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A Master Potter Celebrates 50 Years in Clay

By Shelly Prevost

In the early 1960s, as a young lady raised in the South, Mary Law grew up addressing people as Sir and Ma’am. “I was used to telling my elders what they wanted to hear.”, Mary recalls. Those were times when women were expected to marry a nice man and raise a family. Very few women had careers. Sexism worked in Mary’s favor. “My brothers were expected to have a career, but I didn’t have too. I was allowed to take anything in school, but my brother couldn’t.”

Mary started college as a Humanities major with an emphasis on Foreign Language. She applied to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. They asked for her portfolio, but she didn’t have one. They accepted her anyway. “I went there with no expectations, but it changed my life.”

One of Mary’s first ceramics teachers and a big influence on her was Karen Karnes. Karnes is internationally known, and her work is displayed in numerous galleries and permanent collections worldwide. While working together, Karnes said something to Mary that put her on a new path for the rest of her life. “Are you going to continue in clay?” Mary replied “Yeah, I guess so.” “Well good, I think you should.” Karnes said. As simple as that little bit of encouragement was, it was all that Mary needed to recognize in herself how much she really wanted to continue.

Mary remembers, “The first pot I felt really good about when it came out of the kiln was a Raku fired glass that had yellow in it. So, when it came out of the kiln I burst into tears, I liked it so much. Anyway, I was completely hooked on pots.”

Mary went on to apprentice with Bryon Temple, a production potter, where she honed her skills and learned the value of making pots for everyday use. Mary knew that once you end being an apprentice you must start making your own pots with your own style. Your body knows how to make the master’s pots but not your own. It took Mary ten years to figure that out. “Things that matter to me about thrown pots: it should have a freshness, not looking labored over. So, it doesn’t look like it was made on a lathe. I want a pot to look alive.”

Later, after Temple was in a terrible car accident that prevented him from teaching his class at Pratt School of Art in New York, he recommended Mary. There were people that worked for him that were a lot more advanced and knowledgeable than Mary, but she thinks that Temple saw in her someone who really loved to teach. Mary was only 23 years old at the time and wasn’t sure she could fill his shoes. But those fears were unfounded as she recalls, “It was like a drug. I just had so much fun, I loved the class and I loved the students.”

After receiving her MFA from Alfred University, Mary moved to Berkeley where she got her first teaching job on the West Coast at Richmond Art Center. In 1989 Mary began teaching ceramics at Contra Costa Community College (CCCC) where, after 29 years, she is still teaching. When asked what it is she likes best about teaching she says it’s the students. Mary estimates she has taught over 1500 students at CCCC. “There is something particular about the demographics of CCCC that are just endearing to me. I’m thinking about retirement and I’m thinking, ‘Gee, I’ll really miss the students.’ “I think art can supply for many students their first taste of succeeding in college. I feel like I’ve seen that happen.”

One of the most remarkable testimonies to Mary’s teaching is the large number of students still working in clay. Allen Perlof took a class from Mary 20 years ago and has been a helper in her class ever since. Annie Van Blaricom, another previous student, also became a helper in Mary’s class. Alan, Annie and other helpers load and fire the kiln and help students in the various stages of creating their ceramics.

Annie says, “I consider it a privilege to get someone of Mary Law’s caliber at a community college when one considers she is world-renown”.

Nathan Ring has joined Mary in co-teaching the ceramics class at CCCC. Nathan is an accomplished functional potter and teacher. He’ll be taking over the class when Mary retires.

This September, Mary Law will be honored with a special exhibition to celebrate her 50th year working in clay. This exhibit will include a curated set of works from ceramic artists that were also previous students of hers. The artists’ reception will be on September 6th at the Rhodes Gallery at CCCC and continue showing through the end of the month.

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