Kresge Arts in Detroit is proud to announce Marie Woo as the 2020 Kresge Eminent Artist. Woo is the 12th artist to receive the lifetime achievement award, which includes a $50,000 no strings attached prize. The annual honor celebrates an individual’s distinguished record of excellent work and career achievement in the arts, significant impact on their chosen art form, and dedication to uplifting Detroit’s cultural environment.
Woo, 91, is the first Kresge Eminent Artist honored for work in ceramics. For nearly 70 years, her creations have defied expectations of traditional ceramic form and function and incorporated innovative approaches, such as bringing raw, natural elements into her creative process. Her work is included in collections throughout the world, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Alfred Ceramic Museum in NY, Mills College Museum of Art in Oakland, CA., The Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and museums in Greece, Latvia, China, and Japan.
Wall piece, clay, 2019
Wall piece, clay, 2018
Wall piece, clay, 2015
Soda ash clay sculpture, 2009
In the world of ceramics, Woo is also highly regarded as a dedicated preservationist of nearly extinct Chinese folk pottery. A 1998 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation paved the way for Woo and two co-curators to travel across China in search of vanishing pottery traditions. Woo’s research, and the more than 100 pottery pieces collected during 10 years of travel, culminated in the International Chinese Folk Pottery Exhibition / Symposium & Films in 2013 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Many of the pieces were later featured in a traveling exhibition, Chinese Folk Pottery: The Art of the Everyday.
“It’s amazing, really surprising, to think that they would recognize a potter, and an Asian potter, to boot,’’ said Woo, who is Chinese American and a native of Seattle, Washington.
“Marie Woo has been a transformational force in the elevation and development of her art form, and in the enrichment of our cultural community—the bases for the Kresge Eminent Artist Award,” said Rip Rapson, the president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. “On the one hand, she is a prominent student of deep traditions, including Chinese folk pottery, with all of its functional beauty. On the other hand, she is a dynamo within the contemporary practice of pottery that challenges conventional notions of function and beauty. Her creations reflect a phenomenal level of craft and a fluidity of mind to which we can all aspire.”
Woo is elated that her selection brings with it a chance to illuminate ceramics as a highly expressive fine art form. She notes that, traditionally, pottery and ceramics have been controversially dismissed from the realm of fine art. “I don’t believe in the labeling. I just do what I do and trust the viewer,” said Woo. “If you just let the clay take over, then the viewer takes a journey, too.’’
Woo’s legacy also includes an illustrious track record as an arts educator, inspired in part by her teacher and famed mentor, Maija Grotell, the Finnish American ceramicist who founded Cranbrook’s ceramics program. “She was my role model,’’ said Woo, who received an MFA in 1956. “She was a fabulous artist, deeply dedicated to her students. I came to Detroit to study with her.”
After graduating from Cranbrook, Woo made her way directly into the classroom as well, teaching at the University of Michigan, and later at the University of Washington, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, and then at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit for a decade, from 1980 to 1990. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Woo was a vocal champion for arts education opportunities at Pewabic Pottery, the historic ceramic tile studio in Detroit. She taught there, and as a board member, opposed efforts to eliminate classes as a cost-cutting measure. Woo’s side prevailed, and classes continue to this day.
“Marie Woo has made indelible marks as a ceramicist, curator, and educator, as well as a key preservationist of rare Chinese folk pottery,” says College for Creative Studies President Donald L. Tuski. “Through her spirit of experimentation, Woo has also been a trailblazing innovator, tireless in her approach to testing the limits of clay, even inventing her own signature glazes and clay processes. We are thrilled to celebrate Marie Woo’s addition to the esteemed group of Kresge Eminent Artists.”
To Woo, the timing of the award is especially surprising, a feat she never expected to receive at the twilight of her career. “I’m flabbergasted,’’ she said. “I have to think of what I will do with so much money and new opportunity. It’s a little overwhelming.’’
Green sculpture, clay, 1998
Clay/metal sculpture, 1998
Clay vessel with cover, 1998
Clay vessel, 1998
In some ways, Woo’s entrance and her longevity in the arts are just as surprising. “My parents had no interest in art. It was never an important thing,’’ said Woo.
Fortunately, at the grade school that her parents—immigrants from the southern part of China—chose, Woo crossed paths with an enthusiastic art teacher who encouraged her early interest in drawing. That initial passion, and support, led Woo to major in art at the University of Washington.
Throughout her career, Woo has also worked to expand awareness and access to the work of others in her chosen art form. She was a founding member of the Clay Ten, an experimental traveling ceramics collective formed in 1983, as a way of helping to spotlight the works of 10 potters who at the time were struggling to find outlets for their art.
“Marie Woo is the perfect choice for the 2020 Kresge Eminent Artist Award,” said MaryAnn Wilkinson, Executive Director of the Scarab Club, one of six panelists who made this year’s final selection. “Her elegant and subtle ceramics question the traditional functional nature of pottery through her own constantly evolving artistic language. And though not originally from the area, she chose to spend her long, productive career in metro Detroit.’’
Currently, Woo spends her days working to find homes for the remaining pieces of Chinese Folk Pottery she collected during her travels. The pieces are the only ceramics on display in the the basement studio of her West Bloomfield home, both designed by her husband, the architect Harvey Levine. The couple met as students at Cranbrook and married shortly after graduating.
Now that she has officially been named the 2020 Kresge Eminent Artist, Woo said she may have to briefly postpone what had seemed a certain, and natural, next step: retirement.
“It’s hard – things, ideas, they keep coming,’’ she said. “ I’m in my 90s. To have so much happen now; I keep thinking, ‘What’s next?’’’