USAO Alum Tackles Ceramics in Her Golden Years

Friday, October 13, 2006

CHICKASHA – Most artists “discover” art within themselves at a young age. For Mary Ellen Thomas, it happened a bit later.

“I found ceramics, or ceramics found me, at the age of 60,” she said.

The 81-year-old University of Science and Arts alumna recalled about her 20-year artistic journey, which culminated with award-winning stoneware and a ceramics glazing technique that has caught national attention.

“I had never had an art class at all, either in grade or high school,” Thomas said. “But I was really looking for a new interest at this point in time. I’d had a greenhouse, and had explored and studied and grew lots and lots of different plants, but I’d come to the end of the line on that.

“I was casting around for something interesting and educational, and it was between photography and pottery,” she said. “I investigated into both of those and I decided that I liked pottery better.”

Ten years after she graduated from USAO, Thomas returned to her alma mater to take a pottery course. For Thomas, who holds three degrees, returning to school was nothing new. She earned a master’s degree in bacteriology and biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma, a bachelor’s degree in natural science from the University of Wisconsin and a bachelor’s degree in English literature from USAO in 1976. During the early 1970s, Thomas taught foundational science courses at USAO.

As part of USAO’s upcoming alumni homecoming, Thomas will be displaying 52 of her ceramic pieces alongside 2003 USAO alumnus Brandon Wood’s paintings Oct. 23 – Nov. 4 in the USAO Art Gallery. A public reception will be held Nov. 4 at 2 p.m.

Thomas said that after her first pottery class, she was hooked.

“Having never had an art class, but desiring to gain knowledge in that discipline, I enrolled in beginning pottery,” Thomas said. “From that time on, ceramics caught hold and a new, rich adventure of creativity and learning became my fascination.”

But Thomas found the number of classroom hours too limiting. At the behest of her late husband, Harper, she eventually had her own studio built, where she could continue creating pottery at her own pace.

“My husband told me that we either needed to start selling my pottery or build another room!” she said. She began work on designing her backyard studio, which now contains three electric kilns, a 12-cubic foot gas kiln and two pottery wheels.

In a tribute to her maiden name, Stanton, Thomas named the studio “St. Anton’s Pottery Works.” The name became the source of both curiosity and humor.

“One time, this man stood there looking at the sign, and he said, ‘St. Anton, is that in the Old or the New Testament?’” she said. “He stood there a while racking his brain, and I said, ‘No, that’s just a figment of my imagination.’ We laughed about that for a long time.”

For Thomas, a life-changing discovery came shortly after in the form of a Japanese vase. During a visit to Tokyo, she and her husband visited an art gallery. In it stood a porcelain vase with a crystalline glaze that mesmerized her at first glance.

“I was standing there, just frozen, and my husband said, ‘Now, Mary Ellen, don’t touch the display!’” she said. “The pieces were $6000 each, and we wouldn’t have been able to afford to get home if I’d broken one!”

What intrigued Thomas about the vase was the crystalline glaze that produced large, flower-like shapes during the final glazing process.

“My interest was in the development of large, vibrant crystals,” Thomas said. “One of the exciting characteristics of crystalline glazes is that the crystals are formed on the background of the glaze and may be the same or of different color than the crystals. Sometimes ‘secondary’ crystals, very small, but in great numbers and of the same or very different color, may develop. This action can spectacularly enhance a vase.”

It is a rare and difficult process to master. Thomas knew overcoming that glaze was her next step as an artist.

“I enjoyed working with earthenware and stoneware, and I dabbled in raku, but in viewing the crystalline porcelain vase, a new and challenging facet of pottery had arrived in my life,” she said. “I vowed then and there that I would learn the science of this glaze and conquer the procedure.”

According to Thomas, crystalline formations were accidentally stumbled upon in the 13th century. They were regarded as phenomena possibly caused by impurities in the clay. In the 18th century, two Parisians discovered some crystals while making ceramic tiles, but they were not able to duplicate the procedure. Then in the early 1920s, Adelaide Robineau began experimenting with crystals, and in the latter part of the 20th century, potters again became interested in the process.

And, as Thomas found out, that process is a tricky one. She began researching current crystal glazing techniques, but was disappointed by her findings.

“I could find very little information in the available literature regarding crystal glazes,” Thomas said. “Some of the data was helpful, but other data was apparently published ‘tongue in cheek.’ When you tried it, it didn’t work. And that’s true of many, many glazes. As far as using someone else’s formulas, they’ve often left something out and it’s a failure.”

The lack of available research data didn’t stop her. She called upon her scientific background, as well as an inner resolve, and charted her course towards discovering the crystalline glaze method.

“Through trial and error,” she said, “I taught myself the intricacies of the difficult glaze. And with test firings, computations and charts to map my way, after a few years I realized success.”

The discovery landed her in an elite circle of artists. To her knowledge, only about 60 artists in the United States have unlocked the secret to crystalline glazes, and only six artists that she’s met actually make a living at it.

Thomas’s stoneware pieces began catching local and national acclaim. In 1989, her “Centennial Celebration” casserole dish won Best of Show in advanced ceramics at the Oklahoma State Fair. Her “Golden Bowl” placed first in the fine arts category as well, and was selected to compete overseas in the Fletcher Challenge Competition in Auckland, New Zealand. It was displayed in the Masterworks Gallery there during June, 1990.

In 1992, Geil Kilns Company, based in Gardena, Calif., contacted Thomas with an interesting proposition. Could they use her endorsement in a print ad? They asked if they could write a letter and have her sign it, as if she’d written it.

“I told them, ‘Yes, you can use me in your ad, but I’m going to write that letter myself!’” True to form, a photo of Thomas, and her self-written and signed letter of endorsement, ran in the pages of Ceramics Monthly magazine for more than a year.

New Zealand and Japan were just a few locations where Thomas tread. The international traveler has been to Australia four times, Taiwan, all 50 U.S. states, Paris, London and Guatemala.

“A lot of people have asked, ‘What have you done with your life?’” she said. “I raised five children and a husband! My primary job was being a good wife and mother. And that’s why I decided to take a little breather at 60. And now I’m on my way to 82!”

With five children and multiple grandchildren spread across the U.S. and overseas, Mary Ellen devotes time to art, travel and family.

“I have two children living in other countries,” she said. “One lives in Texas, one lives in Singapore.”