Sunday, December 20, 2015

Article 8: Margaret Cardwell



I met Margaret Cardwell in the summer of 1974, in an Urbana Park District extension building, two blocks from where I lived.  She was the instructor for my beginning ceramics class.  The ceramics studio occupied a single classroom in the old school building then owned by the Park District.  I had not taken a class in any visual art since my sixth-grade art class, so I had no idea what working with clay would be like.

I remember the studio was jam filled with equipment--6 or 8 kick-wheels, tables for hand-building, 2 electric kilns, many 5-gallon buckets filled with glazes, sinks, storage space for large packages of clay and rows of shelves for clay tools and unfinished projects.  It was foreign and intimidating to me, and I easily could have skipped the second class had it not been for Margaret's encouragement, kindness and expertise.  Learning to throw a piece of clay begins with a process called "centering," which is harder than it looks.  The irony was not lost on me, at a time when I was struggling to "center" my life.  If I could only center this chunk of clay and make something of it, maybe my life would follow suit.

Having done wheel-throwing now for many years, I look back on those first few weeks with a bit of awe.  The clay was gritty, the old kick-wheels were hard to turn at a steady speed, and we were elbow-to-elbow in an over-crowded classroom, but somehow Margaret taught all of us to make presentable pots.  She mixed in some hand-building projects as well, such as working with clay slabs and hand-rolled coils, and by the third week, I couldn't wait to get to class.  One night in class, Margaret approached me and, out of the clear blue, asked if I'd be available to join her and her husband, John, and two of their friends for dinner the following Saturday.  I was quite surprised but readily accepted.

Margaret and John lived in a beautiful home, about twelve miles west of Champaign/Urbana near Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve.  They had converted their garage into a studio for Margaret, but I don't actually remember any ceramics equipment there.  She was really an all-around visual artist, for she did oil painting, watercolors, collages, macrames and--the most surprising--large metal sculptures.  Next to three or four easels, you could see her acetylene tank and torch.  Their home was filled with a lot of incredible art work--mostly her paintings, sculptures, macrame pieces and ceramic pots.  I don't think she owned a dish or plate that she had not made. And, oh, by the way--she was the first gourmet cook I ever met!  Her dinners were exquisite.

Margaret and John were from California but spent years in Mexico and Positano, Italy, as Margaret dedicated her life to art and pottery.  John spent his time writing and eventually became an English professor.  (He always reminded me a little of Ernest Hemingway--tall, full gray-white beard, literate and articulate.)  They moved to the Champaign/Urbana area when John got a job at Parkland Junior College to teach English.  They were in their early 50's when I met them, and it was the second career for each of them.

Over the next two years I got to be quite close to Margaret and John.  I helped them plant their huge garden and partook in many wonderful meals and evening-long conversations with them.  I thought of them as having the gold standard in marriage relationships, and I still think that to this day.  At the center of that relationship was a constant respect and interest in each other, always with kind words and deeds.  Once I asked them if they ever got angry at each other, for I had never seen it.  After careful thought, Margaret responded, "Well, there was the time I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies and set them out to cool while I went to class.  John had eaten all of them by the time I got home.  I was pretty mad at him then."  I just nodded and smiled.

Margaret pushed me to create visual art.  Although one might argue that guitar playing is an art form involving one's hands, I really had never used my hands in creating a visual art before I met Margaret.  Ceramics is like painting, sculpture, macrame and drawing, in that you envision the finished object that people will view, and then you try to make it.  Margaret was very patient and encouraging in her teaching, but she also pushed me to be a good potter, giving me techniques that she didn't teach in her classes.  Of course, unlike most of the students, I had the benefit of seeing hundreds of things that she had made, so I asked questions others didn't know to ask.

Part of learning to be a better potter was learning how to run a ceramics studio.  In addition to the classes, a pottery club of 35-40 people used all of the studio's facilities.  Only four people, including Margaret, were in charge of running the studio, but she encouraged me to be the fifth person.  I joined the management team and learned how to mix glazes, stack and unstack the kilns and organize the shelves for classes.  In turn, I learned much more about ceramics than most of the other students.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the mentoring I've received from other instructors in California (especially Jill Getzan, an amazing ceramics artist and dear friend) and the frequent push I received from Margaret while I was first learning ceramics.  I can't overstate the importance Margaret played in my life during those years.  Working in clay was a stabilizing force for me.  When she pushed me to create visual art, Margaret helped me focus all of my attention on what I was making at the moment.  She pushed me to focus on art and other important things in life.  That is why she is on my remarkable person list.

And Finally....  Margaret Cardwell passed away on December 18, 2010, at the age of 92.  I last saw her and John in the fall of 1980, when I visited them in Illinois.  We went to the Covered Bridge Festival in Indiana during that visit, and I have a beautiful photo of them from that day.  Although I lost touch with Margaret and John after that visit, I still have all of the ceramic pieces I made in her classes, and I still think about the remarkable things they did for me.

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