Sisu is a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, a tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience; it is also the word weaver Marianne Strengell used to describe her friend Maija Grotell.
Maija Grotell was born August 19, 1899, in Helsinki, Finland. She studied painting and sculpture in Helsinki, graduating in 1920. While working at a textile firm as an artist, she completed six years of graduate work in ceramics (1920-1926) under Alfred William Finch, a noted Belgian ceramicist and painter who practiced in Finland.
In October 1927, Grotell immigrated to the United States, settling in New York where she studied for one summer under Charles Fergus Binns. Her first employment was as an Instructor at Inwood Pottery Studios in New York City (1927-1928). She went on to teach children at the Union Settlement (1928-1929) and at the Henry Street Craft School Settlement (1929-1937), both in New York. While teaching ceramics and researching glazes, Grotell was also exhibiting and selling her own ceramics. From 1937 to 1938, Grotell was a ceramics instructor and research assistant at the Department of Ceramics at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She became a naturalized United States citizen in 1934.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Maija Grotell was one of the most significant potters working independently during the late 1930s. Although a relatively large number of women played important roles in the art pottery movement in the early twentieth century, few female ceramists were active between the first and second World War. Grotell was one of the exceptions.”
As Eliel Saarinen’s complex of buildings at Cranbrook began to take shape, he sought out distinguished artists and craftspeople to work in the studios. Impressed with a gallery exhibition of Grotell’s work, Saarinen envisioned her ceramics contributing to the architecture of Cranbrook. In the fall of 1938, Saarinen invited Grotell to join himself, Carl Milles, and Marianne Strengell at the Cranbrook Academy of Art as head of the ceramics department, a position she held until her retirement in 1966.
Grotell described the way she worked as such, “I always have something I am aiming at, and I keep on. I do not sketch on paper, I sketch in clay. So if it is not what I want, I make another one and keep on. In that way I have many similar pieces. My reason is not for repeating, but for improving.”
In her teaching, Grotell emphasized ceramics as a medium of artistic expression. Many students trained by her went into teaching and were integral to the development of America’s university ceramics programs following World War II. In her twenty-eight years at Cranbrook, her students included Richard DeVore, Toshiko Takaezu, John Glick, Susanne Stephenson, Lydia Kahn Winston Malbin, and Jeff Schlanger.
Of Grotell, Takaezu said, “Majia’s astute, honest, sharp criticism would sometimes fall into place months later, but it was always true. Maija didn’t say very much and what she didn’t say was as important as what she did say, once you realized she was thoroughly aware of everything you did.”
Her “astute, honest, sharp criticism” may have been what Marianne Strengell was thinking of when she started calling her Sisu. She had the tenacity to tell her students the truth; no holding back to spare feelings.
Throughout her career, Grotell actively engaged in research on glazes. She developed copper reds, ash glazes, intense blues, and crackle glazes. One of her original discoveries was the use of chromium and iron in place of uranium to produce a brilliant orange glaze. Her work opened the door to the architectural uses of glazed, colored bricks in midcentury architecture, including those used by Eero Saarinen at the General Motors Technical Center (1953-1955).
She died on December 6, 1973, in Pontiac, Michigan, but Grotell’s glaze formulas remain a large part of her legacy. Another legacy came in 1977: the “Arts & Craft Court” at the Cranbrook Academy of Art was renamed the “Maija Grotell Court” in her honor.
Exceptional that such a strong, well-respected woman was so influential at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in its formative years as well as the art world.
– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar
Maija Grotell Papers, Cranbrook Archives, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
“Mary, Maija, and Toshiko: Re-Thinking Open Storage in the Collections Wing.” Cranbrook Kitchen Sink. Website.
The Marks Project, The Dictionary of American Studio Ceramics, 1946 Onward. Website.