Ceramicist Marie Woo is Kresge's 2020 Eminent Artist

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Kresge Arts in Detroit has named West Bloomfield ceramicist Marie Woo the 2020 Kresge Eminent Artist, a significant honor that comes with a $50,000 prize, no strings attached. 

"I had no idea," said Woo, describing the phone call two weeks ago informing her of the award. "It was a total surprise. I was overwhelmed."

West Bloomfield ceramicist Marie Woo is the 2020 Kresge Eminent Artist.

Woo, 91, has had a colorful career that's taken her all around the world, but she's studied and done most of her academic research in East Asia, principally Japan and China. The Seattle native has taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Eminent Artists not only have to have an impressive record of creative accomplishment, the criteria established by Kresge Arts in Detroit also require the individual to have shared their expertise widely, and to have contributed to the health and vibrancy of the local art scene. 

At the Scarab Club, Executive Director MaryAnn Wilkinson is a fan.

"Marie Woo's elegant and subtle ceramics question the traditional functional nature of pottery through her own constantly-evolving artistic language," Wilkinson said. "Not content to simply work in the studio, she has helped to preserve Asian folk traditions in ceramics that were in danger of dying out through her vivid writing and scholarly exhibitions."

"I always start with a vessel," said 2020 Kresge Eminent Artist Marie Woo of her work.

Most recently Woo spent ten years investigating the vanishing art of Chinese folk pottery, which resulted in a 2013 show at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, "Chinese Folk Pottery: Art of the Everyday." The exhibition traveled for six years after it left Ann Arbor. 

Woo  and her husband, architect Harvey Levine, would go to China every other year, she said, to advance the project. 

"I had a friend, an artist in China who'd get a driver and van," she said. "And he'd ask, 'What part of China? Where do you want to go this year?'"

This was back in the 1990s, and some of the sites they visited were impressively remote, often served by inadequate roads. 

"The roads were lousy," Woo said. "Now they’re building super highways. But we’d go places where the bus driver was reluctant to go, and we’d have to hike. And the bus would get stuck in the mud. It was all very adventurous."

Some years before that, Woo studied with a potter in Bizen, Japan, who'd been designated a "national treasure," and whose work focused on re-discovering the local tradition of unglazed pottery. 

"We knew nothing about unglazed pottery," Woo said. "So when he invited me to come to Japan, it was a great opportunity. I was there for three years," she added. "It changed my life, culturally as well as my approach to studying in clay."

Woo grew up in Washington State and did her undergraduate work in art at the University of Michigan -- though she didn't pick up ceramics until after graduation. 

Detail of a ceramic piece by Marie Woo.

"A friend had a kiln in a houseboat of all places," she said, "and I just got involved with her and enjoyed what little I knew. And then I went down to California and really got into clay."

Woo ultimately returned to Michigan and in 1956 graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she studied with legendary ceramicist Maija Grotell. The academy's program is famously all studio all the time, with no formal classes. Did that bother Woo?

"Not really," she said. "Maija left students alone unless you needed her, but was always available. And you could knock on her studio door as well. Then she would say, in her Finnish accent, ‘Any business for me?’"

Woo's time at Cranbrook, she said, was transformative: "It was a very stimulating place. Maija was a dedicated artist. She was very inspiring and my role model. It was a great learning process."

A great deal of learning was critical, given what a hard taskmaster ceramics can be.

"Clay is the vehicle," Woo said. "It dictates to you. The whole process is trying to form the ideas and going through the fire. It's a relentless process. You sort of let it happen and go along with it."

Ceramic sculpture by Kresge Eminent Artist Marie Woo.

Woo is still hard at work, with an October retrospective coming up at Detroit's Scarab Club, where she'll also be invited to sign one of the ceiling beams -- joining the likes of Diego Rivera and photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

It's been a season of honors. Last year the Michigan Ceramic Arts Association gave her a lifetime achievement award, and before that the Scarab Club awarded her their gold medal. 

"I did an installation piece there," she said. "I was very happy. "

But these days, Woo's also trying to retire, though prospects for that are still rather uncertain. 

"It's hard to quit," she said with a sigh.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy