but these are indistinguishable from the work they created together. In 1966, when the couple moved to Mexico, Mary stopped producing pottery due to arthritis and Edwin found a creative outlet in weaving, only to return on his own to pottery more than a decade later. This later solo work recalls the earlier pottery he created with Mary, indicating her enduring influence despite the fact that she was unable to take part in the physical creation of the pieces [fig 3].

Gertrud and Otto Natzler met in 1933 in their native country of Vienna. They married soon after meeting, and combined their complementary skills in clay-working to establish a thirty-eight yearlong artistic production based in California. Gertrud was responsible for throwing graceful forms on the wheel, while Otto, who was interested in colors and textures, methodically experimented to create an inventory of glazes to perfectly compliment his wife’s pots. Gertrud created a formal language as she willed the pots through subtle movements to create variations that resulted in an endless catalogue of forms [fig 3]. Unlike that of the Scheiers, the Natzlers’ division of labor was much more complex.  Otto himself stated that “only the form can inspire the glaze,” underscoring the importance of the dialogue between himself and Gertrud in crafting their iconic pottery, known for eggshell-thin walls and elegant forms with stunning glazes [fig 4]. Both Gertrud and Otto worked individually and collaboratively, systematically and yet open to experimentation to reach a common vision.

Otto survived Gertrud, who passed away in 1971. He finished more than two hundred pots left unglazed at the time of her death in 1972. By 1975, Otto had created a new ceramic language of his own by hand-building sculptures glazed in his signature style [fig 5]. This departure from the work he made with Gertrud conveys the equal importance of both partners in the creation of their pottery; perhaps it is also a sign of his respect for his wife’s artistic legacy. The Natzlers’ partnership was the subject of an exhibition at MAD (then the American Craft Museum) in 1993 titled Collaboration/Solitude. The Natzlers and the Scheiers serve as beacons of craft’s potential as a platform for artistic collaboration, which can lead to fruitful opportunities for innovation and experimentation.

Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy, Curatorial Assistant and Project Manager at the Museum of Arts and Design

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