M.C. Richards

+  MOUNTAIN LAKE WORKSHOP

M.C. Richard’s Mountain Lake Workshop was a week-long series of intensive group participatory sessions in drawing, ceramics, writing, and book-making. M.C. was an eminent ceramicist, visual artist, poet, and author of the landmark book, "Centering". She was a key figure at Black Mountain College in the 1940s and 50s, and translated the avant-garde French playwright Antonin Artaud’s influential “The Theatre and Its Double” into English while on the Black Mountain faculty. While at Black Mountain she worked closely with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor and Buckminster Fuller among many others. She derived much of her philosophical precepts about community and teaching from the work of Rudolph Steiner and the Waldorf School technique he inspired.

by Ray Kass 

M.C. Richards’ long commitment to building a strong sense of community in art and life had its origins in her experience teaching at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s. At Black Mountain she came to “think of her work as integrating the soul, the mind, and the muscle”—a philosophical overview essential to the interdisciplinary scope of her work in various mediums; her pottery became the inspiration for her poetry, her poetry found shape in her pots and paintings, and all were united by a unique spirit of ceremonial ritual. Perhaps the clearest expression of these principles is set out in her landmark 1962 book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, which has become a foundation classic of “New Age” literature. “I move,” she wrote, “from the silhouette the surface the shape to the invisible space within, without which the pot would still be a lump of clay.”1

 

I first met M.C. (short for Mary Caroline) Richards in 1995 when she was visiting at Suzi Gablik’s country house near Blacksburg, Virginia. I had owned a copy of Centering since the mid-1960s and often heard mention of its author at board meetings of the Jargon Society (a press founded by poet Jonathan Williams that grew out of his Black Mountain College years) and in conversation with my friends John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Suzi took us into town to have dinner, and a discussion about a possible future workshop with M.C. came up almost immediately; it would incorporate drawing, ceramics, writing, and book-making with an autobiographical and community focus.

 

I subsequently made several trips to visit M.C. in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, at Camphill Village, where she had lived since 1984. Camphill is a dynamic farming, gardening, and handcrafting community of more than 100 people of all ages where M.C. cared for residents with various developmental disabilities. The community is grounded in the anthroposophical principles of Rudolf Steiner, whose educational philosophy had inspired the Waldorf Schools, also known as Steiner Schools, which encourage individual imagination and incorporate the arts in all aspects of academic study. M.C. maintained a small painting and pottery studio at Camphill and often cooked breakfast for thirty or more of the residents. 

 

On one memorable visit with M.C. and my graduate intern, Andy Liss, we drove into New York City to see a special gallery exhibition of Morris Graves’ flower paintings. Their radiant colors thoroughly delighted her—expression through the transformative experience of color has a special place in anthroposophical philosophy. Afterwards we took her downtown for dinner at Merce Cunningham’s apartment. 

1 M. C. Richards, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Hanover, NH.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962), p. 64. 

M.C. RICHARDS AND THE MOUNTAIN LAKE WORKSHOPS:

COSMOS AND CREATION IN CLAY, COLOR, AND WORDS, 1997

COSMOS AND CREATION IN CLAY, COLOR, AND WORDS WITH M.C. RICHARDS

by Alwyn Moss

 

What I remember most about those October days in 1997 in the Mountain Lake workshop is how M.C. Richards’ faith in “creating out of nothingness” or “fecund emptiness” affected all that we did there and how we did it. For my own work, at least, the experience has been a lasting legacy, as were my times with M.C. herself, whom I had known for a number of years. While I was studying to be a Waldorf teacher, we were often involved in the same anthroposophical (Steiner) events and schools.

 

We gathered on the first day of the workshop in the large, light-filled studio room of the Horton Center at Mountain Lake, surrounded by mountain views aglow with autumn foliage. There were eighteen or more of us, some local, others from farther away, several I had known before. Although the workshop was free of charge, it did request that participants be willing to spend several days with M.C., something that did not seem to be a problem for anyone involved. Standing there around the big table we were, I felt, already community. The word community came naturally to me because I knew from M.C.’s writings and history that community was a core mission of her life, even before her years at Black Mountain College; that the making and sharing of art was not only a primary aspect of creating community but her life’s work.

 

Now the doing of it would begin. But while the making of art was central to the workshop, the words she spoke (always the poet) were transformative in themselves. We were asked to “let go of thought,” to “trust in the invisible, and in our intuition”—and in that way let the work flow freely out as gifts. Standing in her place at the table now, tall, strong, and serene, M.C. focused her attention on the large, fat coil of clay she had circled around the entire table, from which she indicated we were to each take our portion.

 

“Use your part as a doodle,” she said, and while doing that, if we wished, we could introduce ourselves to each other in any way we chose. So there we were, listening to each other,our hands and fingers freely manipulating the soft, slightly wet gray matter with as little conscious intentionality as possible. “Take the clay, and feel your fear into it.” This helped me, as I was always a little timid about clay. “Working from Source,” as M.C. put it, “uninvolved with reasons why and all the flimsy fabric of mentation,” we are free and brave enough to do what we do even if we do not know what we are doing. No judgment or opinions came from our guide, which helped us not to judge our own work or ourselves.

 

We later fired the pinch pots and some delicate, leaf-like creations that M.C. guided us in making. The firing was done with the help of the ceramic artist and Virginia Tech professor David Crane at a kiln that M.C. built with the help of some of the workshop participants at an off-site location.

The clay that we used was a terra cotta or earthenware, and the kiln was of a “loose-stack” brick construction that allowed for plenty of air to enter through the sides during the firing. We burnished our pots and then carefully layered them, allowing a little space between each, in a dense medium of fine sawdust (donated by a local cabinet shop) that filled the kiln. The kiln was lit with some leaves at the top of the heap, then a metal cover was placed over it and it was allowed to smolder for a day or more.

 

A “sawdust fire” process is somewhat like that of low-fire raku, with one major difference. In raku firing, the clay objects are removed while still red-hot and then immediately subjected to a post-firing reduction in a pit or container of combustible materials that contribute unpredictable qualities to their glaze. The pots that came out of our kiln, by contrast, were all intensely black!

 

For the “Color and Words” aspect of the workshop, we made little books—an experience of combining visual imagery with words. We were asked to take a large piece of newsprint (18 inches x 22 inches) and color both sides using crayons, colored pencils, or paint or all three. I used mostly watercolor paint. Many of us had folded our newsprint into book size; this made it possible to relate to the sizes and foresee, at least a little, what we were doing. Then we folded the full sheet three times (up from the bottom, the side, and then the bottom again), which made a book about 6 in. x 10 in. “Cut the pages and sew them together” M.C. said, helpfully doing it herself so we could follow instructions.

 

In regard to words in response to colors M.C. said: “Don’t try to make the words belong”; so I didn’t. On one page blue, yellow, purple, and black had created a huge triangular form coming up from the bottom. I wrote, Now at last we are moving — Where? Many years later I don’t know where my clay piece is, though I liked it, but I have the book—and words of M.C. that live on in her many books and in me. Imagine, as she would and did say, “Creating out of Nothingness: the path of Evolution.”

 

Each participant then took a turn sitting in a chair at the center of our group and, holding their book up over their head, ceremoniously read their illusively constructed and illustrated poetry, while M.C. sat on the floor behind them gazing up at their evocative creations. 

© 2020 by Mountain Lake Workshop. Website Design by Will Ketyer. All Rights Reserved.