Regarding artist Frances Senska, Shelburn Murray politely offers a word of warning. Murray, who’s been caring for the influential 91-year-old ceramics icon for the last eight years, says: “I know you’re going to write what you’re going to write, but you should know that there are two things Frances really doesn’t like. First, she hates the word ‘passionate.’ She always says, ‘I make pots,’ and just because she’s been doing it for a long time doesn’t mean she’s passionate. Second, she doesn’t like the word ‘legacy.’ She just did what she did, and never considered any of it on that level. She doesn’t get what the fuss is about—or, maybe, she doesn’t want to get it.”
Murray offers the two-part heads up not to influence a story on Senska—due to her health, the artist was not available for an interview—but as a glimpse of how Senska sees herself within the context of the state’s art history. For almost 30 years she taught at Montana State University; she was hired in 1946 to teach at what was then known as Montana State College, back when the “Applied Art” department was attached to home economics. Senska originated the school’s ceramics curriculum and is credited with introducing two former students—Rudy Autio and Pete Voulkos—to brickmaker Archie Bray, which led to the creation of the renowned Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena. Her own ceramics work, best characterized as earthy and accessible, and proudly referred to by the artist as “functional,” can be found in museum collections across the state, as well as in the kitchens of many friends. She is widely known as “the mother of Montana ceramics.” Yet Senska has always maintained a stubbornly low profile, preferring to let her students’ success and her own work stand on their own.
“She is a pioneer,” says Manuela Well-Off-Man, curator of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, which is displaying a retrospective of Senska’s work, A Life in Art, through Feb. 25. “It’s exciting to have her work displayed here, because I understand she is a very humble person, and I feel there is a great need for others to know more about her.”
The current exhibit, located inside the University of Montana’s PAR/TV building, features an array of Senska’s ceramics, most of which have never before been displayed, as well as a number of lithographs and watercolors from throughout her career. The work is accompanied by her clay and glaze log books, on display alongside a map marking riverbed and soil locations Senska favored.
“One thing I always treasured about Frances work is the earthiness of it,” says Josh DeWeese, resident director of the Archie Bray Foundation. “It really reflected her surrounding environment. She always worked with a palette that came from her direct environment.”
While Senska is most recognized for her functional ceramics, A Life in Art reflects a broader sense of the artist’s influence and practice. The most striking examples are the watercolors and lithographs, the latter inspired by her lifelong partner and colleague at Montana State, Jessie Wilbur.
“The prints really stand out,” says DeWeese, whose father joined the art department staff at Montana State in 1949 and describes Senska as part of his extended family. “The pots are something a lot of people are familiar with, and they’re almost out of context in a museum. They’re not in someone’s home, or in someone’s kitchen, like she meant for them to be. But the prints look like they belong on the wall. They give a window into a whole other dimension of her life.”
Another glimpse at Senska’s working methods is provided by a case containing a series of ceramic Hungarian partridges of varying size and design. The decorative pieces appear to be a departure from the other ceramics on display, such as the more practical wine sets, pots, plates and creamers that define Senska’s oeuvre. But the birds did have a purpose: the artist made them to tuck between her pots in the kiln, neatly filling every possible space inside the fire.
Brandon Reintjes, curator of the Holter Museum, which organized A Life in Art, calls the birds “a marvelous show of efficiency and frugality.” Describing the exhibit, he writes: “Her work directly reflects the qualities of her character: humility, forthrightness, utility, economy of means, joy, an integrated whole, generosity.”
Elaborating on the relationship between Senska’s work and life, Murray points out that the artist makes all her own clothes, with the exception of turtlenecks and one pair of pants. She and Wilbur (who passed away in 1989) personally designed their Bozeman home, and she never owned a television, a credit card or, more to the point, a sprayer for her glaze, preferring to brush or dip it by hand. As Murray says, Senska’s art is a result of the way she lives. “If she needed it, she made it. If she couldn’t make it, she did without.”
“I think that’s what most defines her,” Murray continues. “She has such an efficiency of materials and time and energy. Nothing is ever wasted. She is very humble in that way, and not at all into any sort of hype. She makes pots, and even though there’s more to it than that for the rest of us, I think she just likes to leave it at that.”
Frances Senska: A Life in Art is on display at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture through Feb. 25. The museum’s galleries are located inside UM’s PAR/TV building, and open Tues. through Thur. from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Fri. and Sat. from 4 to 8:30 p.m.