Marie Woo's remarkable pottery at The Scarab Club

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Kresge Eminent Artist Marie Woo's retrospective at Detroit's Scarab Club, "Clay Quest," is a breathtaking tour through the glory both glazed and unglazed pottery can achieve when shaped and fired by the hands of a master.

Now in her early 90s, West BloomfieldTownship resident Woo -- honored by Kresge this year for a career of achievement and research -- is still at work, though she confesses she's trying to retire, but finds that difficult.

It's been a season of acclaim. Last year the Michigan Ceramic Arts Association gave her a lifetime achievement award, and the Scarab Club awarded Woo their Gold Medal.

Kresge Eminent Artist Marie Woo's pottery ranges from the abstract to the figurative, like this untitled work.

In praising Woo, MaryAnn Wilkinson, Scarab Club executive director said, "Her elegant and subtle ceramics question the traditional functional nature of pottery through her own constantly evolving artistic language. 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."

Woo's approach to ceramics, which ranges from the witty to the serene, was formed in part by her education at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 1950s, where she studied under the legendary ceramacist Maija Grotell. Woo's called her two years at Cranbrook "transformative."

But she's also explored the pottery traditions of East Asia in depth, particularly in Japan and China.

Many of Marie Woo's works explore the rougher side of ceramics, as with "Untitled 11 (500)" in her retrospective "Clay Quest."

Decades ago, 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 told The Detroit News. "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."

More 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.

Ceramic beads laced by wire create a mesmerizing surface of light and shadow in this detail of Marie Woo's "Untitled 9 (1500)" at Detroit's Scarab Club.

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

Woo, originally from Seattle, has also been a teacher at, variously, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. 

James Adair, president of the Michigan Ceramic Arts Association, has praised Woo's ability to "take inert clay and make something that's got energy and life and draws you to it."

Stroll around "Clay Quest" in the Scarab Club's airy first-floor gallery, and see if you don't agree.

"Untitled Vessel 1" by Marie Woo at Detroit's Scarab Club through Nov. 14.

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Clay Quest' - Marie Woo

Through Nov. 14

The Scarab Club, 217 Farnsworth, Detroit

Noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun.

(313) 831-1250