“You Design It and You Make It”: The Life and Work of Ceramicist Frances Senska

046WHM Frances Senska courtesy of Archie Bray Foundation

Frances Senska believed in a utilitarian approach to art. Her cooperative teaching style endeared her to her students, many of whom went on to be influential artists in their own right. Photo from “A Ceramics Continuum, Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence,” courtesy of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts.

When the state college in Bozeman—now Montana State University—hired Frances Senska to teach ceramics in 1946, both the college art department and Senska herself were fairly new to the art form. The school’s small fine arts program focused primarily on two-dimensional art, and Senska, who had a master’s degree in applied art, had taken just two classes in ceramics. Nonetheless, hiring Senska proved fortuitous for the college and for America’s burgeoning midcentury crafts movement. At Montana State, Senska also met printmaker Jessie Wilber, who became her lifelong companion and with whom she helped cultivate Montana’s art community.

Frances Senska was born in 1914 and grew up in Cameroon, where her parents were missionaries. Her father, a cabinet maker and woodworker as well as a doctor, taught Frances how to use woodworking tools. The people of Batanga, Cameroon, also predisposed the girl to appreciate utilitarian crafts. “Everything that was used there was made by the people for the purposes they were going to use it for. It was low-tech. . . . And they were experts at what they did,” Senska later recalled.

Senska discovered her own love of clay while stationed in San Francisco with the WAVES during World War II. At a night course from Edith Heath at the California Labor School, Senska got her hands into “real, useable clay.” She immediately appreciated the autonomy of making utilitarian items by hand. “Clay is such a universal medium,” she said in a later interview. “You can do anything with it. . . . It doesn’t have to go through a factory system to be converted into a metal structure or something like that. . . . You do the whole thing yourself: you have the clay, you make the pot, you decorate it, you fire it; it’s all your work.”

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